The temples of Khajuraho, with their unique rhythms in stone, embody a culture’s vision of itself and its place in the universe?

Our recent northward trip was prompted by the urge to visit the Khajuraho temples built by the kings of the dynasty that claimed direct descent from the Moon God. The story follows a predictable pattern. On a sultry night a beautiful maiden was bathing in a pool when the roving eye of the god alighted on her. The son born of their union was the first of the Chandela kings, who became a powerful force in the region between the 9th and 13th centuries. The temples were built in a time span of 100 years, from 950 onwards. Of the original 85, only 25 remain, though ongoing excavation keeps uncovering more remains.

The first day here was a non-starter. Since English speaking guides were prohibitively expensive, we hired a Hindi speaking one, a mistake as it turned out, for, sexual terms in English, the language of science and technology, sound clinical and less personal than their Hindi equivalents.

Every form of sexual deviance is depicted on these walls with an openness seen nowhere else except perhaps in the bestiaries of medieval Europe, where they were meant to warn those who overindulged about hellfire and damnation. Here, however, the mode is celebratory, representing Tantric cults as some have argued, or showing the temptations of the flesh that must be surmounted before one can attain moksha.

Spectacular theories

Our guide, of course, had his own theories, and we halted in front of yet another erotic sculpture as he held forth. In those days, he expounded, as if we didn’t know, wars were frequent and life expectancy was short, and it was one’s patriotic duty to propagate the species. The sculptures were therefore meant to, er, “motivate” everybody, resulting in a sexual free-for-all and sending the population graph zooming into the stratosphere. Not too bad that as theories go, except that it didn’t explain why the man depicted on the temple wall was standing on his head while doing his bit to increase the population.

The next day we took a mini-van to the wildlife sanctuary at Panna where we found very little life, wild or otherwise, except for crocs sunning themselves on the banks of the river Ken. Our driver, however, a charmer with an impish grin and a smile in his eyes, kept us amused with catch phrases he had picked up from foreign tourists. Apart from tata and ‘bye, there were see ya, oo vwa (au revoir), adios, chow (ciao), sayonara and something he called chi-chi-woo which no one could place though we made him repeat it twice. Chinese, someone suggested, but no, he said, these were goras. When we got back to our hotel, he jumped out, opened the car doors with a flourish, bowed from the waist Japanese style and said, “Finito’. A truly global young man this!

Beautifully maintained

Fed up by this time of our guide and the surfeit of “sex posters” as he called them, and having learnt enough about the birds and bees and sundry other creatures hitherto unknown to last us three lifetimes, we set out on our own for the Western group of temples the next morning. The site, maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, is a world apart. Lush green lawns stretch on every side, with bushes and trees disposed so as to give shade without obscuring one’s view of the temples glowing golden in the morning sun. Built of yellow sandstone shading off to pink and amber as the light changes, they stand tall on their high plinths, their soaring lines leading the viewer’s eye upwards, away from the quotidian concerns of the everyday world to the topmost spire symbolising Mount Kailash or the attainment of moksha.

Architecturally, they follow a similar plan, with a long, narrow base and the height roughly equal to the length. The reduced width concentrates the mass, and creates almost vertical pilasters separated by deep ridges leading to the top of each sikhara. Usually there are five spires built on axis in a stepped pattern, each one corresponding to a section of the temple’s interior, from the entrance to the sanctorum. The beauty of this complex structure lies in the precise proportions of the spires in relation to one another and to the harmony of the whole. In an age when technology as we know it did not exist, one wonders how these nameless architects got their complicated measurements and flowing lines so absolutely right.

There are variations on this basic pattern. The subsidiary spires of the Lakshmana temple are pyramidal though the tallest one above the sanctum is circular. A superb Varaha is enshrined outside it, a monolithic image of polished sandstone standing almost five feet in height, profusely carved with gods and goddesses. Other sculptured animals dot the extensive grounds, among them elephants, an endearing Nandi waiting for Lord Shiva, and seven splendid horses drawing the chariot in the Surya Mandir, one of the few dedicated to the Sun God in all of North India.

The greatest of these structures, the Kandariya Mahadeva, can be described only in superlatives. The tallest sikhara and the deepest troughs between each spire create a unique rhythm in stone, and 84 mini-spires are clustered around the big five. Inside and out there are more than 800 sculpted figures, largely of women, long-limbed and slender in comparison to the more squat figures in the other temples, showing their rituals, their pastimes, and their clothing (or lack of it), interspersed with erotic reliefs. The basement mouldings in two tiers consist of processions of horses, warriors, elephants, acrobats, musicians and dancers; and animated deities and rampant mythical beasts appear in the upper panels. A whole world in its richness and variety lives on these walls a millennium after those who created it are gone.

Divine perspective

The faces that look down on the viewer from the higher panels are mesmerising. With hooded eyes and enigmatic half-smiles they are observers, not participants, in the passing show of our ephemeral lives, reducing our dreams and paranoid illusions to a salutary level of insignificance.

Before leaving we saw the past recreated at another level in the Sound and Light Show. On a cloudless night bright with stars, the temples stood around us like tall sentinels, shadowy presences silhouetted against the sky. As the music began, the narrator’s voice broke the silence in the persona of the generations of unknown sculptors who lived and died in the making of Khajuraho. The lights moved from one temple to another as the story of the Chandela kings was recounted, and of the buildings they raised in adoration of their deities.

Chants as old as Hinduism itself, Om Nama Shivaya and the Gayatri Mantra, rose and fell, and at the intersection of this timeless moment the narrator reminded us that our lives on earth are maya, illusion, the stuff of which dreams are made. The backdrop, the music and shlokas, and the incomparable voice of Amitabh Bachchan as narrator wove a web of enchantment. Of the many shows I have seen in India and abroad this was the most moving.

In a spectacular finale, seven temples were simultaneously illuminated enclosing us in an arc of light and the chanting rose and fell, building up to a crescendo and fading away. And then, all too soon, it was over. The music died, the temples merged into the shadows, and the spell was broken. But not quite, for the memories remain of those magnificent spires reaching for the stars, and the voices of the singers swelling in unison, supplicating the gods of Khajuraho for Shanti, Shanti, the ineffable peace that passes all understanding.