Khajuraho: Poetry in stone


The Khajuraho group of monuments is a fine example of Indian ideology, mythology and artistic tradition. The myriad moods of love are captured and frozen for eternity at this World Heritage Site, writes Anuradha Pittie.

Khajuraho in Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh stands apart as a masterpiece of Indian temple art and architecture, with an aesthetic appeal beyond cultural boundaries. It is listed as a World Heritage Site for its ‘human creative genius’ and ‘outstanding universal value’.

The temple complex was built between 10th and 12th centuries, under the patronage of the Chandellas, the Rajput chieftains ruling over  Bundelkhand region. This dynasty was at the height of its power under Kings Yashovarman, Dhanga, and Vidyadhara, who were great warriors, builders and patrons of art.

Khajurvatika or ‘garden of date palms’ was the earlier name of Khajuraho, a small village in Madhya Pradesh, enroute the pilgrim centre of Kashi (Benares). It was the religious capital of the Chandellas, but disappeared into oblivion. In 1838, T.S.Burt, a British officer, rediscovered these temples. Alas, only 25 of the original 85 temples, exist today. In 1980, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) began exploring for the missing temples, and in 1999 excavated the remains, of perhaps, what was the largest temple built there. 

Ancient folklore

There are some interesting tales about its origin. Hemvati was the beautiful daughter of Hemraj, the royal priest of Kashi. She was bathing in a forest pond, when the Moon-god bewitched by her beauty, seduced her. Stricken with shame, she left home. She was blessed with a son of extraordinary skills, who at the tender age of sixteen could combat with a lion. He was Chandravarman, founder of the Chandella dynasty. He initiated the construction of temples, under the divine architect Vishwakarma, as atonement for his mother’s sin.
Another folklore states that Maniram, the royal priest of Kalinjar, wrongly predicted a dark moon night as a full moon night. His daughter prayed to the Moon-god to save her father from the king’s wrath, by appearing in his full glory. The Moon-god accepted, but the price to be paid was her ravishment. She bore a son who founded the Chandravanshi or moon dynasty of Chandellas.

Cradle of stylised art and architecture

In 1864, Sir Alexander Cunningham referred to this temple complex as “the most magnificent and costly temples in northern India”. 

The temples are divided into Western, Eastern and Southern groups according to their geographical location. Each temple is dedicated to a specific deity and has many unique features. Visvanatha originally had an emerald Linga enshrined, Kandariya Mahadeva has an elaborate design structure of 85 spires, inspired by the peaks of Mount Kailash, the Himalayan abode of Lord Shiva, Matangeshvara is the only temple with ongoing ritual worship, with thousands of pilgrims flocking on the auspicious occasion of ‘Mahashivratri’, Chausath Yogini is the earliest temple dedicated to Shakti- mother goddess in her 64 aspects,Chaturbhuja, the only temple without erotic sculpture,  sports a very rare statue of Narsimhi, consort of Lord Narasimha and an outstanding sculpture of Shiva as Ardha- narishwar, Varah with 674 figures of gods and goddesses carved in parallel rows on its body surface, Parsvanatha with an unusual image of a ten armed yakshi Chakreshvani, riding on ‘Garuda’, and so forth. 

Khajuraho is the culmination of the finest example of Indo Aryan architecture. It is constructed on the Nagara style which has a distinctive ground plan, elevation, cruciform spread and curvilinear spires. The temples are built of fine grained sandstone in buff and pinkish colours, brought from the quarries of Panna, on the banks of river Ken. Chausath Yogini, Brahma and Lalguan Mahadeva used local granite. 

The ornate makara torana, or carved garland like archway with crocodile heads, slender pillars with brackets carved with celestial maidens, cusped and coffered ceilings with floral and geometric motifs are common to all temples. Irrespective of whether the usage is for Vaishnavite, Shaivite or Jain worship, the temples had a continuity of style from one generation of Chandella rulers to the next. A single lion placed in front of the temple platform is the emblem of the Chandella dynasty. The kalasa or ‘pot with nectar of immortality’ placed on the ribbed disc of the spire, was a prominent feature, symbolic of freedom from the cycle of life and death. 

The architectural refinement from plain roofed mandapas to elaborately ornated ones, two-looped toranas to atleast five-looped ones (Javari temple has an intricate twenty four looped one), flat walls to balconied windows with canopy, simple shikhara to complex multi-tiered ones, single shrine to five – shrined ones, and panch-ratha sanctums to sapta-ratha ones, make these temples distinctive. 

Art historian and museologist Dr.Grace Morley says that “the art of carving, modelling and casting has been refined as a tradition in India for over 4000 years”. This is amply proven by the Khajuraho sculptures with their sensual appeal and highly decorative embellishments.
They can be classified into seven main categories– the cult image in the main shrine, the pantheon of gods and goddesses, celestial maidens, secular themes of everyday life, erotic couples, real and mythical animals and floral and geometric patterns.

The sculptures are not limited to wall niches alone, but cover the wall surfaces horizontally and vertically. Angular modelling, anatomical details, facial expressions picking up every nuance of thought and emotion, breathe life into the figures. The high degree of ornamentation complement the decorative integral pattern. 

Says Dr Shashibala, Research Professor at the International Academy of Indian Culture, New Delhi, “Divine images enshrine devotion and dedication, and are not mere objects of skillful creative celebration”. The Khajuraho sculptor was obviously indoctrined in the discipline of the ancient texts such as Vastu Shilpa Shastra on sculpture, Agamashastra on religious iconometry; had a deep understanding of related art forms of music,dance,literature and a spiritual vision, to achieve works that tap an element of transcendence that captivates and inspires. 

There is not a single ‘rasa’ from the ‘navrasa’ theory, which has not been incorporated in the multitude of images on the temples. The entire religious imagery is based on symbolism. The depiction of the navgrahas and the carving of panchagni (five headed fire god), is one of its kind in the whole of India. 

Love etched in stone

Shobita Punja, author of Divine Ecstasy – the story of Khajuraho refers to Khajuraho as “India’s gift of love to the world”. The erotic art constitutes a small percentage of its sculpture, but draws forth global tourists. The Lakshman temple has the largest number of these erotic sculptures, which Alexander Cunningham observes,”are the most graphic representations of sexual scenes in world art”. Interestingly, Hermann Goetz identifies an elixir preparation scene in the orgiastic panels carved there. 

The myriad moods of love are captured and frozen for eternity. Couples embrace with ardour and abandon. The language of puns, conceals a deeper hidden symbolism under the apparent erotic art. The sculptor introduces a sense of humour in creative ways, such as a woman pulling her lover’s beard while accepting his overtures, an elephant distracted by a couple’s amorous behaviour, inadvertently tripping, and a monkey being warded off indulgently by a romancing couple. 

Khajuraho is also a fine example of the co- existence and interaction of the Jain artistic tradition with that of Hinduism. It showcases Indian ideology and mythology, medieval socio- cultural environment, and religious attitudes of the people with visual lyricism. It illustrates the richness of Indian symbolism and sentiment by its complex sculptural idiom. The temples exemplify the technical and stylistic accomplishment of an era, resulting in enchantment and ecstasy. George Michell, eminent scholar and world authority on South Asian architecture states that “the art of Hinduism constitutes one of the world’s greatest traditions”, and Khajuraho bears testimony to this. It is sheer poetry in stone. 

Anuradha Pittie

Anuradha Pittie is a freelance interior designer, floral decorator and creative arts enthusiast.