Sunday, April 7, 2013

Sex Temples, Khajuraho World Heritage Site, India

Detail from Lakshmana Temple, Khajuraho
i first heard of Khajuraho two years ago on a trip to Northern India. i was souvenir shopping for gifts and found a set of playing cards with pictures from a temple with carvings inspired by the Kama Sutra, the ancient Indian text on the arts of love, sex and relationship. It seemed a perfect gift for one of my guy friends, so i bought a few decks. Then as i prepared for this most recent trip to India this winter, i decided to travel outside of the Himalayan foothills where i usually go, and remembered these temples. i started researching where Khajuraho was (almost dead center of India) and how to get there (relatively difficultly) and decided to go there.
Kandariya-Mahadeva Temple, Khajuraho 

What i found in these temples amazed me, on several levels, and what i learned about them was intriguing.

These temples are recognized as a UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site. This is warranted both for their age (700-1100years old) and for the amazing quality of the sculptures there - European artists would not even begin to approach such life-like quality, beauty or expression for at least 500years!

But what makes them super famous, and precisely what lead me to them, was the incredible eroticism depicted in those sculptures! As kinky as modern porn, at first glance at least, i have never before seen such sexual acts depicted in fine art like this. And we don't know why exactly it's there, we do not know why the Chandellas went so far down this sexual road in their art.

Monument to the anonymous sculptors of Khajuraho
Some sources claim they depict dramatizations of the Kama Sutra. Some claim that they simply mirrored a depravity and morally lax society of that time, that the Chandellas were simply having depicted what they really did (conquering women and neighboring kingdoms.) At the Khajuraho Light and Sound show, instead, they say that the sexuality was a form of prayer, that creating such beauty was a form of worship in which the artists acquired good kharma or grace (which ironically they then forfeited to their rulers, in an act of humility, and we do not know the names of the actual artists.) And at least some sources say that the Chandellas, and their priests, belonged to a medieval sect of Hinduism that believed that the controlled enjoyment of the physical body and senses was a fast-track to spiritual development and enlightenment (implying that the acts depicted actually took place at the temples!)

 There is also the incredible, and unexplained, fact that all of these temples were built in such close proximity to each other, without any town or settlement nearby. This youtube video gives an interesting, New Agey explenation for it.

Detail from Western Temple Group,
Whatever the purpose of these temples was, i think they are fantastic. Sex and sexuality are legitimate parts of life and they are meant to be fun. It seems to me to make much more sense to celebrate and depict it in art, than to forbid it, ignore it, persecute it and/or hide it, as the temples of the European Christian traditions did in this same time period. i happen to agree with my World Heritage Series guide book on Khajuraho, published by the Archaeological Survey of India, that, "Whatever the interpretation of the erotic scenes on the walls of the temples at Khajuraho, there is certainly nothing sordid or coarse about them."
The temples were built between 900 CE and 1200 CE for a dynasty of Indian rulers called the Chandellas. The Chandellas claimed to be descended from the moon. They had apparently 85 temples, like the ones you will see here, built. Only a couple dozen survive into modern times.

With the passing of the centuries these temples eventually became abandoned and apparently nearly forgotten, until in 1838 when a British engineer heard stories about a collection of dozens of ancient temples. So he convinced his Indian-village source to lead him to these temples and finds these unbelievable sculptures, seen by the Western world for the first time in centuries! i cannot even imagine what that must have been like for him. The style in Indian art throughout this region is somewhat similar - big-breasted women and expressive bodies and positioning. But such sexuality, as far as i know, is unique to this site.

Here below i will publish the best of the hundreds of photos i captured there. Most of the most interesting sculptures are in the Western Temple Group (Khajuraho map at bottom), which you have to pay 200rupees (about $4) to enter. i got up at dawn and was at the gates when they opened, and i was sure glad - i had the place to myself! Then though by lunch time there were swarms of tour groups and other visitors. My poor photography skills will not portray the stunning quality of the sculptures or the beauty of the temples, but i hope it gives you some idea :-)

Outside wall of Western Temple Group, Khajuraho
The density of sculpture on these temples was amazing to me!

Detail from Lakshmana Temple, Khajuraho 
On the way far left, in the background, we can see the only still-active temple of the Western Group, it is a Ghanesh temple. Then from left to right in the foreground are the Varaha, Lakshmana and Lakshmi temples.

