About Khajuraho Temples

Khajuraho Temples: Beyond just Erotic Sculptures

Khajuraho group of Monuments is a set of Hindu and Jain temples located in Madhya Pradesh, India. Notably, they are one among the many UNESCO accredited World Heritage Sites. They were recognized for their fine artistry in architecture and a blend of perfect sculptures, in line with the heritage and culture of India.

Image of Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, the largest Shivan temple in Khajuraho group of temples.
Kandareya Mahadev temple of Khajuraho Image Credit: Swantour

India is a land of architectural marvels. Starting from the World Wonder Taj Mahal to the Tanjore temple, the intricacies in design and the materials used, the command over craftsmanship and the technicalities involved in building such massive structures have left all the historians and research experts in awe.

In fact, most of what we see today is the remains after invasions and other environmental damage. Let us unravel the history of the series of temples of Khajuraho.

Who built the temple?

The Chandella dynasty that ruled central India between the 10th and 12th centuries (900 CE – 1130 CE) built the structures. This ancient city was the capital of their kingdom, Bundelkhand. Moreover, they were believers and followers of Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Jainism. That is why almost a third of total construction was contributed to each of the communities.

The Legends behind Khajuraho Temples

Stories behind the name “Khajuraho”

Khajuraho – is derived from the sanskrit word Khajuravaahaka, that is, “date palm carrier”, “one bearing date palm”. Based on local legends, it may be assumed that the temples were built with two golden date-palm trees as their gates. It is not found today. Another theory says that King Chandravarman, who built the temple, planted palm trees on all four sides of the temple. It is also believed that the word alternatively means, “Scorpion bearer”, another name of Lord Shiva, a Hindu deity. Thus, these temples were identified by their relationship with palm trees, according to either of the speculations.

Stories behind constructing the temples

Would you be surprised if I said that descendants of the moon god were responsible for raising this temple? Maybe not, because the moon is always associated with romance and love.

According to mythological stories, a beautiful woman named Hemvati was bathing in the pool of Benaras. Swayed by her beauty, the moon god fell for her and she eventually gave birth to a baby boy. He was named “Chandravarma” and was born before their wedding. So, fearing negligence and ill-name from society, she cursed the Moon god. But he prophesied that the child would grow up to become a king.

That did happen and he founded the Chandella dynasty. Then, after Hemvati, his mother, passed away, she appeared in his dreams. She asked him to build a temple that portrays human love, passion and life. That is when he decided to build the Khajuraho Temples.

The temple is present within the Vindhya mountain range. According to a legend, the Hindu deity Shiva and others enjoy visiting the hill formation in Kalinjar, the center of which is Khajuraho, which has hills and rivers. Therefore, temples are built in the place where the Gods love to come, stay or pray.

Theories about the sculptures

An image of the wall of one of the temples of Khajuraho which is filled completely with rich scultptures and cults.
Temple Wall Image Credit: Lakshminath

The temple walls display a variety of motifs of sculptures ranging from gods to animals to mythical creatures. The carvings of mithunas or couples in love and other mythical creatures that represent lust and erotic emotions, and are said to bring “good luck”. Some say that they served as a medium of sex education in the past, for people who chose to observe celibacy in their lives. Others say that the mithunas are carved only outside the temple shrine, so that people would learn to leave such thoughts of love and lust outside the sanctum before entering the temple. They believe that is why such sculptures are not carved inside the temple.

The carvings are also known to reflect the four life goals of Hinduism, viz., Dharma, Kama, Artha and Moksha. Mithunas are also seen as a reflection of the union of Shiva and Shakthi – the life forces in Hinduism. The oldest of all the existing temples is the Chausath Yogini Temple. It consists of 64 empty shrines today which are believed to have had yoginis in each of them, who control the physical and mental life balance of Khajuraho, which is charged with energy.

Picture of the Chausath Yogini Temple, believed to be the oldest of all surviving temples of Khajuraho with 64 empty shrines.
Chausath Yogini Temple Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Today, a town near the temple is also named after these temples as Khajuraho. It is currently located in Chhatarpur district of the Indian state named Madhya Pradesh.

