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There is a large sundial in the famous Jantar Mantar of Jaipur, and I spent hours as a child measuring time on the face of sandstone. My mother taught me about art, architecture and mythology. We visited many temples and museums together. We shared stories of ancient kings, historians, and astronomers.
But last year, one story came to an end. My mother’s story. The sand of life ran out of her body.
My Mother, The Sun Worshipper
Mother had a ritual. She always offered prayers to the sun. After her passing, I accompanied my family to the 5000-year-old Sun Temple in Konark, Odisha. In Sanskrit, kon means a corner, and ark represents a corner.
The temple was built in part by Samba, the son of Krishna, to offer thanks to the Sun god for curing him of leprosy. In 1250 AD, the temple was reconstructed by a Kalinga king.
We prayed at the revered shrine of Jagannath Puri for the safe passage of my dear departed mother’s soul. On the way back, we stopped at the Konark Sun temple. In the early hours of the morning before sunrise, I dreamt of King Narasimha I, standing on the shore of an ancient river, Chandrabhaga. He was offering salutations to the rising Sun, chanting the twelve Sanskrit names of the Sun god: Hey Mitra, Ravi, Surya, Bhaskara, Bhanu, Kha, Pusha, Hiranyagarbha, Marichin, Savitr, and Arka.
The King is gone, but the brass plate with his inscriptions remains. I remembered my mother telling me that it took twelve years, and twelve hundred artisans to complete the project. The king depleted almost all of his royal coffers on this project.
The Temple And The Science
I stood in front of the temple holding my grandson’s hand. The temple is shaped like a chariot, with two pagodas or gopurams, 24 wheels, and 7 prancing horses, the wheels representing the twenty-four hours of each day. Two wheels facing the East and the West serve as sundials, telling time from sunrise to noon, and from noon to sunset, respectively.
My grandson ran to touch the eight broad spokes on the wheels, each spoke representing three-hour intervals. The broader spokes were separated by eight thinner spokes, at 90-minute intervals. My mother told me of the 30 oval beads between each slender spoke, at three-minute intervals. I could hear her telling me how time was calculated in an anticlockwise fashion to the last minute, depending on how the shadow falls.
Cryptic carvings on the medallions in the wheels represented seasons, and times of day. The other 22 wheels served as moon-dials but only wandering ascetics know how to decipher the cryptic carvings.
Hordes of national and international tourists flocked around the still-amazing carved exterior covered with intricate sculptures placed in rows at different eye levels. I do not know if my mother had ever visited the temple, or had been one of the artisans who worked on the wall in another lifetime.
The lowest tier had animals. Deer, monkeys, horses and elephants engage young children. On top were different board games, and field games. An array of musical instruments to engage the curiosity of older children. A lot of space was devoted to dance. There are thousands of figurines of women carved in Odissi dance gestures. The sculptures come to life in moonlight at the dance festival in December. Perhaps my mother was a dancer?
Because of the dark stone, this temple was called the Black Pagoda by the European mariners. It was about 100 meters tall and used as a navigation landmark. Seafarers came through the Bay of Bengal in search of the black gold (pepper) that was much desired in the cold continent. But often they missed their mark and crashed on the rocks.
As per historical records, the original temple’s sanctum sanctorum held a pantheon of Hindu gods dressed in priceless jewels, with bipolar and multipolar magnets inside them. There was a 52-ton magnet in the peak of the temple. The arrangement of magnets caused the Sun god idol to float. The first rays of the rising sun fell on the entryway. From here, they traveled through the dance hall and reflected on the large diamond on the center of the idol, and flooded the dark chamber with light. The Portuguese removed the magnet.
What The Sculptures Represent
Huge carved lions flank the entrance; each lion is crushing an elephant, and beneath the elephant lies the human body. I don’t think people understand that the lion represents the human ego; the elephant is our worldly possessions.
My Mother, My Guru
On my journey back to Huntsville, I thought of my sweet mother, her soul merging with light. Her worldly possessions were distributed equitably. A life well lived. A small carbon footprint. I hear her telling me, “When we enter the Sun temple, we must leave our ego and possessions behind.”
I keep a picture of my mother and the sundial on my desk at work. I set my ego aside and recite the Gayatri Mantra for my patients. A timeless prayer that takes us from darkness of ignorance and disease, to light:
Om bhur bhuvaḥ suvah
Bhargo devasya dheemahi
Dhiyo yonaḥ prachodayāt
My sister said that mother was the only person she knew who would pray to the “rising sun and the setting sun.” At that moment I realized that when the sun set on her window, she knew that it was rising in my window in America. I was in the circle of life. In Konark. In the arc of the Sun god across the sky. My mother had made me transcend time.
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