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Multan Sun Temple – A Brief History

Samba and the Multan Sun Temple:

“Honored sages! My wife is pregnant! We are very excited. Would you be kind enough to look into the future and bless the child? This will be our first child and we would love for it to be an intelligent, handsome boy!”

The sages, Durvasa, Narada, Vashista, Viswamitra, Kanva and others, reflexively raise their hand to bless. But within a split second, Durvasa’s eyes widen.

Blood reddens the whites of his eyes. The hand that rose in blessing, slices through the air to reach for the Kamandala (a water pot).

“You insolent brat! Do you take us for fools?”

The other sages freeze as they too see that it is a young man disguised as a pregnant woman. Durvasa rages on. The matted hair of his jata comes loose as he pours water from the Kamandala and splashes it on the people in front of him.

“You! You wanted that child to be a boy? I will tell you what that child would be. It would be a Mausala, an iron pestle. A bolt of iron that would end your entire race! And you, just as arrogance consumed your sanity, leprosy will consume your body, skin to flesh to bone. You will lose your youth and be overrun by pustules all over your body.”

Sweat pours out of Samba, drenching the saree he had wrapped around himself. Fear runs through his body. As the son of Krishna, the Lord of Dvaraka, he had been only pampered throughout his life. Nobody had spoken a word in anger, let alone hurl a curse at him.

His feet lose their strength and he falls in front of the sages, sobbing.

“Rishivar! Please, please forgive me! Please take back the curse!”

“Go! Leave our presence. A sage’s word cannot be taken back. Go tell your father Krishna what you did.”

Samba rushes to Krishna, who is in counsel with Ugrasena, the King of Dvaraka.

Ugrasena’s face goes pale upon hearing the curse provoked by Samba. Suddenly, the old king looks bereft of the lifeforce that had sustained him this long. His lips tremble as he speaks.

“Krishna! What misery has befallen us? What shall we do?”

Krishna shrugs. “There is nothing that we can do, my Lord!”

“KRISHNA! How can you say that?”

“It’s alright, my Lord! This is merely a continuation of Aunt Gandhari’s curse from decades ago. Well, I can’t blame her. After all, she had lost her hundred sons. She cursed me, us actually, that we Yadavas would fight each other to the death, just as the Kurus had.”

Ugrasena eyes glaze over. His mouth stands open. He had not been privy to this information. Krishna continues unperturbed.

“What will happen is what was meant to happen. Nothing will stop what is about to come.” Ugrasena raises his bony hand to point at Samba.

“This Mausala, this iron pestle that has come from this child, what do we do about it?”

“Father! I’m so sorry. I did not mean to anger the sages. They had come to meet you. I just thought they would find the whole thing amusing.”

Krishna continues to smile indulgently, “Samba, do not blame yourself. You merely played your role in the inevitable drama of fate. As for this Mausala, crush it to a fine powder, and throw it into the Prabhasa Sea. Ban the sale of liquor in all of Dvaraka. But again,” Krishna turns to Ugrasena, “none of that will stop the end that is upon us.”

“AAAAGH!” Samba screams in pain. The pestle slips from his hand, and falls on the palace floor, cracking it.

“Samba! What happened?”

Samba raises his palm towards Krishna, as the first of the pustules appears on his smooth skin. His eyes filled with tears, feet unstable, he collapses into a heap on the cracked floor, as more pustules pop up all over his body.

“Father! Save me!”

“I can’t make Durvasa take back his curse, Samba. Nobody can. Please go back to the sages and seek their forgiveness. If they are satisfied, they may prescribe a cure.”

Samba rushes to the hut where the sages are gathered in conversation.

“Rishivar! Please forgive my impudence. I have learned my lessons. Please release this curse that’s eating my body.”

Durvasa turns away. Narada smiles at Samba and speaks, “Samba! We do not have the power to take back what is once given. You hid something and tested the sight of the Rishis. Therefore, your redemption will have to come from He who sees all. Pray to Surya, pray to Him in his dwelling at Mitravana on the banks of the Chandrabhaga River. If propitiated, He will cure your disease.”

This story of Samba’s curse comes to us from the Mausala Parva of the Mahabharata, a Parva named for the iron pestle that Samba gives birth to. It continues with how the Mausala grows into eraka grass on the sands of Prabhasa beach and brings about the end of the Yadavas.

