I completed the rest of Khajuraho temples after a few days and took long evening walks around the colourful dusty town. The Chaturbhuj, Dulhadeo, Chausanth Yogini, Chitragupta, Ghantai, Parsvanath and numerous other wonderful monuments passed in a comfortable daze. I did not linger before any of them any more yet took in the vivid colours of rustic Bundelkhand in Khajuraho. The sun sets over the placid lily filled tank, earthen lamps twinkling at twilight from conspicuous niches of candy coloured houses and peasants collecting water chestnuts on rubber tubes soothed me with their simplicity. I was seriously templed out and exhausted with the larger than life intricacy and secretive detailing of Khajuraho monuments.
My last Khajuraho evening was thus spent on the stone steps of the quiet Parsvanath temple, gossiping and chatting with a French scholar. I had to let Khajuraho get out of my head before I lost myself in it. A huge complex immortalising Jainism and Hinduism beliefs, it was too complicated and held too many tantalizing secrets. It was easy to run after them, and be a part of hundred other predecessors but I finally decided to let go. I was there to experience its magical beauty and Khajuraho like an old evil temptress, had successfully lured me into an inexplicable web of mysteries. After chasing too many leading trails, I chose instead to enjoy its beauty skin deep and give myself instead to the wildly perfumed Bundelkhand jasmine and lovely red earth countryside.
It cannot be denied that I was emotionally shaken by the sexual harassment met out at the temple that day. After so many years of solo traveling to most parts of the world, it was downright sad to be treated so in India. It was a harsh reminder of the present social scenario and that I was most unsafe in my own country. I took some time to recover and till then decided to unwind in the flower filled garden of my hotel. A few glasses of creamy lassi and wholesome vegetarian meal thalis (platter) at the Jain restaurant next door relaxed me, and got my thought wheels moving. Although stunningly beautiful and each a masterpiece in its own right, I wondered what actually gave rise to the depiction of those notoriously sexually charged sculptures? Were they just for visual pleasure, hints of prevalent Tantric cult, for warding off evil eyes or were they pointing at something more unfathomable? The depicted women were all beautiful, confident, in touch with their femininity and proud of it, yet there was something amiss. In spite of even being portrayed as mothers, goddesses or doing mundane acts, they were way too appealing to the flesh.
Medieval India in 10th-11th century saw the rise of Tantra (cult based on occult, black magic and other spiritual rituals, including sex, exercise, meditation, sacrifice etc) in both Hinduism and Buddhism. Devi or Mother Goddess worship was predominant in Tantra along with indulging in mamsa (meat), matsya (fish), madya (wine), maithuna (sexual intercourse), mudra (spiritually charged postures) etc. So in the age of widespread prosperity and power of Chandelas, popularity of Tantra and royal patronage of art, who were this gloriously beautiful, confident and seductive women? Their beauty had created an ever lasting impression on me, yet it was their brazen confidence which intrigued me the most. They were exquisite, alive and taunting, perfect poetry in motion. However, the duality of their apparently inhibition free life and their overtly sexual portrayal, made me restless for their identity. I laboured through dusty libraries, pored over the studies on the internet and drew parallels with similar women, who were muses in later history. The revelation or possibility of it (we would never know) was shocking, disturbing but filled with tantalizing hints of a lot being left unsaid.
Tantra followers used to engage in sexual intercourse with their spiritual masters, because they considered sexual bliss to be a path of getting connected with the supreme cosmic consciousness. Although the sexual values of that period were as male biased as today, it is still quite possible to believe that the women portrayed in Khajuraho were indeed regular Chandela citizens depicted living an acceptable Chandela life or maybe not. They were perhaps as ominously suggested strongly by most Khajuraho experts, the magnificent, but unfortunate “Devadasis”.
Most of Hinduism were dictated from or mentioned in the ancient Vedas or the Puranas as rules/rituals and there were rules encompassing everything under the sun for harmonious human existence. Later they boiled down to several schools of Vedic study and creation of the Upanishads ( more concise collection of Vedic texts which contain early concepts of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism). While the Vedas were not considered even remotely created by mortals ( in fact they are supposedly “shruti= hearsay” and directly revealed by Lord Brahma, the creator himself), the other religious texts had human authorship. Most of the writers were supported by royal patronage and I could only imagine, with a sense of unease, the amount of convenient human intervention which might have taken place in their creation.
Vedas were collated around Iron Age-Late Bronze Age and the Puranas were produced by the end of final redaction of the Vedas (although they kept getting modified till 16th century). Strangely Devadasis were not mentioned by the prominent Vedic authors like Vatsayana (the 3rd century scholar and author of Kama Sutra), Kautilya (the 4th century political science and economics professor) and others but later Puranas found them very useful. Rules of daily worship called Agamas, were found mentioned requiring music and dancing to appease the gods. It is not wrong to presume that something went horribly wrong somewhere down the line and by the 6th century B.C the custom of dedicating girls to temples became a rage.
In fact the prestige and wealth of temples were directly proportionate to the number of Devadasis they had. They became an integral part of the temple establishments, having rank and power second only to the priests. Their numbers often reached phenomenal figures (some temples had 400 Devadasis) and in the feudal world of religious institutions, a hierarchy system developed among the Devadasis too. They got classified into dancers, garland makers, musicians etc and the more skilled/ beautiful/ intelligent Devadasis rose to extreme prominence.
