Think Khajuraho and the first thing that comes to mind are the erotic sculptures, which are part of the three groups of temples in Madhya Pradesh. But one could not be more wrong if one thinks Khajuraho's only claim to fame is erotica. Legend has it that more than a 1,000 years ago, on a full moon night, Hemvati, the enchantingly beautiful daughter of the royal priest of Kashi, decided to bathe in a pond full of lotuses. The moon god, who was watching her, was so mesmerised by her beauty that he descended on earth and made love to her. Before returning, he told Hemvati to go to the forests of Khajuraho to bring up his son, who was named Chandravarman.
He grew up to be a great king. He established the famous Chandela dynasty and set up the kingdom of Kalinjar. To atone for the sins of his unmarried mother, Chandravarman laid the foundation of the temples in Khajuraho, which until then was a forest of date palms. For generations the Chandela kings kept adding to the temples of Khajuraho, each one more magnificent than the other, until the fall of the dynasty. As years went by, the temples got buried under thick forests and remained lost for five centuries. It was only in the 19th century that the temples were accidentally discovered by a British officer travelling through the jungles.
We reached Khajuraho on a clear, bright morning and were soon at the gates of the western group of temples, which are part of UNESCO world heritage sites. The signs of a typical tourist centre—hawkers, touts, rickshaw pullers, beggars—were, surprisingly, missing; the place was clean, quiet and inviting. A few guides, however, pestered us to hire them but we refused them politely. With 10-rupee tickets in hand, we entered a sprawling expanse of lush green lawns, dotted with vibrant seasonal flowers—marigold, bougainvillea, candytuft.
First up was the Varaha temple. Small but high, it stood opposite to the Lakshmana temple. The varaha (boar, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu) inside was huge and occupied the entire sanctum. It was smooth, shiny and intricately carved. The Lakshmana temple, which was much larger and much more elaborate, stood on a high platform and was flanked by smaller temples on all four corners. Inside, it was dark and empty (none of the temples here are used for worship) and was adorned with exquisitely-carved figures of humans and animals. Outside, on the platform, were panels depicting life during the times of the Chandela kings. It is here that the first traces of erotica, in the form of an orgy, are seen. Although I had heard about the erotic element of the temples, the blatant display unnerved me and I quickly walked towards the other end of the temple.
The other temples in the complex were the Vishwanath temple, with a smaller shrine of Nandi standing in front of it; the grandest and the largest Kandariya Mahadeva temple, with a smaller temple of Jagdambi Devi next to it; and some Jain temples that were added later. Of the estimated 85 temples which existed in Khajuraho, only 22 remain.
Built to replicate the peaks of the Himalayas, all the temples look similar with high towers, multiple halls—ardha mandap, mandap, maha mandap, antarala, garbagriha and pradakshina path—and were constructed on a high platform. The Kandariya Mahadeva and the Vishwanath temples were the most exquisite and richest in erotic sculptures, there were sculptures of every conceivable pose and posture. No wonder they happened to attract maximum attention of the tourists—some gazing in awe, some in horror. I was glad I did not have a guide explaining the technicalities to me!
“During the time these temples were constructed, Buddhism was at its peak and it was normal for people to leave their homes in search of nirvana,” the caretaker at the Dulhadev temple told us, explaining the presence of erotic sculptures. “The kings had, therefore, instructed the sculptors to include scenes from domestic life on the walls of the temples. The idea was to lure the men back to their homes and what better way to get them back than to arouse sexual desires in them?”
We were now in the other part of the town where a few more temples—Chaturbhuj, Dulhadev, Vamana, Parasuram—and some Jain temples lay scattered. They constituted the eastern and southern group of temples and are not enlisted with the UNESCO. Belonging to the same school of architecture, with high platforms, ascending spires, and intricate sculpting, they were much smaller and did not have many visitors either. Which is why perhaps the caretakers there—like the one at the Dulhadev temple—also doubled up as guides. That part of the town resembled any other urban village with government schools, tiny houses and stray animals. Yet the temples were clean, quiet and untouched. The people of Khajuraho, said the caretaker, realise the value of the monuments and are protective of them. The Dulhadev temple, for example, is very popular among the locals and it is mandatory for all newly married couples of the town to pay their obeisance to the 1,100 Shivlingas here. I spotted a lamp, flowers, incense and some coins, something that I did not see in any of the temples of the western group. The Jain temple was alive, too, with tourists and pilgrims thronging its courtyards.
At 6:30pm, the lawns of the western group were eerily dark, cold and unrecognisable, more so because we were at another end of the complex. The moon had not yet risen and all we could see was a sculpture in the centre of the lawn. The sculpture, which has been artificially and aesthetically lit, was dedicated to the unknown sculptor of Khajuraho.
The sculptures and the temples soon began to glow with multicoloured lights casting shadows on them. Soon, the quiet lawns reverberated with music and the voice of the sculptor who narrated the story of Khajuraho—of the kings and queens of Chandela dynasty, the culture and heritage of Kalinjar, the rise and the fall of the Chandravanshis, and so on. By the time it was over, the moon was shining in all its glory. All we needed to complete the picture was a pond full of lotuses and the enchanting Hemvati.