Konark: The Sun Temple of Konark stands on a deserted stretch of coast in Orissa, overlooking the Bay of Bengal. For centuries this once lofty building was used by sailors navigating the shore. They called it the "Black Pagoda," to distinguish it from the "White Pagoda"- the famous Jagannatha temple twenty miles (32-km) up the coast in Puri .

Battered by storms and sea winds, nibbled by salt and sand, the temple seems to be gradually returning to its source, like some majestic galleon that is slowly but surely slipping under the waves. Now the Sun Temple stands nearly two miles (3-km) from the sea, but originally the Bay of Bengal came to within a few yards of the walled enclosure.

No one really knows why a temple was erected here, but there are many legends to account for its appearance. The most popular concerns “samba”, the son of Lord Krishna. Samba was inordinately proud of his beauty. So proud that he once made the mistake of ridiculing a celebrated sage, “Narada”, who was not renowned for his looks. Narada was not amused.

Always mischievous, he decided to have his revenge on the arrogant boy. He managed to lure the unsuspecting Samba to the pool where his stepmothers, the luscious consorts of Krishna, were bathing in joyful abandon. When Krishna heard that his son had become a peeping tom, he was furious and cursed him with leprosy. Realizing later that the innocent boy had been tricked by Narada’s cunning, Krishna was mortified.

But he could not revoke his course; all he could do was advise his son to worship the sun god ‘surya”, healer of all diseases, and hope for a cure. After twelve years of penance and worship, Samba was at last instructed by Surya to go and bathe in the sea at Konark. He did so and was cured of his awful affliction. Samba was so delighted that he decided there and then to erect a Surya temple on these spot. It was called "Konark", "Place of the Sun," from which the modern name comes.

The temple was actually built by a king of the medieval “Ganga” dynasty, "Narasingha Deva". The king was popularly known as "Langulia", "the one with a tail." It is possible that he built the temple as a supplication to Surya to remove a spinal swelling of some sort. In the eyes of his subjects, such an act would imply that “Narasingha” was a descendant of, or even a reincarnation of, Krishna’s very own son. It was not unheard of for kings to align themselves in this way with the great heroes of antiquity or even with gods. To discover the roots of one’s family tree securely planted in heaven could be a distinct advantage.

A less romantic explanation is that Narasingha built the temple to commemorate his victories over the Muslims, who were pushing into Orissa from the west. During his reign he won at least three resounding victories over the invaders.

The temple was conceived as a massive chariot lying on an east-west axis, in which the Sun god, Surya, was pulled across the sky. Each day his journey brought life and light back to earth and his procession was a continual rejoicing. The chariot had twenty-four wheels, and was pulled by seven horses, representing the seven days of the week and the seven sages who govern the constellations.

Sun worship is central to India. The standard daily prayer of the Brahmins is the “Gayatri”, addressed to the sun, and on an esoteric level, the sun symbolizes the divine Self within. The idea of procession is also an integral part of temple worship. Deities are shown to the public on feast days and festivals and are pulled around the town in brightly decorated chariots. The most famous of these processions takes place every July, in nearby Puri. This is the festival of the Jagannatha Temple. A form of Vishnu, Shri Jagannatha, is paraded in an enormous chariot (the term Juggernaut is derived from this chariot).

The “shikhara” must have been extremely impressive, since it dominated the rest of the complex. Various theories have been put forward to explain its collapse: earthquakes, subsidence, lightning. In fact, both man and nature had a hand in it.

According to the historical records the Shikhara was originally crowned by a finial in traditional Hindu style: a water pot on top of a heavy spheroid base. The “Kalasha” was made of copper, most probably gilded, and the “Amla” of stone. The “Kalasha” was removed at the beginning of the 17th century by the Muslims, who thought it was gold and wanted to melt it down. The Amla underneath it was made of several massive blocks of stone, clamped together by iron dowels.

The very weight of the stone served to keep the corbeled walls of the spire in position by counteracting their tendency to fall inward. But when the Kalasha was removed, the plaster covering the dowels was damaged and exposed and, over time, washed away. The iron underneath now began to erode, disintegrate, and finally fell apart. As a result, the stone slabs fell down, damaging the rest of the building and exposing further capping stones to the ravages of the elements. Worse still, the essential tensile balance of the spire was destroyed. There was nothing to prevent its crumbling. Remnants of the Amla coping stone now lie to the north of the porch.

Several years before the removal of the copper Kalasha, the local maharaja had removed the cult image of Surya from the sanctuary. It was taken to Puri, for safety from the approaching Muslim armies. Once the presiding deity had gone, the temple was shorn of its spiritual power, and local interest in it declined.

Added to which, the sanctity of the temple would have been further violated by the entry of the Muslims when they came to steal the Kalasha. Though there is no record of any iconoclastic destruction, their very presence inside the hallowed ground of the temple would have violated its sanctity. All in all, there was little reason for the local people to prevent the place falling into total neglect, which is just what happened.

The decay was gradual. Even in 1820 a corner of the tower still stood to a height of about 120 feet (35m) according to the Scots traveler, A. Stirling. The English architect Markham Kittoe, writing in 1838, estimated it had diminished to "80 or 100 feet, and has at a distance the appearance of a crooked column." Ten years later, in 1848, it was blown down in a ferocious gale. When the Indian writer Rajendralala Mitra visited the site after another twenty years, even the sanctuary over which the proud Shikhara had towered was reduced to "an enormous mass of stones, studded with a few “Pipal” trees here and there."