Series of Historic Events pertaining to the Temple

The first mention of this temple in the History is in 641 CE, by Xuanzang, a Chinese pilgrim who wrote about witnessing several dozens of inactive Buddhist monasteries and a dozen Hindu temples with thousands of brahmins worshipping. Then, Abu Rahyan Al Biruni in 1022 CE mentions accompanying Muhmad of Ghazni to invade Kalinjar, but was unsuccessful and agreed on a peace accord when the Hindu King offered a ransom. And then, Ibn Batuta in 1335 CE mentions visting Khajuraho temples as “Kajarra”. Thus, there were about 85 temples spread over a 20 sq km area present in the 12th century.

Khajuraho Temples with complete data

Name of the King Name of the Temple Time Period of construction
Yashovarman Lakshmana temple 939 CE
Dhanga Vishvanatha temple 999 CE
Vidyadhara Kandariya Mahadeva temple 1029 CE
Table 1: Few temples of Khajuraho

They were built in the Kalinjar region, 35 miles from the central city of Mahoba, which was also the capital of the Chandela dynasty. With many other surviving temples in Khajuraho, the above table lists some of them whose period of completion and the name of the reign of the king while its construction is clearly known. All of these temples were active with people coming to worship until the 12th century.

Central India was a region invaded by Muslim kings from the 13th century. Till the 18th century, there was a lot of destruction happening to Hindu temples. Which is why many of those in Khajuraho were also desecrated. But due to the remoteness and less accessibility of its location, at least 24% of the temples survived. They were rediscovered by local Hindus in the 1830s when they guided a British surveyor, T.S.Brut.

Of the surviving temples, six are Shiva temples, eight are Vishnu temples, one is a Ganesh Temple, one temple to the Sun God and three for Jain Teerthankaras. But the remaining three temples are ruins and not completely intact.

Construction details

Materials used

All the temples are built using sandstone with a granite foundation that is not visible. These are light-colored sand stones imported from quarries of Panna, from the east bank of the Kane River. Also, the stones are held together due to gravity! Yes, there is no mortar, they were bound with mortise and tenon joints. From what research experts say, this kind of construction requires a lot of precision.

Architecture style

The art and architecture of Hindu temples is defined in Shilpa Shastra. According to this, there are three main types of construction of a temple: Nagara or Northern atyle, Dravida or Southern style and Vesara or mixed style. Out of these, the Khajuraho group of Hindu temples fall in the Nagara architectural style, which consists of an Ardhamandapa / entrance porch leading to the main hall or Maha Mandapa, which is followed by Antarala, a narrow ante-chamber through which you reach the Garbagraha/sanctum. While the Jain temples are constructed as Teerthankaras.

Sculptures and Carvings

The sculptures found in this architecture may be broadly classified into five types, as follows:

  1. Cult images
  2. Parivara, Parsva and Avarana devatas – Guardian deities
  3. Apasaras/Sapna Sundaris and Surasundaris (Celestial maidens)
  4. Secular sculptures (people doing dance, farming, pottery, makeup etc)
  5. Mythical creatures (Vyalas, Sardula and other animals)

There are 646 sculptures in total on the exterior, of which only 10% carry an erotic theme. And there are about 226 sculptures in the interior. While the majority of figures are under one metre tall, the Hindu deities like Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha, their guards, and Mithunas are all found in the sculptures. The fine artistry can be a visual treat when one sees the walls of these time-tested temples adorned with fine tantric carvings. Some of these sinuous carvings depict the intricate details of hair strands, finger nails and whatnot.

Importance and Significance of these Sculptures

Chandelas were known for their keen interest in art and architecture. But nothing stopped them from pursuing different faiths too. From what the archeologists believe, these three sets of temples were all under construction and in use simultaneously in the late 10th century. Out of the surviving temples, 18 Hindu temples and 4 Jain temples are present. The Hindu temples have Shiva, Devi and Vishnu deities, constituting the Shaivism and Vaishnavism schools respectively. Most importantly, the proximity of these temples simply indicates the tolerance and acceptance they had towards other religions.

