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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 and remain the greatest architectural achievement of the Chandella dynasty.
Waves of Afghan invaders soon hastened the decline of the Chandellas, however, who abandoned the temples for more secure ground shortly after they were built. 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; some say they are a “how-to” guide for brahmin boys while others claim they symbolize the wedding party of Shiva and Parvati.
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 and back to pink at sunset. Dramatic floodlights pick them out in the evening, and they glow white when the moon is out.
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.”
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.
Khajuraho is a bustling epicentre during Phalguna (Feb/March), when the festival of Maha Shivratri draws pilgrims from all over the region to commemorate the marriage of Shiva and Parvati. It also hosts one of India’s premier dance events, the free Khajuraho Festival of Dance (Feb 20–26). There are shows of traditional dances with live music from the local area at the Tourist Facilitation Centre nightly at 6.30pm and 8pm, while the more commercial Khandariya Art and Cultural Centre, 1km south of the town centre, hosts performances of dance from across India most evenings; although the dancing is interesting, the music isn’t live and they seem more interested in luring you into their overpriced shop.
The sheer splendour of the temples rather overshadows Khajuraho town, which was largely built to service tourists – the original Khajuraho village is much sleepier and lies somewhat to the east. Still, if you stay a night or two, you’ll discover a relaxed pace of life, especially in the evening when the open-air restaurants create a very sociable atmosphere. Visitor facilities are concentrated in the uncluttered avenues of the town; the gates of the western group of temples open immediately onto its main square, which is surrounded by hotels, cafés and curio shops where you should brace yourself for some hard selling.
The new, marble-floored Archeological Museum is principally noteworthy for a remarkable sculpture of a pot-bellied dancing Ganesh among a range of some of the best carvings and statues from the temples. Only one of the six galleries is currently open, though there are many pieces arranged around the pleasant manicured gardens too.
The Adivart State Museum of Tribal and Folk Art has a small but interesting collection of paintings, sculptures and artwork by Madhya Pradesh’s many tribal groups. There is also a range of original paintings and prints for sale.
Stranded like a fleet of stone ships amid pristine lawns and flowerbeds fringed with bougainvillea, the western group of temples is Khajuraho’s prime attraction. With the exception of Matangesvara, just outside the main complex, all are now virtually devoid of religious significance, and only spring back to life during Shivratri. Visitors must remove their shoes before entering individual temples. An informative self-guided audio tour is available from the temple booking office, and there’s a nightly sound-and-light show (55min). The site can get to be a bit of a scrum when the tour groups are in, so it’s best to visit before 9am (when the rising sun illuminates the interiors of the temples), or around lunchtime.
Just inside the complex a small open mandapa pavilion, built between the tenth and eleventh centuries, houses a huge, highly polished sandstone image of Vishnu as the boar – Varaha. Carved in low relief on its body, 674 figures in neat rows represent the major gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. Lord of the earth, water and heaven, the alert boar straddles Shesha the serpent, accompanied by what T.S. Burt conjectured must have been the most beautiful form of Prithvi, the earth goddess – all that remains are her feet, and a hand on the neck of the boar. Above the image the lotus ceiling stands out in relief.
Beyond Varaha, adjacent to the Matangesvara temple across the boundary wall, the richly carved Lakshmana temple, dating from around 950 AD, is the oldest of the western group. It stands on a high plinth covered with processional friezes of horses, elephants and camels, as well as soldiers, domestic scenes, musicians and dancers. Among explicit sexual images is a man sodomizing a horse, flanked by shocked female onlookers. The sheer energy of the work gives the whole temple an astounding sense of movement and vitality.
While the plinth depicts the human world, the temple itself, the adhisthana, brings one into contact with the celestial realm. Two tiers of carved panels decorate its exterior, with gods and goddesses attended by apsaras, “celestial nymphs”, and figures in complicated sexual acts on the lower tier and in the recesses. Fine detail includes a magnificent dancing Ganesh on the south face, a master architect with his students on the east, and heavenly musicians and dancers.
Sharing a common platform with other temples in the western corner of the enclosure, the majestic Kandariya Mahadeva temple, built between 1025 and 1050 AD, is the largest and most imposing of the western group. A perfect consummation of the five-part design instigated in Lakshmana and Vishvanatha, this Shiva temple represents the pinnacle of Chandellan art, its ornate roofs soaring dramatically to culminate 31m above the base in a shikhara consisting of 84 smaller replicas.
