Stories and myths around the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho
Perhaps no other destination evokes so many different responses like Khajuraho does. The erotic sculptures of Khajuraho are the cynosure of all eyes and yet, you get varied reactions from people who visit the town. While some are cynical, others cringe. A few are embarrased, others are disappointed. The guides with poker faces point to ” an oral activity” or a ” group activity”, while most tourists giggle or look away. The vendors on the street sell kamasutra packaged as paintings or books or crude carvings depicting various forms of lovemaking.
And yet, there is an intrigue around the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho that adorn the walls of these temples. We wonder why the Chandelas, who ruled over 1000 years ago built these monuments which represent love and lust in various forms. And it is not just the Chandelas. Lets revisit India during the 9th- 12th centuries – from North to South, there are many temples with erotic sculptures. The Chalukyas and the Hoysala temples have carved them on their walls, even if they are not as explicit as those in Khajuraho or Konark. Was it some kind of a manual that these sculptors had or was it a belief that led them to the carving these erotic sculptures of Khajuraho?
There seems to be different interpretations regarding the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho- from stories to spiritual beliefs and I thought I would share them with you and get your perspectives
I will start with stories and my favourite is this. The moon always evokes romance and it is little wonder then that the descendants of the celestial moon god would build monuments that stand for love. The story goes that a beautiful woman called Hemavathy was bathing in the dark under moonlight, when she was seduced by the moon himself . She ran into the forests for refuge and raised her son, Chandravarman alone .The moon however promised her that their son would one day rule over a kingdom. True to his word, Chandravarman grew up to establish the Chandela dynasty . It is believed that he was influenced by his mother’s story and so he built temples with sculptures depicting human passions and probably, the futility of the same.
In case you are not fascinated with the story behind the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho, here is another belief that says the carvings of mithunas are symbols of “good luck” along with several sculptures that showcase mythical creatures. Another interpretation says they served as a form of sex education, by rekindling passions in the ascetic minds of people, who were probably influenced by Buddhism.
And there are several intepretations that speak of varying beliefs in Hinduism that seem to be in the fore. One of them speaks about leaving your lust and desires behind before entering the temple – which is probably why there are no carvings of sex inside the temples . The Mithunas or the couples in love are only portrayed on the outside walls of the shrines. My guide, Gopalji tells me that it is a depiction of the Hindu philosophy of Dharma, Artha, Kama , Moksha . Perhaps you can attain nirvana, once you are done with all your wordly pleasures.
However , another guide, Mamaji who I had met earlier mentioned that it is more of a depiction of Tantric cult and beliefs. The Chausath Yogini temple, a Tantric temple dedicated to 64 goddesses is the oldest temple in Khajuraho. A mystical air hangs around it, although all the shrines are empty. It is believed that Khajuraho is charged with energy and the 64 yoginis control the very essence of life, balancing both body and mind together. While reading upon various tantric beliefs, one of them even compared the Mithunas making love as a metaphor , representing the sexual imagery of the life force – an union of Shiva and Shakthi.The philosophy even extends to the architecture. Some see even the design as a symbol of the union of Shiva and Savitri.
Another interpretation even goes to say that the temples themselves are designed as a form of the “seductress” .And there is this belief centred around the tantric cult that explains that the sculptures are metaphors and are actually a form of language, a form of educating the various doctrines of the cult through symbols and imagery.
Reams of paper and documentation are given to interpret the 10 % of erotic imagery that adorns the walls of the remaining 22 temples. There were at least 85 temples apparently built by the Chandelas, who would have been forgotten from the history texts if it had not been ironically for these carvings that show passions running high. While we have studied about the Mauryas and the Guptas, the Chalukyas and the Cholas, we have forgotten to read about the valour of the Chandelas who had even kept Mohammad Ghur at bay and regained their lost fort of Kalinjar from Mahmud Ghazni, invaders whose exploits fill our history texts.
And coming back to the 22 remaining temples, dedicated to Jainism and Hinduism, there is more to them than just the sexual imagery. They are divided in three main groups – Western , Eastern and Southern. Most of the erotic sculptures are seen in the Western Group of temples. A few temples in the Eastern Group are dedicated to Jain teerthankaras.
Reading through the ASI book on Khajuraho, I learn that the sculptures are grouped into five broad categories. The first category are the cult images and they are built exactly as prescribed in the manual – the Shilpashastra. You can see some of them carved as the teerthankaras in the Jain museum.
The second category are the ones you see in the reliefs and niches and they usually represent attendants, the guardian deities, the gandharvas, the shiva ganas, the ashta dikpalas among others.
The third is my favourites – the apsaras, also referred to as sapna sundaris. The sculptors seemed to have run riot carving these beautiful women in various activities. They seem so life like and beautiful and every minute detail has been given importance to.
These graceful nymphs portray human emotions. You seem them dancing, painting, holding a parrot, caressing a baby or scratching their backs or just undressing. These are not exclusive to Khajuraho as well as you can see them in several Hoysala temples as well besides others.
And then you have scenes from day to day life. The book refers to them as ” secular sculptures.” Warriors, dancers, musicians are coupled with scenes of a royal court, a teacher and a pupil, a sculptor with his students and even funeral scenes .In addition to all of these, you also see mythical animals and even floral prints.
Finally you see the famous erotic sculptures of Khajuraho. Mithunas mating to group sex to even scenes of unnatural sex. And while they do remain in your face, it is such a pity that we miss out the rest of art carved on these temples.