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Travel: The Grand Ruins of the Martand Sun Temple in Kashmir

The foundation of the temple is believed to have been built around 370-500 AD, with some people attributing it to a King named Ranaditya. But
visit to Martand Sun Temple in Kashmir
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“You will be surprised to know that this temple has a unique architecture where local Kashmiri style is blended with the architectural styles of Gupta, Chinese, Gandhara, Roman, and Greek. Its architecture is a fine example of the impressive geniuses born in India over the centuries.” We were at the Martand Sun Temple complex and this is what our guide Zahoor Ahmed Khan had to say about its architecture. Zahoor, as you realise, has a Muslim name and is a tourist guide at an ancient Hindu temple– this is the true spirit of Kashmir; contrary to the popular imagination of a large section of people in our country. 

The Martand Sun Temple complex located in Anantnag’s Mattan area was constructed some 1400 years ago. The temple is now in ruins. It is maintained by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI). Though it is a very important historical and archaeological landmark, it does not fall under the popular sightseeing circuit in Kashmir. But we had studied a bit about it before leaving for Kashmir. So we had an idea about its location. 

Martand Sun Temple entrance
Martand Sun Temple main shrine

With help from the GPS we reached the temple complex. We had to overcome a bit of hilly terrain from Mattan to reach the temple. There is also a viewpoint near the temple from where the valley looks wonderful. Our driver Sharmaji is from Jammu. On reaching the temple he promptly exclaimed, “I have been driving for the last 25 years, but never came to this temple. It is so massive!”

Well it is to be mentioned here that there is another Sun Temple in Mattan town near its marketplace. Apart from Sun God, Shiva-Parvati, Ram-Sita-Lakshman, Lakshmi-Narayan, Hanuman are also worshipped there. The temple authorities claim that the temple is also very old. But there is not enough evidence to support that claim. It looks relatively modern by its appearance. The drivers in Kashmir usually take tourists to the modern temple complex and not to Martand Sun Temple. It is for this reason that not many tourists know about the Martand Sun Temple. Because of this, the temple complex is relatively peaceful and vacant despite the massive inflow of tourists in Kashmir valley this season.  

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On entering the temple complex, we could locate a small room on the left. Few officials from the ASI were busy registering the names of the tourists entering the complex. But no entry fees are required here. 

“Do you need any guidance about the temple?” An official asked as we were registering our names and addresses. When we replied in the affirmative, he said, “enter the main temple area. Zahoorbhai is there, he will guide you thoroughly.”

As we progressed towards the main temple area, a man in his fifties came and greeted us. My mother felt a bit of difficulty climbing the steps and without any hesitation he helped her ascend the stairs. Zahoorbhai started telling the history of this temple. There are three ancient Sun Temples located across India. The Sun Temple of Konark in Odisha and the Sun Temple of Modhera in Gujarat are the other two. This Martand Sun Temple is the oldest of the three.   

Martand Sun Temple sculpture
Martand Sun Temple sculpture

The temple was said to have been built in three phases by three different rulers. The foundation of the temple is believed to have been built around 370-500 AD, with some people attributing it to a King named Ranaditya. But it was during the rule of Lalitaditya Muktapida in the 8th Century that the main temple was constructed in this giant form. Lalitaditya was the third ruler of the Karkota dynasty that ruled Kashmir. It is said that King Ram Dewai completed the construction of the temple premises. There are 184 idols surrounding the temple that was constructed during his rule. 

But there is another belief regarding the construction of the temple. According to that, it was built by Raja Ramdev of the Pandava dynasty in 3007 BC. He dedicated the temple to the Sun God. After him, several kings and monarchs repaired and renovated the temple. But the one name that remained attached to Martand Sun Temple is of King Lalitaditya. He changed the shape of the ancient temple and made it into what it is today. There is no doubt though about the contribution of Lalitaditya behind this temple. The word ‘Lalit’ means ‘charming’ and ‘Aditya’ means sun. His name is justified by his contribution towards constructing the temple in its full grandeur.

The temple was said to have been built in three phases by three different rulers. The foundation of the temple is believed to have been built around 370-500 AD, with some people attributing it to a King named Ranaditya. But it was during the rule of Lalitaditya Muktapida in the 8th Century that the main temple was constructed in this giant form. Lalitaditya was the third ruler of the Karkota dynasty that ruled Kashmir.

According to Kalhana, who wrote the famous ‘Rajtarangini’, Lalitaditya was a great conqueror who had far-reaching conquests from Central Asia to the shores of the Arabian Sea. He even marched to the eastern parts of India. He was a brilliant diplomat, conqueror, builder, lover of fine arts, a tolerant king who commissioned a number of shrines in Kashmir, which proves the skill and expertise of Kashmiri artisans of that period. However, Kalhana’s claims have been refuted by some scholars as exaggeration. 

