What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word Khajuraho? Most likely the answer is going to be Temples or specifically, Erotic Temple Art.
The one of a kind Khajuraho Group of Temples is the main attraction of Khajuraho, however, there is more to the town than this. I shall write about my travels to the other interesting places of Khajuraho in subsequent posts. For now, I wish to devote this entire post to my experiences and impressions on the fascinating temples of Khajuraho.
The story of Khajuraho is that in a burst of passion, the Moon God enticed the beautiful Brahmin girl, Hemavati, while bathing in the Rati one evening, resulting in the birth of Chandravarman. Harassed by society, the unwed mother sought refuge in the dense forests of Khajuraho where she was both mother and guru to her young son. The boy grew up to become the founder of the Chandela dynasty.
When he was the ruler of the land, Chandravarman had a dream where his mother implored him to build temples that would reveal all aspects of the human passion and fantasy to the world and in doing so bring about a realization of the emptiness of the human desire. Thus began the story of a fervent artistic desire for the construction of the first of the temples, and successive rulers added to that which resulted in the Khajuraho temples.
It is said that artifacts from the middle and late Stone Age and Neolithic Age have been unearthed in Khajuraho so its history can be traced to prehistoric times.
The name Khajuraho is derived from the Hindi word khajur meaning date palm tree. It was once the city that was the capital of the Chandela Rajputs, a Hindu dynasty that ruled parts of India from the tenth to the end of twelfth century. It is said that there have been other Chandela rulers, who have been the patrons of the Khajuraho temples and instrumental in developing the art and the sculpture there. Some of them are Harshadeva, Yashovarman, Dangadeva, Jayavarman etc. Sadly, by the time the temples were completed, the Chandela dynasty had sunk into oblivion.
It is fascinating to learn that these elegant medieval temples of the finest architectural styles were unknown to the outside world as they were probably forgotten among the forests for centuries following their abandonment. They were accidentally rediscovered recently.
Over a span of about 100 years, about 85 temples were presumed to have been built of which now only 22 stand!
My Memoirs and Khajuraho Today
In December 2007, I took a taxi from Orchha via Alipura to reach Khajuraho as I written in my previous post here.
The temple town of Khajuraho apparently seems no different from any other temple city of India. Right from the time I reached till I departed days later, I found it to be like any other tourist town, catering to the needs of the locals and tourists alike in a comfortable and casual manner. Nevertheless, the quaint little town is unique for it is a place with a rich cultural heritage. Already a hot tourist destination, most likely its popularity ranks following that of the Taj Mahal of Agra.
As I reached and checked into the MP tourism hotel, the sun was preparing to set. All the same, I quickly got ready to catch a glimpse of the famous temples before it would get dark. After a few hurried inquiries at the reception desk and being assured that the place was safe to walk back in the dark, I set out on a brisk walk of 20 minutes to reach the popular western group of temples. I need not have rushed as I had two full days to explore the place at my own leisurely pace. But, as usual, I got restless in wanting to explore the moment I reach a new place and so tried to grab the opportunity to do so even in the fading lights of the day. This is one of the first few sights that I could capture that late evening through the closed gates.
The next two days were like being in a dreamland. I do not think I can even begin to describe the awe that I felt about the Khajuraho temples. If I start, I could go on endlessly into details of my own impression of the mastery and intricacy of the beauty of each temple, but that would mean thousands of words.
The architecture of each of the Khajuraho temples is magnificent. The elegance of the carvings is an achievement excelling in sculpture work and can rightly be called a merger of the science and art of architecture. To explore and admire what can be justifiably described as the pinnacle of Indian art and design was an overwhelming experience.
My first observation was that almost all the temples are built on a high platform. Constructed in the Nagara style of architecture between 950 AD and 1050 AD, these temples are in a reasonably good state of preservation and the Archeological Survey of India's dedicated effort for their conservation at Khajuraho should be appreciated. It is no wonder that these temples are listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The mainly Hindu and Jain temples of Khajuraho, scattered over an area of 15 kms or so, are grouped into three geographical divisions: western, eastern and southern.
