India’s Erotic Temples (Khajuraho)

Imagine the affront to the Victorian sensibilities of British officer T.S. Burt when he came upon the temples of Khajuraho in 1838. There, hidden by a thick forest, stood a cluster of nearly 1,000-year-old temples with exterior walls adorned with exquisitely detailed sculptures of human figure––some of them engaged in sexual acts seemingly ripped from the pages of the Kama Sutra.

Actually, we know how he felt because Burt, who was attached to an engineering unit and is credited with rediscovering these forgotten gems, described his find this way: “Some of the sculptures here were extremely indecent and offensive, which I was at first much surprised to find in temples that are professed to be erected for good purposes, and on account of religion.”

Subsequently reclaimed from the jungle and restored, the Khajuraho temples today are a UNESCO World Heritage site and the main reason why tourists indulge their prurient curiosity by venturing to this outpost in the Indian heartland state of Madhya Pradesh.

Khajuraho is an enclave of more than 20,000 people with a modern downtown, a more traditional village nearby and an airport connecting to several major Indian cities. I would eventually fly from Khajuraho to Varanasi, but I took the long way to get there via an all-day journey comprising a morning train from Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, to Jhansi. From there, I took a bus to Orchha, site of the fabulous ruins of the capital of the long-ago Bundella rajas. In mid-afternoon, I boarded a bus that went east to Khajuraho.

The journey rolled past farm fields punctuated by barley stacks and small, white Hindu shrines, as women in colorful saris combed over the remnants of the autumn harvest. And it motored through small, bustling villages that pulsated with activity. It was a long ride along a sometimes bumpy and narrow road, but it provided fascinating glimpses of Indian life in the hinterlands. I reached my destination after nightfall, and checked into the Radisson Hotel on the outskirts of town.

X-RATED
I visited Khajuraho in late October, when the relentless sun was powerfully warm yet not oppressive. In the morning, I met my guide, Raj, at the entrance of the western group of temples comprising the main part of the temple complex. The entrance is across the street from the center of the modern downtown.

Soon after we entered the temple grounds, a line of chanting women in colorful saris walked by. Raj said they were singing a religious folk song and were followers of Krishna, the eighth avatar, or incarnation of Vishnu, the preserver among Hinduism’s holy trinity that includes Brahma (the creator) and Shiva (the destroyer).

Some of the western group of temples are dedicated to this threesome, as well as other Hindu deities. Such piousness seems incongruent with the temple’s pornographic carvings depicting all manner of sexual liaisons ranging from couples in contorted forms of copulation to bestiality.

But only about 10 percent of the temples’ exterior artwork is X-rated. The remaining sculptures include deities and secular scenes of medieval Indian life, and the temple complex itself is steeped in mystery because nobody is certain about the meaning and intent of the artwork.

We stopped at the Lakshmana Temple, a sandstone structure built on a granite plinth. Raj said sandstone for the temples was quarried 25 kilometers away and sent by river to Khajuraho, where it was carried by elephants, horses and humans to the temple grounds. Raj explained that the walls of sculpted figures were carved along the riverbank and affixed to the temple walls in an interlocking system.

He used his red laser pointer to highlight the whimsical, quotidian and graceful nature of some of the statues, many of them featuring women––a woman applying makeup, another woman writing a letter, and still another plucking a thorn from her foot. And Raj especially liked the woman wringing water from her hair while a swan at her feet drinks the water drops. “See the body movement and facial expressions and the shape of her hair,” he said with admiration.

Next to her was an amorous couple. Raj described the action: The couple stares deeply into each other’s eyes; with permission, he’s touching her body; he wants to move fast, but the woman is moving away; but the man is clever and keeps two female musicians by his side. “The effects of music leads to the Casanova effect,” he joked.

Upon pointing out another couple engaged in an acrobatic form of sex, Raj dryly noted, “Without yoga, it is not possible.”

22 TEMPLES; 3 GROUPS
The intricately carved, mainly sandstone temples were the remarkable handiwork of the Chandela dynasty, which reached its peak around the turn of the last millennium. Khajuraho was the Chandela’s religious and cultural center, and they built 85 temples in the 10th and the 11th centuries––mostly Hindu temples, with a lesser number dedicated to Jainism. But after the dynasty waned and retreated into history, the forest took over and hid these gems for centuries.

Time and the elements took their toll, and today only 22 temples remain divided between the western and eastern groups of the complex, along with a few stragglers in the southern group.

It’s thought the Chandelas were followers of tantrism and employed sexual rituals as a means to attain spiritual enlightenment. Some people posit the erotic sculptures were meant to test the devotees who came to worship their gods, or were a way to teach the ways of the world to young boys in priestly training.