In the Western, European tradition, we often touch statues for good luck. This will often smooth or shine the statues along the parts commonly touched. i have seen this in churches, such as the main door to Saint Peter' Basillica in The Vatican, where Peter, hanging upside down on his cross has been rubbed smooth. A more comparable example though is in Verona, Italy. There is a statue of a young Juliet, at the house where Shakespeare's Romeo wooed her. Local tour guides there, and even Lonely Planet, recommend that we rub the right breast of Juliet in order to acquire anything from good luck to true love.
And so i was shocked and amused to see that apparently the people of Khajuraho appear to have similar traditions!! Just like us, they have been touching their statues inside of this temple:
Detail from inside Lakshmana Temple
Detail from inside Lakshmana Temple
Kandrariya-Mahadeva Temple on left, Jagadambi Temple on right, in the Western Temple Group, Khajuraho 
Yogi in detail of Western Temple Group, Khajuraho 
Detail from Lakshmana Temple
i was amazed at the physical detail, the creases in her skin, and the expressiveness of her positioning. European sculptures at this time, 9th-11th Century, literally wouldn't know where to start in order to get that sort of detail or life-like quality.

Wall of Kandrariya-Mahadeva Temple
Detail of Kandrariya-Mahadeva Temple 
Detail of Kandrariya-Mahadeva Temple

Detail from Western Temple Group 
"Aaaah'm gonna eatya!!" From porch of Jagadambi Temple

Indian Hindu tourists or pilgrims (it's such a fine line, in any culture!)

Detail from Chitragupta Temple
Notice how both this and the next one resemble Egyptian art. i know the pharoahs wore false beards to symbolize power 3,000 years ago. It appears that the Chandellas, 1000years ago, played the same game!

Detail from Chitragupta Temple 
Restorers giving a bath to Chitragupta Temple 
Wall of temple in Western Temple Group 
Detail from Western Temple Group 
Detail from Western Temple Group  
Detail from Western Temple Group  
Detail from Western Temple Group 
Victorious Chandella King, in a detail from Western Temple Group 
Here we see it wasn't all sex and ceremony for the Chandellas - sometimes you had to go chop off the head of a neighboring king, and then brag about it on your temple walls back home!

Indian Hindus checking out the sculptures in Khajuraho
Detail from Vamana Temple, Eastern Temple Group, Khajuraho
When you leave the best temples (Lakshmana and Kandariya-Mahadeva) you can see a variety of sculptural qualities. Here the in the Eastern group, the figures seem less life like, and more like simple symbols of what they want to portray.

The woman on the left is probably practicing accupressure on her own foot, a common depiction throughout these temples.

Vamana Temple Shrine
The temples in the Eastern Temple Group are far more open to the public, and appeared to still be used, at least for the purpose of making offerings, by modern Indians even still.

Though the ones in The Eastern Temple Group were a bit less impressive, they were also much less crowded and less touristy. i rented this bike to make the trip to them quite easy. 

Khajuraho woman collecting cow shit, near the Eastern Temple Group
The Eastern temple group is much more spread out than the Western one, and also at the edge of the village and countryside. 
Modern Jain temple in the Eastern Temple Group, Khajuraho 
Inside the Jain Temple, Khajuraho 
Inside the Jain Temple, 
Bookstore window of the Jain Temple, Khajuraho
The Jain religion is widespread and influential in India. i had previously heard of them from stories of their extreme efforts to never kill any other sentient beings, and therefore wearing a net over their mouths so as to never accidentally inhale bugs, and sweeping the ground before them as they walk to make sure no one is squished. Apparently also though their preachers like to preach naked at least sometimes!

Eastern Temple Group
Meditation statue in Eastern Temple Group 
Detail form the Eastern Temple Group 
Detail from Eastern Temple Group
Checking to see if the beard is real!?
From Eastern Temple Group  
Shrine in Eastern Temple Group 
Light and Sound Show, Khajuraho
Though it was not quite as good as the truly amazing one i saw in Giza, Egypt, the Khajuraho Light and Sound Show was still fairly well done and a good introduction to the history and local beliefs about the temples.

Map of Khajuraho

All photos by author.


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