Sun Temple, Modhera

Photo by Solivagant.

Sun Temple, Modhera and its adjoining monuments is part of the Tentative list of India in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.

The Sun Temple in Modhera is a masterpiece of temple architecture with beautifully carved sculptures. It was designed in the 11th century during the Solanki dynasty and is dedicated to the Sun God. There is no worship nowadays and the monument is protected by the Archaeological Survey of India.

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The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.

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UK - 29-Dec-22 -

Sun Temple, Modhera (T) by Solivagant

Does the addition of the “Modhera Sun Temple” to its T List in Dec 22 represent a “return” by India to its many uninscribed "classical" religious/archaeological sites whose “aspiring World heritage” days one might have thought had somewhat passed in the ever broadening search for more outré, less well-covered subjects? Is it a bit like a European country now nominating yet another single-building Cathedral? I would characterize Modhera as “top of the second division” in its class with indisputable artistic and cultural credentials – even capable of aspiring to the Premier League. The unavoidable "comparator" is the other Indian Sun Temple at Konarak, inscribed as long ago as 1984. They are very different despite being built around the same time. I am sure there is room for both on the List, with Konarak undoubtedly being the more "impressive" to the "non-expert".

But extracting “value” from a visit to Modhera beyond just viewing a lot of “nice carvings” isn’t easy! We visited in Feb 2019 without any expectation that it would find its way onto the T List. If you are in Gujarat you would have to be very perverse not to take it in whatever its WH status! It is situated a 2hr drive north of Ahmedabad on a direct route to Rani ki Vav. only another 45 minutes further on. A visit will take around an hour – 2 at most if you want to dig deeper or relax. As with “similar” sites across India, a problem for the non-Hindu visitor is that the “meaning” of the carvings, fine as they are, will be totally lost without a guide. We had one, but even then, the lengthy list of deities, tales from the Ramayana and Mahabharata etc meant that, like most people, we had to “make do” with the general idea and admire the craftsmanship! However - there were a fair number of “erotic” statues to look out for!!  

The small site consists of just 3 closely linked elements constructed along a single axis (The "adjoining monuments" in the title seem to relate to "many archaeological remains still present like fortification, gateways, wells, tanks, temples, tombs and mosques scattered around this area" as referred to in the UNESCO description - but we didn't visit any of these and I don't even remember seeing them! Maybe we missed out?)

a. A rectangular “tank” (Surya Kund) with intricate steps leading down to what it is said would have been pure water where devotees would have cleansed, but which nowadays is a somewhat sickly green! (Photo) Among the steps are smaller shrines (many fewer than originally) and much carving. There are also the (highly carved!) remains of a gate (“Torana”) between a and b which some descriptions treat as a 4th element

b. An “Assembly Hall” (Sabha Mandap) externally taking the form of a parallelogram and internally containing 52 highly carved pillars (Photo). It still has its fine circular carved ceiling (photo).

c. A “Shrine Hall” (Gudha Mandap) which once would have held the idol of the Sun god “Surya”. It also has a wide range of carvings including Surya on a chariot drawn by 7 horses (Photo) but, unfortunately, has lost its Shikara (roof/spire). The axis of the entire complex is explained by the fact that, on the Equinoxes, the rising sun would shine directly onto the idol.

And that’s it. Tick! Onwards to Rani ki Vav (or lunch even)! Well, of course WHS travellers want a bit more from their visits….. don’t they? What can the average (or even reasonably well informed) "Westerner" make of this site with its plethora of carvings of figures whose names (let alone their back stories) are only vaguely recognized, even if pointed out; A place of ritual which is esoteric at best and incomprehensible at worst; Coming from a period of Indian history which doesn’t figure large in the grand scheme of World (or even Indian?) events?

Herewith a few background titbits which might be helpful in trying to understand the site …

a. The Chaulukyas (a.k.a “Solanki” and NOT to be confused with the “Chalukyas” – who built the “Durga” temple at Aihole in the 7th C – also dedicated to Surya) were a Hindu dynasty ruling much of what is now Gujarat and Western Rajahstan from the mid 10th to the mid 13th Centuries.  During this time, whilst asserting themselves over other local Hindu kingdoms, they came under attack by the Muslim Ghaznavids from the North, who, in 1024, destroyed whatever was previously at Modhera. What we see today was constructed subsequently as the Chaulukyas survived, re-formed and prospered for another 270 years.

b. It is thus contemporaneous with Rani ki Vav (built approx 1032 also by the Chaulukyas who had their capital at Patan). This period was a peak of “Temple building” in the subcontinent (Among WHS; Ramappa - 1213, Konarak - 1236 and Chola Temples/Khajuraho - 11th C). Modhera’s architectural style is, apparently, recognizable regionally and was picked up by the Jains – even I could recognize the similarities with the temples at Mt Abu which we had just come from (a former TWHS which deserves “more” recognition”). See “Māru-Gurjara architecture” 

c. Much of the Hindu/Jain architecture of this period (and of this region) was destroyed/fell into disuse as a result of the Muslim invasions of the late 13th C. The Chaulukya kingdom was overrun by the Sultanate of Delhi in 1298. They, unlike the Ghaznavids, who were primarily plunderers rather than land takers, stayed; the capital of the region got moved to Ahmedabad…. “and the rest is history”!

