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Splendor of Khajuraho


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2011. All Rights Reserved.

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abstract: Khajuraho is famous for its erotic sculptures. The visitor’s initial prurient interest in them, upon scrutiny, quickly changes into an appreciation of their artistic worth. Together with other types of sculptures, and the magnificent architecture of the medieval Hindu and Jain temples on which they are all planted, they constitute the best examples of the arts ofIndia before the impact of Islam. The temples are the houses of thatIndia’s many Gods and the sculptures tell the temporal story of the community which created them. Their value is not just in their splendor but also in their historical legacy.

Now and Then 

Today Khajuraho is a small village. Its main street caters to small-time tourists. There are little stores that sell film for cameras and little restaurants that sell vegetarian dishes over the counter. A disheveled fruit peddler offers only bananas and oranges from his broken wooden cart; another sits on his cart cracking open chestnuts, the only product he has to sell.  Hand-made trinkets are spread on the pavement of the sidewalks for sale as souvenirs. The grounds of “The Archeological Museum” are used to hoist dirty umbrellas over those trinkets. Nobody seems to visit the museum itself. Instead, young men beseech tourists in their buses to buy their guidebooks. Besides these, there is hardly any other service for the visitors in the village itself where a shabby hotel advertises its dark rooms.

Much better modern hotels, catering to the more affluent Western tourists, are located on the outskirts of the village. “The Archeological Survey of India” jumps to action in the compounds located at the other edge of the village. That is where the treasures of old Khajuraho are located. They are highly ornamented Hindu and Jains temples which are considered the best of India’s mediaeval arts: architecture, sculpture, and sandstone carving. They are what is left of a grand city that was once the capital, and religious center, of the Chandella dynasty that ruled in central Indiabetween the 9th and 13th centuries.

The earliest reliable written report we have about Khajuraho is from Abu-Rayhan al-Biruni who came to Indiain the entourage of the Muslim invader Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi (from an area that is today in Afghanistan) in the early 11th century. Biruni (the Persian polymath whose seminal book, Tarikhu-l Hind, or The History of India, established him as the “founder of Indology”) speaks of “Kajuraha” as the capital of the realm of “Jejahuti”. The Chandelas were defeated here by Mahmud Ghaznavi. The major military prize was their fortress. Local tradition ascribes the origin of the Chandelas to a hill fort, Maniyagadh, about ten miles south of Khajuraho. The Chandelas, a Rajput (warrior) tribe, who claimed descent from the Moon through the legendary sage Chandratreya, soon recovered their fortress; and they successfully resisted the next Muslim invader, Muhammad of Ghur, at the end of the 12th century.

Known as Kharjjuravahaka (and Vatsa) in ancient times, Khajuraho was in an area that had played a significant role in Indian culture since 200 BC. Chandella kings were great patrons of arts and builders. They led a cultural upheaval that centered around architecture of uncommon grace. While no secular building from their times has survived, their temples stand to prove their contributions. Chandella ruler Yasovarman built theLakshmanaTemplesometime before 950. TheVishvanathTemplewas constructed in 1002 by King Dhanga who made the Chandelas the strongest power in centralIndia. His son Ganda (1002-17) built thetempleJagadamba.Ganda’s successor, Vidyadhara (1017-29), who took the kingdom to its zenith, built the largest and grandest temple here, Kandariya-Mahadeva.

The Chandelas, weakened by the repeated Muslim onslaughts, could not withstand attacks by their local rivals, the Kalachuri clan. Even on the decline, however, they continued to build temples. Khajuraho remained their religious center for some time. The North African traveler Ibn Battuta who wrote (in his book Rihla, meaning The Journey) that he visitedIndia in the 1330s, referred to Khajuraho as “Kajarra,” near which he saw temples containing idols that the Muslims had mutilated.

