“In the embrace of his beloved a man forgets the whole world, — everything both within and without; in the same way, he who embraces the Self knows neither within nor without” – Bhrihadaranayaka Upanishad. This line represents all that is Khajuraho.
I had been writing the Khajuraho series from the remote Thai-Laotian mountains. It was quite a contrast. The lush misty wilderness of North Thailand is a far cry from the raging hormones of Khajuraho. A very bad stomach flu got me unsettled for weeks and Khajuraho disappeared in the midst of white lab coats and medicine bottles. Finally in a sunny bamboo grove of Chiang Mai, I revisited Khajuraho and the memories came surging by. Beauty and lovers had been given utmost importance and women have been featured in maximum prominence in Khajuraho temples. The frozen figures were in no way unreal and pulsated with life even from the photos. Mobility and passion filled every microcosm of them and they emanated life through dynamic sensual contortions and display of palpable emotions.
Immediately I got transported back to where I had left off, at the Laxmana Temple in Western Khajuraho Group. It was a winter noon in the midst of Bundelkhand heritage of Madhya Pradesh and the sun was high in the sky. Afternoon blaze made the sandstone temples glow absurdly bright and a hush fell in the expansive grounds. Not even the omnipresent crows could be heard. I was once again lost among the lovers of Laxamana Temple with the sun on my face. A 10 armed Goddess Durga covered a huge niche at the Laxmana Temple and at the entrance an intricately carved toran welcomed me auspiciously. The toran (symbol of auspicious and hallowed welcome) was actually a garland of flowers carved out of a single stone and looped across the doorway from one end to to the other. It stemmed out of the mouths of makaras, fearsome mythical crocodiles, and within the folds of the garland, tiny nymphs could be seen bearing its weight.
Symbolically it was the anti dote to evil eyes and beyond it, a string of musicians welcomed visitors to the depths of the ancient stone temple. I was officially inside the holy sanctum in presence of divinity and I don’t know which awed me more-the power of mortal creativity or the silent assuring cocoon of the Almighty. At one place, a Sanskrit inscription on the passageway spoke volumes of King Yashovarman, who had dedicated the splendid temple to Vaikuntha Vishnu. The Kandariya Mahadev temple stood next door and I scampered in the blazing afternoon heat into its cool interiors. Nandi, the Bull stood guard at his master’s doorstep ever ready to be Lord Shiva’s (the deity to whom Kandariya Mahadev temple is dedicated) faithful vehicle.
One of the largest and most ornate of Hindu temples of Khajuraho group, Kandariya Mahadeva was massive. It loomed into the blazing blue sky and glowed like a huge mountain of gold. The deity which resided inside the cave like inner sanctum of the mountain shaped temple was Lord Shiva. A resident of a cave in Mount Kailasha (hence the symbolic cave like sanctum inside a mountain like temple), Shiva is represented by linga or the phallus. He is definitely the most interesting of the Hindu trinity of Brahma (creator), Vishnu (moderator/preserver) and Shiva (destroyer) and extremely popular. He has various incarnations and is generally perceived as a much loved, ascetic who is easy to please. He has a fondness for bhang (cannabis), alcohol (in various incarnations) and Parvati, his female consort. He dresses in tiger skin, remains clouded in haze of cannabis, sports dreadlocks and trident and is slow to anger.
Shiva is the destroyer of everything created and preserved by Brahma and Vishnu and it is his Tandav Nritya ( the dance of Death) which paves way for new beginnings. He rides Nandi, the Bull and remains surrounded by ghouls and ghosts with Parvati firmly by his side. He is also the fearful Bhairav, who roams cremation grounds and is pacified with bottles of alcohol as well as the delightful husband to Goddess Kali, Parvati’s destructive incarnation. Incidentally in Hinduism, every God or Goddess has various and diverse (often extreme avatars/ incarnations) because like mere mortals, even they change as per situations and their moods vary accordingly. Very logical and extremely sensible, in true Hinduism philosophy the male and female divine partners are always represented perfectly compatible and balanced.
