Two places, two different ways to worship the sun.

Standing before the imposing prehistoric Newgrange Monument in Ireland, I was reminded strongly of another monument back home. The chariot-shaped Sun God temple, the Suryanarayana temple, at Arasavalli, Andhra Pradesh, is best known for a biannual phenomenon every March and October when a beam of sunlight strikes the sanctum sanctorum and illuminates the deity for a few seconds.

Newgrange, along with nearby Knowth and Dowth, is a UNESCO World Heritage site believed to be over 50 centuries old. The patterns, according to my Irish friend Jane Stokes, are megalithic art. A low entrance leads through a low-roofed 19-metre-long narrow passage into a small cruciform chamber with corbelled roof. Though archaeologists and historians are still figuring out the exact purpose of its construction, most are convinced it is more than a passage tomb.

To experts, there may be great differences between Newgrange ‘temple’ and Arasavalli temple. However, for a layperson like me, the resemblance was in the annual phenomenon. At Newgrange as well, around the winter Solstice (December 21/22) there is an amazing illumination of the passage and chamber by the sun. Above the passage entrance is an opening known as the roof box. From around December 18-23, a sharp and narrow beam of sunlight enters through this roof box and travels down the passage. As the sun rises higher, the beam becomes wider, so that the chamber is dramatically illuminated for about 17 minutes, from 9.00 a.m.  

Since this happens after the year’s longest night, some speculate that Newgrange’s purpose was to mark the beginning of the new year or to celebrate the victory of light over darkness. The number of people allowed into the chamber is only 20. The demand is high; so a free lottery is held to pick the lucky 20.

For the rest of the year, visitors experience a simulation performed with electric light. Heads bent low, we entered the narrow passage in single file. Once inside the small, dark chamber, the guide divided us into two groups. I stood at the chamber’s endpoint, the small central area. Soon, the light came on, illuminating the entrance, gently gliding down the passage, and finally flowing into the chamber. The beam of light soon flooded the chamber, reached the end point or centre, and bathed my feet. I spontaneously clapped, much to the amusement of the rest of the group!

Later, outside the chamber, a European tourist joked: “That place you stood at is reserved for visitors from India, for the Indian sun god worshippers!”