This pretty little village in the state of Madhya Pradesh has over twenty temples belonging to the tenth to eleventh centuries. A number of historical stone inscriptions found at Khajuraho proclaim that these magnificent temples were built by the Chandella rulers, a branch of the Rajput clan that claimed its lineage from the Moon. The site, overgrown by jungle and apparently abandoned, was rediscovered in 1838 by a young British officer, Captain T. S. Burt of the Royal Bengal Engineers. From that time on Khajuraho has attracted enormous attention since the temples represent the culmination and exalted reaches of the central Indian style of temple architecture and are adorned with candidly sensuous and erotic sculptures. As Captain Burt records in 1839:
I found in the ruins of Khajuraho seven large Diwallas, or Hindoo temples, most beautifully and exquisitely carved as to workmanship, but the sculptor had at times allowed his subject to grow rather warmer than there was any absolute necessity for his doing; indeed, some of the sculptures here were extremely indecent and offensive...
There are twenty temples at Khajuraho and each of them is distinct in plan and design, yet they all share several common features that constitute the personality of this style of central Indian architecture. The temples are all built on high platforms several meters off the ground. The structures comprise an entrance porch, hall, or mandap, and the sanctum or garbha griha. The roofs of these various sections of the building have a decisive shape: the porch and hall have pyramidal roofs made up of several horizontal layers, while the roof over the sanctum is a conical tower, a colossal pile of stone (often 30 meters high) made up of an arrangement of miniature towers or shikharas. No inch of outer wall space appears to have escaped the artistic hand of the sculptor and there are bold basement mouldings, bands of figurative sculptures on the main body of the temple, while the shikhara or roof penetrates the sky with an abstract design of chaitya windows and lattice-work.
The village of Khajuraho has been divided, for purposes of convenience, into two directional areas in which the major groups of temples stand. The Western Group of temples is entirely Hindu and boast of some of the finest examples of high Chandella art. This group of temples is enclosed in a protected area on the main road beside the Shiv Sagar lake. A kilometer to the east is the Eastern Group which comprises two historic Jain temples along with other rebuilt shrines maintained by the Jain community. There is one small temple located to the south-east, near the airport, called Chaturbhuj, with a wonderful 2.7 meter image within the sanctum. To the south-west of the Western Group (along a not very congenial pathway) is the Chausat Yogini Shrine dedicated to the sixty-four yoginis or manifestations of the Mother goddess. Raised on a mammoth platform is an open courtyard surrounded by miniature shrines fro the 64 manifestations of the goddess, it is considered to be the oldest (ninth century) monument at Khajuraho.
A compound wall encircles this group of temples and near the entrance is a ticket counter. Within the enclosure there are several large and small shrines, and each can be seen individually. To the left of the entrance is a path that takes you up to the Lakshmana Temple, a grand edifice that stands, like all the other temples of the group, on a high platform. In front of it are two open pavilions or mandaps. The one furthest to the south is the Varaha Mandap with a gigantic monolithic image of a standing Varaha, the boar incarnation of Vishnu, the preserver who rescued the earth from the primeval floods. The entire body of the divine creature is carved in low relief with the figures of more than 600 or more gods and goddess of the Hindu pantheon. Besides the Varaha Mandap is a reconstructed Devi Mandap which once contained an image.
The Lakshmana Temple stands on a platform which has a charming sculptural frieze of elephants and horsemen in procession. On the southern side are a few of the more explicit erotic panels. Climbing the stairs one reaches the broad platform of the temple, meant for ritual pradakshina or circumambulation, which is noteworthy in having a boundary railing and subsidiary shrines on the four corners. Walking in a clockwise direction, keeping one's right shoulders parallel to the main temple, one can view the bands of sculptural decoration that form the most delectable section of the temple scheme. There are figures of the guardians of the directions, divine creatures, and celestial ladies. Erotic panels take a central position on the southern and northern side between the two balconies of the temple. On the western side are a few outstanding sculptures, one of a woman bathing and the other of a woman who has raised her foot for inspection. The voluptuous curvaceous form of the women, attired in skimpy clothing and bedecked with ornate jewellery, is the remarkable achievement of this school of art.
