After savouring the vibrant hues of Gwalior, we headed to the ancient temple city of Khajuraho, the main reason why we wanted to tour Madhya Pradesh in the first place. It was an absolutely magical experience!
For those who have not heard of the architectural marvel that is Khajuraho, let me begin by highlighting what these temples are world famous for - their exterior walls are adorned with numerous detailed sculptures...some of which are erotic in nature.
But what many do not realise is that eroticism makes up just 5% of the theme of the sculptures. Among others, there are scenes featuring gods, heavenly beings, demons, animals, men and women. The scenes portray different periods of a human's life, mythological tales, battlegrounds in action, heavenly angels called 'apsaras' engaged in their daily activities and so on. These are recurring topics in Hindu mythology & what our 'Vedas' (scripture code of living) teach us about life & its meaning.
Khajuraho was the medieval capital city of the Chandela dynasty that ruled Bundelkhand (10th-12 century). As per inscriptions, it seems to have derived its name from the fact that this region was abundant in khajur (date) trees. Covering about 8 sq. miles, it was once a rich cultural centre and at the peak of its glory, had around 85 temples. Majority of temples fell prey to time and neglect when the Chandela kings shifted their capital for security reasons; Khajuraho was abandoned as citizens felt that the presence of grand edifices of Hindu glory would attract the then powerful Muslim invaders to attack. Over the ages, it became a forgotten legend, overgrown with bushes & trees. Eventually, it was rediscovered by British Indian army captain T.S Burt who had heard "wonders of a place called Kajrao from his palkywallah" in 1838 and reintroduced to the world.
Now only 30-35 of the 85 Hindu & Jain temples remain in the UNESCO World Heritage site in less than perfect conditions; the result of centuries of plundering and ravaging by subsequent Muslim & British rulers. These have been divided into 3 groups :
- Western Group of Temples
- Eastern Group of Temples
- Southern Group of Temples
The Western Group of Temples
The most popular of the 3 clusters is undoubtedly the Western group; which has the most evolved style of North Indian temple architecture among all the edifices in this temple village. Among them are the imposing trio of Kandariya Mahadeva (1025 C.E), Lakshmana Temple (930-950 C.E) and Visvanatha Temple (999 or 1002 C.E) that represent the most fully developed style at Khajuraho. Situated in a large landscaped site with winding pathways, the walk amid the structures gives the impression of being in a forgotten chapter of history.
- Upon entering, we walk to the clearly visible Lakshmana Temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the first spectacle of Chandela glory; on its right sits the relatively younger Mangateshwara Temple (1000 C.E), known for its 8 ft. high 'lingam'. This is the only actively used temple amongst all the ancients here.
- Opposite the Lakshmana temple sit two smaller shrines, devoted to Goddess Lakshmi & Vishnu's 'Varaha' (or boar) avatar respectively. The Varaha temple houses a 9 ft. monolithic sandstone boar with carvings of numerous Brahmanical gods on its surface.
- We then proceed to the most important of all, the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, reaching to a height of 35.5m at its apex. Tier over tier of 'Urusringas' or conical roofs rise in sculptured excellence from the lowest to highest over the cella. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, it represents Kailash Parbat (one of the peaks of Kailash mountain range between India & Tibet; believed to be the mysterious abode of Shiva and his wife Parvati), as the temple resembles a mountain range. The temple shares its plinth with 2 smaller temples, namely Devi Jagadambi Temple (titled after the image of Parvati enshrined in the sanctum; there is no ambulatory around it) and Shiva Temple, whose sanctum has perished.
- Sitting at the N-W corner of the park, to the left of the Kandariya Mahadeva, is the Chitragupta Temple (1020-1025 C.E) that seems to have been modelled on the nearby Jagadambi temple. Being the only temple dedicated to the Sun god at Khajuraho, the temple has an impressive sculpture of 'Surya' standing in a chariot driven by 7 horses in its sanctum. As per inscriptions, it was probably consecrated on 23 February 1023 CE, on the occasion of 'Shivratri'.
- At this point, one would already be experiencing sensory overload...but the desire to see more, learn more draws one forward to the last member of the grander structures - the Visvanatha Temple, which seems to have been a development of the earlier Lakshmana temple. Known as a 'Panchayatana' shrine, it used to have 4 subsidiary shrines at each corner of its plinth...of which, only 2 have survived. Being a temple dedicated to Shiva, it shares its plinth with a smaller fifth shrine devoted to the worship of 'Nandi' (Shiva's bull mount). Facing the main temple, it houses a 1.8m tall Nandi statue.
- A small temple dedicated to Goddess Parvati (of which only the plinth of the sanctum has survived, with the rest having been restored) and a much younger temple built by the king of Chhatarpur 100 years ago are the other shrines that dot the landscaped park. Pratapeshwar Temple, as it is commonly known, is a temple that has no religion; there is a clear absence of sanctum & successive spires characteristic to different religions set it apart from all its ancient neighbours.
For anyone with a penchant for arts & history, a day or two would hardly suffice to see the whole of Western group, let alone all of Khajuraho! Safe to say that many tourists/ researchers spend weeks and months here, experiencing the pleasures of a simple, secluded life in a remote village. It gave me such inner peace & a higher spiritual connect than I have ever felt before. Khajuraho is by far my favourite place in India; a place worth a thousand trips if you ask me!
As I write, I am realising that this post is becoming much longer than expected. It's quite impossible to fit all that is there to say in one lengthy post...So i'll be writing about the remaining temples in my next story.
For further reading :
About history of the temples -
About architecture of Khajuraho temples -
About Pratpeshwar temple -