A Timeless Heritage
Khajuraho temples, now only twenty-four of the original eighty-five surviving, are great shrines of love. Devastating winds, torrential rains, charring summers, rocking lands, rapacious hands of man, nature's cruelties and heavy booted feet of time spanning them inch by inch and layer to layer, deprived them much of their vigor - lips of their smiles, eyes of their glow, bodily curves of their passionate yearnings and gestures, and figures of their wholesome impact, but despite they are still amongst the finest works of art that man's creative genius might claim to have ever created on the earth. Whatsoever human imagination conceives, it will fall short of the magnificence that these stone structures breathe. These temples, clustering in three groups - Western, Eastern and Southern, are situated, about 172 kilometers east of Jhansi, at village Khajuraho in Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh. Built by Chandela rulers from the ninth to the twelfth century, these temples abound in timeless quality, earning for them the status of world heritage monuments. Khajuraho is now for many decades world's one of the most visited monumental sites.
Khajuraho temples, constructed with spiral superstructures, adhere to northern Indian shikhara temple style and often to a Panchayatana plan or layout. A few of these temples are dedicated to Jain pantheon while the rest to Brahmanical - to God's Trio, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, and various Devi forms. A Panchayatana temple had four subordinate shrines on four corners and the main shrine in the center of the podium, which comprises their base.
The Towering Shikhara
With a graded rise secondary shikharas (spires) cluster to create appropriate base for the main shikhara over the sanctum. Kandariya Mahadeva, one of the most accomplished temples of the Western group, comprises eighty-four shikharas, the main being 116 feet from the ground level. These shikharas - subordinate and main, attribute to the Khajuraho temples their unique splendor and special character. With a graded rise of these shikharas from over the ardhamandapa, porch, to mandapa, assembly hall, mahamandapa, principal assembly hall, antarala, vestibule, and garbhagraha, sanctum sanctorum, Khajuraho temples attain the form and glory of gradually rising Himalayan peaks.
An Unbroken Continuity of Love and Life
Mother and Child
Not ashlars or stone blocks, but neatly carved and emotionally charged handsome men, charming women, gods, apsaras, kinnaras, gandharvas, vidyadharas, yakshas, yakshis, ganas, dikpals, nagakanyas, shardulas and other mythical and celestial beings, engaged in singing, dancing, playing on musical instruments, embracing, kissing, or making love, carry these temples to their shikhara heights. Here stone, endowed with exceptional plasticity, melts into a wondrous world of emotions and passions, yielding forms and figures and rhythm and song, and there are now sensuous lovers, exalted dancers, enthused singers, maidens engaged in shringara, mothers caressing kids, and many more who breathe life into the stone and now there is all of man and all of nature except the lifelessness which the stone symbolizes, or a single piece of stone, which has the face of stone. This unique transformation has made each stone sing, dance, blow trumpets, yearn in love, doze in slumber, eject from drowsiness, languish in passion, and burst with youthfulness, and now the stone not only has a soul within but also pours it out. It reveals dreams and realities of man and music of divines; and, thus, each temple becomes the festival of love and life representing their unbroken continuity.
Pleasure, Not Pangs Define Khajuraho Concept of Love
From the Devi Jagadamba Temple, Khajuraho
(Photograph by Raymond Burnier)
Whether an exterior or interior, not an inch of temple space is barren, without a couple populating it and celebrating love and life in all their shades and colors - mundane and transcendental, and hardly ever allowing any of them - love or life, to deprive a lip of its smiles or a face of its glow. They toil but it is all love's labor and it is never lost. Pangs of separation are as much a theme of love as is union, but Khajuraho temples do not know separation, nor they know old age, decay or death. They believe in life and in all its pleasurable blessings, and vehemently reject sorrow, thinking it, perhaps, only an attitude of mind. Hence, old age, decay or death is not the theme of Khajuraho sculptors. It is a world of fascinating youthful maidens and passionate robust males, a world of languished kisses, of lips unwilling to separate, and of arms interlocking into unlocking knots, - a world where they meet and love and discover meaning of life. They have amongst thousands of their men and women just a single figure of old man and a lone disabled, and he too engaged in coition.
Yonder, a Wondrous World
Penning a Love Letter
One, when around these temples, would only think agape how fresh a thousand year ago might have been that smile, glow in that eye, composure on that face, heat of passion in that figure, and contours of that neatly modeled breast. Here stone is more sensuous, more tempting than actual living flesh. These creatures of stone pulsate more with life vigor than life itself does. It sometimes surprises why the damsel over there, writing the letter with her head bowed, does not walk over to the viewer and hand him her letter to post, when she is so keen to send it to her lover;
Courtesan Wearing Anklets
and why that dancer, who has been putting ghunghroos, bells, on her feet for so long, is not beginning dancing, though her glowing face tells that dance alone is her life.
Lady Plucking Out Thorn from Her Feet
And, look at that Shardula (composite dragon). The dance has not yet begun, but it twists to its notes and rhythm.
That jealous monkey is rightly punished, as it was none of its business to poke a nose into others' affairs. One would hardly forgive that cruel thorn piercing the foot of that comely maid. The wicked thorn would not now come out, even if the young damsel keeps on pulling it out for many more centuries.
It is a wondrous world with multi-dimensions of life, though all leading only to its glowing aspect, which abounds in beauty, enjoyment of youth and attainment of love as its ultimate. Khajuraho temples, even as they survive, are so full of this glowing aspect of life that flesh itself discovers its inspiration in stone. In their power to move the senses and mind these temples are unique. They have that quality which takes the viewer into the realms of transcendental delight - parmananda, the ultimate bliss of Indian philosophy of life. Aesthetic totality, power to sublimate - to lead from material base to the highest plain of serenity, is the strength of these temples, and this they discover in love which is their prime theme and concern.
Love, the Enshrining Spirit
Khajuraho temples, if love was not their enshrining spirit, would lose most of their thrust, appeal and splendor. India had a long tradition of sculpted temples, in sandstone as also in marble, and almost all temple-styles have wondrous specimens of carvings, but they could hardly reach the aesthetic level of Khajuraho. Such temples often have more ornate bodies but not the soul within, nor the Khajuraho-like enshrining spirit. Khajuraho temples have both, a meaningfully sculpted body and its enshrining spirit and this spirit is love, which gives them their spiritual unity and great mysticism - the theme for the senses and as much for the soul.
The appearance of this enshrining spirit is massive in Khajuraho temples. They have devoted to love yards of space and thousands of sculptures, though hardly ever seeking to deify it. Kamadeva, the love-god, and his consort Rati figure in Khajuraho sculptures and Vaman temple of eastern group seems to be fully devoted to vasantotsava, the festival devoted to the love-god Kamadeva, but despite none of the surviving temples appears to have been dedicated to him. The Khajuraho sculptor did not believe in confining love to sanctum sanctorum, as to him, what lighted the shrine within, could as well illumine without; what defined the essence of gods, could not be adverse to man; and, if it elevated the self, its physical manifestation will not pollute the flesh too. To him, love was a passion, but an elevating one, a philosophy, but not a dry dogma - a set of rigid thought. It was rather a phenomenalism, a phenomenally realized truth of life.
Woman, A More Significant Component of Love
Teasing Her Lover's Beard
Khajuraho sculptor discovered in woman the gamut of his theme, as she was to him not only love's prime means, which was his main theme and primary concern, but also the finest of God's creation. Hence, Khajuraho art, as also its underlying thought, rotates around the woman. She has been endowed with massive energy, and far from being the coy mistress of subsequent Nayika-cult, in all matters, especially relating to love, she is seen taking initiative and lead. She is more expressive and capable of long cradling and enjoying a passion.
Disrobing Her Mate
While the male would reveal it in his superficial smiles, it remains stored in the oceanic depths of her composure. It descends deep into her entire being making her at the most languishing and dozing. As deeply set is her contentment. Her youthful vigor bursts into her entire being - elevated and temptingly molded breasts and hips, amorous eyes and fascinating lips, sensuous mudrayen, gestures, and the like. The range of her love-related activities - from writing the letter to her lover to preparing her male partner for union, is wider than that of the man.
The Apsara Applying Vermilion (A Sculpture Inspired by Khajuraho)
To her, meeting her male and uniting with him in love is more like a festival, to which she prepares herself, and sometimes even her male partner who is usually passive, though not indifferent to the whole act. Khajuraho sculptures portray her across different stages of shringara. She is bathing there beside a fountain and here dressing her hair. With the mirror held in one of her hands, she is applying a little vermilion into the forepart of her hair.
Now she shall put a payal, an anklet on her feet as also beautify them by applying mahawara, lac. Her large eyes are bewitching but their magic would be the ever most if she puts a sleek line of collyrium, lampblack, on them. She sings, dances and plays on various instruments as music stimulates sex more than do other means. When all this does not sufficiently works, she enhances her charms and excites her partner by fully or partially removing her garments.
Now exposed to his eye are her fascinating breasts and other private parts, and to add to their magic, she invitingly tickles, tosses and cajoles them. Absolute delight being the sole object in mind, she does not hesitate to titillate, or even orally tease her partner's organ, or do whatever would kindle his energies. She is, however, more dignified than her male partner who under the heat of passion does not hesitate in having intercourse even with his mare. She, on the contrary, restricts to limits prescribed in treatises.
The Divine Image
Image of Varaha from Khajuraho
Khajuraho artist's vision of the Divine, leaving aside the enshrining deity image - the iconographically symbolized spiritual element, is his vision of man. Strangely, the denizens of heaven and mythical world - gods, apsaras, kinnaras and others, who populate the sculptural world of Khajuraho temples, outnumber man, but rent by human emotions and passions, and even by animal instincts, they only represent the human model of divines. Hence, whether Uma with Mahesh, a Vishnu and Lakshmi-like looking divine couple, an apsara with a yogi, a nagakanya in attendance or a kinnari reciting a song, all are modeled with as passionate a bearing as ordinary human beings. Vishnu in his Varaha, boar incarnation has a boar's iconography and anatomy. The Khajuraho artist not only carves Varaha with boar's anatomy but also dedicates to him a temple; the deity has, however, a different set of mudrayen, gestures, more like someone in passionate love or exalted dance, such as has Shiva in his gyrating form. As love is the presiding spirit of all forms - divine or mortal, the gap between the two is itself dispelled. The Khajuraho artist has thus perceived the Divine with human frailties, and man as enshrouded in divinity.
Love in Khajuraho art and in Indian tradition of Thought
Khajuraho temples have hundreds of sculptures portraying various positions of coition and love making - a long and languished kiss; an unlocking excited embrace; the passionate male removing his partner's garment or she herself doing it; female, bitten by Kama, tossing and titillating or even the mukha-maithuna, as treatises call it; female partner riding her male by herself or assisted by others so that his organ penetrates into her with fuller pressure and to greater depths; male doing intercourse from behind, a typical posture of animals in coition; a yogi, a disabled, a bearded divine and other unusual players being engaged in coition; and, even animals being made the partners of the game, things which the modern mind would consider obscene and vulgar. Was it so also with the ancient man or with the man of early medieval era? perhaps not. The known traveler Ibn Batuta, whose travel memoirs have been a great source of Indian history, records to have visited Khajuraho in A. D. 1335. According to him, temples were always thronged by crowds of mahantas and common devotees. Obviously, people those days thought of sex and love differently.
The Vedic Brahmanism - Shaivism and Vaishnavism, favoured family life and deified instinct of sex as Kama and the female in union with him as his consort Rati and held them in great reverence. Buddhism advocated renunciation and Jainism to its extreme. The Indian art vision was not, however, subservient to metaphysical principles of any of these faiths. The art tradition perceived temple as the microminiaturised manifestation of the cosmos. Cosmos is the manifest form and the outer frame of the Formless Supreme Who pervades it without and enshrines within. In exact analogy, the outer frame of the temple is the material manifestation of the cosmos, and as enshrines the Formless Supreme within the cosmos so the deity does within the temple - sanctum sanctorum. Obviously, this outer frame should have all that the cosmos has - all its passions, emotions, instincts, frailties, or even perversions.
Hence, it is least surprising that Jain temples at Khajuraho have as much abundance of sex panels as have Brahmanical temples. The tradition may be traced back to Ajanta and in early Mithuna sculptures of Gupta art. Ajanta does not have scenes of coition, kissing or embracing, but in sensuous modeling of its female figures even this religious art is not far behind. In Brahmanical temples of Khajuraho, this aspect is more thrusting. Brahmanism divided life into four stages - artha, money, kama, sex or love, dharma, right path, and moksha, salvation and prescribed that one might neither attain right path nor salvation unless passes through the stages of artha and kama.
Vaishnavism further widened the cult. It perceived love and creation as God's prime attributes. Hence, in human love Khajuraho artists discovered reflection of God's divine act. Shaivism conceived love as enlivening energy generated by union and interaction of male and female generative factors. Shaktism seems to have inspired the Khajuraho art most. Kaul Kapalika sect, a Tantrika expansion of Shaktism, emphasized that body was most intimately linked with mind and soul and, hence, the factors that motivated the body and charged inherent energies also charged and elevated mind and soul. Kapalika tantrikas believed that sex, instinct to love, Kama, was body's integral part, or rather its enlivening strength, major source of motivation, which charged in sexual union prepared body, and thereby soul and mind, for harbouring all pleasurable sensations which finally led to parmananda, state of transcendental ecstasy, when ego disappeared and self united with and merged into universal or cosmic self, and yoni-sadhana, methodically performed sexual union using principles of Yoga, was its most appropriate instrument, and Khajuraho, perhaps, its best laboratory.
All photographs, unless otherwise mentioned,by Shri Rajbir Singh, Chief Photographer, Archaeological Survey of India.
References and Further Reading
- Daljeet, Dr. and Jain, P.C. Monuments of India (Delhi, Agra, Khajuraho, Jaipur): New Delhi, 2002.
- Desai, Devangana. Khajuraho (Monumental Legacy): New Delhi, 2003.
- Deva, Krishna. Khajuraho: New Delhi, 2002.
- Deva, Krishna. Temples of Khajuraho (2 Volumes): New Delhi, 1990.
- Poddar, Pramila. Khajuraho Temples of Love: New Delhi.