The Khajuraho temples, located in Madhya Pradesh, are a group of Hindu and Jain temples with sculptures famed as much for their erotic art as the skill of the artisan. These sculptures unite spirituality and erotic art in a sublime aesthetic blend. Built by the Chandela dynasty in the 9th century the original complex is believed to have 85 temples. Of these only 25 have survived the onslaught of various invasions and the vicissitudes of time.
The temples of Khajuraho have been grouped into three complexes based on their geographic location: east, west and south. Of the surviving temples the architecturally significant temples are in the Western complex. The prominent temples include Lakshman, Vishwanatha, Kandariya Mahadeva, Jagadambi, Chitragupta, Dulhadeo, Parshavanatha, Adinatha, Vaman, Javari and Chaturbhuja temples. Of these, the Kandarya Mahadeva Temple alone accounts for nearly 870 sculptures.
While erotic expression to reach out to the Divine can be traced back to the Harappan civilization, the Khajuraho sculptures are perhaps the most valiant as well as elegant expression of erotic art. Declared by UNESCO as a world heritage site, these sculptures foreground the role of both the male and female principles. An unapologetic expression of passionate love, these sculptures have been labeled by the author, James McConnachie, in his history of the Kamasutra, as the apogee of erotic art.
In the land where spirituality has largely been associated with renunciation and celibacy, the Khajuraho sculptures emphasize the role of artha and kaama along with dharma to attain the goal of moksha. As the American art historian, explains the sculpture of a man and woman in close embrace is a symbol of moksha, final release or reunion of two principles, the essence (Purusha) and the nature (Prakriti).
The intricate details and the vibrant expressions – the titillation in the arched eyebrow, the brazen body gestures, the interlocked poses of love making couples, should be credited as much to the use of superior sandstone as to the precision of skilled craftsmen. Also, it indicates the liberated society of those times, free of repressions, to manifest eroticism in art in a healthy manner. A secular and inclusive mindset in reflected in the representation of family deities, nymphs, apsaras, griffins and animals – each playing their role in the cosmic play. This liberation is also seen in the literary works of those time. In fact, several sculptures can be seen to be inspired by the poetry and drama of that era.
While famed for its amorous poses, less than 10% of Khajuraho’s sculptures are of erotic motif. Majority of the friezes portray day to day life events – women dressing up, farmers and potters at work, musicians performing – a composite amalgamation of the erotic, artistic, ornamental as well as practical.
Assigning eroticism a place in human life as well as divine order, the sculptures at Khajuraho from a lost era are well ahead of our times.