Temples in Khajuraho are not just home to ‘erotic’ structures, but are a reflection of what was once a liberal society. Hugh & Colleen Gantzer trace the history of these monuments.
It was the most liberal of societies. We stood in awe at the grace and fluidity of its sculptures. They depicted themes that even our most avant-garde galleries would not dare to exhibit today. We were in Madhya Pradesh’s Khajuraho, enthralled by a civilisation that flowered 1,000 years ago, then vanished.
Significantly, the oldest temple here, dating to the last quarter of the 9th century, is the seldom-visited Chausath Yogini celebrating femininity. This unroofed shrine was dedicated to the 64 aspects of the Mother Goddess. It could also have been the reason why the Chandellas decided to construct their religious capital on this hallowed spot. The great temple-building boom in Khajuraho began with the first politically powerful Chandella prince, Harsha, who ruled from 900 AD to 925.
The last important Chandella Raja was Paramadin, defeated by his enemies in 1202. Then, Khajuraho faded from human memory, was abandoned, and the wilderness took over. Five centuries later, this magnificent ghost town in the forest was discovered. All this is brought out evocatively in the Son-et-Lumiere presented in the Western Group of Temples every evening. With that as a base, here is a flicker-swift tour of this remarkable array of monuments.
Written in stone
Start by walking down to the Varaha Temple. Rising on a high plinth is a superbly carved monolithic image of the third incarnation of the Preserver of the Hindu trinity: Varaha, the boar. On its body are carved 674 figures of gods and goddesses in relief. In front of the Varaha Temple rise the steps to the platform of the Lakshmana Temple, the earliest of the Western Group, dating to 930-50 AD. There is a wonderful processional frieze on the facade of the platform, capturing hunting and battle scenes and some of Khajuraho’s over-hyped erotica. The largest and tallest of these temples, and the one with the most carvings, is the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, rising in successive towers like a range of mountains.
On the same platform as the Kandariya Mahadeva is the temple of Jagadambi, another name for Shiva’s consort Parvati, with very beautiful sculptures. Beyond lies the Chitragupta Temple. The most interesting feature of this greatly-restored temple is the series of divine couples shown one below the other: Brahma-Brahmani, Shiva-Parvati, Lakshmi-Narayana and Bhairava-Bhairavi. Down the path that leads to the gate of the Western Group is the rather uninteresting Parvati Temple. In contrast, the last shrine in the Western Group, the Vishwanath Temple, is one of the finest temples in Khajuraho. We always pause at the two sura sundaris: one, very gracefully plucking a thorn from the sole of her foot, and another, celestial maiden playing a flute.
Just outside the perimeter fence of the Western Group is the living Matangesvara Temple built between 900 and 925 AD. It is very popular with devotees and their colourful flow, up and down the steps of the temple, the sound of conches and bells, and the fragrance of incense conjures up visions of what the monumental temples of Khajuraho must have been like when they were living places of worship.
The temples of the Eastern Group are near a water body, often dry, that once irrigated the farms of the present Khajuraho Village. At the end of the road is the Vamana Temple. Judging from its style, it was built in 1050-75 though, curiously, it has very few erotic carvings. Just beyond the protecting walls of the grounds of the temple, farmers still tend to their fields as their ancestors did a 1,000 years ago.
A short distance down the road, towards the village, is the Javari Temple. This is a little gem with all the features of a larger, developed Khajuraho Temple. In the village, and to the right of the road, stands the rather forlorn, erroneously named, and generally locked, Brahma Temple. Also rendered humanly inaccessible by the protective Archaeological Survey of India, because it would otherwise have been too tempting to vandals, is a beautiful shell of a great shrine, the Ghantai Temple. This was, probably, a Jain temple larger than the one that lies ahead, the Parsvanatha. Despite being a Jaina temple, it holds many Vaishnava images.
The other unaltered Jaina temple, which is adjacent to the Parsvanatha, is the Adinatha Temple. It is smaller than the Parsvanatha, and was probably built a little after the Vamana. Closest to the entrance to this complex is the living Santinatha Temple. All that remains unaltered is the oblong enclosure of small shrines and displays of ancient sculptures.
In the Southern Group, there are just two conserved temples: the Duladeo, with its impressive apsaras on the uppermost row of the shikara tower, and the Chaturbhuja. These are among the last temples to be built by the sculptors of Khajuraho, though, chronologically, the last temple to be built in the Khajuraho style, between 1100 and 1150, is the first one on this southern road, the Duladeo. About this time too, though perhaps a shade earlier, the masons of Khajuraho built the Chaturbhuja Temple. It is the only one that does not have a single erotic sculpture.
Possibly, by that late date, the driving impetus imparted by the zestful worship of the mother goddesses of the Chausath Yogini Temple was winding down. And with its decline, the creative urge also diminished. But, despite all this, there was one brilliant burst of creativity. The 2.7-metre-high standing image of Vishnu is so vibrant that it almost seems as if the Preserver is about to step out and greet his devotees. We got the distinct impression that when the image’s face is viewed from three different angles, it takes on three distinctly different expressions. This is a south-facing image, best seen at sunset when the dying sun lances in and illuminates the statue in an orange glow.
After this, when we visited Khajuraho’s ASI Museum and its Tribal and Folk Art Museum, linking the past with the present, we realised that the world’s most liberal civilisation is not dead: it’s sleeping and will soon awake.