Known for the profusion of sculptural embellishments on both exterior and interior walls, Khajuraho's temples are also recognizable for the exaggerated vertical sweep in the majority of the temples, with a series of shikharas (spires) that grow successively higher. Serving as both metaphoric and literal "stairways to heaven," these shikharas are believed to be a visual echo of the soaring Himalayan mountains, abode of Lord Shiva. Most of the sculpted temples are elevated on large plinths (often also shared by four smaller corner shrines), and follow the same five-part design. After admiring the raised entrance area, you will enter a colonnaded hall that leads to a smaller vestibule and then an inner courtyard, around which is an enclosed sanctum. You can circumnavigate the sanctum (move around the temple in a clockwise direction, in the manner of the ritual pradakshina, with your right shoulder nearest the temple building) to view the beautifully rendered friezes of gods, nymphs, animals, and energetically twisting bodies locked together in acts of hot-blooded passion.
Originally spread across a large open area, unprotected by walls, the temples -- most of them built from sandstone lugged on bullock carts from the banks of the River Ken 30km (19 miles) away -- are today roughly divided into three sections according to geographic location: the Western, Eastern, and Southern groups. The most spectacular -- and those most obviously dripping with erotic sculpture -- are within the Western Group. The Eastern Group is located near the old village, and the Southern Group, which is the most missable, lies south of this. As none of the temples outside the Western Group are likely to evoke quite the same delighted reaction, see these first if you're pushed for time or tired; they're also conveniently located near the majority of hotels. Try to enter as soon as they open (sunrise), not only for the quality of light but to avoid the busloads of tourists who will almost certainly detract from the experience.
You can cover the Western Group in 2 hours. The baritone voice of Amitabh Bachchan, arguably India's most popular screen icon, narrates the fascinating history of Khajuraho for the 50-minute sound-and-light show held here each night at 6:30pm (1 hr. later in summer). Try to time your visit to the Eastern Group for about 3 or 4pm, so you can enjoy the sunset while you return either to the Western Group or to the imminently more peaceful Chaturbhuj Temple in the Southern Group.
Tip: Remember when setting out to explore the temples that you need to wear shoes that you can easily slip on and off before and after you enter a temple building -- even if it is no longer in use.
As you make your way around the complex in a clockwise direction, the first important structure you'll encounter is Lakshmana Temple ★★★, one of the three largest in Khajuraho. Built in commemoration of military victory and temporal power, it is thought to be one of the earliest Chandela temples, completed around A.D. 954, yet relatively intact. The structure is as high as it is long, and its raised platform is, like the entire temple, heavily decorated with a variety of sculptures that allude to the pleasures, pastimes, lifestyle, desires, and conquests of the Chandela dynasty. Here you will witness an astonishing diversity of scenes: horse-mounted hunters pursuing their prey, musicians providing lively entertainment for the court, couples drunk on love and liquor, female attendants fanning their king, elephants engaged in playful battle, soldiers on the march, and, of course, amorous couples keeping themselves occupied in the most literal of pleasures. Higher up, above bands of images of Shiva and Vishnu, are the voluptuous depictions of women engaged in worldly activity while draped in little more than jewelry and gossamer-like garments. Inside the temple, covered with more depictions of gorgeous women and deities in their various avatars and incarnations, light pours in through high balconies on each side of the structure, and shadows are cast seductively over the imaginatively carved walls. The main shrine was built to house the three-headed image of Vishnu-Vaikuntha, which features one human head and the head of two of Vishnu's avatars (incarnations), a lion and a boar.
Opposite the temple are two smaller structures, Devi Mandap and Varaha Mandap. The latter is an open sandstone pavilion on a high platform with 14 pillars supporting a high pyramidal roof with a flat ceiling carved with lovely lotus designs. A large stone sculpture of Varaha, the incarnation of Vishnu as the boar, dominates the space. Varaha's polished monolithic body is carved with hundreds of tiny Brahmanical gods and goddesses.
At the northeastern end of the Western Group complex, a number of magnificent temples are found in proximity to one another. Thought to have been built between A.D. 1017 and 1029, elegantly proportioned Kandariya Mahadev Temple is considered the finest temple in Khajuraho, with 872 statues adorning the interior and exterior. Within niches around the temple are images of Ganesh and the seven mother goddesses or Sapta Matrikas. Again, among the sculptures of Shiva and the other deities is a profusion of female figures engaged in daily activities made lovely by the sheer exuberance of the sculptural technique: A woman stretches, another plays with a ball, another admires her reflection in a mirror. You won't have to search too hard to find fascinating erotic panels; kissing, caressing couples are depicted with their bodies entwined in blissful union, while others, sometimes in groups of three or four, engage in more lascivious activities. To enter the temple building, you pass through the beautiful entrance toran; sculpted from a single piece of stone, this is a floral garland that stems from the mouths of makaras, ever-watchful mythical crocodiles, and is carried across the doorway by flying nymphs. Within the temple, walls are covered with exquisite carvings: Don't forget to look upward to appreciate the sculpted flower and leaf motifs of the ceilings. There's a Shiva lingam deep within the garbha griha, or "womb chamber"; devotees today place flowers on and around the lingam.