The Samba Upapurana draws its premise from this episode of the Mahabharata, but talks about what happened to Samba after the curse. As part of the corpus of Hindu religious literature, the Upapuranas are considered secondary to the Maha Puranas. However, the Samba Upapurana is one of the more important texts, because it is the only text dedicated completely to the worship of Surya. Because of this, it becomes part of the religious literature for the Saura sect that worshipped Surya as the supreme deity.

According to the eponymous Upapurana, Samba goes to Mitravana in Mulasthana (Multan) and bathes in the Chandrabhaga River (Chenab), where he finds a murti of Surya.

He performs a penance for 12 years, and builds a temple to the Sun God in Mulasthana. Pleased with his penance, Surya blesses him by curing his leprosy. Mulasthana acquires a new name and comes to be called Sambapura after him.[1]

While the Saura sect may have been unique to the Indian subcontinent, worship of a solar deity has been an integral part of almost all ancient cultures. Seen as the provider of all beneficence, the sun was worshipped variously as Ra-Atum (Egypt), Shamash (Mesopotamia), Helios and later Apollo (Greece), Sol Indiges and Sol Invictus (Rome) and the Indic Surya.

While geographically separated from each other, several attributes are shared between these deities, such as a comparison with the fire (jaataveda in the Vedas) and the all-seeing nature, found as an attribute of Surya, as well as that of Apollo, and the other solar deities.

Worship of Surya – Vedas to Upanishads and After:

In the Indic context, Rig Veda 1:50 (Mandala 1, Sukta 50) is completely dedicated to Surya. It paints a glorious picture of the Sun God, but more importantly, mentions important elements of Surya’s iconography. The hymn talks about Surya’s chariot being driven by seven horses, and also addresses Surya as Aditya (the son of Aditi), indicating that such attributes were already in place as early as the time of the Rig Veda.

Surya is addressed as Aditya (in singular) in RV 1:50. However, the Rig Veda also mentions the names of Gods collectively addressed as the Adityas in plural. RV 2.27 mentions a list of 6 names, Mitra, Aryaman, Bhaga, Varuna, Daksha and Amsa. The last Sukta of the 9th Mandala of the Rig Veda (RV 9:114) mentions that the Adityas are seven in number. It invokes Soma, the lord of all that grows (including plants), and implores that he, along with the seven Adityas, protect the performers of the sacrifice. RV 10.72 states that 8 Adityas emerged from Aditi, adding Marthanda to the list.

With time, the list of Adityas expands to 12 in the Brahmanas (Satapatha Brahmana) and the Puranas. The number of Adityas remains 12 in all texts after this. This is also corroborated by the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (Chapter 3, 9th Brahmana) where Yajnavalkya tells Vidagdha Sakalya, that the gods are 33, namely the 8 Vasus, the 11 Rudras, the 12 Adityas, along with Indra and Parjanya.

However, the names of the Adityas change slightly based on which Purana they are found in. Both the Vishnu Purana and the Bhagavata Purana mention 5 out of the 6 names found in the Rig Veda, with Daksha departing from the list. The Linga Purana replaces Aryaman with Brahma, and retains the other four.

All three aforementioned Puranas mention Indra, Vivasvan and Pusan/Pushya in the list of names of 12 Adityas. Interestingly, while the Linga Purana and the Vishnu Purana mention Vishnu in the list of Adityas, the Bhagavata Purana (venerated as Srimad Bhagavatam) replaces the name Vishnu with an avatara of Vishnu, Vamana. This is likely because Vishnu’s incarnation, Vamana, is born as the son of Kasyapa and Aditi, and is therefore quite literally, an Aditya.

Krishna resolves this by unequivocally declaring in the Bhagavad Gita that among the Adityas, He is Vishnu (BG 10:21).

The worship of Surya developed through the ages as the Saura sect, and seems to have had enough followers to merit being categorized as one of the Shanmatas (the six-sect classification attributed to Adi Sankara), the other five being the worship of Siva, Vishnu, Shakti, Ganapati and Skanda.

It is possible that at its peak, the Saura sect may have been centered around 12 major Surya temples, one dedicated to each Aditya. This appears likely from the existing Surya temples, as well as the ruins, such as those in Marthanda and Konark.

Apart from the temples and their ruins, we have inscriptions that mention Surya temples, such as the Mandsaur Inscription of 473 CE which mentions that a guild of silk merchants had repaired a temple to Surya.

Mayurbhatta, the court poet of Harsha Vardhana composed the Surya Satakam hymn in the 7th century CE. The text travels through half a millennium and thousands of kilometers to Kanchipuram, where six out of the hundred lines of the Surya Satakam are inscribed on a pillar of the Kacchapeswara temple in the 11th century.

