The very concept of erotic art sculpted on temple walls can raise eyebrows. Not so in Khajuraho!
I left Jhansi, 176 km from Khajuraho, photographing the wildflowers enroute and the River Ken. The road could have been better considering we connect a World Heritage Site, but still had its surprises of cattle being milked by villagers, children playing in front of their homes, fresh vegetables being sold by the road, and life caught up in the effort of living.
These temples were built by the Chandela dynasty between 950 AD to 1050 AD and have survived the ravages of weather and time to still tickle the senses of visitors. Originally 85 in a 20 km area, they stand only 25 in 6 kms today. Alberuni, the traveler historian calls it as a “city of gods”. Normally, one visualizes a temple as a place of worship of a deity. Now, whether the deity is human or the mind of a human thinks a deity to be part of his personal life is a question of debate?
Mark Cartwright, traveler and author writes about the architectural highlights of Khajuraho- “Most of the temples at Khajuraho were built using sandstone but four also used granite in their construction. In the latter group is the Chaunsat Yogini (64 tantric goddesses), built c. 875-900 CE, which has 64 shrine rooms arranged around a rectangular courtyard. Next in the site’s development came the Lalguan Mahadeva, Brahma, and Matangesvara temples which are all quite plain in design and decoration compared to the later temples.
The majority of temples at Khajuraho were constructed between 950 and 1050 CE and are either Hindu (Saiva or Vaisnava) or Jain. The most famous is the Kandariya Mahadeo built in the early 11th century CE and dedicated to Shiva. The more or less contemporary Laksmana temple was built in 954 CE by King Dhanga (r. 950-999 CE) to celebrate independence from the Gurjara-Pratihara rulers and has a similar layout and exterior to the Kandariya Mahadeo. So too does the Visvanatha temple (c. 1002 CE) which was designed by Sutradhara Chhichchha. Both temples have shrines at each corner of their terrace platforms. The Laksmana was dedicated to Vishnu and its terrace is of particular note as it carries a narrative frieze running around all four sides: Elephants, warriors, hunters, and musicians form a procession watched by a ruler and his female attendants.
Other notable temples at the site include the single-towered Chaturbhuja and Vamana, the squat Matulunga, and the rectangular, more austere Parshvanatha Jain temple with its unique shrine added to the rear of the building (c. 950-970 CE). Probably the latest temple at Khajuraho is the Duladeo which was built on a star-plan.” ( https://www.ancient.eu/Khajuraho/)
The eroticism of Khajuraho overshadows the rest of the hidden meanings of art. Sex, was not a bad word in those days as we see it being celebrated openly, encouraged and glorified on temple walls. Many meanings have been ascribed to the “why” of this art. One says, the Kings needed more men as soldiers so encouraged copulation, another looks into the hidden spirituality achieved through the meditative human sexual union.
But, all these fail to explain the man to animal and the unnatural forms of sex depicted on Khajuraho walls.
Whatever it is, the fact is that Khajuraho excites a visitor at any age and allows the person freedom of thought and expression. You come home satisfied you have seen art at a physical plane; you come back pondering you have seen the hidden spirituality within art; both equally satisfying feelings.
The stunning and fabulous sculptures led the temple complex to be classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site monument. Whatever exists is maintained very well by the Archaeological Survey of India. The temples are categorized into three groups: Eastern, Western and Southern.
Lakshmi Sharath mentions some stories trying to explain the raison d’être of building these erotic temples- “The moon always evokes romance and it is little wonder then that the descendants of the celestial moon god would build monuments that stand for love. The story goes that a beautiful woman called Hemavathy was bathing in the dark under moonlight, when she was seduced by the moon himself. She ran into the forests for refuge and raised her son, Chandravarman alone. The moon however promised her that their son would one day rule over a kingdom. True to his word, Chandravarman grew up to establish the Chandela dynasty. It is believed that he was influenced by his mother’s story and so he built temples with sculptures depicting human passions and probably, the futility of the same.
In case you are not fascinated with the story behind the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho, here is another belief that says the carvings of mithunas are symbols of “good luck” along with several sculptures that showcase mythical creatures. Another interpretation says they served as a form of sex education, by rekindling passions in the ascetic minds of people, who were probably influenced by Buddhism.
It is a depiction of the Hindu philosophy of Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha. Perhaps you can attain nirvana, once you are done with all your wordly pleasures.”(https://lakshmisharath.com/stories-erotic-sculptures-of-khajuraho/)
There is so much to see in Khajuraho and remember wondering about the apsaras, the nymphs engaged in activities like looking at the mirror; pulling out a thorn from the foot; fondling their breasts; tickling the private parts of their partners; holding a child; undressing; dancing; painting; or just being beauteous by themselves. There are warriors; horse & camel riders; there are the drummers going ahead of an army; there are mythical animals and attendants. In between the human endeavour the Gods and Goddesses are there too, placed under arched enclosures, as if blessing the whole exercise of recreation and human evolution. Here, the natural and the unnatural merge in the human consciousness that is governed by the law of love and nothing else.
I came when the sun was brightest and by the time I finished my art appreciation the sky was overcast. I started hurrying to the far end of the temples to catch the last of the bright rays falling on statues before they were eaten up by the black clouds threatening rain. The mood of the sky changed suddenly as that of a human and it burst open sending rain-showers upon the beautiful damsels who live and dance on the walls of Khajuraho temples.
Dusk fell upon the warriors, lovers and damsels who are in an immortal frieze at Khajuraho. The cover of darkness was perhaps an encouragement to them to leave their stone forms and assume a human life in the night, before the next day’s dawn!
Khajuraho is too complex to be understood by the ordinary senses. One has to delve deep into the mysteries of art & sculpture, and see with the discerning eye what all is hidden beneath the visible!