After Ibn Battuta, the outside world received virtually no news about Khajuraho for several centuries.  Like some other historic sites I have seen such as Angkor Wat in Cambodiaand Machu Picchuin Peru, Khajuraho had been considered “lost” when it was “discovered” in 1838 by an English army engineer, Captain TS Burt, who ventured into the forest surrounding it, led by a tip from the locals. “The name Khajuraho comes from the local Hindi word khajoor meaning date tree,” my local guide said in reference to that “forest.” Khajoor is in fact the Arabic word for date. Driving by bus to Khajuraho from the town ofJhansi we could still see some palm trees as well as mango and teak trees in a lush countryside which contrasted sharply with the aridity  of much of the rest of centralIndia we had crossed.

Of the 85 temples of old Khajuraho, only 25 have survived. The main Hindu temples in Khajuraho are now protected in a well-groomed park. Only a single small temple, Matangesvara, is still an active place of worship. Inside it there was a large Image of Shiva Lingam (a representation used for worship). Outside theTemplestood a Ficus tree of a type called “religious.” Under it was a statue of Lord Ganesh, the elephant-head son of Lord Shiva and his wife Parvati where, I noticed, worshipers were paying their respects. Matangesvara is one of the earliest temples built in Khajuraho, dating to about 900-925. Correspondingly, both its exterior and interior were simple compared to the elaborate ornamentations of the other temples in the compound. This contrast was especially noticeable with theLakshmanaTemplethat stood immediately to the right of Matangesvara.

Not surprisingly, the tourists were attracted more to Lakshmana]. This is a Vaishnava temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu. (In Hinduism Lakshmana is the brother of Rama who is the seventh reincarnation of Vishnu.) A sign outside the temple said that it was built between 930 and 950 by the Chandella King Yasovarman. “This information was found on the inscription on that slab found at the base of the temple,” said our guide as he pointed to the slab.  In front of the temple was a free standing sculpture which our guide identified as “the National Emblem of Chandella Dynasty”. It was a mythical animal resembling a lion with a young boy under its paws. “That boy is the king and the sculpture is to show how brave he is,” our guide said.

Lakshmana is made entirely of sandstone, unlike the earlier group of temples which had been built in part with granite and partly of sandstone. Lakshmana is Khajuraho’s best preserved temple. It is the only one with all of its shrines and platform intact. The platform’s friezes include hunting and battle scenes with elephants, horses and soldiers, and also domestic and erotic scenes. Its wall is decorated with bands of graceful sculptures.

We climbed the steps to the platform where four subsidiary shrines were located on the corners. The sanctum of the temple is entered through an arch flanked by sculptures of crocodiles, “the symbol of theGangesRiver,” our guide said. The doorway consists of seven vertical panels. The central one is decorated with fish and tortoise which are some of the many incarnations of Vishnu. On the lintel was the image of goddess Lakshmi (Vishnu’s consort) between the images of Vishnu and Lord Brahma. Inside the sanctum was a shrine with a three-headed and four-armed image of Vishnu. The central head is a human figure flanked on either sides by the heads of a boar and a lion.

The erotic sculptures of Lakshmana attract the tourists’ special attention. They are mostly located on one lower wall above the basement facing theMatangesvaraTemple. They are valued by experts inIndia’s medieval arts as “classical,” “some of the finest sculptural compositions,” and “impressive in the delicacy of their depiction.” They display their objects from different angles: profiles, three-quarter profiles, and back views. They show remarkable sensitiveness to emotions. Past prurient interest, the viewer is impressed by what they say about the virtual lack of taboos or inhibitions about sex in the age that produced them. They mirror the moral standards of the community then existing in Khajuraho.

Lakshmana is not Khajuraho’s only old temple with erotic sculptures. I saw them also inKandriyaMahadevaTempleand theJagadambaTemple. The collection in Lakshmana, however, was exceptional in size and variety. There was a scene of group sex in which the servants helping their masters were shown in smaller sizes themselves engaged in sexual pleasure acts. Various sexual positions  were depicted vividly, as were masturbation and bestiality.