Thus, based on the location of temples to Surya that have survived (even if in a destroyed state), from Konark to Kumbakonam and from Marthand to Multan, it is possible to assume that the Saura sect, and its following were geographically widespread across the Indian subcontinent.

But each sunrise in the east comes with its sunset in the west. The earliest of the Sun temples to be destroyed was also the westernmost, the Mulasthana Sun temple built by Samba.

Let us look at how bright the sun shone, before its light was extinguished.

Travelogue of Hieun Tsang:

Hieun Tsang travelling across India, reaches Multan in 641 CE. His description is the earliest historic record of the Mulasthana Sun Temple. He calls Mulasthanapura as Meu-Lo-San-Pu-Lu.

Hieun Tsang mentions that Multan is thickly populated and has both Buddhists and Hindus. He describes the Sun Temple in grand terms.

“The image of the Sun God is cast in yellow gold and ornamented with rare gems. Its divine insight is mysteriously manifested and its spiritual power made plain to all.”[2]

Hieun Tsang adds, “Women play their music, light their torches, offer their flowers and perfumes to honour it. The custom has been continued from the very first.”[3]

After Kalidasa, this is perhaps the earliest mention, especially from a foreign writer, of Devadasi women performing music as part of the temple rituals.

Hieun Tsang exalts the temple as being the recipient of royal patronage as well as offerings from the people across India.

“The kings and high families of the five Indies never fail to make their offerings of gems and precious stones (to this Deva). Men from all countries come here to offer up their prayers; there are always some thousands doing so.”[4]

As was the standard practice, attested by evidence in the southern part of the country where the temples and their customs survived until modern era, the Mulasthana Sun Temple also used its fabulous wealth for charitable purposes.

Hieun Tsang writes, “They have founded a house of mercy (happiness), in which they provide food, and drink, and medicines for the poor and sick, affording succor and sustenance.”[5]

Even the description of the temple by Hieun Tsang is reminiscent of what the Marthanda Sun Temple of Kashmir would have looked like before its destruction.

“On the four sides of the temple are tanks with flowering groves where one can wander about without restraint.”[6]

Hieun Tsang is perhaps the last to record the untrammeled glory of the Multan Sun Temple. The times were changing. Dusk was fast approaching.

Multan – The House of Gold:

Muhammad bin Qasim, the Arab military commander in the service of the Umayyid Caliphate, captures Multan (after capturing Sind) in 713 CE.  However, instead of the rampant destruction of temples as would become commonplace in later centuries, Qasim chooses to let the temple survive. It is important to note that this is not out of tolerance. At this point, the wealth of the temple is too alluring. It is the proverbial goose that lays the golden egg.

The 8th century chronicle Chach Nama speaks about the fabulous wealth of the temple that fell into Qasim’s hands.

“Two hundred and thirty mans of gold were obtained, and forty jars filled with gold dust. They were weighed and the sum of thirteen thousand and two hundred mans weight of gold was taken out. This gold and the image were brought to the treasury together with the gems and pearls and treasure which were obtained from the plunder of the city of Multan.”[7]

In today’s terms, a Mana is the equivalent of 37.3 kg. By that measure, the Multan Sun Temple alone yielded 500 tons of gold. Added to this, were the precious gems that the temple treasury held.

It is thus, not surprising that chroniclers from a century later, acclaim Multan as ‘the Golden Temple’.

In the 10th century, Al-Masudi, hailed as ‘Herodotus of the Arabs’, refers to Multan as “Meadows of Gold” and “the House of Gold”.[8]

Al Masudi goes on to mention that the offerings made by devotees to the temple, including Aloe wood from Kumar (identified as Kamarupa-Assam), formed a significant contribution to state revenues. He writes,

“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 man of which is worth 200 dinars.”[9]

In the 10th century, Ibn Hawqal explains why Multan is described as the boundary of the house of gold, by his contemporaries. He writes,

“The reason why Multan is designated “the boundary of the house of gold” is, that the Muhammadans, though poor at the time they conquered the place, enriched themselves by the gold which they found in it.”[10]

So, Muhammad bin Qasim and his successors spare the Sun Temple but tax its income. However, this does not stop their iconoclasm completely.

Al Biruni writes in the early 11th century that Muhammad bin Qasim,

“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”.[11]

Other than the revenue from the donations of pilgrims, sparing the temple served the Arab rulers in another way as well.

