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India – Khajuraho’s Magnificent Temples

Although there are notable temples all over India, the city of Khajuraho offers a unique experience. The 25 temples are all built in close proximity to one another, with diverging styles and themes that give you an immediate snapshot of Indian religions and architectural styles throughout the ages.

The city itself is very different from most Indian cities, it is a small quiet town surrounded by natural beauty (Panna National Park, Ajaigarh Fort, Raneh Falls) with a small, local, well-functional airport.  Khajuraho history is a history of temple complexes and Indian heritage sites. You can take a flight from Varanasi, Delhi, Mumbai, Bhopal amongst others.

Other cities in India you may want to explore are Delhi (see our post), Mumbai (see our post), Kolkata (see our post) and Varanasi (see our post).

The man who has mounted an elephant will not fear the bark of a dog – Indian proverb

Built between 950-1050 by the Chandela dynasty (rulers between 9th and 13th centuries), the Khajuraho group of monuments in central India are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for their nagara-style architectural symbolism and their erotic sculptures.

They are said to be one of the most important specimens of Indian art. These sets of Hindu and Jain temples took around a hundred years to take shape. Originally a collection of 85 temples, the number that have survived is 25.

All temples are sun-facing, a common aesthetic found in Hindu temples, except the temple of Chaturbhuja. The deities of male and female exhibit a co-dependence of the male and female power. The temples run on the basic mandala design comprising a square and circles. The entire precinct is divided into three zones combining to form a pentagon.

The largest temple is the Kandariya Mahadev Temple, meaning “the Great God of the Cave”. It is the largest and most ornate Hindu Temple in the group.

In ancient India, temple architecture of high standard developed in almost all regions. The distinct architectural style of temple construction in different parts was a result of geographical, climatic, ethnic, racial, historical and linguistic diversities. Nagara is the style of temple architecture which became popular in Northern India and are made out of sandstone and granite.

Why did the Chandelas, who ruled over 1000 years ago build these monuments of lust? in fact, you can look at India during the 9th- 12th centuries – from North to South, and find many temples with erotic sculptures.  One theory is that a beautiful woman called Hemavathy was bathing in the dark under moonlight, when she was seduced by the moon and her son, Chandravarman grew up to establish the Chandela dynasty. He built the temples to commemorate his mother’s story.

A less creative story says that the depictions served as a form of sex education, by rekindling passions in the ascetic minds of people, who were probably influenced by Buddhism.

Khajuraho Devi Jagadambika Temple
Devi Jagadambika Temple or Jagadambika Temple

The sculptures of the Khajuraho temples are grouped into five categories:

The first category are the cult images and they are built exactly as prescribed in the manual – the Shilpashastra. You can see some of them carved as the teerthankaras in the Jain museum.

The second category are the ones you see in the reliefs and niches and they usually represent attendants, the guardian deities, the gandharvas, the shiva ganas, the ashta dikpalas among others.

The third category are graceful nymphs which portray human emotions. You see them dancing, painting, holding a parrot, caressing a baby or scratching their backs or just undressing. These are not exclusive to Khajuraho, you can see them in several other temples.

The fourth category are scenes from day to day life. The book refers to them as ” secular sculptures.” Warriors, dancers, musicians are coupled with scenes of a royal court, a teacher and a pupil, a sculptor with his students and even funeral scenes.

The fifth category are the erotic sculptures, Mithunas mating to group sex to even scenes of unnatural sex.

Hinduism and Jainism

Khajuraho carvings

Jainism and Buddhism emerged around  500 BC, as part of the anti-Brahmanism movementof Hinduism (see our post here about history of Hinduism).

Jainism has no supernatural god and no founder since its adherents consider it an eternal religion. Historically it is associated with the ascetic philosopher Mahavira from around 550 BC who believed that liberation from the cycle of rebirth and death requires Jain devotees to abstain from violence, falsehood, theft, infidelity, and material attachment. The two major sects within the Jain tradition are the ultra-strict and naked Digambara, who believe only men can achieve enlightenment, and the Svetambara sect who wear white and don’t discriminate against women.

If you see a naked monk with a small broom of peacock feathers, he is a Digambara Jain, whereas a white-robed monk with a white wool broom is a Svetambara monk. Both brooms are to sweep away insects so they don’t get squashed. Jainism encourages fasting, yoga, meditation and other austerities. Jain monks (and nuns) renounce all possessions and avoid all violence, even against insects and bacteria on root vegetables. They have little or no possessions and to avoid attachment (to a location) are more nomadic than Buddhists, who gather in monasteries. Jains are also celibate and strict vegetarians (except no root vegetables). To attain moksha (freedom from the cycle of death  and rebirth) they strive to attain a blissful state free from karmic bondage.

Hindu Temple Architecture

The distinct architectural style of temple construction in different parts of India was a result of geographical, climatic, ethnic, racial, historical and linguistic diversities. Ancient Indian temples are classified in three broad types: the Nagara or the Northern style, the Dravida or the Southern style and the Vesara or Mixed style.

Khajuraho Nagara North Indian architecture
Example of Nagara or North Indian architecture

The Nagara style of north Indian temples are characterized by images such as Mithunas (erotic) and the river goddesses, Ganga (goddess of the river Ganges) and Yamuna (goddess of the river Yamuna) guarding the temple.

The Dravida style of temple architecture, instead of the goddess sculptures, we can see the sculptures of fierce dvarapalas (door keepers) guarding the temple. A large water reservoir or a temple tank enclosed in the complex is general in south Indian temples.

Khajuraho Dravidian South India architecture
Dravidian architecture of South India -Brihadeeswarar Temple

The most distinctive difference from north Indian styles is the use of a shorter and more pyramidal tower. The north Indian idea of multiple shikharas (peaks) rising together as a cluster was not popular in dravida style.

In south India some of the most sacred temples in which the garbhagriha (innermost sanctuary where the primary deity is located) is situated in one of the smallest towers.

The Brihadeeswarar Temple (11th century) has one tower that is 216 ft (66 m) high is a classical example of Dravidian architecture. The sikhara, a cupolic dome (25 tons), is octagonal and rests on a single block of granite, weighing 80 tons

Just as the nagara architecture has subdivisions, dravida temples also have subdivisions. These are basically five different shapes: square, rectangular, elliptic, circular and octagonal.


Mondisti’s five Khajuraho Trip Tips:

  1. A visit to Khajuraho provides a great experience into Indian art and architecture.
  2. A one to two day visit is sufficient in order to see the main temples.
  3. There are many natural sites around the city that are worth visiting.
  4. Hire a guide for a visit to the temples as you will need some background in order to get the most out of the experience.
  5. There is adequate accommodation in the city to satisfy most budgets.

L. Dipronio

Lucie is founder of Mondisti, and has a background in finance and public policy.

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