It was the boots that intrigued me.

Meandering through the Government Museum in Mathura in sandals befitting the hot summer afternoon, I was almost irrationally bothered by the sight of so much close-toed footwear on the sculptures of the Hindu sun god Surya.

In one bronze rendering, a nimbate Surya sits between two hierarchically-scaled little horses, a dagger between his booted feet, in another sandstone composition, he stands holding a lotus in each hand, flanked by his attendants, and in yet another stone tableau, he appears to rest on his haunches as he is chauffeured in a seven-steed chariot. Notwithstanding the range of his poses, whether in the early centuries of the Common Era or the tenth, Surya was always shod.

In the Brahmanic pantheon of the first millennium CE, Surya is the only deity who wears shoes. As art historian Pratapaditya Pal writes in the first volume of his Indian Sculpture: Circa 500 B.C.-A.D. 700 (1986), Surya is “...a regal figure like Vishnu but usually with two arms. The lotus is his distinctive emblem, which he holds with both hands. He is further distinguished only in northern India by his jacket or coat of mail, trousers and boots, generally the attire of the inhabitants of northwestern India and central Asia.”

Why would a subtropical solar deity be fitted with high boots suited for cold steppes rather than hot plains? And what meaning does the incongruous ensemble impart to the depiction of this specific god?

Getting a makeover

There was a time when Surya dressed for the weather.

Originating as a divine character in one of the earliest hymns of the Rg Veda, he seems to have made his full-fledged visual debut almost a thousand years later. In the essay Greek Helios or Indian Surya: The Spread of the Sun-God Imagery from India to Gandhara, historian and numismatist Osmund Bopearachchi points to Surya’s appearance on the railing of the Mahabodhi temple in Gaya in the 2nd century BCE and at the Bhaja Vihara caves in the 1st century BCE as being “among the earliest representation of Surya found in South Asia”. In these Sunga period incarnations, Surya rides a chariot flanked by his two wives, Usa and Pratyusa, vanquishing darkness in the former case with the support of his consorts’ archery and, in the latter, by trampling it (manifested as demons) underhoof. The human feet are not visible, shielded by the frontality of the composition and thus the chariot’s bow. But the accessories clue us into their likely status, as historian Marion Frenger decodes in her essay The Sun in Stone–Early Anthropomorphic Imagery of Surya in North India (2020).

A sculpture of Surya at the Government Museum in Mathura. Credit: Biswarup Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 3.0].

Referring to the Bodh Gaya image as well as contemporaneous ones at Khandagiri (Odisha) and Lala Bhagat (Uttar Pradesh), Frenger observes that “all the insignia of an ancient Indian ruler including a large parasol above his head, an opulent turban, heavy ear-plugs and necklace…His upper body is bare, which is in keeping with the dress traditions of the subcontinent”. From this description, we can reasonably surmise that the sun god’s obscured choice of footwear was probably in keeping with the fashion trends of the 100s BCE (possibly similar to padukas or perhaps even barefoot).

So how or why did Surya undergo a makeover over the next few centuries?

One broad context for bundling up Surya involved the syncretism of his mythography. Commenting on the lack of inscriptions on representations before 500 CE, Frenger points out that “it is not even known if they were seen as images of Surya, as the Iranian sun god named Mithra/ Miiro, as the Greek Helios or – maybe the most probable supposition – as all three depending on the cultural background and contextual understanding of the individual viewer”.

Exemplifying this point is the fact that even in the earliest known iconography, it is not the Vedic rath of seven horses riding which the sun dawns, but the Hellenistic four-horsed quadriga. Frenger attributes this hybridity to the Buddhist nature of sites such as Bodh Gaya, since the Vedic articulation of the deity would have been far less important than accentuating his Buddha-like regality, an approach allowing inspiration from iconographic schemes of other solar gods, both proximate and distant.

A bronze statue of Surya from the Kushan period at the Government Museum in Mathura. Credit: Biswarup Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons [GNU Free Documentation Licence].

It was the induction of Surya into the Buddhist religio-cultural sphere during this time that eventually led to his transformed aspect. In the book Images of Mithra, its five authors (Philippa Adrych, Robert Bracey, Dominic Daglish, Stefanie Lenk and Rachel Wood) note, “In the early first millennium, there were strong affinities between Miiro and Surya. Some texts include ‘Mitra’ as one of the names of Surya, and describe him as driving a seven-horse chariot. One text, the Bṛhatsamita Surya, prescribes that Surya should appear without multiplication of limbs and dressed in ‘northern’ garb…a decorated tunic and calf-high boots.”

