A close look at the magnificent temples located all around Khajuraho.
Manisha has been a lifelong student of India's culture, history and has travelled extensively to follow her passions. She has tried to do a fine balancing act between these interests and her day job in Information Technology.
The dusty road in that winter morning looked even more bleak than usual. That's when the rickshaw driver said something in his Bundelkhandi Hindi which we failed to understand. Unsure about what we may see, we carried on for a some time, took a few turns and to our surprise, we were actually in the ‘history’ lane!
Khajuraho, though now a world renowned tourist destination is still in nestled in a sleepy underdeveloped corner of Madhya Pradesh. If you try to locate Khajuraho on a map, it is one small dot miles away from any urban centre. Situated between the Ken and Betwa rivers, Khajuraho is a small village in Bundelkhand, the nearest big towns being Chhatarpur and Sagar.
But then, don’t you wonder how it has within it one of the grandest temples in India?
Glorious history and architecture
Back in time, around 1000-1200 years back, this region was under the control of Chandela kings. Mahoba and Kalinjar formed the major power centres along with Khajuraho, which was the capital city of Chandela kings. Yashovarman, Dhang, Vidyadhar were some of the big names in the lineage. Yashovaramn is credited for initiating the construction of the celebrated Khajuraho temples, the later king contributing and adding more temples. All these flawless illustrations of Nagara style of temple architecture at Khajuraho are supposed to have been built between 10th and 12th century.
And now we were awestruck, as our eyes entered the temple complex premise.
On the right side, stood the expansive and ornate right wall of the Vishwanath Temple. This is a perfect example of a Panchayatan type of temple where there are four smaller shrines around the main temple. Panchayatan types of temples have deities, Shiv, Vishnu, Surya, Ganpati and Shakti in each of the five temples. As the name suggests, this temple is dedicated to Shiv-Shankar and hence the other deities are in the surrounding four smaller temples.
All temples in Khajuraho are built on a very high plinth of almost ten feet. There is a legend that, Betwa river was dammed nearby and the backflow had filled this entire area forming a manmade lake. The temples on high plinth of course rose above the water and kings would sail in royal boats to visit the temples. I could imagine, marble green waters studded with almond sandstone temples, with a backdrop of gentle hills. A thousand years are nothing for our minds!
Figure 1 - [Vishwanath Temple]
Walking up the stairs to reach the base of the Vishwanath temple, noticeable are the lovely lion figures carved at the corners. To your right is the Nandi-Mandap. Nandi, Shiva ’s vehicle is mostly outside the temple facing the nature’s forces, but sometimes it is part of the temple as well where Nandi-Mandap is an extension of Sabha-Mandap. Here the Nandi has a Mandap of his own which is separated from the main temple by some distance. And once you see the Nandi, you can feel that this is one massive sculpture in its own right! A very ornate and still very masculine Nandi guards the sanctum of its owner.
As you turn your gaze to the main temple, you see a beautifully carved door frame adorned with temple miniatures at both sides of the entrance to the Ardh-Mandap, perfectly balanced galleries with outward tilt, gradually increasing heights of Shikhars on each internal Mandap, peaking with the huge Shikhar on the Garbha-Griha!
A big Shiv-Linga gleaming in the golden light of oil lamps, you can feel at peace amidst the serene surroundings. Even the usual noisy Indian tourist becoming humble and quiet, the temple gives the first realization why Khajuraho might be the greatest representation of architectural India crossed with spiritual India.
Figure 2 - [Nagara Temple Architecture]
Moving towards Laxman temple in the opposite direction, one marvels at the landscaping, the neatly done flower beds, the clean surroundings, the paved walkways. But what was the scene at the time when these structures were re-discovered?
Area around Khajuraho covering Mahoba, Kalinjar, Panna etc. which is now known as Bundelkhand was referred to as Jhijhoti in Gurjar-Pratihar times. Also referred as Jejukbhukti in some inscriptions, the name Khajuraho is supposed to be derived from presence of Khajur (date-palm) trees. Khajuraho temples, built millennium earlier, were important places of worship during the reign of Chandela kings.
Later with the changeing political situation and Islamic invasions, things deteriorated. The Khiljees ventured till Kalinjar but fortunately Khajuraho temples were saved, probably because of remoteness. Khajuraho, no more a capital, lost its importance and disappeared into oblivion. The majestic monuments left unattended, covered themselves in growing forest and mystery, both.
