There are few places in the world that evoke such feelings of captivation and curiosity that it transcends all boundaries of reality. One such place is the ancient town of Khajuraho.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Nestled amidst the curves of the mighty Vindhya mountain ranges, Khajuraho lies in the Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh. Home to some of the oldest temples in India, the town is a dream destination for any wanderlust or travel enthusiast. The temples of Khajuraho boast of extraordinary architectural prowess along with some of the most stunning displays of fine erotic sculptures and carvings seen anywhere in the world. Their brilliance is such that the monuments of Khajuraho stand among the ‘Seven Wonders of India’ and they have the honour of being listed under the World Heritage Sites of UNESCO since 1986.
Khajuraho has a treasure trove of experiences to offer any traveller that seeks to explore its lands. To fully revel in this experience, it is important to know the story behind this divine town.
Story of Khajuraho
The name Khajuraho, or Kharjuravahaka, is derived from the ancient Sanskrit words ‘kharjura’, which means date palm, and vahaka, which means ‘bearer or the “one who carries”. Local legends state that the temples used to have two golden date-palm trees as their gate. Kharjuravahaka also means scorpion bearer, a symbolic name for Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, who is depicted wearing a garland of snakes and scorpions in his fierce form.
Taking a walk through the temple compounds is a magical experience in itself. Clustered around water and set in the midst of hills standing tall all around, the earth and sky creates a perfect backdrop for these places of worship. An ancient local legend says that Lord Shiva and the other gods enjoyed visiting these dramatic hill formations in the Kalinjar area. It is also said that Shiva’s marriage took place in Khajuraho. For this reason, the festival of Maha Shivaratri is celebrated in all the temples with great aplomb. During this time, Hindu verses are chanted in the temples while the priests enact the divine marriage of Shiva and Parvathi.
Crown Jewel of Chandela Dynasty
It was the Chandela dynasty that spear-headed the construction of the Khajuraho temples during 950 AD and 1050 AD. These rulers claimed themselves to have descended from the moon, and hence the name Chand-ela. They soon rose to power and immediately began building monuments throughout their kingdom, which was later known as Bundelkhand. The Khajuraho temples were built about 56 kilometres from the medieval city of Mahoba in the Kalinjar region, the famed capital of the Chandela dynasty.
Though their numbers have dwindled over time, the remaining temples are a glimpse into the rich and glorious past of Khajuraho. They embody the heritage of a once sacred land where art, architecture, and culture seamlessly blended together.
What is it about the Khajuraho temples that have garnered much attention for them throughout the world? The answer to that lies within the thousands of exquisitely chiselled sculptures and intricate carvings that adorn the exterior and interior of the temple walls. The Kandarya Mahadeva Temple alone is decorated with over 870 carvings within itself. The most striking of all these artworks are the ones that are erotic in nature. The Khajuraho temples are famous for their detailed depictions of sex and passion. Interestingly, only about 10% of all the carvings are erotic in nature. Yet, these are the ones that have captivated people for centuries.
Kama Art of Khajuraho
The kama art of Khajuraho is not just exclusive to sex. It represents diverse sexual expressions of different human beings. These erotic sculptures and carvings are a reflection of the Indian philosophy of love and lust. Our early ancestors perceived the act of sex as a union of souls. It was a celebration of love in its different, carnal forms. The artworks strewn throughout Khajuraho represent a primal form of Indo-Aryan architecture, a reflection of the Chandela dynasty’s passion and immense appreciation for forbidden love, engraved in stone for all eternity.
The open mindedness and liberal outlook of the Chandela dynasty is truly an inspiration for us. As a country that was the birthplace for the Kama Sutra, a country that pioneered the celebration of sexual love, these stone carvings are symbolic of how the Chandelas were far beyond their time. After all, art is transcendent of all boundaries, is it not?
A traveller should never let the shackles of conservative thought hinder him or her from admiring and appreciating the beauty of such art. So, explore freely, and let the several thousand masterfully crafted carvings of Khajuraho spellbind you with a sense of awe and wonder.
Art – that is more than erotic
As you make your way around the temple complexes, twisting and turning through the numerous historic temple corridors, you can see art that’s not just erotic, but also ones that depict scenes from everyday life.
