Beauty of Khajuraho Temples
by K.L. Kamat
First Online: August 15, 1997
Just like people's perception of Taj Mahal changes after seeing it in reality, the feeling one gets at the Khajuraho temples is totally different from one's expectation. The beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and the same object may appear differently to different people. A maiden may appear as a mother to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, as a sister to Swamy Vivekananda, as a daughter to an elderly person and as a lover to a romantic. I was interested in finding out what most people felt about these erotic sculptures, and observed them from a vantage point in Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh. As they rested under a tree, a Tamilian couple regretted having come all the way and having ignored their own temples. A Bengali couple complained about the tourism brochure they had seen to take this trip. Apparently the brochure had close-ups of only the best sculptures. A Maharashtrian family seemed to think that the higher they went, the better the sculptures, and spent most of their time climbing up and down.
A well-equipped frequenter of horse races pulled out his binoculars but was disappointed that the additional lens did not help improve the visual quality of the sculpture. A family man from Andhra spent all his time attending to his young children and eating the food that his wife distributed, as if the sculptures did not matter. The leader of a gang of youngsters, to preempt the disappointments of his friends, explained, "Our ancestors were very virile; they had to have sex several times a night. If they couldn't find many women they enjoyed the same partner in several positions. These sculptures were erected for their benefit."
A Frenchman and his daughter looked as if they were solving a mysterious problem and analyzed every sculpture in the ultimate detail. Sometimes they argued before agreeing. A newly wed American couple wondered about the advances the Indians had made in the 10th century. The young man must have whispered "Just as we tried the Indian curry, why not try an Indian position?" The couple laughed naughtily and went on to the next temple.
Hundreds of others came, saw the sculptures, passed their own judgments, and left. But none seemed to be excited by looking at them. They all seemed disappointed that the eroticism they had expected was missing. Travel brochures and exaggerated publicity are responsible for this. The travel guides too seemed to exaggerate the sculpture and regularly cooked up stories in order to extract tips. No wonder that those who come here expecting a Las Vegas will be disappointed, because there is only pure beauty and no perversion in these temples. Creations such as a cabaret or pornography, which are designed to excite human sexuality, are absent here. Even the magnetism of a curvaceous female body is missing from these sculptures. Just as we do not think of sex when seeing the image of a half clad Laxmi (a.k.a. Lakshmi ) or Saraswati (Hindu deities), we cannot think of sex at these temples.
Why Erotica in Temples?
There are different opinions on why temples were decorated with sexually explicit sculptures. One group argues that the old kings lived in obscene luxury and that they used these for excitement. Another group thinks that it was part of sexual education in ancient India: since most people visited temples, it was an appropriate place for mass communication. Some scholars say that since Hinduism believes in the efficacy of all four paths to Moksha (Dharma, Artha, Yoga, and Kama), these sculptures were provided to assist in the last of these four paths. Since these sculptures are limited to the outer walls of the temples, some people interpret them as a symbolic gate to reaching God. It is possible that at the time just preceding the construction of these sculptures, monastic Buddhism was prevalent, people were losing interest in the householder-life, and the temples were built to attract people to sex and family life and to renew Hinduism.
Some others go to the extent of saying that the Khajuraho temples themselves are built upon the model of an ultimate seductress. The steps are like the feet, the Ardhmandapam are the knees, the Mandapam represents the curvaceous thighs, the sanctum-sanctorum is like the ovaries, and since it is very dark where the Linga is installed, it represents the sexual organ, etc. For a long time, the pundits have wondered why it was necessary to decorate a place of worship with sexual material, but if one observes the materialistic (Loukika) thoughts of Hinduism, there is nothing unnatural about them.
