The resplendent Hindu temples of KHAJURAHO, immaculately restored after almost a millennium of abandonment and neglect, and now a UNESCO world Heritage site are an essential stop on any itinerary of India’s historic monuments. Famed for the delicate sensuality – and forthright eroticism – of their sculpture, they were built between the tenth and twelfth centuries AD as the greatest architectural achievement of the Chandella dynasty.

Waves of Afghan invaders soon hastened the decline of the Chandellas, however, who abandoned the temples shortly after they were built for more secure ground. The temples gradually fell out of use and by the sixteenth century had been swallowed by the surrounding jungle. It took “rediscovery” by the British in 1838 before these masterpieces were fully appreciated in India, let alone internationally. It is still not known exactly why the temples were built and there are a number of competing theories, including a “how to” guide for Brahmin boys or to symbolise the wedding party of Shiva and Parvati.

Some 400km southeast of Agra and the same distance west of Varanasi, Khajuraho might look central on maps of the Subcontinent, but remains almost as remote from the Indian mainstream as it was when the temples were built – which is presumably what spared them the depredations of the marauders, invaders and zealots who devastated so many early Hindu sites. Nevertheless, a new train route now crosses this extended flood plain, making Khajuraho much easier to visit today.

The exquisite intricacy of the temples themselves – of which the most spectacular are Kandariya Mahadeva, Vishvanatha and Lakshmana, all in the conglomeration known as the Western Group – was made possible by the soft fawn-coloured sandstone used in their construction. Considering the propensity of such stone to crumble, they have withstood the ravages of time remarkably well. Much of the ornate sculpture adorning their walls is in such high relief as to be virtually three-dimensional, with strains of pink in the stone helping to imbue the figures with flesh-like tones. The incredible skill of the artisans is evident throughout, with friezes as little as 10cm wide crammed with naturalistic details of ornaments, jewellery, hairstyles and even manicured nails. To add to the beauty of the whole ensemble, the temples subtly change hue as the day progresses, passing from a warm pink at sunrise, to white at midday sun, and back to pink at sunset. Dramatic floodlights pick them out in the evening, and they glow white when the moon is out.

The sheer splendour of the temples rather overshadows Khajuraho village, which is crammed with hotels, restaurants and trinket shops. Still, if you stay a night or two, you’ll discover a relaxed pace of life, especially in the evening when the local market and open-air restaurants create a very sociable atmosphere.

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  • The erotic art of Khajuraho