Multan Sun Temple – A tool for Deterrence:

As we know, the 8th century saw the rise of the Gurjara Pratiharas. Nagbhata I of the dynasty led campaigns against the Arab rulers of Sindh.

Suleiman al Tajir, the trader, records in 851 CE,

“The ruler of Gurjara maintains numerous forces and no other Indian prince has so fine a cavalry. He is unfriendly to the Arabs; still he acknowledges that the king of the Arabs is the greatest of rulers. Among the princes of India there is no greater foe of the Islamic faith than he. He has got riches, and his camels and horses are numerous.”[12]

It is likely that Nagbhata I and the greatest ruler of the Gurjara Pratihara dynasty, Mihira Bhoja, attempted to bring Multan under their rule.

Al Masudi writes that “When the unbelievers march against Multan, and the faithful do not feel themselves strong enough to oppose them, they threaten to break the idol and the enemies withdraw.”[13]

This is corroborated by Al Istakhri writing a decade later in 951 CE,

“When the Indians make war upon them and endeavour to seize the idol, the inhabitants bring it out, pretending they will break it and burn it. Upon this, the Indians retire, otherwise they would destroy Multan.” [14]

Thus, it appears that the temple and the idol of Surya were made hostages, and used as deterrence against attacks. This may have moderated the attempts of the Gurjara Pratiharas to recapture Multan from the Arabs.

However, the temple’s usefulness, as a cash cow and as deterrence against invading armies, does not seem to have lasted long.

Al Biruni writes in the early 11th century that the Qarmatians (a Persian Shiite dynasty) occupied Multan and “Jalam ibn Shaiban, the usurper, broke the idol into pieces and killed its priests”.[15]

Al Biruni goes on to mention that Mahmud of Ghazni defeated the Qarmatians and captured Multan. [The Qarmatians are also notable in history for their sack of Mecca and Medina, taking away the Black Stone from Mecca to al-Hasa.]

There is no mention of the temple for more than a century after Al Biruni. It is natural to assume that the temple was lost to the annals of history and iconoclasm. However, the Arab geographer Al Idrisi visiting Multan in 1130 CE mentions the temple.

He writes in his work ‘Kitab nuzhat al-mushtaq fi’khtiraq al-‘afaq’,

“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 coloured.”[16]

Optimism encourages us to believe that the temple of Multan was revived, just as the temple of Somnath was, after the Ghaznavid invasions. However, it is not clear if Al Idrisi actually visited India. His description of the temple is too similar to that of his predecessors, Al Masudi and Al Istakhri. It is likely that Al Idrisi did not see the temple, but was repeating and building upon the work of earlier Arab travelers. Therefore, it is necessary to verify if the revival of the temple is corroborated by other sources.

Twilight Years:

After Al Idrisi, the next mention of the temple in a historical source comes more than 500 years later. The French traveler Jean de Thévenot visits Multan in 1666 CE, during the reign of Aurangazeb.

He writes in his ‘The Travels Of Monsieur De Thévenot Into The Levant: In Three Parts’,

“A Pagod of great consideration, because of the affluence of the people, that came there to perform their devotion after their way; and from all places of Multan, Lahore and other countries, they come thither in pilgrimage. I know not the name of the idol that is worshipped there; 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.”[17]

Jean de Thévenot’s description of the temple and its idol is published in 1687 CE. It matches that of the Arab travelers, even if he is not likely to have come across the references to the Sun Temple in their writings. The temple may have been restored before or after the time of Al Idrisi, but from Thévenot’s work, it is clear that the temple was functioning in the 17th century.

As had been the case with Muhammad bin Qasim a millennium ago, the local Governor continued to appropriate the offerings made to the temple.

Thévenot is the last in a long line of chroniclers to witness a functioning temple in Multan. After his record, the fate of the temple remains shrouded in the fog of uncertainty for more than a century.

Sunset at Multan:

When Alexander Cunningham visits Multan in 1853, the temple no longer stands.

Cunningham writes in his ‘The Ancient Geography of India’,

“The great temple of the Sun stood in the very middle of the citadel, but it was destroyed during the reign of Aurangazib, and the Jamai Masjid was erected on its site. The masjid was the powder magazine of the Sikhs, which was blown up in 1849.” [18]

Cunningham reiterates this point in his ‘Report for the Year 1872-73’,

“In 1818, when the Sikhs took possession of Multan, there was not a trace left of the old temple. The Jamai Masjid was turned into a powder magazine by the Sikhs, and was accidentally blown up in December 1848.” [19]

He attempts to locate the site of the temple based on the description of all the travelers mentioned above, and concludes that the temple would have been located in the center of the citadel of Multan. Cunningham writes,

“But I saw its ruins in 1853 on the high ground in the very middle of the fort, which agrees exactly with the position of the temple of the Sun, as stated by Istakhri, Ibn Haukal, and Idrisi”[20].