Kandariya Mahadeva is especially popular with visitors for the extraordinarily energetic and provocative erotica that ornaments its three tiers, covering almost every facet of the exterior. Admiring crowds can always be found in front of a particularly fine image of a couple locked in mithuna (sexual intercourse) with a maiden assisting on either side. One of Khajuraho’s most familiar motifs, it seems to defy nature, with the male figure suspended upside down on his head; only when considered as if from above do the sinuous intertwined limbs begin to make sense.
North of Kandariya Mahadeva along the platform, the earlier Devi Jagadambi temple is a simpler structure, whose outer walls lack projecting balconies. Originally dedicated to Vishnu, its prominent mandapa is capped by a massive pyramidal roof. Three bhandas (belts) bind the jangha (body), adorned with exquisite and sensuous carvings; the erotica on the third is arguably Khajuraho’s finest. Vishnu appears throughout the panels, all decorated with sinuous figures of nymphs, gods and goddesses, some in amorous embrace. Some consider the image in the temple sanctum to be a standing Parvati, others argue that it is the black goddess Kali, known here as Jagadambi.
Between Kandariya Mahadeva and Jagadambi, the remains of Mahadeva temple shelter a 1m high lion accompanied by a figure of indeterminate sex. Recurring throughout Khajuraho, the highly stylized lion motif, seen here rearing itself over a kneeling warrior with drawn sword, may have been an emblem of the Chandellas.
Beyond the platform, and similar to its southern neighbour, Jagadambi, the heavily (and in places clumsily) restored Chitragupta temple is unusual in being dedicated to Surya, the sun god. Ornate depictions of hunting scenes, nymphs and dancing girls accompany processional friezes, while on the southern aspect a particularly vigorous ten-headed Vishnu embodies all his ten incarnations. Within the inner chamber, the fiery Surya rides a chariot driven by seven horses. The small and relatively insignificant temple in front of Chitragupta, also heavily restored and now known as Parvati, may originally have been a Vishnu temple, but holds an interesting image of the goddess Ganga riding on a crocodile.
Laid out along the same lines as Lakshmana, Vishvanatha, in the northeast corner of the enclosure – the third of the three main western group shrines – can be precisely dated to 1002 AD as the work of the ruler Dhangadeva. Unlike some other temples at Khajuraho, which may have changed their presiding deities, Vishvanatha is most definitely a Shiva temple, as confirmed by the open mandapa pavilion in front of the main temple, where a monolithic seated Nandi waits obediently. Large panels between the balconies once more show mithuna, with amorous couples embracing among the sensuous nymphs. Idealized representations of the female form include women in such poses as writing letters, playing music and cuddling babies. Decorative elephant motifs appear to the south of Vishvanatha, and lions guard its northern aspect.
The simplicity of the Matangesvara temple, outside the complex gates, shows it to be one of Khajuraho’s oldest structures, but although built early in the tenth century it remains in everyday use. Deep balconies project from the walls of its circular sanctuary, inside which a pillar-like shivalingam emerges from the pedestal yoni, the vulva – the recurring symbol of the union of Shiva. During the annual festival of Shivratri, the great wedding of Shiva and Parvati, the shrine becomes a hive of activity, drawing pilgrims for ceremonies that hark back to Khajuraho’s distant past.
Southwest of Shiv Sagar are the remains of the curious temple of Chausath Yogini – the “Sixty-Four Yoginis”. Dating from the ninth century, it consists of 35 small granite shrines clustered around a quadrangle; there were originally 64 shrines, with the presiding goddess’s temple at the centre. Only fourteen other temples, all in northern India, are known to have been dedicated to these wrathful and bloodthirsty female attendants of the goddess Kali. Around 1km further west lie the ruins of Lalguan Mahadev, a small temple dedicated to Shiva.
The two separate networks of temples that make up Cunningham’s eastern group
are reached via the two forks of the road east of the town. Although smaller than
the western group temples, they feature workmanship that is equal or better, and are considerably less crowded. One is the tightly clustered Jain group, while slightly north are a number of shrines and two larger temples, Vamana and Javari, both dating from the late eleventh century.
