Khajuraho—India’s most famous group of temples

In 2019, the world famous Khajuraho temples will complete 1020 years. The Khajuraho millennium, was celebrated in grand style in from 1999 – 2000. In fact so successful were the celebrations, that it was decided to extend the festivities by one more year.

For those who have never been to Khajuraho, whatever one reads or hears about the temples do not do justice to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Khajuraho. For me it was far more incredible than I had ever imagined and during my first visit, realised that it is its erotic element that has been the most highlighted, whereas this is but a miniscule part of the whole.

The creators of Khajuraho, claim descent from the moon and the legend behind this great dynasty is fascinating.  Chandravaraman, the founder of the Chandela dynasty, is said to be born from the union of Hemwati—the beautiful young daughter of a Brahmin priest—and the Moon God. In his dreams, Chandravaraman is said to have been told to build these temples by his mother—a task achieved in an inspired burst of activity, over a span of 100 years.  With the decline of the dynasty, the temples lay forgotten for many centuries and are said to have been rediscovered in the last century.

As the plane touched down at the tiny airport, on a runway stretching out among the fields, I marvelled at the choice of location of the temples. As I collected my luggage and stood outside the airport, I was accosted by Shagir Khan, a lean and scraggly looking individual, grinning from ear to ear. One of the local taxi drivers, his car was an ancient ambassador and with a brisk salute he offered his services as driver and guide – proudly proclaiming that his was the first taxi to be commissioned at Khajuraho!  Highly amused by his style and air of confidence, I agreed. 

Since I had reached rather late in the afternoon and sunset was not too far away, on Shagir Khan’s    advise, I restricted my visit for the day to the eastern group of temples. These heritage temples are located near the village and are of Hindu and Jain origin. The Parsvnath Temple is the largest in this group and most of the beautiful carvings that one sees printed everywhere are part of this group—the standing figure of Shiva and Parvati, usually used for posters on Khajuraho and others such the famous Singara figures of a graceful feminine figure applying kohl to her eyes and another removing a thorn from her feet, are all here.

Adjacent to the Parsvnath Temple is the more recently restored Adinath Temple with its fine carvings running along the sides in three bands of sculpture. Within both these temples there are images of Tirthankars in black stone. According to me this temple could well be considered one of the most graceful structures in Khajuraho.  A third temple built around 1028 AD and known as the Shanti Nath Temple, has a four and a half metre high standing image of Adinath, is said to attract pilgrims of the Digambar Jain Sect, throughout the year.

There are also three Hindu temples in the group—the Brahma, the Vamana and the Javari dedicated to Vishnu, with their richly carved gateway and exterior carvings. But much more interesting was the Hindu ‘Ghantai Temple’ (temple of bells), located within the village and is counted among the eastern group. This must have been a rather splendid temple, but now lies in ruins. All that remains is the entrance doorway with its rows of heavenly bodies and the seventeen pillars carved with scrolls of bells, after which the temple is named. 

Shagir Khan was determined that I simply had to have a ‘Darshan’ of Shankar Bhagwan and took me to the Matangesha Temple. This is part of the western group of temples but is located outside the walls of the complex, since it is still in use. Not a particularly ornate temple, it was however clear that it dated back to the same period as the rest of the temples.  Religious sentiments appeased, I decided to call it a day.

Next morning, I set out early for the western group of temples, but there were already a large number of visitors. Here, the first temple to see is the Lakshmana Temple, dedicated to Vishnu and his incarnations. On the lintel of the entrance to the temple are carved images of the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. In the intricately carved sanctum, there are idols of Vishnu’s incarnations.

In the Varaha Temple, located opposite to the Lakshmana Temple is an amazing nine foot statue of Vishnu’s Varaha incarnation–its surface polished with the touch of countless hands, this rare and fully carved standing image has hardly ever been seen or mentioned in any description of the Khajuraho Temples.

The Vishwanath Temple has lions flanking the northern entrance and elephants in the southern approach. The sculptures on the exterior of the temple beautiful images of Shiva and Parvati. On the same platform, there is also a small temple dedicated to Parvati, while opposite the temple facing the entrance is the smooth and shiny seated image of Nandi the bull.

The Kandirya Mahadeo temple is the most important and tallest of the Khajurao temples, rising to a height of 31 metres, Dedicated to Shiva, the sanctum enshrines a lingam. At the entrance is a richly carved toran (archway) decorated with multiple figures. Every single stone on the temple exterior is  covered with a carved figure or trellis— these include images of gods and goddesses, musicians playing various instruments, mithuna couples and winged celestial figures. On the same plinth is the Devi Jagadamba temple.

There is also the Chitragupta Temple dedicated to the Sun God and the image of the Sun God driving his chariot drawn by seven horses.  Also to be seen is an eleven-headed Vishnu—his 10 extra heads representing his ten incarnations.

The southern group consists of only two temples, but should not be missed. Of these the 12th century Duladeo Temple is one of the most recently built and is an extremely beautiful temple with images of women and mithuna figures. It is often said to be a smaller version of the Kandirya Mahadeo temple.

Shona Adhikari