Located in the Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh in India, Khajuraho is a small town famous for the country's largest group of medieval Hindu and Jain temples, depicting a splendid saga of architectural brilliance. It appears that the name Khajuraho is derived from the Sanskrit word Kharjur which stands for date palm. According to legend, once a pair of golden date palm trees served as the door of the group of impressive and very intricately carved temples spread over the area, famous for their vivid depictions of the fascinating erotic scenes on the outer walls. Considered one of the seven wonders of India since 1986, Khajuraho is worthy of its name given by the 11th century AD Muslim historian Abu Rihan Alberuni as the City of the Gods.
There is a legendary story relating to the construction of the temples in Khajuraho. According to the story, one day, while a beautiful young woman named Hemavati was taking her bath in a pool, the Moon God Chandra was swooned by her beauty and had sex, despite her soft dissuasion. However, over time, when the pretty maid gave birth to a son, Chadravarmana, she cursed the Moon God Chandra as she was afraid of social harassments for having a baby out of wedlock. But the god pacified her by prophesying that the child would grow up to become a king. Indeed, when he grew up, the child founded the Chandela Dynasty. Although by that time Hemavati was dead, she once appeared before her son in his dream and asked him to construct temples that would depict human passions.
Apart from the legends, from the 10th to 12th century AD, Khajuraho was the capital of the Chandela kings who ruled much of the present-day Bundelkhand, and most of the temples at Khajuraho were built between 950 AD and 1050 AD by the Hindu kings Yashovarmana and Dhaga of that dynasty. While the Laksmana Temple, dedicated to Vaikuntha Vishnu, was constructed during the reign of Yashovarmana, the highlights of Dhanga’s reign is the Vishvanatha Temple, constructed to celebrate independence from the Gurjara-Pratihara rulers and dedicated to Lord Shiva. However, the largest and the most famous surviving temple is the Kandariya Mahadeva, dedicated to Lord Shiva, which was built in the early 11th century during the reign of King Vidyadhara.
According to the typical feature of Hindu temples, the temples of Khajuraho are clustered near water-bodies and maintaining another significant feature, which is predominant in Hindu temples, all the temples in Khajuraho, except the Chaturbhuja temples, face the sunrise. Most of the temples were built using sandstone, except four which also used granite in their construction.
The stone blocks were carved separately and then assembled as interlocking pieces to form a temple. Each temple is equipped with a dome called shikhara, which is supposed to be linked to the mountain Kailash or Meru, the mythical abode of the gods. All the temples contain a high raised platform, an entrance porch or Ardha Mandapam, a portico or Mandapam, a vestibule or Antrala, and the inner sanctum or the Garvagriha. The central space is typically surrounded by an ambulatory for the pilgrim to clockwise walk around the inner sanctum, known as Pradakshina.
The temples in Khajuraho have a rich display of intricately carved statues, and several sculptural motifs also run through the temples. Many of those motifs simply reflect everyday activities, like farming, playing music, creating pottery, and like that. However, although the temples have become famous for erotic sculptures, the artwork symbolically highlights the four ultimate goals of human life in Hinduism: Dharma or moral values, Artha or prosperity, Kama or sexual pleasure, and Moksha, the utmost aim to be attained through those three paths.
By displaying all the four goals in life, the temples of Khajuraho depict the wholeness of life. The erotic figures of entwined couples are also suggested to represent the union of the human soul with the divinity. It is also suggested that the erotic sculptures reflect the influence of the esoteric Tantric cult that believed in reversals of ordinary morality as a religious practice.
The decorative statues of the temples include several gods like the Elephant-headed Ganesha facing north; Yama, the god of death, mounted on a male buffalo, facing south; the two river goddesses, Ganges and Yamuna guarding the entrance to the sanctum. A sculpture in the Varaha temple, depicting Lord Vishnu in his boar incarnation, is meticulously carved with 375 miniature figures on its entire body, which included a figure of Saraswati, the goddess of beauty, wisdom, and music, playing her Veena, located between its nose and mouth. Other sculptures include the sultry, voluptuous apsaras, or nymphs with their generously contoured and bejeweled bodies, putting on make-up, washing their hair, playing games, dancing, and endlessly knotting and unknotting their girdles.