The temple faces east and a steep flight of stairs leads up to the inner sanctum placed high above ground level. There is an entrance porch, a hall of pillars, and interesting sculptural motifs on the side walls. The inner ritual passage winds around the sanctum and is dressed with bands of sculpture in imitation of the temple's external wall. The deity's alcove is further raised above floor level and contains within it dark interiors a large image of Vaikuntha Vishnu, bearing three heads representing his various incarnations.
Walking westward along the garden path one comes to the largest and most handsome monument at Khajuraho, the Kandariya Mahadev Temple. This sandstone structure (like all the other temples built entirely without the use of cement and mortar) stands almost 30 meters above ground level and is as long as it is tall. The temple is dedicated to Shiva, with a linga at the center of the garbha griha. The temple stairs lead to the platform where one may enjoy the rich sculptural decoration of female figures in a variety of poses. There are ladies playing with a ball, some engaged in writing a letter, others applying make-up, and absorbed in a multitude of other activities. On the southern and northern sides, between the balconies are the large-scale erotic panels, and in this temple they are distinctly acrobatic in nature. Below the bands of the main body of the temple are smaller, narrower friezes depicting court life, the army, processions of elephants and horses. The temple is approached by the eastern stairway which has the most beautiful ornate toran, or entrance decoration of the entire group of temples. The floral toran is carved out of a single block of stone.
The Devi Jagadambi Temple stands on the same platform as the Kandariya Mahadev Temple and is smaller and more delicately proportioned, decorated with some of the finest examples of sculpture at Khajuraho. The temple has an entrance porch, a mandap, and the sanctum or garbha griha now houses a huge image of the goddess (Devi) of the Universe (Jagadambi). Since it is on a smaller scale than the Kandariya Mahadev Temple it is possible to see each individual sculpture. The dikpalas, or guardians of the directions, are characteristically portrayed: Indra with his elephant guards the east, Yama the lord of death, protector of the south, bears a skull and rod. Within the niches on the external wall are figures of the Gods with their consorts. The southern side has a lovely depiction of Varaha, the boar incarnation of Vishnu. Similar in design and execution of fine sculpture is the Chitragupta Temple dedicated to the sun god, Surya. The well-proportioned temple stands on a high platform a short distance north of the Devi Jagadambi Temple.
Moving back in the entrance gate, to the north-eastern corner of the Western Group complex is the magnificent form of the Vishvanatha Temple, similar is plan to the Kandariya Mahadev Temple. It has, however, many unique features: the mandap for the vahana is incorporated in the plan. It is approached from the southern side and is incorporated in the plan. It is approached from the southern side and is guarded by two stone ceremonial elephants wearing ankle bells and ornamental chains.
On top of the wide platform is the small dainty Nandi Mandap with an elegant pyramidal roof. Within the open mandap is a large single stone image of Nandi, the devoted companion and mount of shiva. He stares longingly out at the temple before him, the house of his lord and master. The mandap is a lovely place in which to sit and rest a white and offers a good view of the street below, the distant Dantla hills, and the Western Group complex.
The Vishvanatha Temple has some exquisite sculptural details and within the shrine is a marble linga of Shiva. The inner passage around the sanctum and the mandap are also adorned with images of the gods and celestial ladies in characteristic poses. The mandap pillars in front of the sanctum bear the last remains of exquisitely carved bracket figures that have escaped the cruel hand of the thief and art dealer.
A short kilometer walk on ride away takes you on a meandering route past the village and the smaller shrines near the Khajur Sagar (where you will always see some interesting birds like the tall Sarus crane and egrets). The Brahma Temple is one of the smallest shrines in Khajuraho and has only a single room with a Shiv-linga in the center protected by a huge pyramidal roof. The Vamana and Javari Temples are set against a rural landscape amidst fields and cattle pastures, and are miniature versions in plan and design of the large Western Group temples. Each temple has an entrance porch, a small mandap (no inner circumambulatory passage), and the shrine.
