Surya deva or the Sun god- a long journey within the realms of Indic history

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)

Surya (Bronze), 1st-2nd c. CE- Kushan Period, Government Museum, Mathura

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.

Surya, Mathura, 2nd c. CE, Philadelphia museum

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.

Mārtanda. He is the eighth and last of the early Vedic solar deities known as Adityas.  In the Rigveda, it is said that:
“Eight are the Sons of Aditi who from her body sprang to life.
With seven she went to meet the Gods she cast Martanda far away.
So with her Seven Sons Aditi went forth to meet the earlier age. She brought Martanda thitherward to spring to life and die again” (Ref: Chapter-10, Verse -72, The Hymns of the Rigveda, translated by Ralph T. H. Griffith)
Although some hymns in the Rigveda mention him as one among the other Adityas (forms of Surya), but it is evident from the verse above that Aditi had forsaken her eighth and the last son. Mârtânda is linked to the dead sun, or a sun that has sunk below the horizon (Arctic Home in the Vedas, B G Tilak, 1903). 

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.

Navagrahas in an ashram in Rishikesh
The 12 Adityas as described in the Visvakarma-Sastra. (Source: T.A.G Rao, Vol I, part II, p. 310)


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.

Surya, Paramara, 8th c. CE, central India. National Museum, Delhi

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.

Surya, Central India, 10th-11th century CE, sandstone – Matsuoka Museum of Art – Tokyo, Japan

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.

Ruins of what was once the Sun temple in Multan. Some Puranas also talk of another sun temple in Mathura built by Samba.  Source
Artist’s imagination of the Sun Temple in Multan. “The temple was mentioned by Greek Admiral Skylax, who passed through the area in 515 BCE. Multan, earlier known as Kashyapapura, and its temple are also mentioned by Herodotus. Hsuen Tsang is said to have visited the temple in 641 AD, and described an idol of the Sun God made of pure gold with eyes made from large red rubies.
Gold, silver and gems were abundantly used in its doors, pillars and shikhara. Thousands of Hindus regularly went to Multan to worship the Sun God. Hsuen Tsang is also said to have seen several devadasis in the temple.
Travelers like Hsuen Tsang, Istakhari and others, mentioned other idols in their travelogue, saying that that the idols of Shiva and Buddha were also installed in the temple. After the conquest of Multan by the Umayyad Caliphate in the 8th century AD, under the leadership of Muhammad bin Qasim, the Sun Temple became a source of great income for the Muslim government. Muhammad bin Qasim ‘made captive of the custodians of the temple, numbering 6000‘ and looted its wealth, sparing the idol — which was made of wood, covered with red leather and two red rubies for its eyes and wearing a gem-studded gold crown — ‘thinking it best to leave the idol where it was, but hanging a piece of cow’s flesh on its neck by way of mockery‘. Al-Baruni visited Multan in the 10th Century AD and left a glowing description of it; however, the temple is said to have been finally destroyed by Mahmud of Ghazni in 1026 AD.
Al-Baruni later wrote that the temple in Multan was never visited by Hindu pilgrims in the 11th century because it was completely destroyed by that time and never rebuilt.” Source
Sun temple known as Padmanabha temple in Jhalraptan, Rajasthan

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).

Namah Suryaya Shantaya Sarvaroga Nivaarine Ayurarogya maisvairyam dehi devah jagatpate” 
[Translation:  ‘O! Lord Surya, ruler of the universe, you are the remover of all diseases, the repository of peace. I bow to you and please bless your devotees with long life, health, and wealth]. 13th c. CE Surya from Konark, Odisha, at the National Museum, Delhi.
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)

A very elaborate South Indian Surya from Karnataka, 13th c. CE


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):

Bodh Gaya quadriga relief of Surya riding between pillars (detail of a railing post), 2nd–1st century BCE.
Relief of the sun god Surya riding  in the company of two women on a chariot pulled by four horses, Bhaja caves, 1st c. BCE.    Both the Bhaja and Bodh Gaya representations followed the Rig Vedic descriptions of Surya.
Surya, 1st-2nd c. CE – Kushan Period, Kankali Mound -Mathura
Surya, 2nd c. CE – Kushan Period, Ashmolean Museum
Surya,  early Gupta era, UP,  Source
 Sculpture of Aditya (Surya), and and the navagraha, or nine planets, belonging to the late Gupta period, found in Garhwa, Prayagraj, 1870s photograph
8th c. CE ceiling carving of Surya at Pattadakal Virupaksha temple. Photo From Wikipedia
Surya, from Deo-Barunarak, Bihar, 9th c. CE. Photo by Pramod Chandra
Surya, early 10th c. CE, Eastern India, source
Surya – Basalt – Circa 12th Century CE – Rajshahi – Bangladesh, now in Indian Museum Kolkata
Surya, 10th-11th c. CE, Pala era, Eastern Indiasource


A sculpture of Surya,  13th C. CE, Odisha, British Museum.
Surya, 13th  c. CE, Odisha. Source
Morning sun, Konark Sun temple, 13th c. CE, Odisha, source


Surya, 12th-13th c. CE, Kadamba/Yadava, ASI Museum-Goa
Surya, Bageshwar, Photo credits: Jay Shankar
Surya with navagrahas around him as a halo in the stele, Bhaktapur musuem, Photo credits: Jay Shankar
This is Chandra or the moon, with the tithi (moon phases) around him as a halo in the stele. Bhaktapur musuem, Photo credits: Jay Shankar


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.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. jeluiliov says:

    Thank you for the article.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. moni1706 says:

      Thank you for reading 🙂


  2. Shilpa says:

    Very informative

    Liked by 1 person

    1. moni1706 says:

      Thank you 😊


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