The temples away from the public eye became resting place for Sadhus and Sanyasis. Shrouded in mystic chants and Sal jungles, Khajuraho as a religious place though have lost its glory, was not completely forgotten. There are records of visitors gathering for festivals in those deserted and abandoned temple premises. But the real discovery happened in 1838CE when villagers took a certain Mr Burt to this secretive place and it was like a treasure trove opened. The British assessed the beauty, grandeur and importance of this heritage and started the work to get this place back on the radar. Khajuraho gained back its glory, although in a different form as a major tourist attraction.
Figure 3 - [Laxman Temple]
Going back to the Laxman temple, it is another exquisite piece of sculptural art. It is one of the first temples built by Yashovarman Chandela and is dedicated to Vishnu. Being a Panchayatan type of temple, it is again surrounded by smaller temples belonging to Shiv, Surya, Ganpati and Shakti.
The Vishnu idol here is of Vaikunth Vishnu, a 4 faced depiction. The front facing is ‘Saumya’, the left face is the Varah (bore), Narsimha to the right and then there is Bhayankar face ‘Kapil’ which is not shown. Vaikunth form of Vishnu also is supposed to be symbolically related to Chaturvyuh concept of Panchratra Samhita, one of the important Vaishnav doctrin. Panchratra is a set of religio-philosphical scriptures which form basis of ‘Bhagvat’ worship movement which merges with ‘Vaishnav’ cult in later times. Some of the books from this set, provide insight into iconography of Vishnu and temple structures.
These type of Vishnu idols are quite common in Vishnu temples of Chamba, Kashmir and Nepal in the Himalayan region. As per one inscription, the Vainkuth Vishnu idols in Khajuraho temples actually came from Chamba/Kashmir region itself.
Laxman temple again is a perfect example of Nagara style architecture forming an impressive silhouette against the setting sun. The ridged Amalak balanced on the massive Urushrung type of spires, the upturned lion on Antaral and then declining levels of Shikhar heights till the Rang-Mandap. The intricate Makar-Toran at the entrance and those ‘flower bed’ balconies jutting out, deeply carved and their reddish sandstone gleaming in slanting sunrays!
Just opposite Laxman temple is the temple of Varaha which is the third Avatar of Vishnu. This is a huge Yadnya-Varaha, a large wild boar, with ‘Yogis’ carved on the stone clad back. In the four legs, Vasuki is moving in serpentine turns, and Bhudevi, which is the Earth is between the front 2 legs, rescued from the sea.
The last stop in this poetic journey was nothing short of a climactic. Kandariya Mahadev Temple, the most celebrated, the most beautiful, the most splendid, superlatives can go on…
Figure 4 - [Kandariya Mahadev Temple]
This is a massive architectural showcase; an elaborately carved temple dedicated to Mahadeva Shiv and is arguably the best that Khajuraho has to offer. Built by the strongest Chandela king, Vidyadhar, the temple reflects the patron’s glory to the fullest.
Standing erect at the other end of the premise in company of 2 more artistic temples, namely Jagdambika and Chitragupta at the far end, this temple carves a permanent place in your memory. The layout of this temple is called ‘double-cross’ in architectural terms. This indicates four sideways protrusions to the main temple structure instead of the usual two. The side view of the temple floors you with gigantic proportions. And if you sit on the plinth at the back of the temple, the temple stands so tall in front of you, it is impossible to believe. Kandariya Mahadev standing tallest at 31 meters is sheer grandeur.
As the case with all Khajuraho temples, they are carved to the maximum, every wall, every corner and every step is carved with fine intricate details. The sculptures include Sursundari, the woman figures doing various tasks like taking a thorn out of abfoot, waiting near a tree, or looking into a mirror. Khajuraho is also famous for the erotic sculptures. Most of these erotic poses are carved on the Antaral region of the wall. All in all, the percentage of such sculptures is less than 5 % compared to huge wealth of other sculptures. In fact this type of specific branding might have enticed foreign tourists. But it has done greater harm to the overall image of this heritage site within India since it would discourage the conservative tourist of venturing out.
The insides of the temple are dark. There are sculptures inside too, but difficult to view. The Sabha-Mandap is standing on multiple pillars, the Shivlinga is gleaming in soft light, the fresh flowers offered still smiling. Touching the pillar for support, I am sure, that age-old stone conveyed something beyond words, a connection of self to the past and the future!
There are around 25 intact temples in and around Khajuraho from the total of 85. These temples are scattered in 3 major groups viz, Westerns, Eastern and Other. I have picked the three most magnificent and most representative temples from this wealth.
This poetry carved in stone is sheer magic left by our ancestors to cherish and preserve for future generations.