This group of temples is enclosed within a high compound wall, and of them several Jain temples are still in worship and contain sculptures and carved doorways from older ruined temples of the area. Within the protected zone is the Parshvanatha Temple, a medium-sized building with an image of the Jain Tirthankara in the sanctum. The temple has been heavily renovated in this century. Along the outer wall are two bands of sculptures depicting various gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. There is lovely figure of woman feeding her baby, a woman putting kohl around her eye, and another putting on her ankle bells (on the northern side). While the figures depicted at this temple are full and heavy, the sculptured figures of the neighbouring Adhinatha Temple are winsome and lithe.
Returning from the Jain temples is small side road leading south to the Duladeo Temple. The temple is set amidst the fields beside the meager Khodar stream where the local buffaloes bathe. This temple, believed to have been built in the twelfth century, form the last phase of building at Khajuraho, and this is apparent from the profusely ornate wall decoration in which each figure is adorned with heavy, intricately carved jewels. The temple follows a similar plan to the other medium-sized temples of Khajuraho but has an exaggerated star-shaped ground and wall design. The projections of the star are so angular that the play of light (especially at sunset) is extremely dramatic. The inner hall has unusual proportions and very striking sculptures on the side pillars.
What's In The Neighborhood
Khajuraho has one temple that is still in worship, and this located right next to the Western Group of temples. It belongs to the Chandella period but is different from any other shrine for it lacks ornamentation so characteristic of this school. The Matangeshvara Temple has a gigantic (2.5 meters) linga which is the center of worship for the community and draws large crowds during the festival of Mahashivratri (February-March). At the festival of Mahashivratri the village of Khajuraho celebrates the divine wedding of Shiva and Parvati. The ritual enactment of the wedding is also the theme of the sculptures of the temples. The sculptures of Khajuraho also tell the story of Shiva's wedding in the erotic panels: the celestial guests who attended the marriage, the wonder and amazement of the ladies of the city who interrupted their work (feeding the baby, applying make-up, dressing up) to see the divine procession go by, and finally the consummation of the cosmic union of Shiva and Parvati.
Khajuraho has a small but very well-kept Archaeological Museum which stands near the Western Group of temples. The temple entrance ticket affords access to the museum. In the central hall is an impressive and very endearing figure of the Dancing Ganesh, the elephant-headed son of Shiva. The museum galleries have some Vishnu and Shiva masterpieces, and a few samples of the Jain and Buddhist legacy of the village.
Beyond the confines of Khajuraho are a number of interesting picnic spots like the Raneh Waterfalls (17 kilometers north-east of Khajuraho) and the Pandav Falls (32 kilometers away). An early morning jeep ride through the Panna National Park (45 kilometers from Khajuraho) is an exhilarating diversion for the nature lover, with a short break beside the Ken river, one of the most beautiful rivers in India. Other contemporary monuments of the Chandella period can be seen at the striking hill fort of Ajaygarh (80 kilometers away). Another pleasant day excursion can be made to Rajgarh palace (25 kilometers away).
How To Get There
Khajuraho now has an airport that is linked with daily services to Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, and also Bombay. There is no direct rail connection to Khajuraho and the most convenient station would be Jhansi which is linked to Delhi and other major northern cities. From Jhansi station a number of buses and taxis ply to Khajuraho and the journey takes over three hours. If you are taking the Jhansi route it is well worth your while stopping for a short break at Orchha, a deserted sixteenth century city. Here, on the banks of the lovely Betwa river, stand the painted palaces, temples, and cenotaphs of provincial kingdom.
The best time of year to visit Khajuraho is between October and March when it is cool and one can sit on the lush lawns and admire the temples. The Department of Tourism organizes a dance festival at Khajuraho in the first week of March each year at which artists from different parts of India are invited to perform to a large enthusiastic audience.
The accommodation ranges from well-managed five star hotels to friendly guest-houses and budget hotels. To enjoy the beauty and peace of Khajuraho and to see the temples at leisure it is worth staying at least two days. Bicycles can be hired, and this is an ideal way to see the temples and the countryside.
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