Eclecticism of faith

The footwear that caught my eye in Mathura has finally surfaced in my research. By the 2nd century CE, Surya was taking his style cues from a certain northerly people – widely known as the Kushans.

Descendents of Yuezhi nomads from what is now the China-Mongolia border area of the Eurasian Steppe, the Kushan emperors ruled over one of the largest, wealthiest and most religiously diverse territories in the ancient world. Over a 500-year period straddling the turn of the 1st millennium CE, they governed from the present-day eastern borderlands of Iran to Patna. The most famous member of the dynasty, Kanishka I – whose statue was the purpose of my Mathura visit – is perhaps known best for his patronage of Buddhism. At the same time, he protected the practice of other belief systems in his realm, including the Vedic, Greek and Zoroastrian ones, during his 23-year reign sometime between 78 and 144 CE. This eclecticism of faith prevailing in the Kushan Empire became apparent too in the sacred art which flourished in it.

A headless statue of Emperor Kanishka at the Government Museum in Mathura. Credit: Biswarup Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License].

In a 1999 paper titled Solar Iconography of Mathura, scholar Suresh Pandey inventoried the Surya figures held in that city’s Government Museum. Noting that ancient Mathura was the capital of the Kushan Empire, Pandey asserts that “the Iranian form of Sun-cult was given official recognition and the Sun-image with Iranian features like Udichya-vesha, Abhanga upanat-pinaddha, etc…The iconography of the Sun at Mathura during this period is of obvious Scythian influence and monastic boots as well as tailored coat with sleeves…”. While an indigenous version of the sun god continued to be privately worshipped, the Iranianised solar deity was the object of public worship supported by the Kushan state, an incarnation of the Central Asian culture itself.

By donning their attire, the summer Surya radiating unto the Doab had transformed into a representative of the Bactrian winter. But what was the reason for the sun god specifically to have become the locus of transfer of symbolic power?

The concept of solar kingship was old and ubiquitous in the realms of Asia and Europe, with monarchs up to the early modern period drawing on the metaphorical plenitude of the sun to emphasise their sovereignty. In his analysis of solar mythology from the Indo-Iranian world to the Greco-Roman one through the figure of Mithras, historian David H Sick interprets the sun god genre along the Silk Road as “the enforcer of contracts and the guardian of herds”. Surya’s own name, according to Sick, is etymologically linked to the Proto-Indo-European term for sun, allowing these layers of Eurasian meanings to settle upon him, like the mantle on Emperor Kanishka’s headless statue inaugurating Mathura museum’s main gallery. On closer inspection, the striations on his boots, suggestive of cold-proof padding, resemble the ones worn by a number of resident Suryas. Gesturing towards the similarities in costume and a deep squatting figuration denoting both king and god (different from Kanishka’s lifesize statue type), art historian John M Rosenfeld, in his definitive The Dynastic Art of the Kushans (1967), writes of the Kushans’ solar symbolism: “Some early images of Surya are so similar to Kushan royal portraits that it is possible to confuse one with the other.”

A statue of Surya at the Government Museum in Mathura. Credit: Biswarup Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons [GNU Free Documentation Licence].

Visual update

Whilst acknowledging the link between Surya and the Kushan royals, Rosenfeld did not think there was enough information to establish a direct investiture of political power from the former to the latter. Conversely, aligned with scholars like Sick, Frenger presents the homonymy of the Sanskrit word raj as both ‘to rule’ and ‘to shine’ as another possible explanation for why the sun god was an ideal surrogate for the king. Tracking the iconographic correspondences between the ruler and the light-giver from the Sunga period to the Kushan era, she sees the wardrobe change from bare torso to embroidered tunic as “reflect[ing]the contemporary apparel of the ruler”.

According to Frenger, this link is further corroborated by the detailed updating of visual elements into the representation of a pre-existing deity: “[T]his remarkable exactitude with which Surya images incorporated changes in the appearance of contemporary rulers was continued for several centuries. It shows that the relation between the sun god and the ruler was not the repetition of a once established iconographical convention but a ‘living’ feature. Artists and viewers alike obviously understood the reference to the ruler as an essential part of the sun image.” A later example supporting this correspondence is how in the era following the Kushans’ Hindu successors, the Guptas, Surya starts riding the seven-horsed Vedic rath.

As I make my way out of the Mathura museum, I stand before Emperor Kanishka’s massive statue, admiring his boots one last time. Through his glass case, I glimpse the smaller figures whose feet I have spent a whole afternoon scrutinising. On an absurd, anachronistic tangent, I am reminded of the famous Shawshank Redemption scene: “I mean, seriously, how often do you look at a man’s shoes?”

Clearly, as it turns out, far less often than a god’s.