Goddesses are endowed with huge destructive as well as creative powers (at par with their male counterparts) and beautiful docile Parvati as Kali becomes a blood thirsty violent woman on a killing spree. In her blind rage she is stopped by her husband Lord Shiva, who lies down at her feet to restrict her from further destruction. Only upon stepping on her husband (a sacrilege according to Hinduism since God resides within self) does she realizes her mistake and calms down. The perfect harmony with which the angry partner is handled by Lord Shiva again harps the most important teaching of Hinduism, the importance of male-female unison or balance.
Symbolism and Hinduism go hand in hand and this delightful philosophy (Hinduism is not a religion) is teeming with riddles, twists and symbols all pointing out to very basic human threads of existence. The linga or representation of Lord Shiva is a phallus which is embedded on a yoni (the female sexual organ). It represents the culmination of Shiva and Parvati and the eternal truth that man and woman are two separate important cogs of existential balance. For a conservative, supposedly prudish country like India, it is actually pitiable and tad hilarious as to how we have so far deviated from the basic philosophy of Hinduism in the name of religion.
Kandariya Mahadev temple actually made me sit back and wonder about this state as I stared at its massive spire. The main spire/ shikhara rose up to 31 meters and was surrounded by cloister of 84 miniature spires representing Mount Kailasha surrounded by peaks. Built in 1000 B.C Kandariya Mahadev temple has perhaps the most stunning representation of erotic carvings. Although they were all pervasive, the erotic sculptures rarely featured inside the temple, but adorned mostly the exterior walls. I walked around the platform of the giant of a temple and took in the exquisite art. Ganesha stayed housed in an intricately netted stone niche and Sapta Matrikas or the 7 Mother Goddesses stood close by.
Chamunda or the fearsome avatar/incarnation of the Devi or Mother Goddess remained frozen in a hideous scowl. She froze my blood and everything about her screamed horror. Although damaged, her skeletal body, sunken eyes and scorpion adornments were a far cry from the voluptuous figures of neighbouring Sura Sundaris. She looked what she represented-fear and Chamunda is one Goddess, who is believed to be appeased with offerings of wine, meat and ritual animal sacrifices (even humans in olden times). Shiva sculptures joined the friezes soon, dressed as a groom. This strange combination of horror with matrimony was a bizarre display of extremes and was not the easiest on the eyes.
Sura sundaris and mortals came soon enough and diffused beauty, sex and tranquility into a very visually oscillating scenario. Women in Khajuraho were all beautiful, exquisitely groomed and got represented as normal breathing, living humans. She can be seen engaged in mithunas (amorous couple, gazing into each others eyes or kissing), maithunas ( engaged in passionate love making) as dancers with accompanied musicians, busy in domestic chores and lost in her own self (writing a love letter, preening at her reflection in a mirror, beautifying herself and even pleasuring herself). Surasundaris crowded every inch of this temple too along with demons, mythical creatures, deities and flowers. Their voluptuous bodies, scantily draped in clingy garments stretched in fine creases and enhanced their beauty more. One applied vermilion, the symbol of matrimony in the parting of her finely coiffured hair and another threw a ball.
Fine detailing made this beauty come to life and her love tired body showed delicate scratch marks of nails. Her deeply grooved navel, her contracted back muscles as she stretched gave her the sense of dynamism and energy that almost reached out and touched her viewers. She was sensuality personified and she was a woman very much aware of her power. Another Surasundari delicately balanced on one foot to pluck out a thorn and her attendant stood close by carrying her stylish purse. The effect of Khajuraho was dizzying and Kandariya Mahadev was a whole world on its own. Dynamism, beauty, eroticism, symbolism, Tantra and divinity got mixed very potently in its architectural magnificence, sheer size and disorienting claustrophobic intricacy.