Erotic visual art was not new to India. An important sensual element runs through various early Indian art forms, including its literature and folk-tradition. It was expressed also in depicting loving couples (mithuna) in sculpture, examples of which I saw  in the several temples of Khajuraho, both Hindu as in Kandriya Mahadeva Temple and, and Jains as in the Parsavantha Temple. The Khajuraho erotic sculptures may be illustration of the erotic postures in the ancient text of kamasastra, which is about pursuit of pleasure (kama). They have been, alternatively, ascribed to certain medieval Indian sects who considered pursuit of physical pleasure (phoga) as a path to salvation, distinguished from yoga (spiritual exercise).

To my Hindu guide the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho were a manifestation of the equality of Indian women with men in active enjoyment of sex which, he said, “was later suppressed by the invading Muslims who forced women off the streets and inside homes.”  He also pointed out that “there are no erotic sculptures inside the temples, because you go there for Nirvana, and leave all outside.” He explained the local folklore: “Hindu life is divided into equal parts of 25 years each. The last is just for being spiritual and renouncing. The same applies to sculptures: the ground floor is for worldly life, the middle is for procreation, and the top is for spiritual.”

Kandriya Mahadeva Temple

The largest and most impressive temple in Khajuraho is Kandriya Mahadeva , built around 1025-1050. According to the Archeological Survey of India it is “the most evolved of the central Indian building style and one of the most sublime creations of Indian architecture.” This accolade is due to “its mature plan and design, symmetrical proportions and superb sculptural embellishment.”

All temples in Khajuraho share a distinct general architectural plan. They have no enclosure wall and are erected on a high platform-terrace.  Above their central zone rises the roof which consists of a series of graded peaks resembling mountain ranges of mythical Kailasa or Meru in Hindu scripture. These temples are planned on one east-west axis. Kandriya Mahadeva shares the essential elements of this architectural plan. There is an entrance porch, a hall, a vestibule, and a sanctum. In Kandriya Mahadeva, however, these are on a grander scale and with much more elaborate ornamentation. Kandriya Mahadeva’s steeple is decorated with an ascending series of “84 smaller replicas of itself.” Furthermore, Kandriya Mahadeva is the only Hindu temple in Khajuraho with projections from the platform on the lateral sides.

The interior of theKandriyaMahadevaTempleis also similar in design to those of the other temples, but it is more spacious and has far more carvings and sculptures.  The centerpiece here is an Image of Shiva Lingam as Kandriya Mahadeva is a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. The lintel of its Sanctum shows a four-armed Shiva flanked by Brahma on the right and Vishnu on the left.

It is in Kandriya Mahadeva that Khajaraho’s sculptures attain their “maturity.” Kandriya Mahadeva has abundant examples of all five types of Khajuraho sculptures: cult-images  (some formal but others distinguishable from human figures only by their peculiar headdresses ); family deities (apsaras and sura-sundaris, meaning heavenly nymphs ), shown dancing in various postures  and often attired and bedecked in jewelry); secular scenes (rulers , warriors and hunters, acrobats, dancers, musicians, domestic scenes , and teachers and disciples ); animals (camels, elephants , horses; mithunas; and erotic. Like all other sculptures in Khajuraho, the ones in Kandriya Mahadeva were done by unnamed artists.

Kandriya Mahadeva’s sculptures of human figures stand out because they are taller and more slender than those in other temples. Furthermore, Kandriya Mahadeva’s collections of heavenly nymphs are exceptional in their rich variety. They are portrayed expressing emotions and moods and in activities common to humans:  scratching their backs, yawning, touching their breasts, removing thorns from their feet, rinsing water off, fondling babies, writing letters, playing a flute, playing with pets like parrots and monkeys, painting, bedecking, applying eye wash (collyrium), and looking themselves in the mirror. These apsaras and sura-sundaris are deemed to be the finest sculptures in Khajuraho.

