Sitting on the steps of a small shrine housing the imposing emblem of Chandela dynasty, a feisty prince battling a fierce lion, I remember being distinctly unimpressed with what I saw. Blame it on the marketing gimmick that touts Khajuraho to be something it is not, a grand display of Kama Sutra and assorted erotica. If a destination doesn’t even live up to its stereotype, then what is it worth really? The illusion shattered furthermore when I learnt that Khajuraho is not even the only temple that contains erotic carvings in India. There are at least 15 more across the country that we know of, including well-known ones such as Sun temple of Konark, Jain temples of Ranakpur and even Virupaksha temple of Hampi.
Kandariya Mahadev Temple in the western complex
Earlier this month, I walked into the manicured lawns of Khajuraho’s Western group of temples – a cluster of the most prominent and well preserved of the 20 remaining temples today. Chandelas who ruled over parts of central India between 10th and 13th centuries undertook the massive task of commissioning these sandstone marvels. It’s a testament to the rulers’ commitment to the cause and the virtuosity of the architects as well as sculptors that 85 of these temples were constructed in a short span of two centuries – a miracle considering each temple required countless man-hours. History Channel even attempted a telling recreation in an episode cringe-worthily named “Lost Worlds: Kama Sutra” given that Kama Sutra and Khajuraho have little to do with each other and are separated by at least six centuries.
In the warm glow of that quiet winter evening, the sandstone temples of Khajuraho gleamed like gold rising out of a field of green. Women in colorful sarees stomped down the pathways crisscrossing the lawns in the far distance. The hushed winds whipped up a surreal aura when it suddenly dawned on me that these temples have stood witness to time for one whole millennium - a thousand years! There, that was the magic I could be more invested in. The next morning, trying to make more sense of Khajuraho’s allure which still didn’t quite get to me, I enlisted the help of one Gopal ji, a government approved guide who would go on to give me a lot of food for thought over the course of the day.
Indian tourists walking in the Western Temple Complex in Khajuraho. I was quite surprised to find more domestic tourists than international here.
Under the shade of a towering tree, Gopal ji diligently retold the history of Khajuraho and Chandelas as he was taught. One thing stood out from his spiel, was that Chandelas were great patrons of Jainism too. No wonder then, Eastern Group of temples were home to three Jain temples built in the similar architectural style as the Hindu temples of Khajuraho and didn’t seem to have any eroticism but were peppered with Jain iconography.
Intricate frieze on Adinath Temple (L) and Mahaveer idol inside Parshwanath Temple(R) of eastern complex.
“Because of the growing popularity of Buddhism, which they wanted to suppress, the Chandelas could’ve given patronage to Jains, who then thrived in Khajuraho during Chandela rule”, he mentioned in passing. Romila Thapar, a noted historian also surmises that one of the reasons there was a profusion of erotic art in the early centuries of this millennium was to counteract the tenets of Buddhism that propounded celibacy and rejection of all earthly desires. Edifying eroticism in temples and literature could’ve been a strategic move to retain the Hindu masses that wandered to the fringes of Buddhism’s austere spirituality.
While it was clear that Khajuraho’s temples were so much more than erotic sculptures, it was only when my guide diligently pointed out the intricacies of the carvings did I start taking note of the supreme craftsmanship at display here. The sculptures were evocative, expressive and very realistic, no small feat considering they were carved in stone. As we moved from Lakshmana temple to Kandariya Mahadev temple, it was noticeable that the sculptors refined their skill over the years and the sculptures became more evocative and slender too. However I couldn’t shake off the questions stirring in my mind. Why did the Chandelas build 85 of these temples in this remote corner? Was it their way of leaving a lasting legacy? While I was lost in these thoughts, our guide commiserated how the stereotype obscures the architectural splendor of these great constructions.
Kandariya Mahadev Temple (L) and Devi Jagadambi Temple(R) of western complex.
Invariably someone exclaimed, “What happened to us?” looking at the mithunas (erotic sculptures) of Lakshmana Temple. What happened is that a thousand years passed, during which Islamic and Victorian influences altered our culture. But that’s not really the point. Even though Khajuraho temples are of Hindu origin, it is pertinent to note that Chandelas were believed to be practitioners of Tantra cult, which was always esoteric in nature and by no means represented the more traditional and conservative form of Hinduism followed across the sub continent. So, no, India didn’t suddenly regress from being a country full of sexual liberals to repressed bigots.
Sexual liberation was prominent in Tantric culture but never an eminent part of India’s culture. If it were, we’d be having many more lascivious artworks littered on our temple friezes. Instead we now have fewer temples featuring erotic sculptures than a person can count on his fingers and toes together. Modern day debauchery in the name of Tantra has brought the once prevalent cult a lot of bad name (it is now exclusively associated with hedonistic sex and sensual massages) but in the time of Chandelas and before, Tantric worship was a profoundly spiritual pursuit which propounded sexual ritualism (which could be a deep metaphor for all we know) as a means towards spiritual enlightenment. I’m inclined to consider this theory given the oldest temple currently standing in Khajuraho is of Chausath(64) Yogini signifying yogini worship that is an integral part of Tantric cult was prevalent here.
It annoys me that something so mystical has been reduced to something so outwardly carnal – or something equally vague and untenable as the theory that the erotic sculptures were meant for educational purposes. That logic could be rational, but the lack of possible motive in advocating bestiality and orgies belies it. It probably is just easier for the local guides who have admirably learned to explain the erotic sculptures as “loving couple” without even wincing than to delve into the specifics of the Tantric connection and its multiple allegories.
The duality of unabashed aggrandizement of sensuality that clashes with the recurring motif of scorpion on the thigh that supposedly represents “poisonous lust” is where I would say, lies the true allure of Khajuraho. Even the origin of the name Khajuraho is not definite. Two date palm trees mentioned in scriptures but not seen physically could either have inspired it or the scorpion that isn’t mentioned anywhere but the motif is observed – unsurprisingly both translate to “Kharjur” in Sanskrit! Double entendres abound in these temples and I’m not entirely sure that the message, whatever the sculptures are meant to convey, is supposed to be taken at their face value.
We have no idea what the intention was. We have little understanding of the iconography here and as a result we have let the world brazenly brand Khajuraho as India’s temples of sex and the one shining example of conservative India’s lost liberalism. Not that there is anything wrong with it, it’s just that without any real knowledge, the sobriquet is as misguided as a shot in the dark that only panders to the western stereotype of eastern exoticism, eschewing a holistic view and offering little insight of any real value.
Now that I’ve pontificated enough, it bears to mention that less than 10% of Khajuraho’s carvings are erotic in nature. Standing under the shadow of an enormous tree as Gopal ji went on with his well memorized discourse, I remember my thoughts drifting to future when someone would discover a scripture or some buried treasure that would finally reveal the secrets of Khajuraho to us. And what a momentous unraveling that would be! I can only wish ASI and our historians would invest more thought and work into these glorious temples that are undoubtedly a time capsule from an intriguing epoch we know little about.
, by Neelima Vallangi