The Martand Sun Temple in Kashmir covers an area of 32,000 square feet. The temple’s entrance is located in the west and is grandly decorated with intricate carvings of Hindu gods. The courtyard is also massive and is connected to the main shrine where Sun God’s idol was installed. The construction of the main shrine was such that during most of the days’ time, especially during sunrise and sunset, the rays would directly fall on the idol. 

sun temple in Kashmir
Outer walls of the temple complex

The main shrine has a smaller antechamber adorned with detailed carvings of Lord Vishnu, Goddess Ganga, Goddess Yamuna, and Sun God, Surya. It is believed that the devotees gathered in this antechamber to offer their pujas. 

There are 84 smaller shrines around the main Sun Temple. They are lined along the perimeter of the complex. Among those, 81 temples housed the idol of Sun God and three temples had Shivalinga. These temples actually enhanced the beauty of the main temple. Weathered Sanskrit inscriptions, eroded sculptures, and carvings displaying traditional music events, dance postures and Hindu deities adorn the temple walls. 

The Sun Temple’s central part has a tank-like structure. Though the tank is dry now, before its destruction it was fed with water from Lidder River. The Lidder flows by Anantnag, which is quite far from the temple. It was connected to the temple by a canal that reached up to the temple gate; and a channel was constructed that connected the tank and the canal. In this way the river water filled up the tank. 

During the times of solar eclipse, a special yajna was organised. After that the entire temple complex was purified with the help of the tank’s water. After that purification, the daily rituals would start.   

The makers of this temple ensured that the Martand Sun Temple would go down in the history books as one of the finest examples of architecture in Kashmir and as well as in Indian history. 

But how did such a grand temple get destroyed? Was it by the forces of bigotry or by the forces of nature? Historians are divided on this issue. A section of historians believe that Sultan Sikandar Bushikan was behind the temple’s destruction. Originally named Sikandar Shah Mir, he was the sixth ruler of the Shah Mir dynasty that was established in Kashmir in the 14th century. His ‘Bushikan’ title was derived from the word ‘Butsikan’ which means a destroyer of images used in religious worship. For those who hold Sikandar responsible, one of the main sources is poet-historian Jonaraja who wrote the ‘Dvitiya’, or second, Rajatarangini. Jonaraja was the court-poet of Sikandar’s son, Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin. 

Inscriptions within the temple ruins
Inscriptions within the temple ruins

Jonaraja writes, “There was no city, no town, no village, and no wood where temples of gods remained unbroken.”  But whether Sikandar destroyed the Martand Temple is less certain. Some historians believe that, during Muslim rule as more people converted to Islam, the character of existing temples was changed by removing idols but the temples were not necessarily brought down. 

After Jonaraja’s death, two more sequels of the ‘Rajtarangiri’ were written, with the fourth and last, ‘Chaturtha Rajtaringini’ was written by Suka. 

From this ‘Chaturtha Rajtaringini’, it is learnt that a severe earthquake wrought havoc in Kashmir in 1554. However, the inhabitants of three major temples, namely Vijayesvara, Martanda, and Varahakshetra had no fear from the earthquake due to the sanctity of these shrines. This fact made the historians believe that these shrines might have been visited by worshippers during 15th-16th centuries as well, and their condition could have been fine at that time.

The foundation of the temple is believed to have been built around 370-500 AD, with some people attributing it to a King named Ranaditya. But it was during the rule of Lalitaditya Muktapida in the 8th Century that the main temple was constructed in this giant form. Lalitaditya was the third ruler of the Karkota dynasty that ruled Kashmir.

Guide Zahoorbhai, while mentioning the probable role of Sikandar Shah Mir in destroying the temple also brought into light two more reasons – Earthquake and Snowfall. These two forces of nature wreak havoc in Kashmir Valley quite often. While heavy snowfall causes natural weathering, earthquakes often damage the base of the temple. History says that giant earthquakes strike Kashmir Valley every hundred years, the last one was in 2005. 

Standing tall against forces of nature is a tough task and the ASI needs to be given due credit for their improbable task of maintaining whatever remains of the temple. 

Though not in its full grandeur, the temple still makes for an impressive sight with its formidable grey walls standing stark against the blue sky, broken grey debris strewn around the green grass.

Whatever little of the structure remains, it has to be preserved. As Indians it is our collective responsibility to ensure that the grand temple doesn’t get lost in the pages of history.

Images courtesy: Shrayan Sen & Wikimedia Commons

Born and brought up in Kolkata, Shrayan has six years of experience in Travel Journalism. Travel is a passion for him and currently he has turned his passion into his profession as he started his own tour operating company.

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