India is known to have more than 2 million Hindu temples. These temples reflect the variety of Indian culture and way of life. Temple architecture in India has always embodied an underlying vision. It is a representation of experience, space and time.
The art and architecture involved in the construction of Hindu Temples is well defined in the Shilpa Shastra. It mentions three main kinds of temple architecture in India: Nagara or the Northern Style, Dravida or the Southern style and Vesara or the Mixed style.
The defining features of a Nagara style are Garbhagriha (Sanctum Sanctorum), Shikhara (Curvilinear tower), and Mandapa (Entrance Hall). The Nagara style developed gradually as the earlier temples had only one Shikhara, while the later temples were constructed with multiple Shikharas and the Garbhagriha can always be found under the tallest tower.
The Temples of Khajuraho are a magnificent example of the Nagara style of temples as the temples consist of a sanctum, a narrow ante-chamber (antarala), a transept (mahamandapa), additional halls (ardha mandapa), a mandapa or nave and an ambulatory passage (Pradakshina-path) which is lighted by large windows.
Khajuraho, known for its ornate temples, was built by the Chandela rulers between 900 CE to 1130 CE. The first mention of Khajuraho and its temples is in the accounts of Abu Rahyan al Biruni ( 1022 CE) and Ibn Batuta (1335 CE). The temples were said to have been spread across 20 square kilometres and there were around 85 temples in the 12th century. The ravages of time have reduced the number of temples in Khajuraho to just 20 today.
The Chandela Empire ruled central India from the tenth to the fourteenth centuries. Chandelas were well known for their interest in art and architecture. Although followers of Shaivism, the Chandelas were also said to have been inclined towards Vaishnavism and Jainism as well.
The carvings at the temples seem to be predominantly about Hindu deities and mythology. The architectural style also follows Hindu traditions. This can be validated by various factors. A predominant feature of the construction of a Hindu temple is that the face of the temple should be towards the direction of sunrise. All the temples of Khajuraho have been built with this in mind. Moreover, the carvings reflect the four goals of life in Hinduism, viz, dharma, kama, artha, moksha.
The monuments built by the Chandelas were famous for their architectural and sculptural glory. The Chandelas were also deeply interested in performance arts and the various forms of music and dance. This is evident from the sculptural representation of various scenes of music and dance depicted on the walls of these temples.
Erotic imagery is very common in the Temples of Khajuraho. Sculptures of celestial nymphs with broad hips, heavy breasts and languishing eyes are commonly found in the Kandariya Mahadeva and Vishwanath Temple. These sculptures are believed to reflect the idea of female beauty and fertility. Other scenes depicted on the walls of the temples are a part of the Narathara (the human life cycle) signifying how sexual procreation and kama are an essential aspect of human life.
The major focus of the study of the Temples of Khajuraho have been on the sculptures. The walls of these temples have some of the best sculptures of the time, making Khajuraho a representation of excellent artistic features. It is believed that the temples constitute five different sets of sculptures:
These sets of sculptures and erotic images represent scenes from day to day life.
Quite a few stories revolve around the history of these temples. One theory posits their construction can be understood as a part of the proliferation of the Siva-Sakti cult. The other theory is that the temples are a representation of the devadasis who were once a major part of the temple activities. The most beautiful women were brought from Magadha, Malwa and Rajputana to be trained as devadasis in the Temples of Khajuraho. People say that the Surasundaris, who cover the interior and the exterior walls of the temples, were taken from real life and juxtaposed with the sculptures of Gods and Goddesses. Another theory says that the sculptures represent the life-cycle of a normal human being. It is difficult to state with certainty which of these theories is correct, as no written texts describing the construction exist today. Regardless of the reason behind the sculptures, what we do know is that we have been gifted with a set of the most ornate, intricate and beautiful sculptures extant anywhere in the world.
The Temples of Khajuraho are divided into three groups, the Western Group, the Eastern Group and the Southern Group.
The architecture of the Temples of Khajuraho is very complex. The main components of these temples are:
A few temples at Khajuraho are of the Panchayatana type, with four shrines dedicated to the divinities and often another shrine in front of the portico dedicated to the vahana (vehicle) of the principal deity.
The Temples of Khajuraho are believed to have been built of light-coloured sandstone imported from the quarries of Panna, from the east bank of the Kane River. Iron clamps are also freely employed in the construction of the temples. A few other smaller temples are built partly of sandstone and partly of granite.