In 1986, UNESCO categorised the temples into three groups as follows:

Eastern Group

  • Vamana
  • Javari
  • Brahma
  • Ghantai
  • Adinath
  • Parsvanath
  • Shantinath

Southern Group

  • Duladeo
  • Chaturbui

Western Group

  • Chaushath Yogini
  • Lalguan Maahadeva
  • Matangesvara
  • Varaha
  • Lakshmana
  • Kandariya Mahadev
  • Devi Jagdamba
  • Mahadeva
  • Chitragupta
  • Vishvanath
Carvings on Khajuraho temple wall that depicts common human activites.
Other carvings on the wall Image Credit: Lakshmisharath
Erotic sculpture of mithunas on Khajuraho temple wall.
Mithunas Image Credit: Lakshmisharath

The ornate carvings directly represent various human occupations, like farming, pottery, playing musical instruments, warriors practicing, teachers teaching and so on. They also depict human activities like applying makeup. Others are human life activities – farmers, women dressing up, applying make-up, passion for love.

Being a combination of everything in human life, the monumental sculptures consist of only 10% of erotic-themed carvings and illustrations. Out of these existing temples, the largest Shiva temple is Khandarya Mahadeva temple, spread across 6500 square feet, while its Shikara (Spire) rises to 116 feet and the largest Vaishnava temple is Chaturbuja and Ramachandra.

A picture of apsaras in different moods showcasing different human emotions on the walls of Khajuraho temple.
Human emotions Image Credit: Lakshmisharath

Also, there are nymphs who display human emotions and activities like painting, holding a parrot, cuddling a baby, scratching their back or undressing. But these are also found in Hoysala temples. Interestingly, some of the specific instructions in Kamasutra, an ancient Hindu book on love, are found to be drawn by sculptors in Khajuraho.

Why should anyone visit the temple?

Most people today tend to claim themselves as modern and broad-minded people. But the reality is, our ancestors might have been more modern than we are today. Some striking similarities in the construction of these temples and the Great Pyramid of Giza itself are an example to raise this doubt. When we are still talking about sex education becoming legal and being added to the curriculum, this part of human life of “love making” was considered to be sacred, important and was treated very much like any other part of human emotion/activity. Unlike other temples, these temples tell a different story altogether.

Purpose of building it

This is evident from the sculptures of these temples and the Kamasutra book that was written about this facet of human life. Creation is considered godly. Only God can be the creator of any living thing. But humans are given the power to do that by this process. That is what tantra-ism believes; a man can be one with God through physical and emotional union with women. Hence, this was considered sacred and was considered essential for a balanced human life. Therefore, it served as an education gallery for men in those days who were sent to “Gurukul”, the ancient Indian residential education system. The students are brought to this temple to look around and learn about all aspects of life ahead before they step into “Grihasthanam” or “Family life”.

Matangesvara Temple of Khajuraho is visited by people.
Matangesvara Temple in Khajuraho Image Credit: Swantour

In order to understand modernism in thought, the richness of the culture, the value of heritage, one must visit this temple. Even if you are not a god-fearing person, these captive carvings and intricate sculptures are a perfect and unique combination to treat any spectator. One has to visit this place, to just have a close look at the stories conveyed by the walls and the beauty of the architecture.

How to visit the temple?

There are several tourist agencies providing this service. If you plan your visit in February, there is a Khajuraho Dance Festival held at the same time every year, which is performed on the backdrop of Vishvanath temple. This is similar to any other Indian festival held every year. Whereas, in this event, you will get a chance to visualize the aesthetics of Indian culture in one place.

The nearest transport facilities include, “Khajuraho Airport”, “Khajuraho Railway Station” and “Khajuraho Bus stand”. You can choose to fly there and then it’s only a few minutes’ drive from the airport to the temples. The bus stand is 1Km away from the temples and there are bus facilities running from other Indian states. However, if you choose to commute by train, there are numerous trains connecting Khajuraho and other Indian cities. You can visit the government website of the state of Madhya Pradesh to check out more details.

Map showing the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh with Khajuraho marked.
Map showing the location of Khajuraho Image Credit: Khajuraho-India

Pick your date, plan your trip but never miss, delighting your eyes with this masterpiece of art and architecture that is throbbing with life, love, lust, passion and more.

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