I found the 11 temples belonging to the Western Group of Temples the most attractive. That included admiring the biggest Kandariya Mahadeva, the awesome Lakshmana, and the Chaunsat Yogini, the Matangeshwara, the Chitragupta etc.
Following that, I had a long walk to reach the Eastern Group comprising of the Adinath, Ghantai, Parsvanatha Temples etc and this way, could be in touch with a bit of the local feel of the place. Among the Eastern Group, I found the grandeur of the the Adinath the most impressive. I had published a picture of it in my previous post here.
I could not make it to the Southern Group of Temples as I kept getting attracted to the Western Group of temples time and again, and finally actually ended up making four trips there. Each visit was a wonderfully different experience.
Most of these mind-blowing temples are adorned with endless rows of intricately carved sculpted figures. The emotions of a woman have been exemplified in those stone sculptors – from her simple and smiling face of innocence right up to her seductive expressions and poses. Sculptures depicting a woman brushing her hair, applying eye make-up or dancing with joyous unconstrained poses are portrayed in detailed artistry. Most of the sculptures show ordinary course of everyday life events like scenes of action of dancers, musicians, warriors, hunters, potters, other ordinary folks and also animals. And yes, a small percentage of it with eroticism engraved on its walls in the form of sculptures.
The erotic sculptures of Khajuraho temples can be shocking to those not prepared. Khajuraho temple art was a shock to me too, though not for the eroticism in the art, instead, for the incredible beauty in that temple art. The cliché that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder is pretty relevant here. The same object may appear different to different people. Anyway, what is indisputable is that these sculptures have gained the attention of art lovers all over the world and are often a topic of discussion to many.
Someday, I wish to write my thoughts on those "erotic" sculptures and shall, hopefully, do that when I can put my feelings on this matter into meaningful words. For now, I am highly impressed with the temple art there. Though I have admired intricate temple art in quite a few places in India, I can confidently say that what is revealed in Khajuraho surpasses all that!
Khajuraho's local food is predominantly vegetarian, but non-vegetarian food is available on request. The market area has a number of hotels, restaurants, coffee shops and some good souvenir shops selling a variety of local handicrafts, books, and many other interesting items, all reasonably priced. December, when I travelled, is a pleasant month to be in Khajuraho.
There is a folk and tribal dance festival called Lokranjan held in the second week of December every year but I missed it by a few days. There is also another Dance Festival held in late February every year. From the details I've gathered on it, I'd recommend it to those who wish to travel there to include it in their itinerary. I wish someone had informed me about this before I travelled to Khajuraho. Can you imagine dance performances presented in a surreal setting of gorgeously illuminated temples? I can not think of another venue that could be more befitting than these temple grounds to witness a cultural festivity of that magnitude.
Sound and Light Show
That evening at 6:30 pm, I attended the Light and Sound Show held at the garden grounds of the Western temple group. It was a visual treat that lasted for almost an hour and it elicited the life and times of the Chandela kings. The Show details the construction, history and importance of the splendid Khajuraho temples from the tenth century to the present times. As at the Gwalior Fort, Amitabh Bachchan does the narration with his deep baritone voice.
Other Attractions of Khajuraho
Khajuraho has other interesting places to offer like the Ajaygarh Fort, the Kalinjar Fort, Dhubela Museum for those who are interested in the regal and cultural splendour of the place. There are picturesque waterfalls, lakes, rock formations, national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and other charming spots for nature and wild life enthusiasts. Some of the places of interest that I enjoyed in and around Khajuraho are the Raneh Falls, the River Ken Nature Trail, the Ken Gharial Sanctuary, the Pandav Falls and Caves of Panna, and the Panna National Park and Panna Tiger Reserve.
How to reach Khajuraho
Khajuraho is accessible by road, rail and air. By road, Khajurao is approximately 620 kms southeast of Delhi, 400 kms southeast of Agra, 175 kms southwest of Jhansi, 90 kms from Alipura, 50 kms from Chattarupur, and 45 kms from Panna. By rail, Jhansi and Mahoba are the nearest station. Khajuraho has an airport of its own, with flights connecting the place from Delhi, Agra and Varanasi.