Khajuraho is a small town in the state of Madhya Pradesh in central India. Its temples with some erotic sculptures on their walls make Khajuraho different from other temples towns in India. The erotic sculptures of Khajuraho temples have generated curiosity among Indian as well as foreign travelers. Interestingly only 10% of Khajuraho temple sculptures are erotic and balance 90% of statues depict day to day activities of life as shown in most of the temples.
Though statues of Khajuraho temples attracts lots of people from across the globe still everyone reacts differently after seeing these in real. Some shake their heads in disgust & cringe, some laugh to overcome their embarrassment, others ignore or giggle away and few try to understand the concept behind temple art.
It is strange to see erotic sculptures on the walls of a temple. Considering discussion about sex in public is a big taboo in India and showing this in explicit details on religious places is even stranger. There are several temples across India with erotic sculptures of male & female but none of them are as explicit as in Khajuraho. It is a topic of discussion why the Chandela kings built these sculptures on temple walls 1000 years ago.
There are several stories and myths related to the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho temples. I shall come to that after giving a brief history of temples.
Who built Khajuraho temples?
These temples were built between 950 to 1050 by Chandela Kings. The first Chandela king Chandravarman started the construction of these temples. Later on more temples were built during the reign of Yashovarman, Dhanga, and Vidyadhara. Khajuraho’s temples are spread in an area of 20 Sq Km. According to historical records, there were 85 temples in the 12th century and at that time all were in active use.
Khajuraho’s temples are dedicated to Hinduism and Jainism. The Hindu temples are dedicated to Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. These temples have intricate details, fine workmanship, and symbolism.
After the fall of the Chandela dynasty, these temples lost their galore. Over the centuries forests overgrew Khajuraho temples and they remained hidden for the next 500 years. In the 1830s a British surveyor found these temples and reintroduced them to the world. Now only 25 temples have survived.
Fortunately, Khajuraho survived the Muslim invaders who attacked India from the 12th century onwards because temples were built in remote areas away from the cities. People living in Khajuraho shifted to other cities and over the years palm trees and vegetation overgrown the temples. This isolation of Khajuraho protected the temples from the continuous attacks of Muslims rulers.
Why temples have erotic sculptures on their walls?
This is one of the most asked questions about the sculptures on Khajuraho’s temples. Here I would like to clarify two things that these erotic sculptures are only on the outer walls of temples. Secondly, as I mentioned, in the beginning, these sculptures are only 10% of the total statues on Khajuraho temples. It can be overwhelming or annoying for some people to see different sexual positions on temples walls. There seem to some myths, reasons, and stories behind these sculptures on temples walls.
I am sharing some of the most popular stories I have come across during and after my visit to Khajuraho.
The story associated with Chedela king
The most popular story is associated with the Chedela king Chandravarman. According to the legend, a beautiful lady named Hemavati was taking bath in a pond full of lotus flowers on a full moon night. The Moon God Chandrama got fascinated with her beauty and approached her.
After their romantic encounter Hemavati got pregnant and to hide her shame of being unwedded mother, she went into the jungle and gave birth to a male child. When Chandrama came to know about the child he gave him a boon that he will become a king. Hemavati named the boy Chandravarman after the moon God and raised the child single handle.
Chandravarman knew about her mother’s story and when he became king he built the temples. He ordered to engrave erotic sculptures on temple walls. Some say it is to portray sex as a natural act among human beings and others say these are just to show the pointlessness of these acts.
Maithunas and Tantric cult story
The second story comes from the local guide we engaged for our temple tour. According to him, the erotic statues on temple walls were carved due to the “Tantric” influence. To prove his point he told us about the “Chausath Yogini temple“.
This temple of “Devi” is also in Western group of temples and has mystic around it. Chausath Yogini temple is considered as one of the most important temples among the Tantric cult.
He told us that men and women showed in different mating positions are the “Maithunas”. The Maithuns were the people who followed Tantra and Tantric practices in which sexual union is one of the important rituals. These sculptures of Maithuns were made to show their religious believes.
Maithuns also believed that these relations among men & women are not just the physical union, but it is a union in which men and women transfer their internal energy to each other which is a very important part of Tantric practices. Guide told us that during the mating time they attain the divine form of Shiva and Shakti. Maithuns considered it the ultimate bliss which gives spiritual energy and a way to attain Moksha.
To influence people for family life
The third story has a different angle. According to this, in those days lots of people were influenced by the Jainism and Buddism. They were leaving their homes to live the life of monks. So to discourage them and to evoke their physical desires to live family life these erotic sculptures were made on temple walls.
Another similar concept says that in those days young boys were sent to Gurukuls, where they live in solitude away for family life. These boys don’t have any contact with women and girls, so they do not know about physical relations. Before going into social life after completion of education, these young men were sent to these temples to understand this part of life. The metaphors were made to attract and educate these young men about family life.
One story says that these statues are symbolic of human desire. These sculptures are only on the outer wall and the inner parts of temples have statues of Vishnu or Shivalingam or sometimes empty. This symbolizes that you leave the lust and desire outside when you enter the temple, which means you should be free from desires.
It symbolizes that a person has completed the worldly deeds of performing duties, overcome money matters, overcome sexual desire, and now it is the time to attain Moksha. This way a person can pray to God with full attention to attain spirituality.
The popular interpretation of sculptures in Khajuraho
These temples are made in Nagra style of architecture with the detailed carving on its walls. These sculptures depict different kinds of actions and scenes. Here are some of the main features of the temple sculptures.
1.) The walls of Hindu, as well as Jain temples, have beautiful carvings and compositions. The proportions of the sculptured figures are according to the rules of ancient Shilpa-Shastra. The Gods, Goddesses, and other creatures are carved in perfect proportion. These kinds of figures and shapes are also found in different temples across India.
2.) Some of the temple walls have statues of guardian angles and Gandharvas on its walls from ancient stories. The statue of the Varaha avatar shows how Vishnu saved the universe.
3.) Then there are scenes from day to day life. Where warriors are going for war holding weapons, scenes from the royal court, a teacher with his students and different animals.
4.) Most interesting of them are the statues of Apsaras and Nymphs. In Hindi, they are popularly known as Sapan Sundaris, which means desirable women. The statues are carved with lots of details.
They are shown as heavily ornamented broad-hipped and well-proportionate women, celebrating womanhood. They portray human emotions like washing hair, scratching back, washing clothes, dancing, playing music and caressing a baby. These states beautifully display different emotions.
5.) Then comes the erotic sculptures, which are most talked about statues of Khajuraho temples. They show different mating scenes among men and women, which are mostly considered Mithunas in tantric practice.
These sculptures depict natural and unnatural mating scenes, group sex and different mating positions from Kamasutra. Sometimes people refer to these as temples of love due to these sculptures. It is unfortunate that when we talk about Khajuraho temples these statues dominate the discussion and most of the people miss the intricate details of these beautiful temples.
There are some really nice places for solo female travelers in India.
I can say that we don’t know the real reason behind these sculptures on the temple. One thing, I can say that Chandela kings built beautiful temples complex which shows the great workmanship of artists from that era. They left us with a great heritage site, which we can cherish forever.