Khajuraho, in the state of Madhya Pradesh in India, was the cultural capital of the Chandela rulers of the tenth century and, even today, is a place that pays homage to artistic talent. There was no mechanisation involved in the labour intensive process, where artists hand sculpted slabs of stone into medieval sculptures depicting gods, demigods, nymphs, other celestial beings, humans and animals. Several thousand statues and iconographic carvings can be seen in the temples of Khajuraho.
The stone temples are known for their mature temple architecture steeped in eroticism. Of the 85 richly carved temples built more than a thousand years ago, 22 have survived the test of time. Dr Devangana Desai, a well known art historian, has commented:
“The Khajuraho temples represent a creative moment in Indian art when artistic talent combined with religious aspirations to produce a meaningful form. Aesthetically they express a superb harmony of architecture and sculpture.”
The name ‘Khajuraho’ is derived from the Sanskrit word Kharjuravahaka, where Kharjura refers to the date palm and Vahaka means the carrier. It is believed that two imposing date palm trees formed the gate to the temple complex. Kharjur also refers to scorpion in the local language of Bundelkhandi. Another derivation comes from the scorpions in the garland of Lord Shiva, while yet another philosophy states that it represented women who bore the scorpion shape on their thigh. However, there is no debate on the aesthetics, beauty and finesse of the sculptures of Khajuraho. The prominent temples include the Varaha Temple, Chaturbhuja Temple, Duladeo Temple, Jagadambi Temple, Kandariya Mahadev Temple and Lakshmana Temple.
The Varaha Temple is built on a plinth. It consists of an oblong pavilion and has a roof with receding tiers that resemble a pyramid. Fourteen pillars support the roof. The architectural marvel of this temple is the statue of Varaha (Fig. 1), which is the boar incarnation of Lord Vishnu. This monolithic colossal work of art has entirely been constructed in sandstone. The statue is 2.6m long and 1.7m high. It has numerous figures carved on its entire body and is dated to about 900 to 925AD.
Granite rocks have been used to build the base of the Chaturbhuja Temple to give it a solid foundation. It is the only temple at Khajuraho, which is devoid of erotic sculptures. It is also the only temple where the main deity is cross legged, and the expression of calm and bliss on its face must be seen to be believed (Fig. 2). Inside the remaining temples, the deity is standing. Another unique feature of this temple is that it faces the west. There are only two temples in Khajuraho that face in this direction. In the recesses on the walls of the temple, mythical lions have been carved (Fig. 3). These lions symbolise our desires and the message is that we can either control our desires or be controlled to them. The Chaturbhuja Temple is made of sandstone, which was not locally available. It was sourced 30km from Khajuraho from quarries using elephants, bullock carts and horses. The temple dates back to 1100AD.
The Duladeo Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and richly decorated with nymphs with elaborate ornamentation. The name is formed by a combination of the words Dula and Deo, where Dula means bridegroom and Deo means God, and the sculptures of this temple protrude out from the walls giving a four dimensional effect (Figs. 4 and 5). The Jagadambi Temple (Fig. 6) was formerly dedicated to Lord Vishnu, but is now dedicated to the Goddess Parvati. Built on a high platform, it is adorned with a large variety of detailed carvings including erotic sculptures (Fig. 7).
The next most popular temple is the Kandariya Mahadev Temple (Fig. 8), which is dedicated to Lord Shiva and contains sculptures in myriad physically intimate postures.
The Lakshmana Temple (Fig. 9) is a Lord Vishnu temple, which has carvings of camels, elephants and horses. It was built between about 930-950AD. The temple is built on a high platform and gives an insight of the grandiose enormity of those days (Fig. 10). The walls have windows in the form of balconies that have ornate balustrades (Fig. 11). The sculptures include divine figures and couples. The temple is the only surviving temple, which is enshrined by four smaller shrines around it. This is the temple which is known for its architecture and the expressions of its sculptures.