I, for one, love legends and I instantly fell for this one. There is always something romantic about the moon and it is little wonder that the descendants of the celestial Moon God would build monuments that stand for love.
I am in Khajuraho, lost in the passions of the erotic art that graces the walls of the temples. A beautiful woman, Hemavathy, was bathing in the dark under moonlight when she unwittingly attracted the Moon God himself. Seduced, 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, their futility.
It is not just erotic art that lends sensuality to Khajuraho. Besides, they constitute barely a tenth of the lot of sculptures adorning the temple walls. Walking around Khajuraho, I feel as if I am entering a medieval world of apsaras and deities, mortals and devils.
Located on the banks of a tributary of the Ken river, these medieval monuments are today part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built between the 10th and 12th centuries by the Chandela Rajputs, these temples hidden amidst the forests were not fully explored until the 19th century.
The Western Group of temples is the largest. There are then the Eastern and Southern groups and a few Jain monuments as well. There were once more than 85 temples here. Today, about 22 remain. One wonders why this town, named after the khajur or date-palm, would be chosen by the Chandelas as their cultural capital.
The Kandariya Mahadeva temple towers above the rest in the Western Group with almost 900 sculptures jostling for space on its interior and exterior walls. Representing Mount Kailash, the temple gives the illusion of a mountain range. The main tower, almost 30 metres tall, is surrounded by several miniature towers resembling smaller peaks. There are sculptures depicting gods and goddesses, animals and birds, artists and soldiers, and you cannot miss some of the most passionate erotic carvings here. Dedicated to Shiva, the temple is believed to have built by King Vidhyadhara after a successful military campaign.
The Lakshmana temple dedicated to Vishnu, built by Yashovarman, is one of my personal favourites. The Vaikunta image of Vishnu is portrayed as a composite of three faces – those of a lion, boar and a man. Sculptures fill the walls and you can lose yourself in the everyday life of the medieval Chandelas. Facing this temple is a Lakshmi temple that once housed a Garuda and next to it is an intricately carved monolith of Varaha, the third incarnation of Vishnu, built of sandstone. More monuments surround the complex. Along the same platform of the Kandariya Mahadeva temple is a Mahadev temple, another shrine dedicated to Jagadhambi, a Chitragupt temple for the sun god Surya, a shrine for Parvati, and the massive Vishwanath temple.
I head to the oldest temple in this town – the Chausath Yogini Temple -- built in 900 AD. In an open sanctuary located on a mount are 67 cells silhouetted against the setting sun. The shrines, made of granite are however empty. None of the 64 Yogini along with Goddess Durga are around , but I can feel a mystical aura around the mount. My guide believes that the essence of Khajuraho lies in the tantric cult and the erotic sculptures are a manifestation of the same. The local people, however, say that the underlying thought is to leave your lust behind before entering the temple, which is probably why these sculptures do not show the gods and goddesses in intimate moments.
It is in the soft crimson light of the setting sun that I grasp the true meaning of sensuality. Lost in a world of caresses with passions running high are millions of exquisite sculptures carved on the walls. They may be cast in stone but their emotions bring them alive. Love alternates with lust as these amorous men and women are etched in a montage of erotic art. And even in those private moments made public, they seem to have eyes only for their beloveds.