One of the most celebrated manifestations of Indian architecture is to be found in a group of temples at Khajuraho in central India. Situated a hundred miles south-east of the town of Jhansi in the modern-day state of Madhya Pradesh, these temples are over thirty in number. These temples, unlike many others in central or south India, do not illustrate a development over a long period of time, but were erected over a relatively narrow period of hundred years from A.D. 950. The Khajuraho temples represent, one might say, a happy and almost unique coincidence of religious emotion, abundant patronage, artistic genius, and aesthetic sensibility. Fortunately, these temples have weathered the climate for a thousand years and have withstood neglect surprisingly well.
The Khajuraho temples were built during the reign of the Chandelas. While some show marks of a Shaivite sensibility, others clearly manifest the influence of Vaishnaism, Jainism, and tantrism. These temples have an architectural character distinct from that of any other group of temples elsewhere in the country. Instead of being contained within the customary enclosure wall, each temple stands on a high and solid masonry terrace. Though none of the temples are very large, they are still imposing structures because of their elegant proportions and rich surface sculpture.
Unlike the rather plain treatment of other central Indian temple interiors, the Khajuraho temples are richly decorated with sculpture. Other than numerous deities enshrined in wall niches, there are attendants, graceful “maidens” in a variety of provocative postures, dancers, musicians and embracing couples. On one temple alone, the figures thus depicted are over six hundred and fifty in number. Many of these compositions display great sensuality and warmth. There are also scenes of explicit sexual activity which possibly illustrate the tantric rites that accompanied temple worship. It is quite reliably said that some of the sexual postures follow the Kama Sutra, the ancient Indian manual of love-making.
The Khajuraho temples now grace the posters of the Indian Tourist office, and numerous films have been shot at the temple grounds. It is with these temples in the background that some of the greatest exponents of Indian classical dance have performed for admiring audiences. But it is in discussions ranging around the cultural construction of sexuality that Khajuraho has featured prominently. The sheer eroticism of the sculptures is often pointed to as evidence of India’s libertine past. Thus, gays and lesbians have found in Khajuraho evidence of the enlightened attitudes of the pre-modern Indian culture, while others point o the allegedly baneful influence of the Islamic and British presence in India, which is supposed to have led to repressive sexual mores. But few have asked what Khajuraho tells us about everyday notions of sexuality, or what inferences we are to derive about Indian sexual mores and practices from these temples.
Brown, Percy. Indian Architecture. Bombay: Taraporevala and co., 1959.
Michell, George. The Penguin guide to the monuments of India, Vol I.London: Viking, 1989.
Tadgell, Christopher. The History of Architecture in India. London: Phaidon Press, 1990.