Love too had its own interpretations at Khajuraho temples. From the passionate couple locked in heat, to a wistful young girl writing a love letter it tempered down at times to initial playful stages of courtship. Loving acts came in rows of friezes and it was a wonderful, at times naughty roller coaster movie reel. At one place a valiant man fended off a monkey, from his wide eyed clingy lover, smiling away as he performed the eternal trick to draw the lady closer. Close to him, at eye level a row of serious looking bejeweled elephants stared ahead except for one who seemed to be distracted in an amused way.
He struggled to break his stare, his mouth curved in a smile as a couple made love next to him. A young girl stared into space,and a gentle smile emoting beautiful flushes of first love, hovered on her soft face. In the same bracket, a Surasundari played a flute, her hair beautifully tied in double knots with a dangling jewelry pin and ornaments. The duality of the crispness of her sharply chiseled ornaments in contrast to her softly contoured body made me think of the emotions of the sculptor who had created her. His raw feelings and expression of beauty were so powerful that I could only wonder if he had loved his muse, to be able to capture such a powerful dynamic vision.
A mother played with her child right next to a couple interlocked in drunken haze underneath date palms. Pots to collect palm wine were scattered around their feet as the child bounced on the woman’s hip, its innocent eyes staring at its mother’s face in childish delight. It was very real, very human and blatantly showed women as we actually are-feeling, functional beings with our own individual needs, aspects and emotions. The female sexuality and individuality were not pushed under the carpet and locked away from public view but on full proud display. Apart from an active participant in love making, the women were shown as maids who assisted the engaged couples in maintaining their often acrobatic positions or as another participant engaged in self arousal or just like a woman at times hiding her face in shame.
It felt wonderful to be represented thus as human beings and the pitiable condition of women in present India saddened me further. I wondered exactly when did we Indian women stop being humans and got converted into objects of possession of our fathers, brothers, husbands and sons. It was extremely strange to watch women of ancient India exist in ways more free and able, than me. They proudly displayed their human aspect while I in spite of my country’s progress and modernization remained enslaved in mythical modesty and imposed cultural inhibitions. It was regression in motion and the longer I stood before the erotic carvings, the deeper unwarranted male curiousity grew and cat calls became downright irksome. Standing there before the brazen, beautifully confident ladies I felt increasingly objectified by the second till I could take no more.
TRAVEL TIP – Sometimes a single woman traveler especially an Indian might be subjected to mild eve teasing and unwanted male attention at the Khajuraho temples. Most of the times these are met out by other tourists visiting from different states and very rarely by local college boys. Every temple has caretakers and guards appointed by ASI and in such cases, it is advisable to directly report them of the incident to nip it at the bud, rather than tolerating it and walking away. In some extreme cases, police had gotten involved and the perpetrators had been punished. Khajuraho being an extremely tourist friendly town, the locals, tourism officials and police give utmost importance to security and safety of its visitors.
It is said that divinity and spirituality soothed troubled, conflicted hearts and so I gladly entered the dark cave like inner recess of the temple. Protective mythical beings fought forces of evil and naginis/serpent queens prayed with folded hands. Sunlight played a mysterious game and caused a beautiful rippling effect. As I hovered between darkness and light, the sculptures too joined the game. Some remained hidden in deep shadows while others were bathed in luminescent light. The temple spiraled me through spiritual progression from the mundane (base platform), to the holy (inner sanctum), the sacred (garba griha or the womb) and back to the light of reality. The very basic temple architecture always aimed at that and Vaastu Shastra (science of architectural directions and positions) played an important role in its construction. The effect of planetary movement, especially the sun and its effect on our body clock, as well as its psychological impact was much considered in both Vaastu Shastra and temple architecture. A huge intensive, multi branched study revolving humans, our surroundings and its effects culminated in Khajuraho temples and suddenly I was very exhausted.
I left the grounds, seriously templed out and spent the evening in the hibiscus filled garden of my hotel. Apart from the murmur of fountains, hardly anything could be heard and I could finally come to terms with my dwarfed mortal existence there. Khajuraho I had heard tends to have that effect on its visitors and I had allowed it to enter me too deep. I had a choice to leave but just like most I was badly hooked to one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of ancient world, the secrets of Khajuraho temples.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE