Khajuraho Temples – A Rhapsody in Stone

The temples of Khajuraho depict the story of life in intricate sculpturing and exquisite architecture. They are an epitome of the four goals of human life as accorded by Hinduism-kama, artha, dharma and moksha. Kama the human desire for pleasure, artha the search for wealth and power, dharma or fulfilment of one’s duty and finally moksha or liberation from the circle of life and death is how these goals can best be explained. Khajuraho is a depiction of life in its entirety; unfortunately, it has only been known to depict eroticism, which constitutes only ten per cent of all sculptures. 

Kamasutra Temple Tourism

When we told our friends that we were going to Madhya Pradesh and among other places would be visiting Khajuraho, they gave us a cheeky smile. They passed impish comments about the temples depicting the various sexual positions, as suggested in the Kamasutra. It’s a stereotypical assumption that Khajuraho temples are a depiction of the infamous book Kamasutra. The shops around the temples are choc block with souvenirs like keychains, cards, magnets, figurines and books on Kamasutra! Even tourism seems to have been marketed, especially to foreigners, by packaging the temples as the ‘Kamasutra Temples.’  

Chitragupta Temple @Rafiq Somani
Partapeshwar Temple @Rafiq Somani

Arriving at Khajuraho

An overnight train ride from Vidisha (it is 57 km from Bhopal) brought us to a deserted under construction Khajuraho junction at six in the morning. The temperature was 3°C as we shivered in our jackets and shawls. No sooner had we stepped out of the station rickshaw, and taxi drivers began chasing us promising to take us to the temples. The plan was to go to Madhya Pradesh Tourism’s Hotel Payal for breakfast and then proceed to explore the temples. We were to take the evening train back to Bhopal, so there was no question of checking in. The taxi driver was a smart alec and claimed to be the owner of a fleet of tourist taxis. We negotiated and agreed to have one of his taxis take us around the temples and finally drop us at the station at four in the evening

A Brief Background

Khajuraho gets its name from Khajur or date palms which grew on the path leading to the temples. The Khajuraho temples were built between 950-1050 AD by the Chandela Dynasty and are geographically distributed into three groups: Eastern, Western and Southern with the Western ones being the most exquisite bagging the UNESCO World Heritage Site tag. Of the original 85 temples, only 20 or so temples have survived the test of time.

The Legend

We met our guide Sanjay Khare, who began to narrate the story of Khajuraho. Legend has it that centuries ago on a full moon night Hemvati, the beautiful daughter of a priest in Kashi, decided to bathe in a pond full of lotuses. So smitten was the moon by her beauty that he descended on earth and made love to her. When it was time for him to leave Hemvati nervous at the thought of being an unmarried mother voices her concerns to the moon. The moon advises her to leave Kashi and go to Khajuraho and raise their son.

Chandravarman, their son, grows up to establish the Chandela dynasty. His mother in a dream beseeches him to build temples that depict human passions and with it, the realization of the futility of human desire. With the decline of the Chandela dynasty, the temples were soon forgotten and overgrown with forests until their rediscovery in 1838 by a British army engineer and its subsequent restoration.

 The mist and poor visibility made us worried if we could get good pictures of the temples. Since the Western Group of temples are the most exquisite, our plan was, to first visit the Southern and Eastern Group. By noon, we would be at the Western Group hoping that the fog would have cleared by then.

Southern Group of Temples

Chaturbhuja and Duladeo temples were the first temples that we visited in the Southern Group. Ghantai Temple was an open pillared temple with ghantai or bells carved on its pillars in the Southern Group.

Eastern Group of Temples

The Eastern Group has both Jain and Hindu temples. We could hear the Jain priests reciting prayers as we entered the compound housing the Jain temples. Parsvanath temple was the largest with two other temples Adinath and Shantinath close by.

Vamana, Brahma and Javari were the Hindu temples that we visited. The craftsmanship in the Javari temple was unique as it created an illusion of water at the base of the idol in the sanctum.

Brahma Temple @Rafiq Somani

Western Group of Temples

Just as we reached the ticket window to purchase entry tickets to the Western Group of temples, the first rays of the sun filtered through the mist. Our plan of visiting these group of temples last had worked, and my photographer husband was beaming from ear to ear as he went click-happy.

