From marble rocks to magnificent forts to the spine-tingling Chambal ravines to the myriad dense wildlife sanctuaries, waterfalls and hill stations, the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh has something to suit every traveller’s taste.
But one thing that really stands out as one of the biggest attractions of this state are the enigmatic temples of Khajuraho.
With a peculiar architecture and erotic art, their unique appeal comes to life in February or March in the form of stunning dance performances with the flood lit temples providing a spectacular backdrop. Known to the world as the Khajuraho Festival of Dances, they are, for visitors and tourists, a diary full of kaleidoscopic memories to be cherished for a long time after they have returned to their homes.
It is said that a picture can speak a thousand words but one visit to Khajuraho is worth a thousand pictures.
It is a bit of a paradox that Khajuraho, which seems ages away from New Delhi by road isn’t much of a journey by air. For starters, just when you unfasten your seat belts, you have to fasten them again as the flight seems to spend time mostly in takeoff and landing. Quite a contrast from the near 12 hours road journey through the stark, if somewhat nervous Chambal ravines (once notorious for its dreaded dacoits). But then it is this bleakly beautiful remoteness that lends a special charm to Khajuraho.
For a remote offbeat locale, the road from the airport, like most others in Khajuraho, is well maintained and tree lined, with a small market that leaves you wondering if the local population lives only on handicrafts. A bigger question, however, is where the local population actually resides! So isolated is this part of the region that one does not spot any residential areas for miles.
A rural lush green landscape with rocky outcrops and temples sprouting on all sides with a market full of handicrafts, with only a few hotels (most of them nice ones) tells you that this is just a tourist town with an incredibly small population. Just around 7000 at the last count!
If you are shocked on seeing only five taxis outside the airport as you disembark, you will find five more in exactly the next five minutes. The reality is that there are probably only five taxis in Khajuraho and the farthest distances are not more than five or six kilometers. Which makes the five wonderful vehicles return to the airport in the next five minutes.
Many a tourist bound for Khajuraho has blundered in the notion that there is a small cluster of temples together in one location. However, temples are all around Khajuraho and they are all strikingly similar in their outward appearance. It is impossible to distinguish one from the other. And they are all well maintained with lush green and wide open gardens around them.
As the sun sets against the silhouette of the shockingly beautiful temples, a warm glow embraces a small town with still and languid lakes. It is only a gentle breeze that reminds you that you are still awake.
The Chandela dynasty, a warrior Rajput clan, may have been felled by the Great Mughals after five stubborn centuries, but the Khajuraho temples will now be over a thousand years old. One look at the temples makes it easy to appreciate another startling reality. That it took roughly hundred and fifty years to build them – from 950 to 1100 AD. As always, destruction being so much easier than creation, only 22 of the original 85 temples have survived.
Within this Indo-Aryan architectural brilliance, gods and goddesses, warriors and musicians bring a thousand years of history and mythology to the forefront. But the highlight is the predominant theme of women and erotica engraved on sandstone that strike poses to stake a brazen claim to a unique natural beauty.
As the legend goes, Hemvati, the beautiful daughter of a Brahmin priest was seduced while bathing in a forest pool. The love child was named Chandravarman. Unable to face the ravages of society, Hemvati brought up the boy in the forests. Chandravarman went on to become the founder of the Chandela dynasty. As a ruler, one night in his dream, his mother visited him and implored him to build temples that would reveal human passions. This, it was expected, would reveal the emptiness of human desires. As history is stoically silent about the genesis of the temples, this legend is now advanced as the only logical explanation for all the sexual motifs in the temples.
The main temples of Khajuraho are called the Western Group of Temples and include in clockwise order, the following: Lakshmi & Varaha: These are in fact two small shrines with a beautifully carved boar incarnation of Vishnu (the God of Life).
