Transcript of my paper entitled “Sun Temples and the Growth of Agrarian Society” presented at the International Seminar on Archaeology and Language held at Deccan College, Pune.
While there are innumerable events – from the advent of Harappan culture to the first non-Congress government at the center with an absolute majority of its own – that have changed the course of History of India, I would like to draw your attention to another first – The Sun Temple at Multan, now a province in Pakistan.
Though extinct, this temple does exist in the accounts of earlier writers like Hieun Tsang, Istakhri, Ibn Haukal and Idrisi. Multan is in fact derived from the Sanskrit term Mool Sthana, meaning the Original Abode; thus signifying its importance as one of the most revered cradles of ancient Hinduism.
While travelling in India, the Chinese pilgrim Hieun Tsang came across Multan in about 641 AD. He recounts that the state of Mool Sthana was about 667 miles in circuit, with the capital town being about 5 miles round. It was very thickly populated and had rich and fertile soil. He found eight temples in the area, of which the temple dedicated to the Sun was the most magnificent and profusely decorated. Describing the activities at the Multan Sun Temple, Hieun Tsang mentions
The image of the Surya-deva is cast in yellow gold and ornamented with rare gems. Its divine insight is mysteriously manifested and its spiritual power made plain to all. Women play music, light torches, offer flowers and perfumes in its honor. The custom has been continued from the very first. The kings and high families of the five Indies never fail to make their offerings of gems and precious stones to this Deva. They have founded a house of mercy or happiness, in which they provide food, and drink, and medicines for the poor and sick, affording succor and sustenance. Men from all countries come here to offer their prayers; there are always some thousands doing so. On the four sides of the temple are tanks with flowering groves where one can wander about without restraint.
Later accounts about the temple and the city of Multan reaffirm that the Sun Temple had retained its prominence despite the town having been under Muslim rule, with the majority of the population having taken to Islam. The Sun Temple was still being visited in large numbers by pilgrims from all over India, and probably China. An extract from Muruju-l Zahab of Al Masudi (around 940 AD) mentions
Multan is one of the strongest frontier places of the Musalmans, and around it there are one hundred and twenty thousand towns and villages. In it is the idol also known by the name of Multan. The inhabitants of Sind and India perform pilgrimages to it from the most distant places: they carry money, precious stones, aloe-wood, and all sorts of perfumes there to fulfill their vows. The greatest part of the revenue of the king of Multan is derived from the rich presents brought to the idol of the pure aloe-wood of Kumar, which is of the finest quality, and one mon of which is worth 200 dinars. When the unbelievers march against Multan, and the faithful do not feel themselves strong enough to oppose them, they threaten to break their idol, and their enemies immediately withdraw.
Unfortunately, when Abu Rihan (Al Beruni) visited Multan, neither the temple nor the statue existed. He wrote
A famous idol of theirs was that of Multan, dedicated to the sun, and therefore called Aditya. It was of wood and covered with red Cordovan leather; in its two eyes were two red rubies. It is said to have been made in the last Kritayuga. When Muhammad Ibn Alkasim Ibn Almunaibh conquered Multan, he inquired how the town had become so very flourishing and so many treasures had there been accumulated, and then he found out that this idol was the cause, for there came pilgrims from all sides to visit it. Therefore, he thought it best to have the idol where it was, but he hung a piece of cow’s flesh on its neck by way of mockery. On the same place a mosque was built. When the Karmatians occupied Multan, Jalam Ibn Shaiban, the usurper, broke the idol into pieces and killed its priests… When afterwards the blessed prince Mahmud swept away their rule from those countries, he made again the old mosque the place of Friday worship.
