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Khajuraho - Medieval Reference of Society

Khajuraho is well known all over the world for its temple architecture and exquisite sculpture. The temples were built between the 9th and 11th centuries by the warrior kings of the Chandela dynasty. Even though the definite reason behind such mass scale temple construction remains unknown, it definitely proves the Chandela dynasty’s immense appreciation and love for art.

Located in the forested plains of Madhya Pradesh, in the region known as Bundelkhand, at a distance from most city and town centers, Khajuraho remains an enigma for art historians. For only did thee temples create what must, in the medieval ages, have been a cathedral city, they also had explicit erotic sculpture adorning them.

Hundreds of years later, it is this unresolved mystery that continues to draw tourists from all over the world. But even if Khajuraho had not had its erotic sculptures (many Hindu temples of the same period too feature, these, whether in Orissa or in Rajasthan), it would have been a draw, for the architecture and sculpture of these temples, in total harmony, is unlike any elsewhere in the country.

Architecturally, the temples are built in the north Indian nagara style. The sculptor’s fine skill and a sense of imagination have given form to human emotion in the form of spiritual and physical love. Spread through the high forest plateaus of the region, these temples were rediscovered only a few decades back, and it was this isolation and the encroachment of the jungles which had led to the destruction of most. Built within a 200-year span, the temple plan, from the simplest to the most sublime, follows the same pattern, and all of them were heavily carved.

Many see the re-emergence of Hinduism as a major force during this period, in the nature of a backlash against Buddhism, as the reason not only for the renewed energy with which temples were built, but also for the sensuous nature of the sculpting. Every façade-wall, window, pillar, ceiling-is carved with figures of mythical and historical origins, and while many of these depict full-breasted, girdle-waisted women in forms of innocent play, they also depict carnal love. One of the tenets of Hinduism is that sexual love is the form of energy, and so its depiction in temples was natural. Equally true was that according to the four divisions of life, the second quarter-that of the bachelor-was followed by that of the householder. But since bachelors were schooled in ashrams, these temple walls lent credence to the natural inclination towards sex, and in fact followed a guide to sex education.

Other theories too have been put about for the need of these representations. While one claims that the erotic sculptures acted as an advertisement to draw people to the temple complex, from where on the priests would take over the initiation into Hindu scriptures, another art historian claims that the temples were built as a celebration of Shiva’s marriage with Parvati-which is why the atmosphere is so romantically charged. This also ties in with the theory that the sculptures depict various moods frozen in the moment when Shiva’s barat or wedding procession passed through the region.

But while several theories abound, the actual reason for the building of the temples may never be known. Or they may rest in the simple tale of the Brahmin lady whose consummation with the Moon god hearalded the start of the Chandeal dynasty. According to local legends, these temples were built by the first Chandela raja to atone his mother’s sin.

Among the 22 surviving temples out of the original 85, some remain well preserved while others are less so. They are located in three groups. The largest, and most easily reached, western group consists of Chausath Yogini, Lalguan Mahadev, Parvati, Varaha, Matangeswar, Lakshman, Vishvanatha, Nandi, Chitragupta, Devi Jagdamba and Kandariya Mahadev. The seven temples of the eastern group include four Jain temples-Parasnath, Adinath, Shantinagh, and Ghantai-and three Brahmanical ones: Vamana, Javari and Brahma. This is known as the Jain group. The small southern group contains the Chaturbhuj and Duladeo temples.

The Kandariya Mahadeo is considered the most evolved example of central Indian temple architecture. Dedicated to Lord Shiva this temple is also the largest of Khajuraho’s temples. It is also located close to the Matangeshwara temple, the only one in the entire complex where the deity (Shiva again) is worshipped, and where prayers and rituals are followed every day. It is interesting to imagine, and perhaps romantic too, that this is the way prayers would have been conducted at all 85 temples, and bells pealed across the silence of the green countryside.

