The Sun causes day and night on the earth,
because of revolution,
when there is night here, it is day on the other side,
the sun does not really rise or sink.
—Aitareya Brahmana III. 44 (Rigveda)
The journey of Surya deva or the Sun god, the most prominent one among the other celestial luminaries, has been a long one in the arena of India history. As seen from the
study of other ancient cultures and religions, sun has been an object of reverence and worship from the start of human settlements, and though the Harappan scripts still remain undecipherable, it would not be very surprising if the circular disc seen in many of its seals and tablets symbolised the sun. While there are very little available archaeological evidences to determine the nature of sun worship among the pre-historic Indians, in the context of literary evidences it is found that the Vedas are filled with praises for this life sustaining celestial luminary. In the Rig Veda there are many mentions of Surya and his different aspects, Savitr, Pushan, Bhaga, Vivasvan, Mitra, Aryama, and Vishnu. Savitr, referred to the abstract qualities of the sun, mentioned him as the stimulator of everything on earth (sarvasya prasavita- Nirukta). Pushan shows him as a pastoral god, with a focus on the beneficial effects of the sun. Bhaga, as per Yaska, presides over the forenoon, is a distributor of wealth, and is often associated with his Iranian counterpart Baga or Bagho. Vivasat, who could have represented the rising sun, is referred to in the RV as the first sacrificer and ancestor of human beings. His counterpart was seen in the Avestan Vivanhant, who had first prepared the haoma (homa). Mitra and Aryama both had their Iranian counterparts in Mithra and Aryaman. From a study of the Vedic hymns it becomes clear that the highly revered atmospheric/cosmic deity later turned into the god of light with the name Surya.
Among the solar deities named above, Vishnu later became a part of the Bhagavatam creed that led to the development of the powerful Vaishnavism sect. These saura or solar deities, along with few others, such as Daksa, Amsa, Martanda, etc., came to be known as the Adityas. While in the early Vedas the number of the Adityas varied from 6 to 8, in the later Vedas the number of Adityas was fixed at 12. In Sathpatha Brahmana one verse mentions the number of Adityas as 8 where Martanda is included; however, in two other passages in the same book the number increases to 12, identifying twelve months with the twelve Adityas. The Epics and the Puranas stick to the 12 Adityas thereafter.
The worship of the 12 Adityas along with the nine planets or navagrahas occupied an important an position in the religious lives of the Indians. The navagrahaas are Ravi (sun), Soma (moon), Mangala, (Mars), Budh (mercury), Brhaspati (Jupiter), Sukra (Venus), Sani (Saturn), Rahu and Ketu (the ascending and descending phase of the moon). The navagrahas are worshipped to remove the baneful effect of the planetary positions in one’s rashi by pleasing these deities (as per the grahayaya or svastyayana vidhi) ; a practice that still runs strong in India.
As per the Bhavisya, Varaha, and Samba Puranas, after the great battle of Kuruksetra, Samba, one of Krsna’s sons, developed leprosy, and he was advised that in order to cure this dreadful disease he had to worship Mitra the Sun-god. For that, Samba invited some of the Brahmanas from Sakadvipa (Scythia) to perform the Surya puja who were commonly known as Magas or Bhojakas. These Saura Brahmanas also worshipped the images of Brahma, Visnu, Mahesvara, the Matrikas, Niksubha and Rajni (the consorts of Surya), the two Asvinidevtas, Agni, and Dandanayaka (attendants of Surya), Mahasveta, Vinayaka, and Kuvera. Thus, we find written in the Bhavisya Purana (Brahmaparva) that a temple of the Sun-god should also have places reserved for the images of these gods and goddesses. These Persian sun priests known as Magi (Magas in Indian terminology), were entitled to ceremonially instill Surya murtis in temples, as per the Brhatsamhita. This close association of the Iranian form of sun worship with the north Indian form led to a re-orientation of the Surya iconography in north India.
It has been observed that various Rig Vedic verses dedicated to Surya tend to have influenced many of his iconographic traits seen in the later periods. In many of the Vedic verses Surya has been described as moving on a chariot drawn by one, or by four, or by 7 ruddy horses. In other verses we find him mentioned as “divya suparna Garutman” or a beautiful celestial bird, while one verse describes him as a white brilliant horse. From these descriptions originated the later vahana of Vishnu as Garuda, and the horse mount of Surya named as Tarkasya. Surya retained his importance in the Epics and Puranas , and this is evident in the Mahabharata where we find that he is termed as Devesvara or the ‘Lord of gods’; and this continued well into the Gupta period. The sun worshipers who were known as the Sauras believed that the Surya was the supreme entity and the creator of the world (surya atma jagatastasthu-sasca). There were 6 classes of the Sauryas, and each group wore their own namam (distinctive symbols) drawn with red sandalwood paste and red flowers as garlands and recited the Suryasataka.
After Samba decided to worship Surya as per the Sakadvipi (east Iranian/Persian) way, he built a Sun temple at Mulasthanapura (modern Multan) on the banks of the ChandraBhaga. This temple is found described in details in the writings of Hiuen Tsang and Arab geographers, such as, Al Ishtakhri, Al Edrisi, etc. Remains of other sun temples still extant are in Modhera (Gujarat), Konark (Odisha), Rajasthan, and other parts of northern India, including the Himalayan states. From an inscription it has been learned that during the reign of Mihirikula, the Hun king, a sun temple at Gopadri (Gwalior fort) was built by a devotee named Matrcheta. The Indor (UP) copper plate inscription tells us of a sun temple built in that place during the time of Skandagupta, and in the Mandsor stone inscription there is a mention of an earlier sun temple built by the silk weavers guild during the reign of Skandagupta’s father. The large number of sun temples spread across the North and NW parts of India shows the widespread popularity of sun worship that lasted well into the medieval times.
