Sexual pose at Khajuraho

One of the most celebrated manifestations of Indian architecture is to be found in a group of temples at Khajuraho in central India. Situated a hundred miles south-east of the town of Jhansi in the modern-day state of Madhya Pradesh, these temples are over thirty in number. These temples, unlike many others in central or south India, do not illustrate a development over a long period of time, but were erected over a relatively narrow period of hundred years from A.D. 950. The Khajuraho temples represent, one might say, a happy and almost unique coincidence of religious emotion, abundant patronage, artistic genius, and aesthetic sensibility. Fortunately, these temples have weathered the climate for a thousand years and have withstood neglect surprisingly well.

The Khajuraho temples were built during the reign of the Chandelas. While some show marks of a Shaivite sensibility, others clearly manifest the influence of Vaishnaism, Jainism, and tantrism. These temples have an architectural character distinct from that of any other group of temples elsewhere in the country. Instead of being contained within the customary enclosure wall, each temple stands on a high and solid masonry terrace. Though none of the temples are very large, they are still imposing structures because of their elegant proportions and rich surface sculpture.

Unlike the rather plain treatment of other central Indian temple interiors, the Khajuraho temples are richly decorated with sculpture. Other than numerous deities enshrined in wall niches, there are attendants, graceful “maidens” in a variety of provocative postures, dancers, musicians and embracing couples. On one temple alone, the figures thus depicted are over six hundred and fifty in number. Many of these compositions display great sensuality and warmth. There are also scenes of explicit sexual activity which possibly illustrate the tantric rites that accompanied temple worship. It is quite reliably said that some of the sexual postures follow the Kama Sutra, the ancient Indian manual of love-making.

Khajuraho or ‘Khajur-vahika’ (bearer of date palms), also known as ‘Khajjurpura’ in ancient times, evidently derives its name from the golden date palms (khajur) that adorned its city gates and, if the different legendary versions are to be believed, it owes its existence to an enchanting maiden named Hemvati.

According to the account of the medieval court poet, Chandbardai, in the Mahoba-khand of his Prithviraj Raso, Hemvati was the beautiful daughter of Hemraj, the royal priest of Kashi (Varanasi). One summer night, while she was bathing in the sparkling waters of a lotus-filled pond, the Moon god was so awestruck by her beauty that he descended to earth in human form and ravished her.

The distressed Hemvati, who was unfortunately a child widow, threatened to curse the god for ruining her life and reputation. To make amends for his folly the Moon god promised that she would become the mother of a valiant son. ‘Take him to Khajjurpura’, he is believed to have said. ‘He will be a great king and build numerous temples surrounded by lakes and gardens. He will also perform a yagya (religious ceremony) through which your sin will be washed away.’

Following his instructions, Hemvati left her home to give birth to her son in a tiny village. The child, Chandravarman, was as lustrous as his father, brave and strong. By the time he was 16 years old he could kill tigers or lions with his bare hands. Delighted by his feats, Hemvati invoked the Moon god, who presented their son with a touchstone which could turn iron into gold, and installed him as king at Khajuraho.

Chandravarman achieved a series of brilliant victories and built a mighty fortress at Kalinjar. At his mother’s request he began the building of 85 glorious temples with lakes and gardens at Khajuraho and performed the bhandya-yagya which expunged her of her guilt.

The temples of Khajuraho are categorized into three groups- the Western, Eastern and Southern. Temples of the Western Goup includes Lakshmi and Varaha shrines opposite the Lakshmana temples. Lakshmana Temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu, this temple is the best-preserved temple among the early temples. The friezes on the platform depict royal hunts and battles, processions, and scenes from domestic life and sexual orgy. The largest and most typical of Khajuraho temples, Kandariya Mahadeva is dedicated to Shiva, it is also artistically and architecturally the most perfect.

Temples of the Eastern Group include Parsvanath, the largest and the finest in this group these temples are dedicated to the first jain Tirthankara, yet, Vaishnava themes are also depicted in its sculptures. Adinath Temple is dedicated to the Jain saint Adinath, a lavishly embellished temple with sculpted figures including Yakshis or demi-goddesses. The main Jain shrine, Shanti Nath has a 15-ft, high image of Adinath. Ghantai Temple, so called for the chain and bell decorations on its elegant pillars.

Temples of the Southern Group include Duladeo Temple, which has dancing Apsarases or nymphs in the interior and flying Vidhyadhara or demi-gods figures. Though a temple in its ruins Chaturbhuja Temple has a four-armed, 9-ft high image of Vishnu.

The Archaelogical Museum house sculpture and stone panels of ruined temples in the Jain, Buddhist and miscellaneous galleries. There is a huge statue of the Buddha and the unusual statue of a dancing Ganesha too. Shipgram is located in the heart of Khajuraho, covering an area of 10-acres; it has got craftsmen coming from various parts of India working on ethnic handicrafts.