Right in the heart of this country, which gives plenty of evidence of its discomfort with expressions of love and intimacy every day, exists some of the most explicit and eloquent depictions of lovemaking and sexual liberation carved in stone. Amid the surrounding forests and the dusty village, several fancy hotels and cafes are doling out pancakes to any number of foreign tourists—all for one of the most intriguing mysteries of Indian history. What are these acrobatic, orgiastic scenes doing on the walls of ancient Indian temples?
The area that Khajuraho occupies has played a crucial role in the cultural history of the subcontinent since 200 BCE when there was an efflorescence of sculptural and architectural arts during the Sunga period. During the Gupta period, between the 4th and 6th centuries CE, there was a resurgence of the arts in this region.
This magnificent complex of 25 temples was built by the Chandela dynasty of kings between 900 and 1130 CE. In fact, Khajuraho was the first capital of the Chandelas, who rose to rule the region in the 9th century CE and, between the 10th and the 14th centuries, were the most powerful rulers of this area.
The kings of this dynasty were great patrons of sculpture, arts and letters. Under their rule, there was a flurry of architectural activity throughout the kingdom. They dotted their empire with forts, palaces, tanks, and temples. But from the very beginning, Khajuraho was their prized capital.
Local legends claim that there were 85 temples in Khajuraho, but only 25 have survived in various stages of preservation. From the onset, Khajuraho was probably envisaged as a temple town since there are no surviving secular buildings here. Interestingly, by the end of the Chandela dynasty in the 13th century, Khajuraho was no longer an important city, eventually vanishing into forested oblivion.
The Khajuraho group of temples was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986.
The temples have been divided into the Western, Eastern and Southern groups, with the most important and impressive shrines belonging to the Western. Since the latter is located next to the bustling tourist areas of the village/town, starting your trip with this group near the Shiv Sagar tank is best.
The temples in this complex are large and lavishly decorated, displaying the wealth and power of its rulers. Start your tour with the captivating Lakshmana Temple. The most refined temple in the complex was built in 954 CE as the seat of Vishnu. The sanctum has a three-headed and four-armed image of Vishnu as the avatar Vaikuntha its central head is a human one, while on either side is a boar head and lion head. The faccedilade is decorated with sculptures, the middle panel portraying mithunas or amorous couples.
The Varaha Shrine was built on a high plinth, located just in front of the Lakshmana Temple. Inside the shrine is a stunning colossal Varaha carved in a block of sandstone, over 1.5 m high. The image is beautifully finished to a glossy lustre and carved with innumerable gods and goddesses.
Walk eastwards from the Varaha shrine to explore the Visvanath, Nandi and Parvati shrines. Of these, the most spectacular is the Visvanath Temple. The Nandi shrine opposite the temple houses a massive image of Nandi, over 2.2 m long and 1.8 m high.
The Chitragupta Temple is the only temple in Khajuraho dedicated to the Sun god, Surya. The sculptures on the temple platform show a party of stone carriers, hunting scenes and elephant fights. The sanctum houses an impressive Surya image, standing in a chariot driven by seven horses. The temple walls have some of the finest carvings of erotic couples and gods, including an 11-headed Vishnu.
At a little distance from Chitragupta is Jagadambi Temple, originally dedicated to Vishnu but now housing an image of Parvati, after whom the temple is named. The sculptural depictions are absolutely stunning here, with a fantastic sculpture of Yama, the god of death, and of course, the ubiquitous erotic couples.
The largest and tallest of the temples and with the most carvings is the Kandariya-Mahadeva temple. This is a Shiva temple, nearly 30.5 m high, built in 1030 CE by King Vidyadhara to celebrate his victory over Mahmud of Ghazni. The shikhara is decorated with a series of 84 smaller replicas of itself, making for a stunning and somewhat dizzying sight. The temple's architecture is absolutely stunning, with niches upon niches, elaborate designs and gorgeous ornamentation.
Its lofty basement has numerous elegantly decorated relief sculptures, including two rows of pro-sessional friezes featuring elephants, horses, warriors, dancers, acrobats, musicians and devotees, and many erotic scenes. These sculptures are apt depictions of life at its happiest, most joyous and free.
Located near the village is the Eastern Group, which includes three Brahmanical and three Jain temples. The former group is located close to Khajuraho-sagar, while the latter are further south of them and can be accessed by road.
Though the Brahma Temple currently enshrines a linga, the temple was originally Vaishnavite. Its doorway is minimally ornamented, with figures of the Brahmanical trinity and Ganga and Yamuna. It is dated to 900 CE and enjoys an enviable position on the banks of the Khajuraho-sagar.
Also, visit the Ghantai Temple, named so because of the chain-and-bell (ghanta) motif on its pillars. This temple, to the south of Khajuraho village, is sadly now only a shell of the original grand structure.
Half a kilometre southeast of Ghantai is a group of Jain temples. The notable temples here include the Parsvanatha, Adinatha and Santinatha, along with numerous modern shrines built on the remains of older ones.
The Parsvanatha Temple is one of the finest monuments in Khajuraho, and it is a pity that not all tourists make it all the way out to see it. It is dedicated to the first Jain Tirthankara.
This wonderful museum of folk art of the different tribal communities in MP is lovely. It is spread over two rooms, with many bright paintings, terracotta images, sculptures, masks and statues.
Indian: INR 35, Foreigner: INR 550
8 am to 6 pm
The easiest way to reach Khajuraho is by flight, the airport is only 2 minutes drive from the town. Else, you can take a bus from Chhatarpur. The town Khajuraho is 44 km from district Chattarpur, 281 km from Gwalior, 375 km from Bhopal, 565 km from Indore, 355 km from Ranchi. The closest cities from Khajuraho are Harpalpur (94 km), Satna (117 km), Jhansi (175 km) and Jabalpur which is 258 km.