A very twisted, cruel and cursed system, Devadasis were in fact real women who were dedicated to the temples by their parents, upon attaining puberty. The literal meaning of Devadasi, is “servant of God” and these women were married off (in a Pottukattu ceremony, similar to marriage) to the temple deity. Devadasis were forbidden to enter into a real marriage and were dedicated to the “service” to the deity or temple for the rest of their lives. Primarily dancers and musicians of gods, Devadasis danced un watched only to satisfy god and her soul. But since these beautiful dancers were mortally un claimed by any man, “modified” rules created Rajadasis out of them.
The theme and techniques of the recitals got conveniently altered and soon they started performing for the entertainment of the royal and rich. Some Devadasis had wealthy or royal patrons and spent their lives practicing their art, rather than becoming housewives. They bore children of their patrons who were also initiated into the same trade to carry on the practicing art. A horribly manipulated practice, Devadasi Pratha/ System got recently abolished in 1988 but it cannot be denied that a lot of classical arts of India still exist due to their dedicated practice throughout the ages.
With beginning of first foreign invasions in 2nd millennium AD and mass destruction of Hindu temples across India, Devadasis also known as “joginis” slowly got degraded into a life of poverty until by the time of British rule, they were considered as full fledged sex workers. Incidentally it is commonly believed that the original Devadasis were Buddhist nuns, who after the fall of Buddhism were degraded into prostitutes when the Brahmins or Hindu priests took over their temples. What actually happened will never be known but it is blatantly evident that women once again got bartered off as objects of lust, by feudal heads and priests in the name of religious sanction.
Numerous 10th century foreign travelers described Devadasis as “public women” who sold themselves for fixed sum of money and although many princely male figures can be seen engaged in sexual activities with the women, it can never be known if the temples were commissioned to glorify their beauty too. Whether or not the women of Khajuraho were actually Devadasis, seen involved in erotic often group activities with the royal patrons or priests remain unsolved but the theme stands closely linear to a very dominant marketing thought that “SEX SELLS”.
The Madhya Pradesh tourism every year earns huge revenues from sale of “maithuna” and nearly nude Khajuraho ladies souvenirs. Some theorists claim that the beautiful Khajuraho women were actually war captives of the Chandelas. Discovery of a very disturbing script at the Vishwanath temple points to this tragic possibility.
“Who are you? Wife of the king of Kanchi,
Who are you? Spouse of the chief of Radha,
Who are you? Wife of the king of Anga,”
These are extracts of possible teary conversations of the war captives of the Chandela King Dhanga, the patron of the Vishwanath temple. The possibility of Devadasis being the Khajuraho muse, however still refused to die down. The noted Arab historian Al Biruni, who accompanied the Afghan invader Mahmud of Ghazni to the siege of Kalinjar fort (stronghold of the Chandelas) had mentioned the Hindu Kings topping their military budgets from revenue generated from temple prostitution. Perhaps the most mysterious of Khajuraho sculptures, that of a luscious beauty, gingerly pinching her skirt’s right hem while having a scorpion firmly planted on her left leg, spirals every theory out of proportion. As strange as can be, it emanates a peculiar mix of thrill and seduction, while bringing the mystery of Khajuraho women back to a complete circle.
It all began with the name Khajuraho. Khajurvahaka, or the ancient name of Khajuraho can be interpreted in 2 different ways. While it may mean “the bearer of date palms” (Khajur=date palms and Vahaka=bearer), the word “kharjura” also means a scorpion, thus giving rise to the second interpretation of ” the scorpion bearer”. The beautiful undressing beauties of Khajuraho hence also came to be identified as scorpion bearers and the oldest architectural structure of Khajuraho was a “jogini” precinct. The structure’s plain 64 niches suggest that it was a housing quarter of real women, who performed Tantric rites to augment military victories. It was Tantra at its strongest.
Medieval temples of India always featured a large number of female sculptures. In Shilpa Prakasha, an ancient Indian text on art, the importance of female beauty is clearly advocated with the following lines. ” As a house without a wife, as frolic without a woman, so without a figure of a woman the monument will be of inferior quality and bear no fruit”. Female nudity was regarded as potent fertility charm and most exquisite creation on earth. Even though I could settle with a possible, albeit disturbing identity of these gorgeous sandstone beauties, the most bamboozling aspect of the Khajuraho riddle still knocked me out.
Tantric texts used code language called Sandhya Binasha to conceal their doctrines from outside world. This delightful enigmatic language used erotic terminology to denote non communicable extreme intangible experiences. The simple erotic line, “The washerwoman/Dombi clings to the Yogi/ hermit around his neck”, in the Tantric language means ascending or awakening of the Dombi=Kundalini energy to the chakra or center of the neck. Dismissing all my high emotions to laughable dust, it provided a high possibility that the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho were just metaphoric and conceal deeper symbolic meanings. Devadasis, captives, joginis, normal citizens, metaphors, figments of artist’s beautiful imagination, whoever these beautiful women were, they were clearly not free. I could finally and very selfishly place myself at par with them and somehow come to terms with the genetically gender biased world.
On my final night at the temple town of the Chandelas, I watched the Sound and Light show at the Western Group of Khajuraho temples. It was a full moon night and the perfect backdrop for one of the most romantic experiences in the world. The night was silent with only the voice of the narrator ringing through the velvety darkness. Medieval voices emerged as chariots raced, swords clashed and temple bells tolled. Not a single spectator moved as Khajuraho came to life. It was mesmerizing and we watched transfixed as the mysterious playground of the Chandelas spun us dizzy in its intoxicating charm. The show ended with a huge burst of fireworks set off by a wedding party and it was the most fitting night to bid this phantasmagoria good bye. I turned my back to the beauty, sex and mystery of Khajuraho and walked away into the big yellow moonlight. It was time to go home.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE