There is nothing much to say about the World Heritage Site of Khajuraho. It is already very well known all over the world for its more than a millennium old group of Hindu and Jain temples. They have within their precincts one of the finest expositions of Indian temple architecture and sculpture. The temples are known more for the erotic sculpture on their walls than for their architectural style. There were an estimated 85 temples in the region but ravages of time and human insensitivity have reduced them to the current around 25. Curiously, the sculptures on the walls have survived pretty well during the last one thousand years.
Located around 200 kilometres south of Jhansi in the state of Madhya Pradesh (Central Province) the temples have somehow miraculously survived the onslaught of Muslim rulers who acquired ascendency in Central India during 15th and 16th Century. Most of the temples were destroyed during these hundred-odd years; only a few escaped the Muslim hammer. The Muslim travellers Al Baruni and Ibn Battuta apparently visited Kahjuraho around the time when the temples were being constructed. The temples that were left untouched were saved because of difficult and hard approaches to them and, in course of time, nature took over and the temples went into hiding – overtaken as they were with vegetation. They were discovered only when in mid-nineteenth century people of the region having knowledge of the existence of the temples took British explorers to them and, lo and behold, they came out of hiding capturing the imagination of the entire world.
Depicting the plurality of the Chandela rulers – the builders of the temples – one finds at Khajuraho both Hindu and Jain temples. They were built around the same time. The entire complex, therefore, is known as Khajuraho Group of Temples. The Hindu temples are dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesh, Sun God and Jain ones are likewise dedicated to Jain Tirthankaras (spiritual teachers of Dharma). Kandariya Mahadeva temple is considered the most important, though others like Laxmana and Chaturbhuj, too, are of architectural, historical and religious interests.
The Kandariya Mahadev temple, is supposed to have around 800 statues and other art works. The temples taken together have several thousand sculptures with only around 10% that could be called erotic. The walls seemingly are plastered with them. It is all very mindboggling. One keeps wondering about those remarkable men who conceptualized, designed and executed the construction of these structures taking meticulous care of the minute details, keeping in mind the over-all concept and theme. One also wonders how many sculptors and master-craftsmen worked for how many years to create such remarkable array of thousands of statues of such incredible beauty. It is true the temples are known for their erotic content but it seems they are also a kind of celebration of life. Almost all facets of life and every-day living have been captured on stone with fantastic dexterity representing the life and times of the region in the medieval era.
Apparently the area had not come under the influence of Muslims as one finds women of incredible physical beauty without any prudery or inhibition indulging in all kinds of every-day activities, including sexual. They are slim, lissome, ethereal and well-formed whereas the ones in Jain temples are somewhat fleshy and voluptuous. Nonetheless, the temples unfold a panorama of visual art, a kind of serenade, that has perhaps not been paralleled ever elsewhere. The sculptures surely reveal the contemporary civilisational mores which appear to be highly emancipated in character in comparison to what we find today after more than a thousand years. Freedom is what the sculptures seem to be screaming all the time rebuffing social and cultural suppression and oppressions that are so familiar to us in our so-called advanced times. No wonder cognoscenti find the temples as something out of this world; some have even called them poetry on stone.
I am no expert on the art of sculpture and, hence, I am unable to describe the technicalities involved in the presentations that we see in these temples. The narratives of the temples, nonetheless, can be admired as they depict women applying make-up, or fixing their girdles, musicians at making music, artisans at work. At the same time, core Hindu values are expressed in various ways – an unbelievable mix of themes. Perhaps, the more one sees them the more would one be able to comprehend their significance and symbolisms. One cannot do that while on a whistle-stop tour.
As the temples have become famous, hordes of tourists land up at Khajuraho. There are hotels galore, including the starred ones. We stayed in a Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Corporation cottage. These have been provided with all the modern facilities but are rustic in appearance and yet are light on the pocket. The Tourism Corporation had tried to create a rural ambiance in the temples’ complex creating a chaupal. A chaupal is a central covered area in a village where generally villagers meet after their daily chores. Freshly cooked food also used to be made available there. This was more than thirty years ago. One wouldn’t know whether the things have improved or have since gone down.
The two-day long experience in the midst of pure culture was worthwhile – far from the busy workaday life. We got the same feeling when we visited the south-eastern temple-town of Konark in Odisha, another World Heritage Site.