The Western Group of Temples are situated on the west of the Bamitha-Rajnagar road on the banks of Sib-Sagar.
They comprise six major edifices and are dedicated to the Shaivite and Vaishnavite cults.
The temple premises consists of 64 small cells corresponding to the number of Yoginis, the female attendants of Goddess Kali, after whom the temple is named. No images remain on any of the 64 cells. This temple stands on the low rocky eminence to the south west of the Sib-Sagar Lake. This is the only temple in Khajuraho which is built entirely of granite and is oriented north-east and south-west. The temple stands upon a massive plinth and comprises a courtyard which is 104 feet in length and 60 feet in breadth. It is surrounded by 65 cells, of which only 35 have survived. The cells are roofed with small spires or sikharas, the lower part of which are adorned with triangular ornaments in imitation of the chaitya windows. There is no dated inscription to show the precise age of the temple.
Largest of all the temples in Khajuraho, it dates back to the 10th century CE. It is 109 feet high and 60 feet wide . The interior arrangement of the temple differs from the usual construction of a Hindu temple as it has an open passage around the sanctum, thus forming a high altar at the inner portion of the temple. The walls of the Kandariya temple carry nearly nine hundred images. The height of the figures varies from 2.5 feet to 3 feet. The entrance of the temple is in the shape of an arch and is decorated with figures of deities and musicians. Also, the entrance of the sanctum has elaborate floral carvings interspersed with figures of ascetics engaged in penance. The female figures at the base of the jambs are identified to be Goddess Ganga (River Ganga) and Goddess Jumna (River Yamuna). The Goddesses are accompanied by their respective vehicles, the crocodile and the tortoise. Inside the sanctum stands a marble linga, the symbol of Lord Shiva. There are also numerous figures of apsaras or nymphs in all sorts of delicate postures.
Around 77 feet in length and 50 feet in breadth, this temple is now known by the name of Devi Jagdamba or the ‘Mother Goddess of the World’. It was originally believed to have been dedicated to Lord Vishnu as his figure occupies the centre of the entrance to the sanctum. It also has the figures of Lord Shiva and Lord Brahma to the right and left. Inside the sanctum, there is an elaborate statue of a four-armed female figure holding lotus flowers. Another figure of Goddess Laxmi (consort of Lord Vishnu), is also present in the temple. Based on some inscriptions found here it is assumed that the temple was built in the tenth or eleventh century, the period in which the Chandela rule flourished. A figure of Yama lies on the south side of the sanctum while a figure of Lord Shiva (eight handed and three headed) is present on the lower niche.
This temple faces east and is 75 feet in length and 52 feet in breadth. Dedicated to the Sun God (Surya), an image of the Sun God is enshrined within the sanctum, wearing high boots and driving a chariot of seven horses. The length of the image is 5 feet while another image of the Sun God can be found over the entrance. Another sculpture of interest is an eleven-headed image of Lord Vishnu enshrined in the central niche to the south of the sanctum. The central head is of Vishnu himself, while the remaining ten heads are symbolic of his ten incarnations. There are no inscriptions on the temple therefore the period of its construction cannot be defined.
Vishwanath, or the ‘Lord of the Universe’, is another name for Lord Shiva to whom this temple is dedicated. As tall as 90 feet, the entrance of the sanctum sanctorum has a figure of Lord Shiva seated on Nandi (bull). There are also figures of Lord Brahma on his vehicle, (the Goose) and Lord Vishnu on his vehicle (the Eagle) to the right and left. Inside the shrine is a lingam and inside the mandapa are two Sanskrit inscriptions engraved on stone slabs. The larger inscription to the left is dated Vikrama Samvat of 1059 or 1002 CE. It gives an account of the genealogy of the Chandela kings from King Nannuka to King Dhanga. According to the inscription, the temple was built under the supervision of King Dhanga who dedicated it to Lord Shiva by installing a Linga with an emerald placed inside it.
Also known as the Chaturbhuj Temple, this temple is around 99 feet in length and 46 feet in breadth. It is popularly known for its innovation in the technique of architecture. Ornate bands began to be of the Apsaras. The entrance to the temple has an elegant torana, and the ceiling of the mandapa or nave is relieved with ingenious devices of cusped and coffered circles. The entrance to the sanctum bears a figure of Goddess Laxmi along with the figures of Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva. It is believed that the temple was built around the 11th century CE .