Even if we don’t know what exactly the Chandelas hoped to convey with their artwork, the figures they made unfold in a myriad of secular and spiritual scenes that create three-dimensional walls of action and fluidity.

But the sexual themes are limited to temple exteriors, and worshipers and visitors must leave their sexual desire––and their shoes––behind before they enter a temple’s inner sanctum, Raj explained.

After the tour concluded, I roamed some of the other temples in the western complex, and after a while I took a break and sat on a shady bench that looked out over the vast, well-maintained complex of light-green lawns and pathways that connect the various temples. Parakeets flitted among the branches of banyan trees, and chipmunks scampered about the property.

SHIVA SERVICE
At dusk, I set out for the western grounds to catch the nightly sound-and-light show on the temples’ history––one version in English; another in Hindi.

Along the way, a young man named Papan approached and asked if I needed a guide. He also tried real hard to get me to try the cheap internet access at the internet café he said he worked at.  I declined on both counts, but then I heard sounds coming from a nearby temple located next to the western grounds. Papan said a Hindu ceremony for Shiva was about to start, and he offered to be my interpreter for the ceremony.

I agreed, and we walked over to the temple, took off our shoes and climbed the tall, uneven stone steps. Papan rung one of the bells hanging over the entrance to the Matangeswara Temple, a sturdy, unadorned structure dedicated to Shiva and thought to be one of the oldest temples in Khajuraho.

We walked around the tight-fitting corridor between the stone wall and the elevated prayer area, and climbed the steps to the platform. Papan explained that he––and others who entered the ceremony––rang a bell to introduce themselves before entering Shiva’s house. The small sanctum was dominated by a roughly eight-foot tall, cylindrical stone lingam representing an aniconic form of Shiva.

The ceremony began when one man continuously rang the bells. Two men joined in by banging gongs in rhythmic motion, as the priest waved a lit lamp in front of the lingam. A few minutes later, the priest put down the lamp and picked up a conch shell and blew into it to accompany the bells and gongs. It was loud, yet hypnotic, and it lasted for several minutes.

Suddenly, the music stopped and people rushed to touch the lingam. The worshippers then stepped back and rhythmically sang and chanted for what seemed like 10 minutes. They rushed to touch the lingam again, and the ceremony ended. On my way out I joined the others and bent down before the seated priest, who put a red dot on my forehead.

Outside in the darkness, I put on my shoes and slipped Papan some rupees for his services. The ancient ceremony in this timeless temple imbued me with a humble sense of experiencing a scene the Chandelas themselves might’ve recognized. That is, if they could tune out the flashes of light and booming sounds coming from the tourist show next door in the western grounds, as well as ignore the nearby vendors and the ever-present touts hawking Kama Sutra books.

 

Getting there:
Khajuraho is air-linked with Delhi, Agra, and Varanasi.

Getting around:
Khajuraho is small enough–and different parts of the temple complex are close enough––to see on foot. But renting a bike is a great way to get around town and explore surrounding villages and countryside. I rented a bike and guide from Mohammad Bilal’s shop on Jain Temple Road.

Where to stay:
Radisson Jass Hotel, By Pass Road, Khajuraho; 800-395-7046 (U.S. toll-free); http://www.radisson.com/khajuraho-hotel-in/indkhaj.

Hotel Chandela, District Chhatarpur Maduha, Khajuraho; http://www.tajhotels.com/leisure/hotel%20chandela,khajuraho/default.htm.

Hotel Harmony, Jain Temple Road, Khajuraho; http://www.hotelharmonyonline.com. Clean budget hotel.

Where to eat:
Blue Sky Restaurant, Across from the western group of temples in the center of Khajuraho. Serves Indian, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, and vegetarian fare. Main dishes are under $10, and the quality is okay. But its selling point is the one-table tree house perched three stories up that offers views of the western temples.

Mediterraneo, Jain Temple Road (opposite Surya Hotel), Khajuraho. Serves decent pizza, including Indian-style with capsicum and green chili.

Raja Cafe, One Western Group of Temples, Khajuraho. Varied menu ranging from Hungarian goulash and chicken stroganoff to Indian vegetarian specialties and chicken tandoori.

What to do:
Khajuraho temples. Of course, these are the main attraction in town. Entrance fee for the western group of temples is 250 Indian rupees for foreigners, or about US$4. The other two temple groups are free. The fee for the evening sound and light show in the western group is 350 rupees for foreigners, or roughly US$6.

Panna Tiger Reserve, a wildlife center located about 15 miles from Khajuraho; http://www.pannatigerreserve.in/tourism/tourist_info.htm. Unfortunately, the tigers there have been decimated by poachers, and they’ve had to import tigers from elsewhere in India to jump start the population.

To learn more:
Tourism of India, http://www.tourism-of-india.com/khajuraho.html.

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