The central state of India, Madhya Pradesh, is known for its thick forest reserves and UNESCO World Heritage temples at Khajuraho. With six days in hand, we had to make a tough choice between 3 national parks, quaint towns, and iconic sights. Culture, wildlife, and a taste of rural India dominated our trip plan. On this trip, we were accompanied by three friends and occasionally by local drivers. Our journey started at Khajuraho (via Bandhavgarh National Park) and ended at Jabalpur.
Khajuraho : 1.5 Days
Myth, history, and culture – coupled with fine artistry – Khajuraho seems to have a heady mix of it all. Known for it’s finely crafted temples, often laced with erotica, Khajuraho, is a must visit for any art/history enthusiast. Sadly, besides the main group of temples, there’s not much to see or do. The village is dotted with a number of hotels which range from budget to plush. Tourism and farming are the two main industries in the village. However, there seems to be a huge gap between the fortunes of the burgeoning hospitality industry and local villagers. Understandably, local youth seek employment as drivers or tour guides. Your best bet at getting a driver would be the airport and you can strike a deal as per your trip duration. Hotels organise tours and can make arrangements for guides. The driver who ferried us from the airport, on the previous day, became our travel companion for the duration of our trip in Khajuraho. The evening cultural performance was disappointing and can be skipped for a good night’s rest.
Western Group of Temples
The Khajuraho Temple cluster comprises the Western Group, The Eastern Group, and Southern Group of temples. A day should suffice for temple hopping – before fatigue sets in. The main temples lie in the Western Group and it’s a good idea to start here. At the entrance, eager guides accosted us and tried to strike a deal for a temple tour. Instead, we opted for the audio guide, but upon entry realised that all guides had been sold out. Fortunately, we had some literature with us and used it as a guide to understanding the finer nuances of temple architecture. As with most works of art, the temple carvings are open to interpretation and more importantly – an open mind.
It’s hard to escape legend in Khajuraho. It is believed, that Khajuraho gets its name from the golden date (Khajur) palm trees at the entrance to the temples. The temples were built by the Chandela Kings, believed to be, the descendants of the moon God, Chandra. Created between 950 AD and 1050 AD, the temples survived successive attacks from invaders but eventually faded into oblivion – with the fall of the ruling dynasty. The true reason behind the erotic sculptures is some what of a mystery. Some believe it to be a test for a devout devotee (all erotic figures are outside the main sanctum sanctorum or garbhagriha). Therefore, a devotee can truly attain higher sense of spirituality conciousness only after leaving behind all material or physical cravings. Or probably they celebrated ‘love’ (every form of it) and didn’t feel the need to be ashamed of it. Perhaps, that’s what’s so fascinating about the artists, they let a visitor form his/her opinion, than impose their own.
The temples were left largely undiscovered and were conveniently forgotten, until British officer TS Burt made a re-discovery of sorts. Of the original 85 temples, only 25 remain today. Many statues (severed arms and legs) bear testimony of the effect of natural elements over time. Unlike the barren, village landscape on the outside, the temple lawns were lush green and formed a fitting contrast to the sepia toned temples.
In the clockwise direction, the Varaha Shrine is the first temple to be visited. Varaha is believed to be the boar avatar (incarnation) of the Hindu God, Vishnu. Upon closer inspection, the sandstone statue has numerous intricate carvings of Hindu deities on its body. The shrine offered us a temporary relief from the piercing rays of the sun. The Lakshmi temple, adjacent to the Varaha Temple, was locked making it difficult to get a look at the statue inside.
Opposing the smaller shrines of Varaha and Lakhsmi, the external façade of the Lakhsmana temple is quite stunning. The towering sikharas (spires) of the temple are the first sight you’d set you’re eyes on. A plaque gives a brief history of the temple. Built in honour of Lord Vishnu, the Lakshmana temple took 20 years for completion. The garbhagriha houses a statue of the principle deity, Vishnu. Around the main deity are figures depicting scenes from Hindu scriptures. Bats and rats abound the cold, dimly lit stone room. It might be a good idea to watch your step.
As splendid as the figures in the garbhagriha are, it’s on the outer walls of the temple that the artists have truly resigned to their imagination and inhibitions. Nervous giggles, hushed tones, and coy looks serve as a prelude to what you’re about to witness. Look towards the sky and you know what the fuss is about. Statues of men, women, and sometimes animals – intertwined in a rapturous celebration of love – mark the south and north sides of the temple. Nervous purists look away abashedly, while guides tried to give their precious take on the intricately carved statues. There’s a whole load of arms, legs (some of them missing) and lot’s going on. In the rays of the afternoon sun it’s not always possible to get the best take on what’s happening. But, it wouldn’t take an expert to realise that the artists left no stone unturned in depicting ‘love’ in every form.
On the lower most panel of the basement wall, statues depict elaborate processions with elephants and musicians. It doesn’t take much to imagine how life back them must have been like.
Afterthoughts: As with most historic sites, it’s hard not to contemplate on the artistic meaning of these structures. On closer inspection, the main boundary walls depict strength, the first entry point in any palace. On the outer walls of the temple (inside the boundary walls) are scenes of everyday life, lovemaking, forming an integral part of ‘life’. After all, it’s continuity and survival depended on it. And at the centre of it all, in the midst of the chaos of the everyday, lies a greater conciousness (garbhagriha), a soul, or higher understanding of enlightenment. Come to think of it, the people of Khajuraho, seemed to have a different understanding of life, one that was more liberated, probably more progressive than the times we live in today. But we can only surmise; we’d never really know.