Khajuraho, for one of India’s major cultural attractions, is remarkably hard to get to, which may explain why many people travelling by train around India seem to give it a miss.
Granted, it does involve either a long, crowded, tedious, uncomfortable bus journey, an expensive chartered jeep or an even more expensive flight to get to Khajuraho, but it is ample reward for your efforts to be able to see the golden sandstone temples and their extraordinary carvings. In my inexpert opinion, Khajuraho’s temples were the most impressive and most gracefully constructed that I saw in nearly three months of temple-hopping around India.
Situated in a flat, non-descript northern Indian landscape, Khajuraho now consists only of a small village and a new cluster of hotels and shops to serve the tourist trade, but for almost 500 years, between the 9th and 14th centuries AD, it was the capital of a large and powerful kingdom. The Chandellas, one of the several large states constantly jockeying for control of central India and the Ganges River plain, built their opulent capital city here.
None of their palaces or houses remain today, but 22 temples, out of 85 known to have existed, remain to testify to the wealth and artistic creativity that existed under the Chandellas.
There are three main clusters of temples, of which the Western Group is the most impressive. These temples lie within a spacious fenced-in enclosure that keeps away the hotel touts, postcard sellers and would-be guides that plague the streets outside. The grounds have more grass and well-tended flower beds than almost anywhere else in India, and from these beautiful surroundings rise a series of large sandstone temples, their shikharas, curved spires shaped like corn cobs, soaring high into the sky.
The most famous thing about Khajuraho’s temples is not their size or graceful proportions, however. It’s sex.
Lots of sex, carved onto the temple walls, with graphic and acrobatic sex scenes and beautiful heavenly maidens in pin-up poses.
There are several explanations for the explosion of sexuality, but the most common is that it protects the temples from lightning, since Indra, the god of thunder, is a keen voyeur and wouldn’t want to strike a building that gives him so much pleasure.
Others claim a more religious motive: that since some sects of Hinduism, such as Tantrism, consider physical pleasure to be one of the paths to self-knowledge, this has found expression on the temples.
Whatever the reason, sex pulls in the tourists, with plenty of older couples peering intently at the carvings, the wives usually professing shock and disapproval while their husbands crane their necks for a closer look. The postcard vendors outside, and indeed all over India, are constantly selling pictures of details from the Khajuraho temple carvings with cries of "Sexy postcards? Kama Sutra? Very good!" and a suggestive leer.
The Lakshmana temple is the epicentre of erotic carving, and most of the postcards come from its walls. It is also one of the largest and most impressively designed temples, and makes a great starting point for explorations. Although not enormous in scale, only 30 metres in length and 25 metres high, it gives the impression of being much larger.
The temple sits on a stone platform several metres high, bordered by a long frieze of tiny figures engaged in a myriad of everyday activities: playing music, fighting battles, carving stone, talking to each other and, of course, having vigorous orgies. In the midst of figures hunting or royal parties parading, there’s likely to be a couple amorously engaged.
It’s easy to spend an hour or two walking around the platform, examining the frieze closely. It would certainly be worthwhile hiring a guide or tagging along behind a tour group to hear the details behind some of the everyday scenes, many of which illustrate scenes from the Kama Sutra.