Other Temples

Sharing a lofty platform with Kandariya Mahadeva is theJagadambaTemple, built in 1002-1017, and dedicated to Lord Vishnu. It too has some of the most artistic sculptures of Khajuraho. On the day of my visit, between those two temples the flowers of bougainvillaea bushes shone bright red. The temples common platform was uncommonly plain. Jagadamba was adorned, however, with the colorful attire of a woman custodian.

In this park of medieval Hindu temples incongruously stands the Parteshwar Temple, dedicated to interfaith co-existence, built only a century ago by the Maharaja of Chhatarpur, from a dynasty that has ruled Khajuraho since 1785.  Unlike the older temples it is not made from sandstone. It is located next to the Hindu VishvanathTemple which was built in 1002. TheParteshwarTemplewas meant for the followers of all other religions ofIndia, especially Islam and Buddhism. The Jains are the exception; they have their own temples, both old and new, in another park in Khajuraho. I went to see them.

Jain Temples

Two Jain temples are located in a small park. They are part of what is called the Eastern group of Khajuraho temples. The old one is theParsavanthaTemple. It is the largest and best preserved of Jain temples in Khajuraho. The inscription on the doorway to its large hall indicates that it was built about 950 to 970 under the Chandelas. Like Khajuraho’s other mediaeval temples it is of fine sandstone . It also follows the same architectural and sculptural schemes. Parsavantha is most similar to theLakshmanaTemple, only more advanced in a few details from that earlier temple. Among its different features, I noticed the perforated windows and a projection on its side.

The sculptures in Parsavantha had the same finish and grace of the Hindu Temples I had seen. There were sura-sundaris applying eye wash or donning their ankle bells , loving couples, and a man being pulled by two women in opposite directions. I saw, however, no blatant erotic sculptures here.

Parsavantha was dedicated to the first Tirthankara. In Jainism, a tirthankar (fordmaker) is a human being who has achieved enlightenment (perfect knowledge) through asceticism and who becomes a teacher for those seeking spiritual guidance. He has conquered base sensibilities such as anger, pride, deceit, and desire. He is the founder of a tirth (ford), a Jain community which acts as a “ford” across the “river of human misery.”

There have been 24 such Tirthankaras. The entrance to the newJainTemple that stood next to the old temple was dominated by a sitting statue of the last of those Jain prophets: Mahavira. There was another statue of Mahavira inside the temple, this time standing. In both statues the body was idealized, devoid of details. The immobility and rigidity of the statues suggested Tirthankara Mahavira’s “revocation of flesh,” his asceticism.

On the day of my visit, two men stood in prayer before the new JainTemple’s altar which contained the standing statue. They wore white . On the floor behind them were three low tables at which sat three women in colorful traditional Indian dresses on kelims, reading prayer books. Six metal trays and seven metal cups and a few other implements with the ceremonial coconuts and rice were spread on the tables. I asked if any of the two men was a religious leader. “No. Everybody here is our relative,” one man answered in English. “We are here to celebrate our 32nd wedding anniversary,” he pointed to his wife, a beaming woman who now joined us. After this “simple ceremony,” he said, “we are going to have dinner with these relatives.” He was generously hospitable: “Won’t you join us?”

Mahavira is the most influential figure among the Jains. He was born in 599 B.C., “attained omniscience” at age 42, and died (“entered into Nirvana”) in 527 B.C. In the courtyard fronting the two Jain temples there were two panels on the walls of the one-story building that served as a bookstore. The writing on them demonstrated the differences between the Jain and Hindu religions. One panel was entitled “Jainism, what it Implies.” Among other things it said: “Jina” is he who has conquered all faults of soul; those who follow the instructions of Jina are “Jain”; each soul can become a Jina. The other panel was entitled “Preaching of Bhagwan Mahavira”. It emphasized the following: every soul is independent, absolutely omniscient and blissful in itself; human beings’ misery is due to their own faults; “there is no separate existence of God, everyone can attain godhood by making supreme efforts in the right direction.” In stark contrast to the Hindu notion of Lords Brahma and Lord Shiva, Mahavira taught “God is neither the creator nor the destructor of the universe,” he is “merely a silent observer.”