The Craftsmanship

The uniqueness of the Khajuraho temples is that they are erected on a plinth. Each temple compartment (Ardha mandapa, mandapa and sanctum) has its own roof, resembling the Himalayan peaks. The makers didn’t use cement or binders, but the stones were interlocked with shear-key and lock mechanism. Most external walls of the temples have bands with exquisite carvings of gods, goddesses, apsaras, vishkanyas or snake women, vyalas, demons, and other mystical creatures. Musicians, acrobats, dancers, hunters, warriors to amorous couples depicted the all-encompassing life’s journey from birth to death. Scenes from everyday pursuits of life, wars, celebrations, mythological tales were all brilliantly captured in stone. 

Wars Depicted @Rafiq Somani

The Varaha temple had an idol of Lord Vishnu in the boar avatar with more than 700 tiny figures of gods and goddesses and other mythical creatures carved on it. The Lakshmana temple had a relief depicting the war between the gods and demons for the Kumbh containing nectar. The Vishvanatha and Nandi shrine with a gigantic bull, the vehicle of Shiva, were adjacent to each other.

Varaha Temple @Rafiq Somani
Lakshmana Temple @Rafiq Somani
Vishwanath Temple @Rafiq Somani
Nandi Shrine @Rafiq Somani

An Ode to Women

The sculptures are an ode to women in her myriad avatars as lover, wife, mother, mistress and seductress. A woman demurely gazing at her love interest, a femme fatale with a parrot and mango in hand, a maiden doing the ‘Sola Sringar’ like putting a bindi, applying kajal, admiring herself in the mirror, wearing anklets, a damsel with a scorpion on her thigh yearning for love, another experiencing ecstasy in the game of love, a mother playing with her child …

From time to time, our guide would remove a pocket-size mirror to reflect the sunlight on the carvings and explain their details. The Kandariya Mahadeo temple is the largest and tallest temple dedicated to Shiva. It is this temple which has the highest number of erotic statues depicting more than 50 shades of the game of love.

Why eroticism is depicted on temples?

There are several theories for explaining the eroticism. The Chandelas were believers in Tantrism, which considers both Yoga (spiritual exercise) and Bhoga (physical pleasure) as a means of achieving salvation. Another theory postulates that Buddhism was fast spreading and men were turning monks. To tempt and allure the youth to the path of family life eroticism was showcased. One explanation is that it was society’s attempt to teach the youngsters sex education. The exterior facade of the temple had the Mithun poses while the inner sanctum of the temple had the idol. Which means one had to overcome the temptation of body and become pure in the soul like the idol to achieve nirvana.

Numerous thoughts raced through my mind. The creators of the temple were unapologetic about depicting sensual pleasures and accepted sex as an integral part of life. Just as gurukuls, wars, mythological tales and pursuits of life were described so was sex. Who was more liberated? The creators of the temple who were out-and-out forthright or today’s generation where it is all about concealing and taking vicarious pleasures by watching pornography and engaging in phone sex?

Music Teacher and Disciples @Rafiq Somani

Artefacts and Souvenirs

MP Government’s state emporium Mrignayani had an outlet nearby where traditional Bagh print, Chanderi and Maheshwari merchandise were on sale. There were dozens of shops in the market selling souvenirs, tribal masks, bamboo silk dupattas, metal artefacts, and other knick-knacks.

Local Food

We were now hungry and decided to grab a meal at one of the restaurant’s close by. On the roadside were stalls selling jalebi, poha and ghujiyas. We chose Raja Café, bang opposite the Western Group of monuments, which had a multicuisine menu to cater to the diverse tastes of tourists from across the globe. As we had our meal on the rooftop of the restaurant, we could watch and admire the temples one last time before saying goodbye to Khajuraho.  

This immersive experience of Khajuraho had left us speechless and breathless. The craftsmen have vividly captured every facet of life in stone. Khajuraho temples, receive the highest foreign tourist footfalls after the Taj Mahal. It is high time the Indian travellers explore it not for its eroticism but its sheer architectural brilliance and craftsmanship in depicting the journey of life in its entirety.

Nearest Airport: Khajuraho has a small airport with connections from Delhi Varanasi. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any non-stop flights from Bhopal to Khajuraho. We chose to take a train from Vidisha to Khajuraho and on the return to Bhopal since we had made it our base.  
Where to Stay: Madhya Pradesh Tourism’s Hotel Payal and Jhankar are good options. Alternatively, you can do a net search for accommodation options depending on comfort and budget. We arrived by the morning train and left by the evening train so didn’t need accommodation.
Travel Trip: A light and sound show happens in the evening at Western Group of Monuments which you may want to see. Panna National Park, Raneh Falls are worth checking out if you are a nature lover.