Next to Kandariya Mahadev Temple is small Mahadev Shrine, which features a sculpted figure of what is thought to be the emblem of the Chandela dynasty, a raging lion fighting with a kneeling figure. Alongside it is Devi Jagadambi Temple -- note the graceful woman who stands half naked as she interrupts her bath, possibly to catch a glimpse of Shiva's wedding procession. The southern wall includes a panel with a woman climbing up her lover's stout, standing body so that she can kiss him passionately. Although originally dedicated to Vishnu, the temple now houses a large image of Devi Jagadambi, the goddess of the universe, also known as Kali, one of the avatars of Shiva's divine consort. In both this and nearby Chitragupta Temple, images of Parvati and Shiva in the throes of amorous passion are symbolic of the "cosmic union that makes the world go round." Chitragupta, which was poorly renovated by the Maharaja of Chattarpur, is dedicated to Surya, the sun god; the relief carving around the entrance is the temple's highlight. Within the temple is the figure of Surya riding his sun chariot across the eternal sky.
Back near the entrance of the complex stands the Temple of Vishvanatha, built in A.D. 1002 by King Dhanga, and notable for three female figures that decorate the building. One maiden plays the flute, her back sensuously exposed to the viewer, another cradles a baby, and the third has a parrot seated on her wrist. Opposite the main entrance is Nandi Pavilion (or mandap), in which one of the largest figures of Shiva's companion, Nandi the bull, can be found, sculpted from a single piece of stone.
Outside the walls of the Western Group complex, but right alongside the Lakshman Temple, is the still-functioning Matangeshvar Temple. It is here that the annual Maha-Shivratri Festival culminates when the Shiva-Parvati marriage ceremony is accompanied by latter-day wedding rituals, lasting through the entire night in a fantastic collaboration of myth and reality.
Planning a major upgrade and a move is the Archaeological Museum, at press time still situated across the road from the entrance to the Western Group. By the time you visit, the museum will have relocated to fancy new quarters just outside the town, adjacent to the Grand Temple View hotel. Hopefully, the modest collection of sculptures sampling various Khajuraho sites will be expanded and improved upon. The advantage of spending a few minutes here is that you get to see close-up details of carved figures that usually occur high up on the temple shikharas.
Homoeroticism in the Temple: India's Ancient Gay Rights -- The Western group of temples comprise innumerable sculpted images of heterosexual coupling, usually involving buxom women in the company of lean, lithe men no doubt captivated by the physical beauty and impossibly supple bodies of their seductresses. Amid all these scenes of "mainstream" or "straight" desire, we've come across one carving that bucks the trend: At the Jagadambi Temple, search the left-hand side exterior wall along the third band of carvings rising up towards the main sikhara; discreetly positioned among the hetero couples is a nude man apparently fondling the erect member of a second naked younger man, who -- in turn -- caresses his lover's face. Centuries ago Indians were far more progressive on matters related to homosexuality, which is why many were gratified when the high court in Delhi recently overturned a 148-year-old law (dating from the British Raj) that criminalized consensual sex between homosexuals. In a landmark judgment delivered in July 2009, the high court declared the statute to be "the antithesis of the right to equality," and ordered it to be repealed. No doubt the discreetly placed couple in Jagadambi would, were they mortal, be much relieved.
The Eastern Group comprises both Hindu and Jain temples. The entrance to the Jain Shantinath Temple is guarded by a pair of mythical lions; inside, you are confronted by esoteric charts detailing some of the finer points of Jain philosophy. Photographs of important sculptures and Jain architecture line some of the walls, while the individual shrine entrances are carved with amorous, nonerotic couples and other figures. The main shrine contains a large sculpted image of a naked saint. Throughout the temple, devotees place grains of rice and nuts as tributes at the feet of the various saints.
Parsvanatha Temple dates from the middle of the 10th century A.D. and is the finest and best preserved of Khajuraho's old Jain temples. Since Jainism promotes an ascetic doctrine, there are no erotic images here, but the sculptural decoration is rich nonetheless. In a large panel at the right side of the entrance are images of meditating and naked Jain saints (tirthankaras), while the temple exterior is covered in decorative sculptures of voluptuous maidens, embracing couples, and solo male figures representing various Hindu deities. This is a strong indication that the temple -- which recalls the temples of the Western Group -- was perhaps originally Hindu. In the same complex, Adinath Temple has been modified and reconstructed with plastered masonry and even concrete.
Moving north to the Hindu temples, you will pass Ghantai Temple; built in A.D. 1148, it is named for the pretty sculpted bells that adorn its pillars. Passing between Javari Temple and the granite and sandstone "Brahma" Temple (more likely to be dedicated to Shiva given the presence of a lingam), you come to the northernmost of the Eastern Group temples, the Hindu Vamana Temple, built between A.D. 1050 and 1075. Vamana is the short, plump, dwarf incarnation of Vishnu. The entrance to the inner sanctum of this temple is decorated with small erotic relief panels; within the sanctum you will see Vishnu in many forms, including the Buddha, believed to be one of his incarnations.
One of the last temples to be built, Duladeo Temple dates from the 12th century A.D. but has been subjected to later restoration. Standing on the banks of Khuddar Stream, facing east, the temple is dedicated to Shiva. Elaborately crowned and ornamented apsaras, flying vidyadharas, crocodile-mounted ashtavasu figures, and sculptures of over-ornamented and stereotypically endowed characters in relatively shallow relief decorate the interior. As at Parshvanath Temple, the walls of Duladeo feature a narrow band of sculptures that depict the celestial garland carriers and musicians in attendance at the wedding of Shiva and Parvati.
The unexceptional Chaturbhuj Temple, 3km (2 miles) south of Duladeo, sees very little traffic but has a remarkable sculpture of Vishnu and is a peaceful place at the best of times, not least at sunset. Nearby excavations continue to unearth new temple complexes, as Khajuraho keeps revealing more hidden gems.
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