By Kalinga Seneviratne
Khajuraho in north-central India has a special place in the world tourism map as a place where modern-day “Erotism” and ancient spirituality come together. It is known for its ornate Hindu temples that are some of the most beautifully crafted temples of ancient India, built by the Chandella rulers between 900-1130 CE. Some 85 temples were believed to have been built during this period and about 25 have survived up to this date.
There are 3 clusters of temples located around a cute little rural town with two small lakes and a lot of tourist shops as well as cafes that serve local cuisine mainly vegetarian, such as samosa, puri, nan and chappati with potato, vegetable and lentil curries or “masalas”. It is a very pleasant place to spend two or three days to get a break from the hustle and noise of Indian cities. Most people can communicate in English here.
Getting to Khajuraho is easier than it used to be. There is both an airport and a railway station with daily flights from Delhi, Agra and Varanasi. But if you have the time, it would be more enjoyable to travel by train. Best way to get there is to take the Udapipur-Khajurao express from either Delhi or Agra. It’s a 10-12 hour journey travelling through some scenic farming areas, villages, towns and a few cities – make sure you book either 1st or 2nd class in advance to make your journey comfortable.
Coming back to Khajuraho, the Chandellas who ruled over this part of India between 9th to 13th century were a Rajput tribe that claimed descent from the Moon through the legendary sage Chandratreya. During this period they emerged as one of the most stable Hindu kingdoms at a time when Muslim Moghul invaders were rampaging through northern India.
These parts of north-central India is well known for the flowering of Indian arts and crafts between 3rd century BCE and the 10th century CE. The magnificence of the Khajuraho temples that have survived up to these days indicates that this place has been a leading centre of both religion and the arts.
Though it is little more than a village today, the facts that Khajuraho’s temples span an area of 21 sq kms shows that this has been a large city at the time. But, only the temples are visible today, which remained “lost” after the collapse of Chandella empire in the 13th century CE until a British engineer “discovered” these in 1938.
The best cluster of temples are what is called the western temples which is just next door to the town and most of the tourist hotels. There is charge of 250 rupees (about USD 4) for foreigners to enter this complex. It’s well worth it and these temples are remarkable creations and especially the intricately carved walls of both the exterior and the interior. All temples have been built of fine grain sandstone, in varying shades of grey, pink and pale yellow. These stones have been sourced from the quarries on the banks of the Ken river close by.
All temples of Khajuraho have a similar style with its carved domes (chaityas), the inner shrine with carved stone pillars forming an entrance corridor and statues of deities (gods) inside. There are also balconies and windows that allow light to flow through to the inner shrine. The interiors are also lavished with amazing variety of sculptures carved on to its walls and pillars. The ceilings too have been intricately carved with each carved stone has fallen into a given design. These carved ceilings may have been painted during its heydays. No wood or steel has been used in its construction. The shrine rooms are erected in a high platform with 10-15 stoned steps to climb up. This is believed to be the Central Indian building style of that period.
The temples are today UNESCO World Heritage Sites protected by the Indian Government and are not used for worship. But, visitors are expected to dress modestly (though many sculptures reflect otherwise) and take off your footware when visiting the shrine rooms.
The Khajuraho sculptures are not all erotic, only a very few are with most of them placed high on middle level of the domes, not at the normal eye level. According to an Archeological Survey of India (ASI) publication, there are 5 types of sculptures that make up the temple architecture. These include cult-images; family, attendant and enclosing divinities; the apsaras (attendants of the higher divinities) and sura-sundaries (sensual women often shown disrobing, touching their bare-breasts or fondling babies); secular sculptures (showing domestic scenes as well as musicians or erotic couples); and animals.
The erotic sculptures found mainly in the western temple complex are considered as some of the finest sculptural compositions of Khajuraho “vibrating with a rare secular sensitiveness and warmth of human emotions that transcends from physical to the spiritual plane” as ASI publication describes it. Once you see the sculptures you see what they mean.
Some sculptures even depict multiple partners in what could be considered “pornographic” both in India and the West today, if found in any publication or website. Yet, in the ancient days (when Indians seem more liberal than today) such images were considered as a form of sexual yoga (tantric). One particular sculpture found in more than one temple wall shows three women involved is presumably an exuberant sexual (or spiritual?) act with one man.
How these sculptures adorn Hindu temples is still a matter of debate in India. One school of thought is that it mirror the lax moral standards of contemporary society (of that time), while others believe that these scenes represent the belief of the times that yoga (spiritual exercise) and bhoga(physical pleasure) to be alternate paths leading to the attainment of final deliverance. There is also another argument, that in ancient India most young men were sent for an education to a temple where they had to practice celibacy. Thus, before they are released to the wider community (presumably for marriage) they needed to be educated in the ‘kama sutras’ (the art of sexual pleasures). Perhaps this also indicates that in ancient Hindu India that sex was not considered as a sinful act.
A strong sensual element has influenced much of the early Indian arts, be it in sculptures, art, literature or folk tradition. Thus there are many sculptures that adorn the Khajuraho temple walls which shows couples in sensual moods (such as hugging and kissing) sometimes with small children (not taller than their knee level) holding to their finger tips. This may also depict the Hindu belief that polarity between sexes is essential to human creation.
Close to the eastern group of temples are 3 temples clustered together within a modern walled compound that belong to the Jain religion. Jainism is an ancient Indian spiritual tradition of sharamans (saints) that don’t own anything nor they wear any clothes or live in monasteries. They practice an extreme form of “ahinsa” (non-violence) and are strict vegetarians.
Parsvanatha and Adinatha temples are the best preserved and their architecture resembles that of the other Khajuraho temples. The temples walls are adorned with sculptures of Jan saints and other images that depicts non-violence. Some of the ancient Jain scriptures are inscribed in the compound walls. Since the Jain saints do not wear any clothes, the images of them that are carved in to the walls or statues found in the shrine rooms show the human body (only male) in its naked form. But, these are in no way considered as erotic arts.
Within the compound is an exhibition of photographs and other textual material that give an introduction to the Jain religion (one of the least known of Indian religions) and an adjoining museum has a good collection of well-carved Jain sculptures and statues. There are also Jain followers who are ever willing to talk to you to explain the Jain teachings.
Khajuraho should be a welcomed change from your Indian itenary of crowded cities and tourist sites. Though the community here seems to survive mainly on tourist income, it yet has a quite rural village atmosphere and allows a good relaxing break of a couple of days. Most of the hotels, though of the budget range, are of good quality.