The lake of the sun
The story behind the ancient site where the annual Surajkund Mela is held
Every year in February, a grand and spectacularly colourful crafts fair, the Surajkund Mela, is held in Faridabad, Haryana. It is attended by millions, including thousands of international tourists who come to eat and shop from the stalls put up by various States. But I wonder how many know that Surajkund (translation: the lake of the sun) is the site of one of the oldest-surviving monuments of Delhi, the city that was once called Dhillika.
The Tomar dynasty ruled from the 8th to the 11th century over the Delhi-Haryana region. Though their royal residence was in Lal Kot in Mehrauli, they built a city, a reservoir, and some fortifications in the area known even today as Anangpur or Anekpur after the first Tomar ruler, Anangpal I. It was Suraj Pal Tomar, in the 10th century, who built the huge water reservoir along with a sun temple on the western bank. (Anangpal Tomar II was succeeded by his grandson Prithviraj Chauhan. The Delhi Sultanate was established in 1192 after Prithviraj Chauhan’s defeat in the Battle of Tarain by the Ghorid forces.)
Building and restoration
In Asar-us-Sanadid (The Remnants of Ancient Heroes), Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the Muslim social reformer and educationist, says the reservoir was constructed in 686 AD. However, Alexander Cunningham, the founder of the Archaeological Survey of India who excavated many of India’s ancient and medieval built heritage, places it in 1061 AD. When it was built, this area must have been in the wilderness, far away from Lal Kot. As Suraj Pal worshipped the sun, this reservoir was perhaps his dedication to the sun god.
The reservoir is built against the backdrop of the Aravalli hills, and is constructed in such a way as to form a semicircular-shaped embankment. It is designed in the shape of a rising sun with an eastward arc. Circular steps lead to the bottom, which is now dry.
When the reservoir was built, it was spread over six acres of land, nestled between the districts of Lakkarpur and Baharpur. It was fed by water from the hills. However, over the next three centuries, perhaps because the Tomars’ capital was Lal Kot, the lake may have fallen into disuse. Firoz Shah Tughlaq, who was known to be a committed conservationist, ensured during his reign that the reservoir was repaired and restored. He rebuilt the steps and terraces with stones.
Syed Ahmad Khan also mentions that there was an ancient temple near the reservoir which could be accessed by climbing 50 steps. Today, there are just some roofless low walls there, built by solid blocks of stone. There is a small entrance to the temple, but you are bound to get disappointed once you enter because there is nothing there but overgrown grass. The temple itself has long since disappeared.
Sir Syed also mentions that a garhi (cave-like structure) was built close to the ancient site of the sun temple. I had wandered off from the fair with Syed Mohammad Qasim, my fellow explorer in Delhi, and we decided to locate the garhi. After many inquiries we were told that there was a devi temple, called Satkunda, nearby. We traversed the dirt tracks and reached the temple, which is guarded by two stone lions. The temple was closed but we could walk around the complex. Near the temple there were steps leading to a tunnel. As they looked dirty and as we were not sure about our safety inside, we desisted from going into the tunnel. Perhaps this was the garhi.
We also came across an ancient well (kund). Some children were drinking water from it and were praying for success in their examinations.
The past and the present
On asking a few priests, we were told that a path led from here to the Surajkund lake. We set off through the overgrowth and thorns once again. In a clearing in the jungle, some villagers were preparing a wrestling pit and a water tank for their cattle. It felt like we had stepped back in time. We spent 15 minutes enjoying the scenery, the wilderness, and that sense of peace that we rarely experience in cities.
It was hard to believe that just a kilometre away, there were millions bargaining for material, wooden furniture, paintings, and enjoying various cuisines. When we returned to the mela, it was a surreal feeling of continuity. For, Sir Syed said that in the month of Bhadon Sudhi Chatt, there used to be a big nahaan (ritual bath) — and also a small fair. Time changes many things, but thankfully some things remain much the same too. Except that this fair is anything but small.