Lakshmana: One of the oldest temples of the western group and also one of the finest and perhaps also one of the best preserved. It is a rather big temple with four other shrines. The general norm is three bands of sculpture but this temple for some reason, has two. Battles, hunting and women are the salient themes. A must visit temple of Khajuraho.
Kandariya Mahadeo: This one is the largest, going up to 31 metres in height. The sanctum sanctorum enshrines a lingum (fallus), replete with the typical Khajuraho carvings. One of the finest temples to study the art of the period, with over 800 statues.
Mahadeva: In ruins, small and quite unnoticeable, but this temple has one of the most remarkable sculptures of Khajuraho- A ‘sardula’ figure caressing a lion.
Devi Jagadamba: Considered by many to be one of the most erotic temples of Khajuraho, it houses Khajuraho’s most talked about image, the ‘mithuna,’ sensuously carved figures. Whether this temple is dedicated to Vishnu, Parvati or Kali has remained a matter of much debate.
Chitragupta: This one is dedicated to Surya, the sun god. Though it is not in the most desirable condition in terms of restoration and maintenance, it has a fascinating story to tell in the fine sculptures.
Parvati: Why it is called Parvati (Lord Shiva’s wife) is not clear, since this temple was originally dedicated to Lord Vishnu and then to Ganga (the holy river). For tourists with limited time, this temple generally goes unnoticed.
Vishvanath Temple & Nandi: Women depicted in this temple draw the most attention. From traditional images of women fondling babies and writing letters, they are seen also in the most provocative of images. With a shrine of Shiva that finds expression as the bull Nandi, it is quite a complete temple. This temple is truly impressive and also commonly photographed.
Matangesvara Temple: The notable features of this temple are that it is commonly used even today and sports a lingum (fallus) that is nearly three metres high. This temple is quite simple with very little of the characteristic sculpture of Khajuraho.
Chaunsat Yogini: This is the earliest surviving shrine of the Group dated 900 A D and the only granite temple. This temple is dedicated to Kali. The other Kali temple is the Devi Jagdambe Temple. The name ‘Chaunsat’ seems to have come about by way of the original 64 cells for figures of the 64 `yoginis’ (who attended the goddess Kali). The 65th cell was for Kali herself.
The Eastern Group of temples is near the old village of Khajuraho and include Jain temples in an enclosure: Parsvanath: This temple is the largest of the Jain temples of Khajuraho and also considered one of the finest. It was originally dedicated to Adinath and later to Parsvanath (Jain Gurus). Without too many sexual motifs, it is a beautiful example of sensitive art with images of a woman taking a thorn out of a foot or applying make-up.
Near this temple is the Adinath Temple with fine carvings. Although a Jain temple, it is quite similar to the Hindu temples of Khajuraho.
Shanti Nath: This temple is a youthful cousin of its neighbors. Though it is very much like the older Khajuraho temples, it is just about a century old. It has a four and a half metre statue of Adinath. Naked groups of Digambara Jains are often seen here.
Ghantai: Fine columns and chains and bells, with the figure of a Jain goddess on a garuda (vehicle), is what this temple shows through its ruins.
Javari: This one is a pocket edition of excellent Khajuraho architecture dating around 1000 AD.
Vamana: Named after the dwarf incarnation of Vishnu, it is fairly secluded with the Khajuraho maidens that decorate it.
Brahma & Hanuman: This temple is really dedicated to Vishnu and is among the oldest ones. It is mostly of granite and sandstone. Nearby is a Hanuman (the Monkey God) temple reputed to have the earliest inscription dating 922 AD on a 2.5 m statue.
The Southern Group of temples include only two: Duladeo: Though it is a beautiful erotic image of Khajuraho that this one represents, it is still a very new temple which seems to have been built after the creativity of Khajuraho was on its way to a new era and well down its peak. It has more wooden sculpture that takes away its authenticity somewhat.
Chaturbhuja: Pretty far from the village, this unremarkable temple has a three metre high statue of Vishnu.
If erotica can turn into sublime, it is at Khajuraho.