The imagery of Khajaraho is too vast or one blog, so I have attempted to express the experience in four parts: the old village,
the purpose of a Hindu temple, the cultural heritage behind that built the site, and the meaning and word play of the sculpture.
The bus stops in Khajuraho and the first thing you see are rickshaw wallahs. Tourism is the only game in town and Madhya Pradesh tourism wants it cut. Khajaraho is a sacred place. The Khajuraho festival is a 19th century addition, and the Kamasutra had no place in 11th century Khajaraho.
Still, Tantric gimmicks may satisfy snickering tourists but they miss the point.
To the Colonial British – with his lustful double standards – Khajuraho does not match austere meditative contemplaton a cathedral, and the many loves of Krisha seemed to prove Jesus moral superiority. Perhaps they were reminded of the Demiurgic powers of a lower world: human, infernal and divine states of man in his lapsed and corrupted state.
Perhaps the coloured saris, powder pigments from markers, the architectural polychromies and colour extremes of Hindu temples were all to much for the understated faded hues of Britain. After a flurry of many Brits being enamoured by Indian flair, the Raj demanded the faded relation to life of its men counter to Indian love and the creativity of spirit.
It is easy to be enamoured the voluptuous, almond eyed beauties posed invitingly at play or be stunned by the intricate jewellery and gossamer dress so intricately carved. The Western fixation of Khajuraho ‘erotica’ forgets a whole culture has been fashioned in sandstone. Solitary figures outnumber couples, and females outnumber the males. Less than ten percent are erotic. After all, relief sculptures of amorous couples (mithunas) are also fond in the Buddhist caves of Karle, from 100 BCE, that symbolise as an analogy for man’s union with the divine.
However, I doubt Khajuraho was the sexual utopia of liberated women. Polygamous rulers clearly loved the delights of women, even a cheeky elephant sneeks a peek , and only men have multiple partners.
There twisted bodies in conjugal (even outright uncomfortable) bliss, with some large scale debauchery, reveal more about society of the time.
Vidya Dahejiya argues the huge presence of “women with overflowing foliage”, along with couples, are fertility symbols, similar to Renaissance Europe, as well a symbol of societal growth. As early as the 6th century Medieval Varaha Mihira‟s Brihat Samhita , the 10th century Agni Purana and the Silpa Praksha recommended decorating temple doors with mithuna (embracing erotic) couples as a symbol of auspiciousness (Krisnan, Y., 1972, “Erotic Sculptures of India” ).
To understand Khajuraho we must ask:
What is the purpose of a Hindu temple?
“As from a blazing fire thousands of sparks fly forth, each one looking self-similar to its source, So from the Eternal
comes a great variety of things, and they all return to the Eternal finally” claims the Mundaka Upanishad (II.1.1).
Lurianic Kabbalah uses a strikingly similar metaphor of divine sparks from the Middle Ages.
Filled with fragrances of ghee, camphor, honey, flowers and coconut, a Hndu temples purpose is transformation. It adjusts devotees mind as his subtle body responds to the rhythms, aesthetics and emotions of the temple: to become one with the temple and be qualified to realise the presence of god (Kramrisch, S., The Hindu Temple, vol 1: 232, 253).
Rather than god as aloof reaching down from an impenetrable cloud, Hindu geometry experientially unifies inner world with heaven. The macrososm of heaven has its analogy within man himself.
Seen as a silhouette, the temple cuts what Professor William Jackson calls a “fancy edge” between time and space , eternity and infinity, a microcosmic fractal of archetypal images in an unconscious pool of a greater mind which perhaps are revealed rarely in an enlightened sage.
Approaching noon, monsoon humidty saps me of spirit. Drenched in sweat, the long flights of stairs in Hindu temples is like exerting yourself upward , to Kalaish, the divine mountain of Shiva. Directed by shastras and agamas the temple is a fractal of cosmic order, the supreme shikara–a whole reflecting its parts – is a cosmic mountain rising through recursive self similar cluttered repetitions through infinite levels of experience. A wide base of ideas coexisting that that pyramid like the bricks of a vedic altar, ultimately lead to a single point, transcendence of ultimate oneness .and the pursuit of liberation or moksha.
The Self similar recursive geometry repeats rhythmically inward to the hidden depths of meditative cave aligned directly beneath the shikaras highest point. The lingam and yoni are in shadow, beyond a uterine tube, from which believers are reborn transformed. Entered from the east, the unadorned inner sanctum, garbhagrha, or “womb room”, we experience darshan, visitation, in cave unting both the beyond and within, blessed by light of burning camphor.
Nine hundred years ago, the plain was flooded, claims Anand. The ancient name of Kharjura-vahaka can mean either “date-palm bearer”, and golden kharjlira trees at its gate, or “scorpion-bearer” which suggests Shiva in his Aghora, or fierce, aspect, wearing a garland of scorpions, is the cities protector.
As Anand directs me toward the sandstone three spires of the temple before me he claims reflect Buddhist stpa,a cathedral, then Hindu layout. Built without mortar, they held by gravity locked in place by mortise and tenon joints.
The temple is also a Divine axis where heaven and earth meet a column, tree or spine connects the worlds. Each branch is individual and the temple images catch ephemeral glimpses of personality as fleeting as leaves.
Circambulate outside clockwise and a divine story unfolds: gods, goddesses, dancers and lovers and the divine within reach. Circle the inner sanctum, around the deity, you circle the universe. It’s antarjyoti or inner light fills the heart, reveals the divine within. A hidden prayer of penance to untie the knot of ignorance.
In praying the Gayatri Mantra believers request the divine light mirrored in three levels of existence. Singing aarti with a thali of prasad and dancing flame, we are reminded of Indra rescuing the stolen cows. Hidden under a mountain, they fled like the light-filled clouds of dawn.
The temple floor plan geometrically represents the Prime Person or principle behind existence whose self sacrifice is sung over 90 times in the Vedas. This grid like vastupurusha mandala is microcosm of the universe, and simultaneously symbolizes the pantheon of Vedic gods– “each square [is] a seat of particular deity.” The gods altogether make up the composite body of the formless Purusha and like the Vedic altar, the construction ritually enacts the restoration of the Purusha’s body.
At the Kandariya temple Shiva and Shakti unite: spirit and body, god and creation together as one. Perhaps a symbol of in divine love infusing life. Not a dead universe that occidentally discovered life, but a cosmos where the star dust is the mitochondria of a living being, and rocks live, though in a subtler form than a flower or tiger.
We all seek fulfilment in a larger even universal context. I feel as if my personality hangs like a thread from this vastness of sculptured being, a foetus floating in a primal ocean in sympathy with earth, soul and anima mundi. unsure where heaven begins and I end.
Isn’t that the point? A sense of oneness pervades Hindu thought. I imagine deeply meditating sadhu’s intuiting the fractal repetitions in life into an embracing theology.