by Tim Dawe
Khajuraho in northern Madhya Pradesh State near India’s great Indo-Gangetic plain, is off the beaten path – literally and figuratively. The sleepy little village is far removed from the bustle of Mumbai or the fervour of Varanasi. And it is remote. From the air it looks like the Australian outback: featureless dry scrub with a pall of bushfire smoke. But it reveals a treasure trove: exquisite, sculptured architectural gems … and a thousand-year-old mystery.We know that this isolated dot was once a prosperous, organised centre of culture and religion. In a burst of creative activity lasting a century (950-1050AD) the Chandela kings, who dominated central India for five centuries, built about 85 carved stone temples, reputedly the finest temple art in the world. They represent the high point of North Indian culture and artistic development and showcase the genius of the craftsmen. It also demonstrates kingly power and wealth necessary to mobilise labour and resources at such a remote place.
We don’t know why so many temples were built here, what was their purpose and how they celebrated their ritual activities. There is no evidence of a city, fortifications or large-scale settlement, or indeed industry. During the early second millennium it all vanished – people, temples, ceremonies, infrastructure – and the grey scrub was resurrected. Like an Indian Rip Van Winkle, Khajuraho slept undisturbed for centuries.
That is, until the British Raj.
In 1838, Captain TS Burt of the Bengal Engineers, whilst on a road-building reconnaissance (and being carried in a palanquin) stumbled upon these partly buried buildings. He is said to have been shocked at the find, quaintly exclaiming the temple decoration was, “A little warmer than absolutely necessary.”
With limited time our temple tour is arranged for late afternoon. This proves a blessing as the light makes the golden stone glow, and there are fewer visitors. Jitender Singh is our personal guide and interpreter and, like many in his profession, a retired schoolteacher.
“I am at your service,” he says deferentially, I will go at your pace, show you what you want to see and never overload you with facts and figures.” When pressed, however, he is less helpful in solving the mystery of Khajuraho.
The picturesque temple complex is professionally managed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Twenty five temples are arrayed in a semi-circle in a parkland setting, restored to their former grandeur. They look other-worldly backlit by late, softening light. Slow excavation continues on the remainder.
Kandariya Mahadeva (1025-1050AD) is the largest and perhaps the most impressive temple. It’s regarded as the pinnacle of Chandela architecture and art. Despite its imposing size clad with more than 800 carved statues, there’s harmony in its five-part structure. Four subsidiary shrines may have succumbed to time but it remains in excellent condition. A towering, elaborately carved sikhara, interspersed with 84 smaller replicas, soars 31m and represents the Himalayas, particularly Mount Kailasa, the birthplace of Shiva, to whom the temple is dedicated.
We visit the similar but smaller Lakshmana Temple (930AD) dedicated to Vishnu. Like the other temples it is built on a high plinth with processional steps leading to an entrance porch and small hall leading to the main hall. As the heavily pillared spaces become progressively smaller we reach the inner sanctum where the deity is represented. It’s dark and moody. I look up to large a pyramid-shaped void above the shrine and observe stonework blackened with the flames of millions of oil lamps. It’s hard to imagine the colour, noise and vibrancy of the Hindu ceremonies held here a millennium ago.
Next door in his own ornately carved canopy is the polished stone image of Varaha, Vishnu’s boar reincarnation. He’s an appealing figure, standing nearly three metres high – a relief from so much temple art.
Mr Singh has a routine for tourists to inspect select temple carvings. Temple art has always included naked and seductive women and nymphs. But what confronts us, carved into every conceivable space of every temple, are depictions of X-rated sexual acts. It’s astounding and hard core. Scenes of athletic orgies include animals…in great detail.
Eventually with jaw un-dropped and steadied pulse I see the full extent of this art. The narrative is lost on me but I see the poetic imagery. There is a life-like fluidity to these figures as they twist, turn and coquettishly glance back appearing to move before me. Raw sexuality becomes refined and playful sensuality.
But the sheer scale overwhelms; thousands and thousands of figures and non-figurative carving. There are recurring themes of gods and goddesses, ordinary life, real and mythical animals and long lines of battling warriors.
It’s definitely monumental but what does it mean?
We move slowly and soak up the atmosphere. The afternoon light strikes a bougainvillea intensifying its redness and contrasts with darkening temples. I round the western side of Matangeshwar Temple (900AD), still in operation as a temple, to see its patterned sikhara bathed in the red sun’s glow; stone turns to mahogany. A memorable sight.
As light fades Mr Singh has one last thing to show us. We leave the compound, cross the road and through the scattered village to the Jain temples, clearly in daily use by the faithful for worship and cultural activity. Compared with boisterous Hinduism, Jainism is an austere religion based on respect for all living things and strict self-discipline. The largest temple, Parsvanath, is particularly evocative set against the silhouette of a large tree. There’s not one erotic carving to be seen.
Why is there so much overt pornography at Khajuraho?
There are theories; none give satisfaction. It could be as simple as celebrating the lust for life or a homage to Lord Shiva on his marriage to Pavarti. Another theory is the carvings are a sort of sex manual (the Kama sutra predates the temples) for monastic young Brahmin boys preparing for manhood. A more plausible theory is the temples are dedicated to the cult of Tantrism that believes gratification of earthly desires is a step closer to attaining the infinite.
Remote and mysterious, Khajuraho keeps its secrets hidden.