Prurient eyes have been hypnotized by the unabashed erotica of Khajuraho ever since its “rediscovery” in February 1838. A young British officer of the Bengal Engineers, T.S. Burt, had deviated from his official itinerary when he came upon the ancient temples all but engulfed by jungle.

Frank representations of oral sex, masturbation and copulation with animals may have fitted into the mores of the tenth-century Chandellas, but, as Burt relates, were hardly calculated to meet with the approval of the upstanding officers of Queen Victoria:

“I found…seven Hindoo temples, most beautifully and exquisitely carved as to workmanship, but the sculptor had at times allowed his subject to grow a little warmer than there was any absolute necessity for his doing; indeed some of the sculptures here were extremely indecent and offensive…The palki (palanquin) bearers, however, appeared to take great delight at those, to them, very agreeable novelties, which they took care to point out to all present.”

Burt found the inscription on the steps of the Vishvanatha temple that enabled historians to attribute the site to the Chandellas, and to piece together their genealogy, but it was several years before Major-General Sir Alexander Cunningham produced detailed plans of Khajuraho, drawing the distinction between “western” and “eastern” groups. Cunningham thought all the sculptures “highly indecent, and most of them disgustingly obscene.”

Tantric cults to celestial entertainment

The erotic images remain the subject of a disproportionate amount of controversy and debate among academics and curious tourists alike. The task of explanation is made more difficult by the fact that even the Chandellas themselves barely mentioned the temples in their literature, and the very name “Khajuraho” may be misleading, simply taken from that of the nearby village.

Among attempts to account for the sexual content of the carvings have been suggestions of links with Tantric cults, which use sex as a pivotal part of worship. Some claim they were inspired by the Kama Sutra, and similarly intended to serve as a manual on love, while others argue the sculptures were designed to entertain the gods, diverting their wrath and thus protecting the temples against natural calamities. Alternatively, the geometric qualities of certain images have been put forward as evidence that each represents a yantra, a pictorial form of a mantra, for use in meditation.

The sixteen large panels depicting sexual union that appear along the northern and southern aspects of the three principal temples – Kandariya Mahadeva, Lakshmana and Vishvanatha – are mostly concerned with the junction of the male and the female elements of the temples, the mandapa and the garbha griha (the “womb”). They might therefore have been intended as a visual pun, elaborated by artistic licence.

A marriage party

A radical approach that ties history and architecture with living traditions has been proposed by Shobita Punja in her book Divine Ecstasy. Citing historic references to Khajuraho under the name of Shivpuri – the “City of Shiva” – she uses ancient Sanskrit texts to suggest that the dramatic temples and their celestial hordes represent the marriage party of Shiva and Parvati, taking place in a mythical landscape that stretches along the Vindhya hills to Kalinjar in the east. Thus Punja argues the lower panel on Vishvanatha’s southern walls shows Shiva as a bridegroom accompanied by his faithful bull, Nandi, while the intertwined limbs of the panel above – the couple locked in mithuna, assisted by a maiden to either side – show the consummation, with the lustful Brahma a pot-bellied voyeur at their feet.

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