The Khajuraho Group of Monuments in Khajuraho, a town in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, located in Chhatarpur District, about 620 kilometres (385 mi) southeast of New Delhi, are one of the most popular tourist destinations in India. Khajuraho has the largest group of medieval Hindu and Jain temples, famous for their erotic sculpture. The Khajuraho group of monuments has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is considered to be one of the "seven wonders" of India.
The temples are grouped into three geographical divisions: western, eastern and southern.
The Khajuraho temples are made of sandstone. The builders didn't use mortar: the stones were put together with mortise and tenon joints and they were held in place by gravity. This form of construction requires very precise joints. The columns and architraves were built with megaliths that weighed up to 20 tons.
These temples of Khajuraho have sculptures that look very realistic and are studied even today.
The Saraswati temple on the campus of Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani, India is modeled after the Khajuraho temple.
Statues and carvings
The Khajuraho temples do not contain sexual or erotic art inside the temple or near the deities; however, some external carvings bear erotic art. Also, some of the temples that have two layers of walls have small erotic carvings on the outside of the inner wall. There are many interpretations of the erotic carvings. They portray that, for seeing the deity, one must leave his or her sexual desires outside the temple. They also show that divinity, such as the deities of the temples, is pure like the atman, which is not affected by sexual desires and other characteristics of the physical body. It has been suggested that these suggest tantric sexual practices. Meanwhile, the external curvature and carvings of the temples depict humans, human bodies, and the changes that occur in human bodies, as well as facts of life. Some 10% of the carvings contain sexual themes; those reportedly do not show deities, they show sexual activities between people. The rest depict the everyday life of the common Indian of the time when the carvings were made, and of various activities of other beings. For example, those depictions show women putting on makeup, musicians, potters, farmers, and other folks. Those mundane scenes are all at some distance from the temple deities. A common misconception is that, since the old structures with carvings in Khajuraho are temples, the carvings depict sex between deities.
Another perspective of these carvings is presented by James McConnachie. In his history of the Kamasutra, McConnachie describes the zesty 10% of the Khajuraho sculpture as "the apogee of erotic art": "Twisting, broad-hipped and high breasted nymphs display their generously contoured and bejewelled bodies on exquisitely worked exterior wall panels. These fleshy apsaras run riot across the surface of the stone, putting on make-up, washing their hair, playing games, dancing, and endlessly knotting and unknotting their girdles....Beside the heavenly nymphs are serried ranks of griffins, guardian deities and, most notoriously, extravagantly interlocked maithunas, or lovemaking couples."
While the sexual nature of these carvings have caused the site to be referred to as the Kamasutra temple, they do not illustrate the meticulously described positions. Neither do they express the philosophy of Vatsyayana's famous sutra. As "a strange union of Tantrism and fertility motifs, with a heavy dose of magic" they belie a document which focuses on pleasure rather than procreation. That is, fertility is moot.
Dr. Devangana Desai points out that there is a misunderstanding regarding representation of homosexuality in Khajuraho sculptures. It is not depicted in Khajuraho sculptures. There are two sculptures mistaken as gay figures:
1. The much talked about scene, often misunderstood as depicting lesbian love, is the head-down sculpture on the north wall of the Vishvanatha temple of the site. The top figure whose back is seen in the panel looks like a woman, but is actually a man, whose genitals can be seen from below. The figure is mistaken for a woman because of the hair tied in a bun at the back, which was a male hair style prevalent in medieval India.
1. The other, often misunderstood sculpture is on the south wall of the Devi Jagadamba temple. Here a bearded Shaiva (Kapalika) ascetic threatens a nude Kshapanaka monk to join his religious order, by holding his organ and raising his other hand to hit him. The monk is shown with folded hands as if surrendering. These figures represent two characters of the allegorical play Prabodhachandrodaya, staged in the Khajuraho region in the 11th century. There is no gay relationship involved in the sculptural scene.
The strategically placed sculptures are "symbolical-magical diagrams, or yantras" designed to appease malevolent spirits. This alamkara (ornamentation) expresses sophisticated artistic transcendence over the natural; sexual images imply a virile, thus powerful, ruler.
Between 950 and 1150, the Chandela monarchs built these temples when the Tantric tradition may have been accepted. In olden days, before the Mughal conquests, when boys lived in hermitages, following brahmacharya until they became men, they could learn about the world and prepare themselves to become householders through examining these sculptures and the worldly desires they depicted.
While recording the television show 'lost worlds' for the history channel at Khajuraho Alex Evans, a contemporary stone mason and sculptor gave his expert opinion and forensically examined the tool marks and construction techniques involved in creating the stunning stonework at the sites. He also recreated a stone sculpture under 4 feet that took about 60 days to carve in an attempt to develop a rough idea how much work must have been involved. Roger Hopkins and Mark Lehner also conducted experiments to quarry limestone which took 12 quarrymen 22 days to quarry about 400 tons of stone. These temples would have required hundreds of highly trained sculptors.
The Khajuraho temples are now set in a parkland landscape. When India gained independence from Britain in 1947 the landscape setting was semi-desert and scrub. The archaeological park now has something of the character of an English public park, with mown grass, rose beds and ornamental trees. This may be popular with visitors but has no relationship with the historic landscape at the time the temples were built.
The development of landscape archaeology as an academic discipline raises questions concerning the earlier landscape of Khajuraho and the original relationship between the temple complex and the surrounding area. There are no records of what the original landscape might have been, but it is known that a large community of priests used the temple complex and that Indian gardens in the tenth century were predominantly tree gardens. They did not have lawns or herbaceous flowering plants.
Khajuraho temple complex offers a well made light and sound show every evening. The first show is in English language and the second one in Hindi. The show is about an hour long and covers the history, philosophy and the art of sculpting of these temples. It is held in the open lawns in the temple complex.