Khajuraho: Where stones come alive

Saturday, 5 February 2011 01:55 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Mahanama Prematilaka

Mahabalipuram is a small village situated in Tamil Nadu famously known as the gateway of South India. On our way back to the office he suggested that we also visit a place called Khajuraho. Like a small child looking up at this great tall man I asked him “have you been to this place?” he shook his head and said that this was exactly why we should visit Khajuraho and quipped that I was too young to visit such a place.

This short conversation in Mahabalipuram intrigued me and made me curious to see the place that fascinated my guru. Back at the Madras office I inquired from our accountant of the location of Khajuraho and its symbolism in India. Khajuraho is in the upper part of Madya Pradesh in India and can be reached by air from Bhopal, Bombay, Varanasi and Delhi in less than an hour.

It was only 33 years later, 5 years after my guru’s demise that this dream was realised. In November 2008, together with my wife Manisha, Chartered architect by profession and four other friends, we drove from Bangalore, through Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Madya Pradesh to explore this small village named after the golden date trees that were once found there.

I imagined Khajuraho to be a typical temple-city full of cars and bikes and hawkers’-calls, industrial units and early morning factory alarms as well as heat and dust amidst the hustle and bustle typical of a city in India. Instead I found a small town with a population of just over 9000. Its calm and easy pace surprised me and I gradually fell in love with its quintessential small town-ness.

A world heritage site

In 1972, the General Conference in UNESCO adopted a resolution declaring the preservation and conservation of sites and monuments of cultural and natural significance that are of exceptional interest and outstanding universal value to all mankind as World Heritage Sites thereby seeking cooperation of all signatory nations towards the protection of these universal treasures for posterity.

India is a signatory to this resolution and actively cooperates with UNESCO to identify sites and monuments of universal importance. UNESCO has identified 16 cultural sites and five natural sites in India.

The Khajuraho group of monuments is one of 16 cultural sites declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Khajuraho has also won universal acclaim and admiration for the delicate and youthful female forms of ravishing beauty. I strongly believe that the inclusion of the Khajuraho group of temples as a World Heritage Site is due to the human creative genius visible in the monuments thereby giving it an outstanding universal value.

Descendents from the moon

The outstanding contribution of the Chandellas built the famous temples of Khajuraho between the 10th and the mid 11th centuries. The Chandellas who ruled over Jegakabukti in central India between 9th and 13th century AD were a Rajput tribe of mixed blood claiming descent from the moon. These Chandellas gradually grew in power to emerge as one of the most stable kingdoms of Central India. In the 11th and 12th century, Chandellas fought and repulsed the attacks of Mahmud of Ghazni and Mahamad of Ghur respectively. The Chandellas princes were master craftsmen and patrons of the arts and letters and thus Jegakabukti was swept by a cultural upheaval which manifested itself in the flowering of an architectural movement of uncommon vigor. This region played a significant role in Indian cultural history from 200 BC witnessing a remarkable renaissance of cultural and architectural arts during the Surya period and again between 4th and 6th century AD.

Today, Khajuraho is little more than a village, although it lays strong claims to grandeur many centuries ago through its ruins spread over approximately 21 square kilometres. According to local tradition Khajuraho originally had 85 temples. At present, only 25 temples exist, all undergoing varying stages of preservation.

Although Khajuraho was regarded as the capital city of Chandellas for a while, it’s surprising that the remains of secular buildings are not visible at all. The reasons for choosing Khajuraho as the cultural and religious centre remain a deep mystery.

The Chandellas dynasty expired in the 13th century and soon after, the temple-form sank from the public consciousness. It remained lost until 1838, until T.S. Burt, a British engineer heard of it from one of his workers and ventured into the forest in the quest to unearth “wonders of a place called Khajuraho”.

Temples of Khajuraho confirm to a basic unity of design. With the exception of Chansathyogini, Brahma and Lalgumi-Mahadewa temples, which are constructed either solely or largely of granite, all other Khajuraho temples are built of a fine grained sandstone, in varying shades of pink or pale yellow brought from the quarries of Panna on the east bank of the Ken River. Except for a few others, all the temples of Khajuraho pertain to a cognate style and are manifestations of a distinctive and concreted architectural movement differing only in detail.

These temples mark the culmination of the central Indian building style that has certain distinctive peculiarities of plan and elevation. The temples at Khajuraho are compact and lofty and are bereft of any enclosure walls and are erected on a high platform terrace, that keeps the structure from its environs and provides an open ambulatory around the temple.

Where stones speak

Out of many thousands of sculptures in Khajuraho, 10 percent are erotic; however it is for these very carvings that the temples are best known.

The presence of these erotic forms that adorn the outer temple walls have sparked considerable debate and argument within learned circles and different explanations have been put forward. They could be scenes from Kamasutra, represent Yoga and Tantra or icons of education for Brahmacharis. However, once you see the temple for yourself, you realise that the most plausible explanation is also the most simplest. The erotica is a slice of life, like the scenes of war, the musicians, the guru-shishya depictions, the dancing Apsaras and the gods and the goddesses that adorn the ancient walls.

Whatever the interpretation of the erotic scenes sculptured on the walls of the temple of Khajuraho there is certainly nothing sordid or coarse about them. These representations have given us some of the finest sculptural compositions which vibrate with a rare sensitivity and warmth of emotion.

As the sculptures mirror their times it is evident that the age that produced them had few taboos or inhibitions about sex. The people of that age took a healthy integrated view of life and gave sex its due place in the scheme of things.

Kama or the pursuit of pleasure was deemed to be one of the four aims of life and was regarded as an essential and indispensable stepping stone to Moksha or deliverance, the final aim of life.

According to ancient architectural texts, the depiction of loving birds, animals and human couples were considered auspicious and was to bring luck to the builder and vicariously to the devotee.

Nothing but natural

Ancient creation myths stress the polarity between the sexes as the source of creation. The physical union of man and woman is indeed portrayed as the human counterpart of the cosmic function of creation. The sculptures of the temples of Khajuraho perhaps aim to depict this. All the temples of Khajuraho are embellished with intricate carvings of Gods and Goddesses, warriors, musicians, real and mythical animals and of course celestial nymphs. The sculptures are exquisitely proportioned and depict life in medieval times.

When the golden sun rays glinted and the moonlight showered on the fine grained sandstone figures, I marveled at the splendor thus created before my own eyes, reminding me of the words on the Internationally acclaimed Artichitect, Louis Khan, “The Sun never knew how wonderful it was until it fell on the wall of a building”

My journey to Khajuraho during my recent visit to India, as well as the perusal of architectural texts, influenced me to create this article.

(The writer is a professional architect, and principal partner of Manisha & Mahanama Prematilaka Associates Chartered Architects / Honorary President JikoAoki Trust / Honorary Secretary Finland Sri Lanka Society. Prematilaka is also a literary critique, who has placed reviews on several notable publications.)