Having been divested of its entire splendor, gold and other valuables by the Arab conquerors in 712 A.D., the Multan Sun Temple still managed to have survived and continued to be a major Hindu pilgrimage till its first destruction and conversion by the Shiaite Karmatians towards the end of the 10th century. The Shiaites were later displaced by Mohammed Ghori around 1175 A.D. However, thanks to the religious zeal of the Hindus, the Sun Temple was rebuilt and restored again, thereby regaining its eminence as the most important Hindu place of pilgrimage. Al Idrisi recounts
Multan is close upon India; some authors indeed, place it in that country. It equals Mansura in size, and is called “the house of gold.” There is an idol here, which is highly venerated by the Indians, who come on pilgrimages to visit it from the most distant parts of the country, and make offerings of valuables, ornaments, and immense quantities of perfumes. This idol is surrounded by its servants and slaves, who feed and dress upon the produce of these rich offerings. It is in the human form with four sides, and is sitting upon a seat made of bricks and plaster. It is entirely covered with a skin like red morocco, so that only the eyes are visible. Some maintain that the interior is made of wood, but others deny this. However it may be, the body is entirely covered. The eyes are formed of precious stones, and upon its head there is a golden crown set with jewels. It is, as we have said, square, and its arms, below the elbows, seem to be four in number. The temple of this idol is situated in the middle of Multan, in the most frequented bazaar. It is a dome-shaped building. The upper part of the dome is gilded, and the dome and the gates are of great solidity. The columns are very lofty and the walls colored.
The temple continued to attract Hindu pilgrims till 1666 A.D., after which it suffered its final onslaught by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. No trace of the Temple was found when the Sikhs occupied Multan in 1818 A.D. So, when Cunningham first visited Multan In 1853, the very site of the temple was unknown. He however claimed to have found its true location as indicated by the early writers like Istakhri, Ibn Haukal and Idrisi.
However, the objective of this discussion is not merely to establish the existence of this extant sun temple, as it is to bring into focus the relationship between an agrarian society and the sun cult. The Sun Temples can said to be the flag posts of the farming communities. The Sun is not just a source of light, but in fact an epitome of energy. Had it not been for the Sun, we would have had no life on Earth. While our own life and that of other creatures depend on the Sun, we also owe the entire vegetation to it as it is the sustainer of all forms of lives. The early civilizations were soon to realize this and thus the Sun became an object of veneration for the early men. So, it is not astounding that the Sun was one of the primitive Gods together with air, water and earth. Notably, these are all various elements responsible for our very lives.
It is thus not surprising that the first of the sun temples on the Indian soil was located in a pasture land with the river flowing around it. French traveller Thevenot who visited the place in 1666 A.D. mentions
At Multan there is another fort of Gentiles. That town is properly their country, and from there they spread all over the Indies. But we shall speak of them when we come to speak of the other sects. They have in Multan a Pagoda of great consideration. People come here to perform their devotion from all over Multan, Lahore and other countries. I know not the name of the idol that is worshipped here; the face of it is black, and it is clothed in red leather; it has two pearls in place of eyes; and the Emir or Governor of the country, takes the offerings that are presented to it.
Later archaeological exploits by Cunningham found that the ancient fortress of Multan was situated four miles from the left of River Chenab. Originally it stood on an island in the Ravi, which changed its course several centuries ago and in 1872 joined the Chenab 32 miles above Multan. Today, Multan is part of Pakistan and is located on the banks of the Chenab River about 160 kilometers from the archaeological site of Harappa. Like any other contemporary river-valley civilizations of the Bronze Age, the Harappan Civilization too was based on agricultural surplus which in turn supported the development of various cities like Mehrgarh, Harappa, Mohenjo-daro, Dholavira and Lothal or maybe even Multan. In fact the city of Multan itself is located in a bend created by five rivers of central Pakistan. While the River Sutlej separates it from Bahawalpur, the Chenab separates it from Muzaffar Garh. The area around the city is a flat, alluvial plain and is ideal for agriculture, with many citrus and mango farms. There are many canals that cut across the district of Multan, providing water to nearby farms.
