Wednesday, 19 August 2009
Khajuraho-Sex and Divinity
As the weeks pass since our return India begins to take a more settled shape in my mind; the sheer bewilderment induced by the experience is in decline. I thought I would add some more information from time to time on the variety of things we saw. I could begin with the Taj Mahal, the great masterpiece of Islamic art, but I’ve settled instead on another monument, a little less well known, but one that combines aspects of both the sacred and the profane-the Hindu temples at Khajuraho.
Lost and neglected for many centuries, the temple complex at Khajuraho in the state of Madhya Pradesh was built by the Chandella Dynasty in the tenth and eleventh century AD and then abandoned soon after for reasons that have never been adequately explained. There are three main complexes-the western, the eastern and the southern-covering an area of several square miles. For the days we were there we hired a guide to take us around, a better way of discovering things and significances that we might otherwise have missed.
Those who have been will know just how perplexing the whole thing is, with carvings representing a multitude of activities, a multitude of experiences, human, divine…and superhuman! Lakshmana Temple, the oldest among the western group, dating back to the late tenth century, is really splendid, full of the most wonderful carvings, anything from soldiers and dancers, camels and elephants, to a man doing a rather unspeakable things with a horse!
From there we went to the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, an eleventh century construction and, in simple visual and architectural terms, by far the best of the western group. It’s here that the erotic reliefs achieve a particular intensity. There is one particularly beautiful carving of a couple having sex, assisted on either side by female attendants. This really is the Kama Sutra at its most acrobatic, with the male figure seemingly standing on his head! Inside and outside there are also carvings of all sorts of figures celebrating the marriage of Shiva and Parvati; there as guests, attendants or protectors. I loved the figure of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, and the Sapta Matrikas, the seven mothers, responsible for the dressing of the bridegroom.
I should add that the carvings depicting sexual encounters in all their variety-and believe me, variety is the operative word-are all to be found on the exterior of the temples, in clear separation from the sanctum sanctorum. And as to why sex was depicted by the Chandellas in such a vivid and unforgettable manner there is simply no clear and generally accepted explanation. Some have suggested that it shows a link with Tantric cults; others that it is pornography offered for the entertainment of the Gods. All I will say is, as always, the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there!
In the eastern group the temple that impressed me most was that of Parsvanath, included now within the Jain collection. There is a particularly fine carving here of Brahma and Vishnu, his consort. Even more beautiful was Kama, the love god, with his quiver of flower arrows, embracing Rati, his own consort.
In all we spent four days exploring the area, though it really requires more time to make sense of it all. But, in the end, I don’t suppose one human life is really enough to understand India properly, to understand all that the country has to offer. History lies heavy here.