Khajuraho: Beyond Eroticism

Khajuraho: Beyond Eroticism

The temples at Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh are synonymous with erotic art but did you know that these astonishingly sensual carvings comprise only 10 per cent of the sculpture on these medieval masterpieces? Catch the story of Khajuraho’s temples, the builders of these magnificent shrines and why they fell to ruin.

When a young and adventurous British officer on a mission in the hot and dusty plains of Central India is told he can view some wildly erotic sculptures, how can he refuse? It was this dare from the palanquin-bearer of Captain T S Burt in February 1838 that brought the temples of Khajuraho to the world’s attention.

Burt was escorted to the site while he was on a surveying expedition of the Central Indian plateau, between the towns of Eran and Sagar in present-day Madhya Pradesh. When the surveying party reached the small village of Khajuraho, Burt was dumbfounded by what he saw – the ruins of 22 sandstone temples, all within a stone’s throw of each other, embellished by the most spectacular temple art.

The discerning army captain at once knew he had discovered an unusual treasure, and his report on the temples brought the monuments the attention they deserved. Today, the temples of Khajuraho are considered among the finest examples of Indian temple art.

Ruins of Ghantai Temple, Khajuraho | British Library

Who Built the Temples?

The Khajuraho Group of Monuments, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986, is located in Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh. It is a group of Hindu and Jain temples built in Nagara-style architecture between the 10th and 12th centuries. The region was then under the Chandela dynasty.

The Chandelas were initially feudatories of the Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty (8th – 11th century), which ruled much of Northern India from their capital Kannauj. Harsha, the sixth Chandela ruler, asserted his independence and, after that, the Chandelas ruled much of present-day Bundelkhand (then known as ‘Jejakabhukti’) from the 10th to 13th centuries. Their strongholds were the famous fortress of Kalinjar (Uttar Pradesh), together with Khajuraho, Mahoba (Uttar Pradesh) and Ajaigarh (Madhya Pradesh).

The Chandelas, with their rise to power and prosperity, also gave royal patronage to art and architecture and commissioned a number of temples, water bodies, palaces and forts. Khajuraho is the most magnificent example of the craftsmanship of their time.

A sculpture from Khajuraho | Wikimedia Commons

Tradition attributes the origin of the name ‘Khajuraho’ to two golden khajur (dates) trees, with which one of the city gates was ornamented, but it was more likely due to the abundance of date-palm trees in the region. The earliest mention of Khajuraho is by Abu Rihan-al-Biruni, the Persian historian who accompanied Mahmud of Ghazni in his campaign against Kalinjar in 1022 CE.

The fate of the temples changed in 1202 CE, when the army of the Delhi Sultanate, under the command of Qutb al-Din Aibak, seized the Chandela kingdom. This was the beginning of their decline. The village of Khajuraho is believed to have had 85 temples spread across 20 sq km. Only 22 have survived the ravages of time, neglect and destruction. The temples here fell to the temple destruction campaign of Sikandar Lodi in 1495 CE. Over the centuries, the forests covered the temples, and it was only in 1838, after Burt’s discovery, that Khajuraho returned to the limelight.

Lakshmana Temple, Khajuraho | Wikimedia Commons

Khajuraho’s Temple Art

Khajuraho’s temples are famous for their erotic sculptures and how this form of unconventional art blends with religion and spirituality. There are many theories that attempt to explain why erotic art is displayed on the walls of these temples. According to the Vedas, each human being has four goals in life (Purusharthas) – dharma, artha, kama and moksha. The temples of Khajuraho display all four and therefore depict the wholeness of life.

Another theory suggests that the art represents the practices of esoteric Tantric sects. The erotica may also be understood on a metaphorical level. For example, the entwined couples represent the union of the individual human soul with the divine.

Despite all the attention Khajuraho has received for its erotic sculptures, it might surprise you to learn that only 10 percent of the carvings are centred on sexual themes. The majority depict various aspects of everyday life, mythical stories as well as a symbolic display of various secular and spiritual values. There is a depiction of women putting on make-up, musicians making music, and potters, farmers and other folk going about their daily routines in medieval times. The Kandariya Mahadev Temple in the Khajuraho complex is the best example of this.

Kandariya Mahadev Temple | Wikimedia Commons

The Kandariya Mahadev Temple is the largest and most elaborate of the temples here, built by King Vidyadhara between c. 1025 and 1050 CE. The name means ‘God of the Cave’ and the chief deity is Shiva. The monument covers 6,500 sq ft and has a shikhara (tower) that rises 116 ft. Besides this main one, there are 83 smaller shikharas on the structure.

The entrance to the temple is decorated with a makara-torana, a very intricately carved garland sculpted from a single stone. It has figures of Shiva-Parvati, Lakshmi-Narayan and Brahma-Brahmani carved on it.

In the interior space, there are three mandapas (halls or pavilions), which successively increase in height and width. The temple faces east and has been designed so that the first rays of the sun fall on the feet of the main deity in the garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum).

Sculptures on the Kandariya Mahadev Temple
| Wikimedia Commons

Every part of the temple, inside and outside, is covered with beautiful sculptures. In fact, it has more than 872 figures from Indian mythology depicted on its walls, ranging from 3 inches to 3 feet tall. On display is a whole cosmos in miniature form, with sculptures of gods and goddesses, humans, animals, insects, trees, rivers, palaces, huts, hunting scenes, battle scenes, etc. Alexander Cunningham, the first Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India, counted 646 sculptures on the exterior and 226 in the interior of the temple.

Chausath Yogini Temple | Wikimedia Commons

Among the other notable temples in the complex is the Chausath Yogini Temple. Dated to c. 900 CE, it is the oldest surviving temple at Khajuraho. Unlike other Chausath Yogini temples in India, which are built on a circular plan, this one has a rectangular architectural plan. Also, it doesn’t have any sculptures today. Most of them were probably taken away by the villagers and three large statues of goddesses that were found among the ruins are now at the Khajuraho Museum.

Varaha Temple | Wikimedia Commons

The sculpture in the Varaha Temple, which depicts Vishnu is in his boar incarnation, is also striking. It is carved with 675 miniature figures on its entire body, and the figure between its nose and mouth is that of Saraswati playing the veena. According to legend, Vishnu appeared in the form of a boar to defeat Hiranyaksha, a demon who had taken the Earth and carried it to the bottom of what is described as the cosmic ocean in the story.

Parshvanatha Temple | Wikimedia Commons

The Parshvanatha Temple, believed to have been built by a Jain family, features an inscription with a ‘magic square’. This is one of the oldest 4×4 magic squares displayed in the world. It contains all the numbers from 1 to 16 and the sum of the numbers in every horizontal row, every vertical column and the two diagonal rows, is 34.

The temples in the Khajuraho complex are among the greatest masterpieces of temple art in the world. This is reason enough to visit these medieval masterpieces, never mind the ‘adult content’ that brings the bulk of tourists here.