Other significant temples within the Western Complex include the Lalguan Mahadev temple, the Nandi temple, the Parvati temple, the Mahadev temple and the Varaha temple.
The Eastern Group of Temples are situated in close proximity to the village of Khajuraho. The complex comprises three Brahmanical (or Hindu) and three large Jain temples, viz, the Ghantai temple, the temple of Adinath and that of Parsawanatha. The Hindu temples are those of Brahma, Vamana and Javari.
Situated on the banks of Khajuraho Sagar, it is believed that the four-faced (chaturmukha) image inside the sanctum can possibly be of Lord Shiva but has been mistaken by the local worshippers for an image of Lord Brahma. The central positions on the lintels of the sanctum and west windows are occupied by the figures of Lord Vishnu. This is one of the few temples of Khajuraho constructed both of granite and sandstone. It is believed that this temple was constructed around the latter half of the 9th or the earlier half of the 10th century CE.
Situated on the north-east side of the Brahma Temple, this temple is around 63 feet in length and 46 feet in breadth and stands on an exceptionally high platform. Inside the sanctum is an interesting image, 5 feet in height, of Lord Vamana, the dwarf incarnation of Lord Vishnu. It also has figures of the incarnations of Vishnu carved in its framework along with a figure of Lord Brahma in the bhumisparsa-mudra or earth touching gesture. The upper row round the sanctum portrays Brahma with his consort on the south and Vishnu with his consort towards the north. The lower row contains the images of Varaha, Narasimha and Vamana.
This temple got its name from the bells suspended on chains which adorn the pillars of its portico. It has 11 naked statues of the Jaina Tirthankaras and two of their Yakshinis. Above the entrance of the temple is an image of an eight armed Jaina Goddess riding on Garuda and holding various weapons. Each end of the lintel has a figure of a Tirthankara. The nine figures in the left denote the nine planets (Navagraha). The pillars on the portico are gracefully decorated with bands of horned heads (kirtimukha) or ‘faces of glory’ along with the figures of ascetics and gandharvas. The ceiling of the temple is bordered by rows of panels depicting groups of musicians dancing and playing on many kinds of instruments. The space above the lintel displays the elephant, bull, lion, Lakshmi, garland and other auspicious objects which the mother of Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, saw in her dream before his birth.
It is the largest of the Jaina temples, 69 feet long and 35 feet wide. It is believed to be a shrine of Parsawanatha, the 22nd Jain Tirthankara. The temple has a naked male figure on the left side of the door and a naked female figure on the right side, with three seated female figures over the centre. Above the entrance is a ten-armed Jaina Goddess holding various arms and weapons riding on a garuda. Two other goddesses, riding respectively on a goose and a peacock, are carved at the ends of the lintel. Inside the temple, is a small seated figure of Parsawanatha giving the temple its name. On the jambs of the door are three short records of pilgrims in characters of the tenth or eleventh century, which is the most probable date of the origin of the temple.
The Eastern Complex also includes other important temples such as the Javari temple, the Adinatha temple and the Santinatha temple.
The Southern Group consists of two temples, the Duladeo and the Jatkari temple.
It is about a mile and a half away from the main Khajuraho Temples and was originally dedicated to the Siva cult. Measuring 70 feet high and 41 feet wide, this temple has five chambers. It has a unique set of carvings consisting of an effigy of the four-armed Gana and a conch shell. It is believed that the temple was constructed around the 10th century CE .
Situated near the Jatkari village, this temple faces west. It is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and an image of the deity of about nine feet in height is enshrined in the sanctum. This four armed (Chaturbhuja) image of Lord Vishnu is adorned with a crown and other ornaments. The upper right hand of the image is raised in benediction (abhaya-mudra) which bears a circular mark on the palm while the left hand holds a stalk of a lotus and a sacred book tied with a string. The outer portion of the sanctum is decorated with three rows of sculptures representing Hindu Gods and Goddesses .
In the framework of the formal design of the temples, the craftsmen of a thousand years ago thus created a whole cycle of life and depict different facets of Hindu and Jain deities. Moreover, the sculptures are remarkable for the great variety of subjects portrayed. Also, beautifully depicted are the sensuously modelled bodies and waves and curves of garments and jewellery of the Surasundaris. Thus, the Temples of Khajuraho perhaps constitute the most humanistic representation of the arts of our country in the early times.