On the north side of Jain Temples Road a more modern temple is home to a 2m-high image of monkey god Hanuman that may predate all of Khajuraho’s temples and shrines. As the road forks left along the eastern shore of the murky Khajur Sagar lake, at the edge of Khajuraho village, it passes the remains of a single-room temple erroneously referred to as the Brahma temple. It is in fact a shrine to Shiva, as demonstrated by its chaturmukha – “four-faced” – lingam. While the eastern and western faces carry benign expressions, and the north face bears the gentler aspect of Uma, the female manifestation of Shiva, the ferocious southern face is surrounded by images of death and destruction. Crowning the lingam is the rounded form of Sadashiva, Shiva the Infinite at the centre of the cosmos.
The largest of the Khajuraho village temples, Vamana, stands alone in a field 200m further north. Erected slightly earlier than Javari, in a fully evolved Chandella style, Vamana has a simple uncluttered shikhara that rises in bands covered with arch-like motifs. Figures including seductive celestial nymphs form two bands around the jangha, the body of the temple, while a superb doorway leads to the inner sanctum, which is dedicated to Vamana, an incarnation of Vishnu. On the way to the Jain group, the road runs near what survives of a late tenth-century temple, known as Ghantai for its fine columns sporting bells (ghantai), garlands and other motifs.
The temple of Parsvanath, dominating the walled enclosure of the Jain group, is probably older than the main temples of Khajuraho, judging by its relatively simple ground plan. Its origins are a mystery; although officially classified as a Jain monument, it may have been a Hindu temple that was donated to the Jains who settled here at a later date. Certainly, the animated sculpture of Khajuraho’s other Hindu temples is well represented on the two horizontal bands around the walls, and the upper one is crowded with Hindu gods in intimate entanglements. Among Khajuraho’s finest work, they include Brahma and his consort; a beautiful Vishnu; a rare image of the god of love, Kama, shown with his quiver of flower arrows embracing his consort Rati; and two graceful female figures. A narrow strip above the two main bands depicts celestial musicians playing cymbals, drums, stringed instruments and flutes. Inside, beyond an ornate hall, a black monolithic stone is dedicated to the Jain lord Parsvanath, inaugurated as recently as 1860 to replace an image of another tirthankara, Adinath.
Immediately north of Parsvanath, Adinath’s own temple, similar but smaller, has undergone drastic renovation. Three tiers of sculpture surround its original structure, of which only the sanctum, shikhara and vestibule survive; the incongruous mandapa is a much later addition. Inside the garbha griha stands the black image of the tirthankara Adinath himself. The huge 4.5m-high statue of the sixteenth tirthankara, Shantinath, in his newer temple, is the most important image in this working Jain complex. With its slender beehive shikharas, the temple attracts pilgrims from all over India, including naked sadhus.
Khajuraho’s southern group consists of three widely separated temples. The nearest
to town, Duladeo, is down the road south of the Jain group, 1.5km from the main town square. Built early in the twelfth century, Duladeo bears witness to the decline of temple architecture in the late Chandellan period, noticeable particularly in its sculpture. Nonetheless, its main hall contains some exquisite carving, and the angular rippled exterior of the main temple is unique to Khajuraho.
Across the Khodar stream and south along a small road leads through the small village of Jatkra from where a path leads west to the temple of Bija Math. The structure lay below a suspiciously large mound of mud until 1998, when an excavation discovered the delicately carved platform. Unfortunately, the temple itself has disintegrated into the debris of ornate sculpture lying strewn around the site.
To get to the third, go back to Jatkra village and head south, past the Ram Spiritual Chai Shop until you get to the main road where you’ll see the tapering temple of Chaturbhuj. A forerunner to Duladeo, built around 1100 AD and bearing some resemblance to the Javari temple of the eastern group, Chaturbhuj is plainer than Duladeo and devoid of erotica. A remarkable image of Vishnu, however, graces its inner sanctum. Either head back through Jatkra, or follow the main road west to where it meets Airport Road.
Top image: Famous indian Madhya Pradesh tourist landmark - Kandariya Mahadev Temple, Khajuraho, India © Dmitry Rukhlenko/Shutterstock