d. With Modhera “unused” as a temple from c1298 one might have expected more destruction than has occurred.  I have been unable to discover the reasons for this relative “preservation” across many centuries but there is certainly no archaeological record on the Web of any significant renovation etc. Rani ki Vav was preserved by being totally covered with silt from flooding. Further West in Gujarat, the Temple at Somnath survived initial sacking in 1299 and continued in use by being within a “vassal” Hindu state of the Sultanate until it was totally destroyed on the orders of Aurangzeb in 1665. It was later to become something of a cause celebre when it was rebuilt and returned to use as a Hindu temple in 1950 and the mosque which had been built there was “removed” - shades of Ayodhya! Meanwhile, Modhera remains unused as a Temple.

e. So, why has Modhera, which has previously “missed out ” on being placed on India’s T List - even following the major revamp of 2014 during which, as we discussed on the Forum, “India selected 57 sites for revised tentative list…….A total of 238 properties were proposed”…. now “suddenly” been added? There has been no obvious event related to the site or (to our knowledge) any revamp of India’s WH policies. One is inevitably drawn to the conclusion that it may indeed have something to do with a Mr Modi,  but one also wonders if it has anything to do with "Hindu revivalism" more generally (the 2 are “connected” of course!).

f. We know that Modi “enjoys” favouring his home state. See this news about a recent (Oct 22) visit by him to Modhera. I was interested to discover that Modhera Temple has also been cited as the “inspiration” for the design of the recently (Sept 22) authorized new (and intended to be “World Class”!!) Ahmedabad Station.   I can’t say I see a great “closeness” to the Temple’s architecture but the fact that it is referenced at all for this new prestigious building says something about its current place within the Indian self-image.

g. Which takes us to the subject of “Sun worship” within Hinduism, both historically and today – can that help to “explain” the site’s “emergence” on to the T List? Anyone wanting to understand the subject will find plenty on the matter across the Web. For the purpose of this review the following quote from Wiki would seem to be the most significant “Having survived as a primary deity in Hinduism longer than most of the original Vedic deities, the worship of Surya declined greatly around the 13th century, perhaps as a result of the Muslim destruction of Sun temples in North India. New Sun temples virtually ceased to be built, and some were later repurposed to a different deity. A number of important Surya temples remain, but most are no longer in worship. In certain aspects, Surya has tended to be merged with the prominent deities of Vishnu or Shiva, or seen as subsidiary to them”. Neither the inscribed Sun Temple at Konarak nor Modhera are “active” places of worship and this fact is even emphasised in information provided by the ASI – the policy would seem to have been one of not encouraging (or even “allowing”?) any “worship” there. I did find this article pushing for Konarak to be returned to religious use, but have found nothing similar for Modhera.

The impression gained is that Modhera is regarded as significant, primarily because of its genuine architectural merits and its historic role in Indian “Hindu” culture generally rather than for any desire to resurrect its religious role - "Sun worship is an integral part of Indian culture. Along with the 8th century CE Martand Sun Temple in Kashmir and the 13th century CE Sun temple at Konark, this temple forms an invaluable link in the history of diffusion of the practice of Surya worship in India" (India Today). Whilst “Surya” remains an important god within Hinduism, this is only especially so for the small “Saura” sect rather than for the mainstream Vaishnavists or Shaivists who “see” it adequately through their own prime deities. This also possibly explains why the revival of Somnath, being a major Vishnaist pilgrimage site, had particular significance over other destroyed Hindu temples - “The rebuilding was a symbol, it was Hindu repudiation of almost a thousand years of Muslim domination, oppression, and reassertion of a safe haven for Hindus”. I (currently?) sense no similar aspect in the promotion of Modhera.

The quote above, and the UNESCO Modhera description, refer to Martand as India's 3rd (but less!) famous Sun Temple which was once (1981-98) on its T List (which Modhera never was). Its architectural style differs again from those at Konarak/Modhera and it is much earlier. We haven't visited. Like Madhera it is destroyed, not used as a temple and is protected by the ASI. Its location in strongly Muslim Kashmir only 64kms from Srinagar gives it a particular religious sensitivity and this may have led to its T List removal but it does now seem that there are steps being taken by the government of J&K at least to resurrect its UNESCO potential possibly as part of a wider objective of confirming Hinduism's ancient presence in Kashmir. Hindu religious events have also been held there with state government involvement despite the statement in this report confirming an ASI "policy" of not allowing religious services in its sites - which might indeed explain the statements regarding Modhera, though, having seen plenty of Buddhists praying at Sanchi and Christians at Old Goa, both of which are ASI sites, it does seem as if that policy is "confused"! 


Full Name
Sun Temple, Modhera and its adjoining monuments
Archaeological site - South (East) Asian
2022 Added to Tentative List

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Sun Temple, Modhera (T)
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