Obviously, the sun temples, not only in India, but across the world, are representatives of fully developed agro-communities. Interestingly, in the Indus Valley, archaeologists did not find any architecture that could be recognized as a public place of worship. How can it be that a civilization that flourished for two millennia, over a huge geographical area, had no public place of worship? Is it possible that the people, who built thousands of brick houses, did not a build a single temple?
It is well known fact that in the Vedic culture, claimed by many to be even older than the Harappan civilization, people did worship Surya as well as Ap, Vayu, Prithvi and Aakash, that is, the sun, water, air, earth and sky. Incidentally, these are all natural elements that helped the agriculture communities. Since these are all evident and may not need any particular place for worship, archaeologists concluded that there existed no temple in the Harappan age.
Remarkably, the Harappan civilization has its earliest roots in cultures such as that of Mehrgarh, approximately 6000 BCE and yet according to archaeologists, there were no temples in the area till the beginning of the Christian era. Based on the account in the Chach-nama of Jibawin, Cunningham has placed the founding of the Sun Temple at Multan, believed to be the ancient most sun temple in the Indian subcontinent, to around 500 A.D. Doing this, he simply ignored the account given by Abu Rihan, who relates that the temple and the statue of the Sun, which existed just before his time, were said by the people to be 216,432 years old.
Admittedly, to consider this origin would be irrational, but we should not forget that we have shared knowledge and information through verbal tradition, rather than written documents. This does have the inherent risk of misrepresentation over the years. Moreover, the Indians didn’t go by the Christian calendar as they calculated time or the Kaal in terms of Yuga and Samvatsar. Unfortunately, today the Yuga is an irrelevant concept and hence its misinterpretation is very much possible. The wrong Kaal Nirdharan, or determination of age, may be because of the faulty Kaal Ganana, or the dating system, prevalent today. Therefore, there is an urgent need to study the Indian or the Vedic system of Time with modern outlook, so that the periods of various events in Indian history, including the dating of Multan Sun Temple, the period of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata era could be established with certainty.
This is not to say that the carbon dating process is incorrect. All I want to say is that this should not be the only consideration while determining the age of any ancient building particularly in the Indian context. I strongly believe that the age of temples in India cannot be determined by the age of the bricks and mortars used for its construction, but it corresponds to the faith of people transcending down the generations. To augment my point, I would bring in focus a Sun Temple at Arasavalli in Andhra Pradesh. Even though this temple is evidently a twenty-first century structure, locals firmly believe it to be from time immortal and claim that it was constructed by none other than Lord Indra himself, whereas the idol was installed by Sage Kashyap. They cite the Indra Pushkani situated nearby to corroborate their belief. Even though the Temple as such has no archaeological importance, it indeed has an antiquity value as it houses an old idol belonging to the 8th century. Any amount of argument about its modern construction falls on deaf ears because for devotees it is the temple that transcends from the Dwapar Yuga.
We should remember that our temples have been part of our culture and tradition. Explaining the concept of tradition, eminent Kannadiga author U.R. Anantamoorthi has put forward an interesting example. He tells us the story of a farmer who owned a sickle. This sickle had been handed to him by his father, who in turn had got it from his father, and so on. So the farmer was proud to inherit this sickle from his forefathers. What if the handle of the sickle had to be replaced once when the original was damaged? What if its blade, too, was replaced when the original had lost its sharpness? Remarkably, a sickle has just these two parts – the handle and the blade. Both of these had been replaced at some point of time. Still, the farmer believed it to be inherited from his forefathers! Is it not true for most of our temples that we date back to past Yugas? What if its idol was stolen? What if its spire collapsed in a natural calamity? What if it was looted and burnt by the raiders? It still remains in the thoughts of the people and hence always retains its glory and reverence.
In conclusion I would like to say that there may be many sun temples like the one at Multan, which are now extant. Fortunately, there are historical evidences available about the Multan Temple, whereas others continue to exist only in our faith and beliefs. Thus, it remains for us to identify and locate such places of worship not by sheer archaeological evidences, but also on the basis of beliefs and faith of people at large.