These include works such as women putting on makeup, musicians making music, potters, farmers, and other folks in their daily life during the medieval era. There are also carvings of royalty, armies, wrestling, kinship, war, courtship, marriage, lovemaking, music and dancing, spiritual teachings, union, meditation, bliss, gods, goddesses, plants, animals and an abundance of all human forms. It is truly a feast for the senses to take in all the artistic elegance present here.
The temples of Khajuraho have been categorised into three groups depending on their geographical location: Eastern, Western and Southern. All the temples other than Chaturbhuja temple face towards the sun, a symbolic feature of most Hindu temples. The layout of the Khajuraho temples has been done in such a way that it integrates masculine and feminine deities, highlighting their interdependence. The art work is also symbolic of the four goals of life considered to be crucial in Hinduism – dharma (righteousness), kama (desire), artha (purpose) and moksha (salvation).
It was during the reigns of the Hindu kings Yashovarman and Dhanga that most of the temples were completed. The Lakshmana Temple stands as a testimony to the legacy of King Yashovarman’s legacy while the Vishvanatha Temple stands to represent King Dhanga’s reign. However, the largest and currently the most famous surviving temple is Kandariya Mahadeva built during the reign of King Vidyadhara.
Since East is the most revered of all the cardinal points, it would be fitting if you should start your journey across Khajuraho by first visiting the Eastern Group of temples, moving in a clockwise direction to the Southern and finally the Western temples.
Eastern Group of Temples
On the Eastern side, you can find the majestic Parsvanath temple, largest of all the eastern temples. Feast your eyes on the exquisitely detailed carvings and sculptures within here. The three roofs of this temple are an ode to religious harmony as they portray a mixture of Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim influences.
The other temples to visit here are the Ghantai temple, famed for its Jain origins and friezes depicting the 16 dreams of Mahivira’s mother, The Adinath temple dedicated to Jain Tirthankar, the Brahma temple, one of the oldest temples in Khajuraho made entirely out of sandstone and lastly the Vamana Temple dedicated to Vamana, the fifth avatar of Lord Vishnu.
You can also find the Javarai Temple and Hanuman temple along the eastern side. For people who appreciate simple, elegant architecture, these temples would be a dream come true.
Southern Group of Temples
The Southern group of temples are small in number, yet you will still find yourself mesmerised in their presence.
The Dulhadev temple should be your first stop here. Considered to be the last temple of Khajuraho, you can reach here by walking south from the Ghantai temple. A Shivalinga is enshrined within the temple premises. However, the features that will steal your attention are the strikingly carved apsara and ornamented figures.
The next temple in the Southern group is the Chattarbhuj Temple or The Jatkari Temple. Here, you will find yourself in the presence of a massive, intricately designed, 9 feet idol of Lord Vishnu in his Chaturbhuja (four-armed) form.
A couple steps away from the Chattarbhuj temple lies the ruined temple of Beejamandal. Don’t let the present condition of the temple deter you in any way. This is a peaceful place, one where you can gather your thoughts and free yourselves from the material world.
The other temples present at the Southern side are the Chaunsat Yogini, which is the only granite temple in the Khajuraho group, Chitragupta Temple dedicated to the Sun God Surya, Matanageswara Temple dedicated to Shiva, Varaha temple dedicated to the Varaha avatar of Lord Vishnu and the Vishwanath Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, who is also called Vishwanath or master of the universe.
Out of these temples, it is interesting to note that the Matanageswara Temple contains a huge 8ft lingam adorning its grounds. The Varaha temple also contains a statue of Varaha, the boar avatar, alongwith with Adishesha, Lord Vishnu’s serpent, lying beneath. The carving of an idol of Devi Saraswati on the snout of the Varaha is representative that every word/sound seeks the blessing of Saraswati Devi, the goddess of speech, learning and knowledge.
Western Group of Temples
The Western group of temples are just as splendid and masterfully constructed as the Southern Group.
You will immediately find yourself drawn towards the Lakshmana Temple, the oldest and finest of the western group of temples, named after the ruler that built the temple. This exquisite Vaishnavite temple shows the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, along with with Lakshmi, Vishnu’s consort.
To enjoy some of the greatest masterpieces of Indian art, scoot on over to the Kandariya Mahadeo Temple. However, if its fine sculptures that capture your fancy, make your way to the Devi Jagdamba Temple that houses a huge image of Jagdambi, Goddess of the Universe. It is at this temple that some of the most erotic sculptures in Khajuraho has been crafted.