Surya, worshipped as Mithra at the Multan Sun Temple, cured Samba’s leprosy. The accursed Samba attained glory as one of the Pancha Vrishni Viras (Sankarshana, Krishna, Pradyumna, Samba and Aniruddha – the five heroes of the Vrishni clan who were venerated in the Vaishnava tradition).

The temple Samba built became a refuge for the ailing who sought the grace of Surya. Hieun Tsang and foreign travelers that followed, whether they were Arab, Persian or European, wrote about the temple and its fabulous wealth.

Of what happened to its wealth, we have accounts by Arab travelers. Of what happened to the physical temple, we have Cunningham’s reports.

One wonders what would have happened to the pilgrims that thronged the temple seeking Surya’s blessings to cure their ailments, as Samba himself had once done.

Today in 2022, a century and a half after Cunningham’s ‘Report for the Year 1872-73’, nothing, not even ruins, remain of the famed Sun Temple whose wealth had once given Multan the name, “House of Gold”.

A lot is lost, most of it irretrievably so. But repressed memories and suppressed practices have a way of percolating through the gaps of the bloody hands of iconoclasm and surviving to the present, if only as cultural memes.

The Multan Sun temple may have disappeared without a trace, but the lore and legend of the land’s healing qualities have lingered on.

Devotees swarmed to Multan seeking cures for their ailments. They may never be able to do so. But today, Multani mitti, literally the soil of the sacred land that once promised healing, is marketed as the panacea for skin conditions.

This mass marketed commercial product stands as the only remnant of the fabled history of the House of Gold, the Multan Sun Temple.

A temple, its worship and indeed, a form of life from the times of the Mahabharata and the Samba Upapurana, to the records of Hieun Tsang, facing centuries of destruction and revival reaches out to us through millenia in the form of yellow clay sitting in a jar on a supermarket shelf, as a testament to the resilience and continuity of Dharma.

[1] Al Biruni (11th century) mentions that the city was known variously as Kasyapapura (named after Sage Kasyapa, the father of the Adityas), Hansapura, Bhagapura (Bhaga – one of the 12 Adityas), and Sambapura.

[2] Travelogue of Hieun Tsang – Translated by Samuel Beal – Buddhist Records of the Western World, Book 11, Chapter 16, Pp. 274-275

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Chach Nama – Translated by Elliott and Dowson – History of India as told by its own Historians

[8] Al Masudi – Murūj aḏ-Ḏahab wa-Maʿādin al-Jawhar – Translated by Elliott and Dowson – History of India as told by its own Historians

[9] Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems by Al Masudi – Translated by Elliott and Dowson – History of India as told by its own Historians

[10] Masalik ul- Mamalik of Al Istakhri, revised by Ibn Hawqal- Translated by Elliott and Dowson – History of India as told by its own Historians

[11] Alberuni’s India: An Account of the Religion, Philosophy, Literature, Geography, Chronology, Astronomy, Customs, Laws and Astrology of India about AD 1030, Edward C Sachau, Pg 116; Manan Ahmed Asif – A Book of Conquest, Harvard University Press. Pp. 111-112

[12] Sulaiman al Tajir – Salsilatu-t Tawarikh

[13] Al Masudi – Murūj aḏ-Ḏahab wa-Maʿādin al-Jawhar – as translated by Sir H. Elliott – Gazetteer of the Multan District ,p.337

[14] Alexander Cunningham – Four reports made during the years 1862-63-64-65, Volume 5, p.116

[15] Al-Biruni – translated by Edward C. Sachau, Alberuni’s India: an account of the religion, philosophy, and literature, p. 116

[16] Al Idrisi – Kitab nuzhat al-mushtaq fi’khtiraq al-‘afaq – Translated by Elliott and Dowson – History of India as told by its own Historians, Pp. 82-83

[17] Jean de Thévenot – The Travels Of Monsieur De Thevenot Into The Levant: In Three Parts – Part III, Chapter XXXII, p. 55

[18] Alexander Cunningham – The Ancient Geography of India: The Buddhist Period, Including the Campaigns of Alexander, and the Travels of Hwen-Thsang, p. 235

[19] Alexander Cunningham – Report for the year 1872-73, p. 119

[20] Ibid.

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