Khajuraho: Feast for the senses

| Last Updated: April 20, 2012 at 12:21 PM

Built between 10th and 12th centuries by Chandela Rajputs, Khajuraho temples were not fully explored until the 19th century.

Khajuraho – the very word takes you into a world of sensuality and eroticism, a world where passions find expression in poses, where love and lust are carved in stone, where art and architecture speak a universal language of emotions.

Walking around Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, I almost felt like I was entering a medieval world of apsaras and deities, mortals and devils. It was early morning and I was blown away by the sheer architecture in the western complex of temples. Tall towers almost touching the sky, lit by the morning light glowed as the birds called out to each other. It was a riot of colours as the redness of the sandstone stood out amidst the blue sky and the green grass, taking you into a different world.

Located on the banks of a tributary of the Ken River, these medieval monuments have put Khajuraho on the map of World Heritage Sites.  Built between the 10th and 12th centuries by the Chandela Rajputs, the temples hidden amidst forests were not fully explored until the 19th century.

Sexual nature of carvings have caused Khajuraho to be referred to as Kamasutra temples

I walked up to the Kandariya Mahadeva temple, dedicated to Shiva, which was by far the largest of all temples here. With about 900 sculptures adorning the walls, depicting deities, mortals, animals and birds, one could not miss the erotic carvings here. Sensual, passionate and graceful, these were some of the raciest sculptures ever depicted on the walls of the monument.

The temples do not have sexual or erotic art inside the temple or near the deities

More monuments surrounded the complex. The Chitragupta temple faced the rising sun and the Lakshmana temple basked in its glory. The Vaikunta image of Vishnu here was portrayed as a composite of three faces – those of a lion, boar and a man. Sculptures filled the walls here as well, as you lost yourself in the everyday life of the Chandelas of the medieval period. Facing this temple was a Lakshmi temple, that once housed a Garuda and next to it is was an intricately carved monolith of Varaha, the incarnation of Vishnu built of
sandstone.

The local vendors flocked around the tourists, trying to sell their “erotic wares” – crudely designed sculptures in various Kamasutra poses. Copies of the book were displayed prominently everywhere. My guide, Mamaji, sighed in exasperation and explained, “You know, Khajuraho is not just about  the Kamasutra,  there is so much of symbolism with respect to tantricism in it”, he said . “There are many theories around these erotic sculptures – the common thought being to leave your lust behind before entering these temples.  Which is why you would see these sculptures only on the outer walls and they do not depict deities and if you notice, barely 10 per cent of the sculptures are sensual”.

Perhaps the legend behind the origin of the Chandelas who built these temples 1000 years ago had something to do with it.  Hemavathi , the daughter of a priest was bathing in the dark under the moonlight, when the Moon God fell for her beauty. He took the form of a mortal and seduced her. A child widow, Hemavathy retreated into the forests out of fear and was blessed by her lover that her son would be a great king. Hemavathy’s child, Chandravarman, grew in the forest and is believed to have “instructed” by his mother, who told him all about human passions and the eventual folly and futility of the same. He did grow to be the founder of the Chandela dynasty and started building temples, a tradition carried on by his successors as well.

The parakeets landed on the grass almost merging with the green, while tourists walked around, completely in awe of the sheer size of these temples. Mamaji said that there were more than 85 temples at one time, today; however, you get to see about 22 of them. One wonders why this town named after date palms would be chosen by Chandelas as their cultural capital.

The temples have gained popularity due to their explicit depiction of sexual life during medieval times

I head to the oldest temple in this town – the Chausath Yogini temple built in 900 AD. In an open sanctuary located on a mount were 67 empty cells. None of the 64 Yoginis along with Goddess Durga were around, but I could feel a mystical aura around the mount. The entire landscape of Khajuraho could be seen from the mount. Below me were a couple of students cycling through the fields.

Mamaji decided to take us on a tour of Khajuraho. While the western group of temples are the largest, you have the eastern and the southern group and a few Jain monuments as well. I was particularly taken in by the Duladeo or the bridegroom temple, dedicated to Shiva.

We later stopped by at a small Durga temple, where the image of the deity was believed to have been discovered during an excavation. We went to the Brahma temple, a small shrine that overlooked a lake. Although a lingam was housed here, it was initially meant to be built for Vishnu.

The names of the temples here were fascinating. Mamaji took us to a Vishnu temple called Javari temple, after millet or javar that grew in fields nearby and a temple called Ghantai, took its name from the imagery of bells and chain on its pillars. Our final stop was the southern end and we went to a few Jain temples dedicated to the Teerthankaras – Adinatha, Parshwanatha and Shantinatha.

Driving around Khajuraho, we realized that it was just a small village, quiet and spotlessly clean. The locals, however, seemed oblivious to the heritage surrounding them. Their passions entrenched in local arts such as pottery, while local vendors continued to make brisk business of the Kamasutra. Finally as the sun called it a day, the lights came up in the town as the story of Khajuraho was narrated to the tourists all over again.

The Khajuraho monuments has been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered to be one of the "seven wonders" of India

First Published: April 16, 2012 at 9:28 AM

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