How can the Indians criticize the Mithuna (mating) sculptures while worshiping Mahadev (Shiva) as a symbol of male and female organs? "All of life is God's magic;" we are all parts of divinity; our scriptures argue that to attain moksha, and to dedicate ourselves to dharma and adhyatma, we should first experience sexual fulfillment. The one who wrote the Kamasutra was none less than a sage! When the Gods themselves cannot escape the web of erotic love (Kama), what about us mere mortals? We have saints and mystic figures (Purana-Purusha) who have sinned, we have sages who have abandoned their years of renouncement for a beautiful woman, we have deities who have slept with others' wives, we have those who have fathered deer, we have those who have made love to and deceived even the Sun God, and we certainly have those who have conceived before marriage. If one were to make a list of these incidents that appear in Hindu scriptures, one could put western societies to shame. If one concedes that sex is an important and integral part of life, mortals must experience it completely. Only perversions are excluded.
Not all nations can have the same laws or customs about sexual behavior. What is considered natural in one may be prohibited in another. In the same country, what is considered perversion may eventually become to be acceptable. In India we consider kissing as a sexual act whereas in western countries it is a symbol of affection and is used just like a handshake. In America, most parts of society and the government do not object to exposing the body, except for the private parts. In England and France, nude dancing in theaters is a popular art form. In Scandinavian countries there is no restriction on nudity and their girls provide all the poses required by all of Europe. A Portuguese president and a Spanish president banned sexual magazines and pictures in order to make their citizens more "civil." It is said that after they died, the prevalence of pornographic literature skyrocketed in the two countries! In England where they once punished a scholar such as Oscar Wilde for homosexuality, the practice is legal today (1997). In the holy land of India, where it was once thought that embryo-homicide (bhroona-hatya) was a great crime, today it is a legal process, rewarded by the government. How quickly the standards of acceptance change!
Unlike the westerners, the Indian artists did not depend on live models for their creativity. However, some intellectuals have measured the Khajuraho sculptures and argue that they are of the same proportions as human bodies. I fail to recognize the relationship between being of the same proportions and using live models. I believe that these sculptures were created by the artist's imagination of lovemaking positions prevalent at that time, or based on the rules outlined in the Kamasutra. Irrespective of how they were modeled, we have to agree on the extraordinary capabilities of the sculptors. No Indian has to be ashamed of these temple sculptures. On the other hand, we should be proud of the advanced representations of sexuality made thousands of years before Alfred Kinsey published his scientific analysis of human sexuality in 1948.
Just as we begin scientific research today by performing a wide survey of existing material on the topic, the ancient Indians must have first put together all the available information at the time on the topic (sexuality). The Kamasutra of Vatsyayana and some others support this argument. We do not know how many such masterpieces were available, as they have disappeared since. If indeed these manuscripts are missing today we should be really happy that the artists took the time to capture the contents of the manuscripts in stone. There is an argument in the modern world that prosperity leads to increased sexual activity. It is possible that in the very prosperous times of ancient India, people were more relaxed and therefore engaged themselves in quenching physical hunger. If indeed these temples represent the social life at the time, we again must be proud of the land of abundance that was India.
If we concede that these sculptures are completely imaginary, then we must admire the grand imagination of our ancestors! It must have taken enormous talent to sculpt postures that artists never practiced or saw. Many of the sculptures have the artists names carved under them and it is impossible for me to think that these creations were considered vulgar, if the sculptor felt compelled to claim artistic ownership.
Although Khajuraho is most famous for these sculptures, most Indian temples have them in one form or another. Belur, Halebidu, Somanathupura, and Nugguhalli temples of the Hoysala period have many such beautiful sculptures. The Badami and Banashankari temples of the Chalukya times, and the Vijayanagar temples of Bhatkal, Lepakshi and Hampi have these too. The Meenakshi temple of Madurai and Veeraranarayan temple of Gadag has erotic sculptures on their Gopuram. Ancient Indians thought that the appropriate use of sex was an art. Perhaps that's why they called pleasure girls as artists. Many of these pleasure girls treated their profession as a form of devotion to God, and refined it as an advanced fine art. If you observe the Khajuraho temples from this perspective, you will notice the real beauty of the sculptures. And then you can't have enough of it! The parents who wish to teach their children the fine difference between sex and art should take their children to Khajuraho.
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