Meaning behind Erotic Sculptures in Khajuraho

Khajuraho Temple. Pic by Author.
  • This piece is compiled based on inputs from Khajuraho Temples by Rajaram Panda published by Mittal Publications, History & Culture of the Indian People by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan and MP Tourism booklet.

Recently a controversy arose regarding a kissing scene in one of the temples at Maheshwar (Ahilyeshwar Shivalaya). Liberals justified the kissing in the temple by citing mithunas (erotic sculptures) of Khajuraho and Konarak. So are these sculptures only about sex or is there a deeper meaning. First a brief about Khajuraho Temples.

We left Orchha at about 6.15 am to reach Khajuraho at 9.45 am. The guides could speak various languages like Spanish, Italian and French.

The whole complex is very clean, with beautiful gardens. The toilet is very good. Do attend the Light & Sound show in the evening. It is outstanding. During the Shivratri festival a great mela is held here. The Khajuraho Dance Festival is held every year too. Do visit the Raneh waterfalls 19kms away.  

By the 16th century Khajuraho seems to have lost its importance till it was rediscovered in 1838 by Captain T S Burt. 

Stone inscription as we entered complex, "It was known as Vatsa in ancient time, Jejakbhukti in medieval times and Bundelkhand from 14th century. The Chandelas, (are Rajputs who claim to be descendants of ‘Chandra Kula’ (Moon born) who rose to power during the early 10th century, had their capital at Khajuraho. They decorated the palace with tanks and temples. According to local tradition there were 85 temples but now around 25 stand in varying stages of preservation. The place lost its importance around 1800 a.d."

Deeper Meaning behind Erotic figures

“The erotic figures have given it the finest sculptural scompoistions which vibrate with a rare sensitiveness and warmth of emotion and remarkable for their sculptural quality.” 

Women occupied so much of importance that some scholars say women is the theme of Khajuraho art. Perhaps for the artist of that time women symbolized creative energy, the Shakti.

When we talk of Khajuraho the first thing that people talk about are exotic sculptures. A lot of mindless noise has been made about the frank eroticism of the figure sculptures of Khajuraho and Konaark.  

Mithuna subjects have never been taboo in Indian art, & a creative sensuousness has ever been regarded as an important source of energy – as much in religious & spiritual quest as in the quest for expression – in certain schools of Indian sadhana. It was accepted as a normal, nay essential part of life without any shame or secrecy attached to it. So it is at these places where admittedly the eroticism is not only in the sensuous suggestiveness but also in the depiction of sexual acts in the widest possible varieties of poses & attitudes known to the Kamasastras. 

What is remarkable at Konarak is that even in those scenes that depict a sexual act there is a sort of delightful detachment in the actors themselves. The temples of Orissa & Khajuraho show the extent reached by Indian craftsmen in giving concrete form to this very subtle & complex view of life.

OSHO wrote in Vigyan Bhairav Tantra Vol 1 pg 415, "Have you seen Khajuraho? Or if you have not seen Khajuraho, you might have seen pictures of the Khajuraho temple. Then look at the faces, at couples making love. Look at the faces, the faces look divine. They are in the act of sex, but the faces are as ecstatic as any Buddha’s face. What is happening to them? This sex is not cerebral. They are not making love through the head; they are not thinking about it. They have dropped down from the head. Their focusing has changed.”

“Because of this dropping from the head, the consciousness has moved to the genital area. The mind is no more. The mind has become no-mind. Their faces have the same ecstasy as a Buddha has. This sex has become a meditation.”

The origin of these sexous scenes can also be traced to the Tantric form of Buddhism. In Tibet Buddhist devotees who wanted to enter their monasteries were required to pass through this test. According to Harrison Foreman who wrote Buddhist Tantric temple of Tibet ‘when the Lama has reached a stage of spiritual training without emotions he enters the obscene idol house for examination where life like figures are depicted to test his self- control.”

Kalinjar, the fortified city near Khajuraho was a big center of Tantric practices. Tantrics believe in the amalgamation of sex into religion. According to Mulkraj Anand sex life had been viewed as a sacred right from days as old as the Rig Vedic period. Sexo-yogic technique is attributed to be an important method in Tantrism for attaining nirvana.

Swami Krishnananda wrote in Tantra Yoga, a Divine Life Society publication, ‘In all forms of religious practice thereis an ascetic injunction towards a rejection of the outer for the sake of the inner, the material for the sake of the spiritual. In Tantra a desire cannot be overcome by rejecting the desire itself. Desire can be overcome by desire”. 

It is considered that these temples are a celebration of womanhood as they depict sculptures of heavily ornamented broad-hipped and busty but well-proportionate women (apsaras) adorning the temple walls. The well contoured bodies of the nymphs grab attention and they can be seen engaging in activities like putting on make-up, washing their hair, playing games and knotting and unknotting their girdles” (Cunningham, 2016)Source

These temples were made between the 10-13th centuries ie before Islamic and Victorian views on sex influenced India.  

Notes about Women in the West

In England there was a determined opposition to the admission of women to the medical course down to 1888 A.D. Oxford University would admit women students but would not give them degrees till 1920 A.D.

Seclusion of women was not confined to India alone. In Athens, 500 B.C., women could not meet their husband’s guests or go out of the house without proper guards. A bridegroom could not see his bride before marriage in ancient Greece. At Sparata, women had separate apartments and could not be present at banquets. In Assyria, veil was worn by all married women. In Persia, seclusion of women had become quite common before the beginning of the Christian era. The Bible lays down that women should not speak in public at the Church.  Tertullian says “For a virgin of virtuous habits every appearance in public with an unveiled face is equivalent to suffering a rape”. 

To come down to modern times, women lived under restrictions. Down to 1850 A.D. in England, a woman could not take a walk, much less a journey, alone, nor could she ask a fellow worker to visit her, unless the worker was a girl. When the House of Commons was built in 1844, it was great difficulty that a Ladies Gallery was sanctioned. The British Parliament granted franchise to its women in 1918.

Temples are divided into three groups

The Western group consists of the Chausauth-yogini temple, Lalgaun Mahadev temple, Varaha temple(900-925ad), Matangeshwara temple (900-925ad), Parvati temple (950-1000ad), Lakshmana temple (930-950ad), Vishwanatha temple (1002ad), Nandi shrine, Chitragupta temple (early 11th century), Devi Jagdambi temple (early 11th century), ruined Shiva temple, Kandariya Mahadeva temple (1025-50ad).

The Eastern group consists of the Brahma Temple (900 ad), statue of Hanuman, Vamana temple (1050-75ad), Shantinath temple, Parshwanath temple (mid 10th century), Adhinath temple (late 11th century), Ghantai temple (late 10th century), Javari temple (1075 to 1100 ad).

The Southern group consists of the Duladeo temple (1100-50ad), Chaturbhuja temple (early 11th century). There is an Archaeological Museum close to the temple.

Pics of Vishwanatha temple

Pics of Western Group temples

Pics of Kandariya Mahadeva Temple

Pics of Vamana Temple

Pics of Jain temples

Also read 

1. Introduction to Tantra

2. What is Tantra

3. Sun Temple Konarak

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