Traveling- it leaves you speechless and then turns you into a storyteller- Ibn Batuta
In the heart of India is the wondrous state of Madhya Pradesh. Famous for its ancient civilizations, dense forest cover, and hidden waterfalls, it is home to the lost culture of the dynasties which once ruled Central India. One of the most prominent was the Chandelas, whose reign spanned over four centuries. Many dynasties that once ruled have been lost in oblivion. Those who survive this time span are the ones who leave a mark, something to remember them by. The temples of Khajuraho are such emblem to the Chandelas.
The glory of Khajuraho
Named after the once abundant date trees present all around the region, Khajuraho was left undisturbed till the mid-19th century due to the thick forest cover and the hills surrounding it. Only when the British in India discovered the village did the temples came into the notice of the nation. Today, thousands of tourists visit Khajuraho, which is probably the only village in India to have all three, a bus stand, a railway station, and an airport.
I reached Khajuraho by an overnight train from Delhi. The railway station is a short 20 minute drive from the Western group of temples, which is the nucleus of all the activities. I had booked my stay at Zostel. Their property is strategically located near the temples, as well as the restaurants. A friendly vibe is what greeted me the moment I entered. Clean dormitories, cool graffiti, and a fun filled common room is what I expected and got my wish fulfilled. After resting a while, I embarked on the three minute long walk to the temples.
The temples of Khajuraho are divided into three groups according to their geographical location with respect to the village. The Western group of temples is the most preserved one and located inside a single complex. The Eastern group is famous for the Jain temples and Vamana temple of Lord Vishnu. The southern group is the most scattered and least preserved one.
Both audio and visual guides are easily available outside the temples. I decided to hire a guide as I wanted to know, in as much depth as possible, the history of the temples. Mr Patel, who has been a resident of Khajuraho since he was born, took the tedious and daunting task of guiding me, for the couple of days I was there, through all the temples. We started the tour with Lakshman Temple in the western group. It is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and not to Lord Lakshman as the name suggests. Like all the other temples present in Khajuraho, Lakshman temple is significant for its architecture. The makers didn’t use cement or any other kind of binders. Instead, the stones are fixed with one another in a coupling interlock, keeping a check on each other and staying in place. It is made of sandstone alone and every bit of every stone is covered with carvings and sculptures.
Lakshman temple in the Western group
Perhaps the most famous, and certainly the tallest of them all, the Kandariya Mahadev temple stands a hundred meters away from Lakshman temple. On the same pedestal as Devi Jagdambi temple, Kandariya Mahardev is at its widest at Jagati (base) and the structure narrows as we move upwards towards the Vijapuraka (tip), giving an illusion of the temple being united with the sky above. This is a symbol for the soul being gradually united with the one true God.
Kandariya Mahadev temple
The Varah temple consists of the idol of Lord Vishnu in Varah (wild boar) Avatar. It depicts hundreds of idols on the Varah statue, including a different God for each of the 10 directions.
The Eastern group primarily consists of Jain temples. The architecture of these temples is very similar to the ones in the Western group, the primary difference being Jain idols placed in the Garbhgriha (the womb of the temple). One of the temples also houses a 14ft bronze statue of Lord Mahavira.
Sculptures on Jain temples
The Southern group of temples is the most scattered one. One has to traverse the narrow village streets to reach from one temple to the other. The newest member of this group is one excavated a few years ago. It is said it would have been the grandest of them all had its construction been completed.
The incomplete temple found in excavations
The temples of Khajuraho are famous for the way the sculptures on their walls are depicted. I observed the temples closely for several hours, with the help of Mr. Patel. He had a unique way of explaining the construction of the sculptures. Since there are thousands of them engraved on each temple, it is difficult to distinguish them individually. However, Mr. Patel had a pocket mirror which he used to reflect the sunlight from onto the statuettes. He obviously had ample knowledge and used to choose spots from which he pointed towards particular sculptures he wanted to explain about. It was then I realized how misunderstood they are. They are largely perceived to be pointless erotic carvings depicting various positions from The Kamasutra. However, this is so far from the truth, it is absurd!
Carvings on Lakshman temple
The sculptors had only one standing instruction during the construction, only one thought in their minds- to depict all aspects of life as much as possible and what a job they did! The intricacy of the sculptures is and will remain unparalleled. The artists have managed to capture the thoughts, the moods, and most significantly the acts, of daily life. It shows several women dressing up for their husbands or lovers, the jewels they used to wear. Each thin layer of cloth they wore is depicted distinctly. These temples are believed to be hubs of tantric mysticism. The people in those days believed sex to be a meditation, which would help them forget everything else and focus on a few key aspects such as pleasure and happiness; they regarded it as a way to attain the Absolute. A scorpion on the thigh of a woman signifies her yearning for her man. A woman applying sindoor depicts her attempts to enhance her beauty further for her man. The men are shown to be chivalrous but cheeky. This is our naked truth and the sculptors have made no attempts to hide the reality and shown the things as they were supposed to be.
Surprisingly, studying ancient edifices somehow always makes me terribly hungry. Mr. Patel, whose house was nearby, was generous enough to invite me to lunch with his family. I was hesitant at first but accepted his invitation as I wanted to eat as much local food as possible. A traditional, although almost extinct, dish of Bundelkhand region is Daburi. It is made from the flowers of Mahua trees which are present in plenty. Daburi is eaten with another local delicacy, Satua. It is a muddy looking, delicious, watery dish. The combination of Daburi and Satua is a delight for the taste buds. It was disappointing to learn that this dish is only prepared in a few households now and is nowhere available in the market.
The only evening attraction in the place is the Light and Sound show in the Western group of temples. There are two shows everyday- 6:30 to 7:30 in English and 7:40 to 8:40 in Hindi. The seats are laid in the open lawn between the temples. The show begins with the voice of the actor Amitabh Bacchan as the master sculptor, describing the glorious rule of Chandelas and how the temples came into being. The hour long son et lumière takes the viewers into a gripping ride through the illustrious history of the rulers who built the temples.
There are a handful of eateries present in Khajuraho and all are located around the Western group of temples. Raja café, located directly opposite the ticket counter of Western group, is one of the most popular restaurants in the area. I asked for their dinner specialty and was served chicken curry. It had just the right amount of spices and was cooked to perfection. Also, the brownie they make is definitely at par with the ones from any famous bakery. Raja café is a must try for anyone visiting Khajuraho.
Khajuraho has long been one of the overlooked tourist destinations in India. Earlier visited majorly by the foreign nationals, the awareness is rapidly spreading amongst the Indians as well. With the onset of backpacking culture in India, the modern Indian travelers have started visiting this town, soaking in the forgotten history of the Chandelas and appreciating, instead of mocking, the delightful figurines.