You will see that exploring the Western temples is a journey of discovery in itself. Art does not get more poignant than this.
Khajuraho – A Journey through Time
One can fully comprehend the glory of Khajuraho and the Chandela dynasty after visiting all these temples. Each and every stone speaks volumes about a time when this ancient city was steeped in prosperity.
It truly was a golden age. Sadly, even the greatest of empires fade to dust with time. In the 13th century, the army of Delhi Sultanate, under the command of the Muslim Sultan Qutb-ud-din Aibak, attacked and seized the Chandela kingdom. What followed was a succession of Muslim Dynasties ruling the region from the 13th century through the 18th century, each one destroying parts of Khajuraho. The silver lining between the clouds was that the remoteness and isolation of Khajuraho protected the Hindu temples from destruction by the invading armies. Over centuries, huge areas of vegetation and forests overgrew, enveloping the temples and hiding them from the outside word.
A spiritual phenomenon or a mere coincidence, we may never know.
But the temples, although in neglect, remained safe and sheltered in the arms of mother nature for many years. Finally, it was in 1838 that a British army engineer by the name of Captain T.S. Burt rediscovered them. By that time, only 22 of the original 85 temples had survived the ravages of time.
Khajuraho may be a small town today, a shadow of its former glory. It has been centuries since the Chandela dynasty faded to dust. But Khajuraho still stands among the greatest of tourist destinations in India. It is a paradise for those looking to learn about our bygone history. The art and architecture are immortal and will last as long as time itself, giving the world a peek into the magnificence of Indian culture and heritage. Each step you take within its walls will take you deeper and deeper into the endless mysteries of ancient India. So, what are you waiting for? Pack your bags and book your tickets to Khajuraho. The sacred lands await you!
Getting to Khajuraho
Reaching Khajuraho is probably the easiest part of your adventure as it is well connected through air, rail and road. The Khajuraho Civil Aerodrome is located about 2 km from the town centre and facilitates transport from cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Varanasi and Indore. From there, you can avail taxis to reach the town. Khajuraho also has a railway station that is connected to all the major cities. If you prefer travel by road, you can drive or take public transport from cities like Jhansi, Orchha, Bandhavgarh and Chattarpur in Madhya Pradesh.
3 days in and around Khajuraho
Day 1 –
Reach Khajuraho and check into any of the various accommodations available at the town. Khajuraho caters to all kinds of budget needs so you will not have much difficulty in finding a place to stay. After checking in and getting your things in order, you can take the day to sightsee the Western group of temples. These are the most prominent among the temples for any traveller to visit. Spend your day exploring temples such as the Lakhmana Temple, Kandariya Mahadeo Temple and the Devi Jagdamba Temple.
If you get hungry, there are a number of high-end rooftop restaurants along with cheap eateries and South Indian food stalls to cater to your needs.
Once you’ve finished seeing the temple complexes, don’t forget to attend the evening sound and light show, narrated by Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachhan himself. Entry ticket is ₹120/- for Indians and ₹300/- for foreigners.
Day 2 –
Visit the Southern and Eastern group of temples on your second day in Khajuraho. Although they are smaller in comparison to the Western temples, they have a sort of simple elegance that will enthrall you along the way. Ensure that you visit the Parsvanath Temple and Chattarbhuj Temple as these are the most prominent ones among the East-South temples.
During the evening, you can go for relaxing and therapeutic ayurvedic massage treatments that are offered by many hotels in Khajuraho. It is an excellent cleansing experience for your mind and body.
Day 3 –
You can spend your day roaming the streets of Khajuraho, visiting local markets and shopping for some authentic souvenirs to take back home as memories.
In & Around
Panna National Park
You may also travel to some of the important tourist destinations nearby Khajuraho. One such place is the Panna National Park, home to waterfalls of dizzying heights and some of the biggest wild cats in the world. Situated just 44 kilometres away from Khajuraho, Panna National Park will give you the opportunity to witness first-hand many wild life fauna such as the majestic tigers and the Ghariyal, a huge reptile found only in the Indian subcontinent. If you’re looking for a thrilling and memorable adventure, Panna National Park is the next place for you.
You can also visit the historic town of Orchha situated 173 kilometres away, nestled on the banks of river Betwa. Here, you will get the chance to explore some of the most fascinating palaces and temples in India. It’s a city frozen in time, a shining beacon of 16th century heritage.
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