Unfortunately, the magnificent structures in Khajuraho remained neglected over the centuries after the fall of the Chandela dynasty. Apart from negligence and lack of maintenance, most of the temples were plundered and destroyed by the invaders and the subsequent Muslim rulers. The year 1202 AD marked the beginning of its drastic decline when the army of the Delhi Sultanate under the command of Qutb al-Din Aibak, seized the Chandela kingdom. The temples also fell victim to the temple destruction campaign of Sikandar Lodi in 1495 AD. Ultimately, out of the original 85 temples, only 20 survived the ravages of time. Probably, they were spared due to their remote location and remained hidden under the thick vegetation and forests to be rediscovered only in 1850.
While the Eastern Group of temples in Khjuraho includes the carved Jain temples, built for the flourishing Jainism in the region during the Chandela rule, and dedicated to the Tirthankars, the temples in the Western and Southern group are dedicated to various Hindu gods and goddesses. Among the surviving Hindu temples, six are dedicated to Shiva, eight to Vishnu and his affinities, one to Ganesha, and to the sun god Surya.
The important temples belonging to the Western Group include the temple of Khandarya Mahadeva, the largest and the most elegant surviving temple in Khajuraho, dedicated to Shiva; the striking Laksmana Temple, dedicated to Vaikuntha Vishnu; the Varaha Temple, containing a colossal monolithic image of Varaha, the boar incarnation of Lord Vishnu; the beautiful Devi Jagdamba Temple, dedicated to the goddess of the Universe, Devi Jagdamba; the Chitragupta Temple, an 11th century temple of Sun god, Surya equipped with an octagonal ceiling; and the Chausath Yogini Temple, built of granite, and dedicated to the 64 Yoginis, the manifestations of Shakti, the Mother Goddess.
The Southern Group comprises only two temples: the Dhuladeo Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and located south of the Jain enclosures; and the dilapidated Chaturbhuja temple, located much further south and containing a 9 feet tall statue of Lord Vishnu.
The Eastern Group of temples can be subdivided into two groups, while one includes the intricately designed Jain temples, the other includes the Hindu temples, scattered throughout the village. The Jain temples comprise the temple of Parshvanatha, the largest among the Jain temples in Khajuraho, with the ceiling of its entrance porch featuring a chain and floral patterns, along with a pair of flying Vidyadharas, the demi-gods possessing magical powers; the Adinatha Temple, containing a basalt statue of Lord Adinatha with a three-line inscription, although the exterior walls of the temple are decorated with the Hindu deities; and the Ghantai Temple, dedicated to the Tirthankara Rishavanatha.
The three Hindu temples belonging to the Eastern Group include the Brahma Temple, the Vamana Temple, and the Javari Temple. While the Brahma Temple, made of granite in 900 AD contains a sculpture of four-faced Brahma, the god of creation, in its sanctum, the Vamana Temple is dedicated to Vamana or the dwarf incarnation of Lord Vishnu. The outer walls of the Vamana Temple are adorned with intricate carvings of alluring celestial nymphs in a variety of appealing gestures, and it enshrines a four-handed image of Vamana, flanked by Chakrapurusha on the left and Shankhapurusha on the left, symbolizing the personifications of the Sudarshan Chakra or the sharp discuss and conch, held by Vishnu. The strangely named Javari Temple is decorated with a Makara-Toran or Capricorn Arch Gateway at the entrance porch, with four decorated loops crowned by a Kirtimukha, and is also dedicated to Lord Vishnu.
The Khajuraho Group of Monuments are enlisted in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites and each year attracts thousands of tourists around the world.