The basic ground plan of the temple is almost a textbook example of Hindu temple architecture, consisting of four compartments: an entrance porch (the ardhamandap), the vestibule (antarala) and the sanctum (garbhagriha). In some of the large temples an extra mandap with lateral transepts is added for size and splendour, converting it into a large assembly hall. The temples rest on a risen open platform, a distinctive feature of the Khajuraho temples, with subsidiary shrines at the four corners of the platform in the bigger temples.

The sides of the risen platform are decorated with friezes depicting scenes from everyday life, war, processions, and erotic. Seen from a distance, the temples seem to rise skyward, layer upon layer, the multiple spires depicting the Himalayan as that the sages retired for meditation, and it was here that the gods lived. So it was expected that the temples recreate the atmosphere of the holiest Indian grounds.

The ceilings of the compartments are supported on beams and pillars resting on walls with a carved decorative lotus motif. This framework graduates into an octagonal shape before taking on a circular form. One ascends to the temples up a flight of steps, and each succeeding compartment is at a higher level so that the sanctum sanctorum is at the highest level. Each temple has only one entrance, and this faces the rising sun in the east (the only exceptions, it would appear, are the Chaturbhuj, Lalguan Mahadev and Chausath Yogini temples). Built of granite and sandstone, the temples also embody the human form with the sanctum housing the soul, the platform representing the legs, the middle portion walls seen as the waist, the shikhar or spire the head, and the kalash or pitcher on top representing the crown.

While the erotic carvings of Khajuraho have attracted most attention, there are in fact several categories of sculpture which dominate the sensual by far. The most revered are the cult images located within the sanctum for purpose of worship, and these consist of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Surya and Jain Tirthankarras. The numerous gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon grace all the walls of the temples, and are distinguished from imges of mortal humans only by their attributes, mounts, or by the suggestion of a diamond or long necklace on their chests. There are, of course, thousands of images of celestial beauties or surasundaris-all of them young and beautiful, and often depicted in dancing poses, or at their toilette. The next range of sculptures depicts people in acts of everyday life, such as working, listening to teachers, waging battles etc. Then there are representations of real and mythical animals and beasts. Of course, there are the mithuns too, the friezes that show couples or groups in erotic and amorous poses. And finally, to fill in the gaps, but excellent examples of ornamentation in themselves, are the geometrical bands and floral motifs, mostly on the inner and outer walls of the temples, and especially on the higher spires. The ceiling of the entrance porch of the Lakshmana temple is considered among the best in the country.

Equally fascinating are the ornaments, head-dresses and clothes with which the sculptures have been adorned, for they record the high levels of grooming and fashion of medieval India. And for those looking for reference of the social and religious history of India, a close study of Khajuraho should be references enough. For these temples are not mere buildings of prayer but centers of learning-now, as then.


By Air

A daily flight links Khajuraho with Delhi, Agra and Varanasi.

By Rail

The nearest railheads are Harpalpur (94 kilometer) and Mahoba (63 kilometer). Country buses and tongas take you to Khajuraho. The Shatabdi Express from Delhi to Bhopal stops at Jhansi (172 kilometer from Khajuraho). Buses and tourist cars meet the train. Satna, 117 kilometer away is convenient for travelers from Bombay, Calcutta and Varanasi. Taxis and buses are available from here.

By Road

Direct bus services connect Khajuraho with Panna, Satna, Chattarpur, Jabalpur, Mahoba, Bhopal and Indore.


Hotel Taj chandela

Hotel Jass Oberoi

Hotel Khajuraho Ashok

Madhya Pradesh Tourism also has tourist bungalows and hotels.

Local Transport

Cycle rickshaws, tongas, taxis are available.

Tourist Information Centres

Government of India Tourist Office

Opposite Western Group of Temples.

Tourist Information Centre

Khajuraho Airport.

Deputy Director of Tourism

Government of Madhya Pradesh Bust Stand, Khajuraho.

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