The following description of the Mitra or Sun-god is given in the Visvakarma Silpa :
“His great chariot has one wheel and is drawn by seven horses ; He has a lotus in each
of his hands, wears an armour and has a shield over his breast, has beautiful straight hair, is surrounded by a halo of light, has (good) hair and apparel, is decorated with gold (ornaments) and jewels, has on his right side the figure of Niksubha and on the left that of his Rajni with all sorts of ornaments and whose hair and necklace are bright. His chariot mentioned above is called by the name of Makaradhvaja. He wears a crown. The figure is surrounded by a halo. Danda (Skanda) is represented as one- faced and Skanda as having a bright conch-shell. These two figures with the form of man are placed in front. Varcha on a lotus is placed on a horse. His body is represented as lustrous and he is the one giver of light to all the worlds. A Surijamandala is to be made by placing nutmeg and Vermillion. He (Mitra) has four hands or only two with jewels adorning them. In both of his hands there are lotuses. He is seated on a chariot drawn by horses of variegated; colour. His two gate-keepers Danda (Skanda) and Pingala (Agni) have swords in their hands” (translated by Nagendranath Vasu, in “Archaeological survey of Mayurbhanj,” also ref: Visvakarma Silpa MS. pp. 30a-31b).
The Bhavishya Purana further states that the Asvinidevatas may also be added as standing on each side of Surya, along with the other figures mentioned in the Visvakarma silpa. According to Suprabhedagama, Surya should be shown with two hands holding a lotus each, while Vishnudharmottora (of a later date) says the the deity can be shown with four arms. The hands with closed fists carrying lotus flowers should reach up to the shoulder level. The deity should have a kantimandala or halo around his head; he should be bejeweled with earrings, necklace, and a yagnopavita; and the body should be covered with a coat in the northern style and he should be wearing boots (udicyavesha). He should be placed on padmapitha (lotus seat), or be placed on a single wheeled chariot pulled by 1, 3, 4, or 7 horses, and driven by Aruna. On the right side of Surya there should be Usa, and on his left side would be Pratyusa, both shown in the act of shooting arrows, symbolising the various aspects of dawn dispelling darkness (represented as demons). On his right should stand Pingala or Agni carrying a pen and an inkpot; while on his left side should stand Danda, carrying a staff. Other attendants would include his four wives: Rajni, Niksubha, Chaya, and Suvarcasa. Besides these figures, his four sons Yama, Revanta, and the two Manus may also be shown accompanying him (Visnudharmattora). Sometimes miniature figures of the other eight grahas are also depicted along with the other accessory figures.
Differences in the North and South Surya Iconography
The South Indian Suryas, which remain free from the Persian/ Iranian influences, have their hands raised to the level of their shoulders, and they hold half-blossomed lotuses almost in bud stages. The legs and feet are bare (that is, he wears no boots), and there is an udarabandha on his waist.
The North Indian Suryas hold their hands at the hips or elbow levels, and the hands carry long stemmed lotuses in full bloom that reach up to the shoulders. Northern Suryas wear boots (upanat- upanat padayuglam), and there is a tight fitting coat of mail on the upper torso, and the two together make up the Surya’s northerner’s dress known as udicyavesha; his elaborate waist girdle is known as avyanga (different from the south’s udarabandha). The udicyavesha and avyanga are among the more prominent Iranian/Persian influences on the northern Surya imagery.
Aruna and the seven horses are often absent in the southern Surya murtis, and the number of accompanying figures are also less in southern depictions. (Rao, Elements of Hindu Iconography)
Surya in Indian art
Surya was depicted in Indian art through different symbols prior to the development of a worship-based group or sect centering around the sun. The symbols were mainly used during sacrifice rituals and they mainly in the form of wheels, lotus, round golden plate etc., and it is these symbols that we see in the earliest cast and punch marked coins from India. Coins by the Pancala Mitra kings like Suryamitra and Bhanumitra are seen with the solar discs on a pedestal. Surya in his anthropomorphic form did not take long to develop, and in the earliest remaining Surya images that we see, is a 1st c. BCE stone railing from Bodh Gaya where we find him riding his ekachakra chariot drawn by four horses. There are Usa and Pratyusa on his two sides, driving away demons or asuras of darkness (symbolised by two male busts on two sides). Another similar depiction of Surya is seen in the Bhaja cave and is also from 1st c. BCE. The early Surya depictions from all across India show that the iconography of this deity was largely the same as seen in Bhaja caves and Bodh Gaya railings. This form of depiction, however, soon saw modifications in the Surya icons (likely from late 1st c.CE or 2nd c. CE), owing to the influence of Persian Maga priests, and gained greater prominence from the Gupta period.
Given below are Surya images over many centuries (from BCE era to 13th c. CE ) and they give a very good idea of how the Surya iconography changes over time, especially after the Persian Maga influence (north, west, and east Indian murtis):
Cover photo: Surya from south India. The god is in a typical pose holding lotus flowers in bud stage. Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh, India, c. 1100-1150 CE. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
Anand K. Coomaraswamy, Introduction to Indian art.
TAG Rao, Elements of Hindu Iconography.
Stella Kramrisch, The Hindu Temple.
A Comprehensive history of India (ed. RC. Mazumdar), “Indian Iconography- Surya (300-985 AD)” by KK Dasgupta.