//The art of myth

The art of myth

The 10th-century temples at Khajuraho in northern India are as captivating as the deities and nymphs who inspired them. Carolyn Fry reports

Thursday April 20, 2006

Lakshmana temple, Khajuraho
Frozen in time … the lion sculpture outside the Lakshmana temple at Khajuraho. Photograph: Carolyn Fry
High on a temple wall a naked man stands on his head and makes love to a curvaceous beauty held aloft by two girls. Surrounding them are more voluptuous women, along with monks, flying angels and the Hindu gods Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu. It sounds kinky but my guide, Anurag ‘Anu’ Shukla, has another explanation for the antics of these thousand-year-old sandstone lovers. He believes the sculpture depicts engagement of the mystical force of Kundalini, which coverts sexual energy into spiritual energy. "Everyone has latent energy flows, or chakras, defined as a two and a half-coiled serpent in the lower spine," he says, as we gaze upwards. "For a man to reach enlightenment this serpent must be awakened by deep breathing. The assisting ladies represent the breaths in and out, Ida and Pingala. As the breathing moves upwards and reaches the seventh supreme chakra in the head, the man reaches the highest state of bliss. So that’s what’s represented in that panel."

The sculpture-covered temples at Khajuraho in northern India have long fascinated and titillated visitors. Between 900 and 1150 AD, the princes and kings of the Chandela Dynasty constructed 85 temples to honour their gods, adorning each with ornately carved scenes of hunting, fighting, artistry, love and sex. When the dynasty lost power, the creepers and ferns of the surrounding jungle stretched out leafy tendrils and hid the monuments from view. Although Muslim invaders passed near by, the enveloping foliage and fearsome tigers prevented them from ransacking the temples’ riches. Only when British engineer Captain TS Burt wrote an account of a visit he made to Khajuraho in 1838, were these architectural gems rediscovered and slowly renovated. Today, 25 remain intact, their platforms and pinnacles rising from the lush plains of the Khudar river like a series of perfectly hewn man-made mountains. Unesco awarded the monuments World Heritage status 20 years ago, and academics consider them among the finest examples of medieval art in India.

Anu is keen to show me as many of the temples as possible during my two-day stay. So barely an hour after I touch down at Khajaraho’s sleepy airport, we’re bouncing down a dirt track towards the eastern cluster of temples in that rugged trademark of Indian travel, a white Ambassador car. Anu explains that these temples are Jain, while those lying a few miles to the north-west are Hindu. However, all share the same architectural layout and showcase the same array of characters.

I get acquainted with some of them, as screeching green parrots dip and glide in the mellow evening light. There are mythical creatures with human bodies and parrot heads; amorous mithuna – couples; and deities such as bulging-eyed Yama, the menacing God of Death. The figures of Lord Vishnu and his sensual wife Lakshmi are particularly fine. Accompanied by a lotus and conch, and bedecked in jewels, Vishnu lightly touches Lakshmi’s fulsome breast as she gazes serenely into his eyes. "An ancient poem dating from this time defines the beauty of a lady," explains Anu. "It says her nose should be like a parrot, her eyes like a fish, her breasts like pots of nectar and her thighs like the stem of a banana tree."

The next morning, we head for the western monuments, making an early start, to avoid cooking in the 40-degree midday heat. Set among pink blossoming bougainvillea and neatly manicured lawns, are 10 or so temples of which the earliest and best preserved is Lakshmana. Like the others, it stands on a plinth, or pitha, above which is a wall, or jangha, upon which rests the shikhar, a curved spire. The gods traditionally sit on lotus petals so a decorative strip of the flowers runs around the base of the temple, with a row of lion-faced grasa mukha above it to destroy evil forces. Covering the main wall area are hundreds of nymphs, or surasundari, engaged in activities such as applying kohl to their eyes, undressing, coyly observing themselves in a mirror and dreamily reading a letter. Their emotions, from shyness to passion, are captured perfectly in their peach-smooth sandstone faces. Medieval writings ordain the carving of female figures on temple walls; the Orissan text Shilpa Prakasha says: "As a house without a wife, as frolic without a woman, so without a figure of a woman the monument will be of inferior quality and bear no fruit."

After circling the temple clockwise, our stroll representing the circumambulation of the Cosmos, we remove our shoes and climb steep stone steps to enter its cool, dim interior. While the exterior décor is concerned with the body, its inside is associated with the mind and soul. Above the entrance, stone crocodiles pour water from the Holy River Ganges to purify our minds; we then walk through a porch into a small hall and beyond into a larger columnar room with a platform where ritual dances were once performed. Beyond here is the inner sanctum or garbha griha, literally "womb chamber", which in all Hindu temples represents the centre of the universe. Earlier visitors have left a handful of red flowers and a 20-rupee note as an offering to the four-foot high icon of Lord Vishnu that stands inside. Vishnu is the god who preserves the universe and assumes different incarnations to overthrow evil. Here, he is depicted as Vaikuntha, with three faces of a lion, boar and human.

The spiritual importance, complex architecture and exceptional artistry of the Khajuraho temples have turned what was once a remote agricultural backwater into tourist mecca on a par with the Taj Mahal and Varanasi. When the first plane landed at the specially built airport several decades back, the locals had no word to describe the noisy winged machine and so declared it a cheel – kite. Today, they are more savvy. Stroll among the whitewashed, clay-tiled houses of Khajuraho village, and you will soon find yourself accosted by salesmen offering the "best price" for everything from Kama Sutra keyrings to bronze antiques. A report issued by the UN recently hailed the village’s transformation as a social success story, one where the wealth generated by tourism has helped alleviate poverty. But Narayan Tiwari, owner of the Village Bazar souvenir shop is hesitant to agree. "I think 10% of people have grown very rich on tourism but the rest are still agricultural workers," he says, as daylight quickly fades and we sup sweet tea together in his shop. "It has improved the standard of living here, but not all that much, adds Anu. "The houses in the old village still have no sanitation and litter is a problem. But all the young people here want to be tour guides; it is the Holy Grail for them."

Later, over cashew nut koftas and vegetable curry in the GayLord restaurant on Khajuraho’s wide, tree-lined main street, Anu explains how he became a guide. Initially trained in maths and engineering he took a job in one of the hotels as a maintenance engineer but when a guiding job came up, he applied, went
on a training course and got the job. Since then his fascination with the temples has led him to study them full-time and he has spent hours photographing and describing the actions and positions of the gods, mythical creatures, amorous couples and celestial nymphs. "I get energy from the temples," he says.

His aim now is to publish a book, showing how the style of sculpture evolved over time. Then one day, he admits, he hopes to find a girl as beautiful as the stone nymphs with whom he has become so intimately acquainted. "My name, Anurag, means ‘divine love’," he declares solemnly. "I want a wife but she has to be the right person. I don’t just want a sleeping partner. I’m leaving that in the hands of the gods."

Way to go

Carolyn Fry travelled with assistance from Bales Worldwide. Escorted holidays including a visit to Khajuraho temples costs from £2,390 per person. A tailor-made itinerary of 14 days costs from £2,365 per person. For more information call 0870 755 9851 or visit Balesworldwide.com.