Photo Essay: The Sun Pilgrims of Konark, India


On my recent visit to the Sun Temple at Konark, I was expecting some surprises at the temples decorations; after all, it is covered with over 100,000 twelve-inch high, stone-carved interpretations of that oh-so famous instruction booklet — the Karma Sutra. And I was right: the giraffes and dogs in compromising positions were quite astonishing. However, the half-a-million sun worshipers that turned up at 12am and left within 12 hours of arriving — that was the real surprise.

It turned out the owners of my guesthouse and their extended family were laying on free food and medicine for the more needy of the pilgrims destined to arrive from all over Odisha state and beyond. I arrived to find the whole family in festive spirits, cooking a huge feast in pots and pans you could bathe a baby in — actually, pans so massive I could have a bath in them!

Little to no spoken English from my hosts left me uneducated about the coming onslaught. It’s 2am when I get my first introduction to the Maga Sapthami festival. Standing on the streets outside my guesthouse as the noisy precession that woke me up dances along, my own ignorance to the events dumbfounds me. Then I realise stumbling into an event the size and scale of Maga Sapthami with no prior warning is unlikely to occur twice — a real treat.

This festival, also known as the Chandrabhaga Mela, has not made it on to the backpacker’s calendar yet. This is surprising, as the night before I was hanging out in the well established backpacker town of Puri, with all present as ignorant to the festivities as I was. Puri is only 60km away from this cultural behemoth — practically spitting distance. The pilgrims are here to worship the sun, bathe in the sea at sunrise, and give offerings to the Navagraha stone (nine gods) after a circumambulation of the shrine.

Conversely, I’m here by accident. Some of these guys have walked for one month to arrive — I got here by auto rickshaw! The two miles or so between the sea and the temple ensure a steady torrent of people tramping the road between the two sacred sites throughout the night, holding deities and performing puppet shows of the religious legends that surround the festival.

The Chandrabhaga Mela is a huge event, even by Indian standards. It turns out to be Odisha state’s second-biggest festival — one seemingly only available to those in the loop. Stumbling into such chaos without the slightest hint until the rude awakening at 2am — well, that’s what good planning is all about. Now we’re all in the loop.

at my guest house the women chop veg to offer to pilgrims for free

At my guesthouse, the women chop vegies to offer to pilgrims for free.

food is prepared for needy pilgrims by my host

Food is prepared for needy pilgrims by my host.

extravagant costumes make the way to the beach from the temple

Extravagant costumes make their way to the beach from the temple.

puppets are used to illustrate the struggle between the sun and moon

Puppets are used to illustrate the legends surrounding the festival.

revellers follow deities along the route from temple to beach

Revellers follow deities along the route from the temple to the beach.

thousands mingle on the beach beneath flood lights waiting for the sunrise

Thousands mingle on the beach beneath flood lights, waiting for the sunrise.

thousands of bicycles are parked before the vehicle cut off point, from where everybody must walk.

Thousands of bicycles are parked before the vehicle cut-off point, from where everybody must walk.

The campsite is gone almost as soon as it has arrived

The campsite is gone almost as soon as it arrived.

Music and dancing goes throughout the night with various impromptu dance floors scattered across the beach

Music and dancing goes throughout the night, with various impromptu dance floors scattered across the beach.

Hundreds photograph the event on their phones.

Pilgrims make offering to the stone as part of the festival rituals

Pilgrims make offerings to the Navagraha stone as part of the festival rituals.

Approaching the temple at sunrise

Approaching the temple at sunset.

End of the night cleaned up pans are piled high

At the end of the night, washed pots are piled high.


Author: Nat Wilkins

Nat Wilkins is a full time photographer and part time writer, a conservation biologist and master’s student. Currently on a romp round Asia he combines these skills and afflictions on his hunt for new destinations, spirited adventure, things that look great and stuff that sounds good. A selection of his work resides here http://natwilkins.zenfolio.com/

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Photo Essay: The Sun Pilgrims of Konark, India