Khajuraho: A Place of Infinite Epiphanies

Time will say nothing but I told you so,

Time only knows the price we have to pay;

If I could tell you I would let you know

–   If I could tell you, WH Auden

 

I would have let this been a simple travelogue, or a diary entry, had it been any other place. But Khajuraho, in my view, is simply, not just ‘any other place’ one visits like a tourist (with due respect to all the people who do) clicks a few photographs, marvels (very forgettablly) at the sculptures, and comes back.

No! that wouldn’t do! That simply wouldn’t. Because Khajuraho, I felt, like so many such places of phenomenal historic significance, is a site wherein space and time collide, break apart, fuse together and give meaning to something truly spectacular. It is a place which stands testimony to, and embodiment of, beauty.

 

Beauty, not as such that occurs in nature, but as a reflection of that which is most beautiful in mankind.

 

Space and Time

 

Two ideas I have found myself getting preoccupied by quite frequently. More so, a string of warm conversations with a very dear friend, who seems to have a fair grasp of certain ideas because of her strong spiritual bent of mind, often pushes me to think and deliberate over these two very enigmatic, yet simple realms of existence.

She says they are different, divergent, mutually exclusive from one another. That space is what lies beneath the sky, while time, time is the continuum through which we all pass, or live, or seem to live, at any rate. That time is the ‘fourth’ dimension. (I am quick to point out that this is what the relativists say.)

I found myself agreeing with her, until I stumbled upon two things.

 

One, a set of old, old love letters; two: Khajuraho.

 

Those love letters, someI had written and others I had received. Somehow the writing, or the people who had written them seemed to me to be from ‘another time’. Lets refer to my previous lover as X. It didn’t seem as if I or X had written those letters. Because in my estimate, neither me nor X are capable of writing such love letters any longer, having matured, and been absorbed by the cynicism of the Age.

 

And yet, we had.

 

Or someone had, at any rate.

 

This got me thinking. I arrived at a conjecture while holding those love letters: was I not holding a portion of space in my hand that was also time? And more so, weren’t they so very conspicuous because of their very incongruity to the present, while still being part of the continuum which had ensured they had gotten written at some point, and were likewise divested from their predicament of former glory/ prominence/meaning because of other events, and finally landed in my hand right now!

 

What of it then?

Is it sometimes possible for one to become another? Is it possible to hold a piece of space and sense its belongingness to another time. Or think of a time so vividly, that it comes alive around us. Maybe, I say.

It is all a matter of conjecture, I suppose.

I mean if I were to recollect, not very long ago, this friend of mine, lets call her J, and I ventured to do something, which felt, and still feels, immensely spectacular. We had supposed we would take a walk by the seaside one fine evening. The local Port Trust here offers just the sort of environs for a refreshing evening walk. But while trundling along, we came across the ferry Stand, a place neither of us knew existed until then. Impulsively, we got ourselves to board the ferry which was heading to one of the other islands. We were carrying very little money that day, barely enough to buy a return ticket. The evening skies turned crimson, then violet, and then it was impossible to tell whether it were the clouds, or was it the full moon night, that obstructed the moon and the stars. By the time we reached the island, it had begun to rain. Thanks to our resourcefulness, one of us carried an umbrella. The other island, also called Mattancherry, boasts of a spice market, very much near the ferry point where we disembarked. The two of us, umbrella overhead, pouring clouds still above, continued our walk through that lonely, desolate, spice-smell-drenched street. There were occasional gusts of wind which brought with them cinnamon and cloves and garam masala. We chanced upon an old wall as ancient as the place itself. Its surface was rife with green algae. But looking closely, we felt its great tragedy, if at all one is still entitled to have one, was that it was not entitled to command the respect that other conventional monuments did. History always leaves us with a sense of irony. We went to a place which resembled a music hall, where posters informing us of performances that had already taken place peered at us, the ones who couldn’t attend, in mock-irony. We also stumbled upon a wall covered with blue caricatures; it looked like an edifice peopled by eternal solitude. Looking closer, we saw it had ‘Estd 1887’ inscribed on its door, on top of a huge lock.

What is the point of telling all this?

Here is the point: there are times, when I can very vividly ‘see’ the blue hue of that wall, or smell the tinge of cinnamon laced with the smell of the earth after the first rains. Memory, sharp, clear, concise memory becomes the vehicle that transcends the barrier of time, and makes it come alive in space. Likewise, memory it is that which gives meaning to, say, a bookmark which I received some days back. I had been looking for such a bookmark as that one since almost three years ago. And when I suddenly received it as a gift, I almost thought, and felt that the person receiving it was not me, but ‘the me’ from the time when I had wanted three years ago. At least the happiness I felt was from that time three years ago.

 

I will extend this discussion in my next blog post, especially titled ‘Writing Memory’, wherein I would want to discuss three beautiful novels I have read in the last month; the commonality among them being they were all novels about memory, and how space, time, grief, love and everything else, may come together and dissolve in that most human of miasmas.

 

Coming back to Khajuraho, when I visited the place, somewhere, I felt this space-time barrier collapse.

 

None of what I saw had the benefit of memory or imagination to reinvent what there had been. We were only left with what there was!

I felt that each and every one of those sculptures were pieces of another time lying strewn in a space they did not belong to. I also felt alien while in their midst. I felt I was intruding. I felt like the voyeur. And I also felt embarrassed while eavesdropping on their conversations, prying on their rituals, gleaning their little secrets under the garb of a curious onlooker.

 

In essence, I felt them whispering to me, ‘Ankush! This is just not done!

 

I deigned this is was what happens when space and time fuse.

 

At any rate, I am no Proust, or Kafka, or Eliot, and so I wouldn’t venture into this territory further. At least for now.

 

Julian Barnes, quoting from Lagrange, speaking through one of his characters in The Sense of an Ending, defines history as “that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

 

Visiting Khajuraho, I wasn’t so sure that or any other definition or understanding of history I held would suffice to explain what I felt. At any rate, there were too many definitions, so to say, and just as many things I had felt. Documentation was too ‘dry’ a word, and memory, as I said, did not exist there.

 

As I said, it all becomes a matter of conjecture.

 

The Visit

 

I first made my way to the Eastern group of temples (there are three groups: Eastern, Southern and Western). All in all, most of these temples are spread around an area of 4-5 kms, but the absence of metallic roads in most places and the heat may make the distances seem longer.

 

The Vamana Temple, the Javeri temple and the three lavish Jain temples fall in the Eastern sect. Vamana temple was my first brush with the famed sculptures of Khajuraho.

1vamana

 

I was spellbound! There lay in front of me a huge mound of stone breathing life through the various forms it had taken. There were apsaras I could spot, and dragon-like figures. And then there were the Gods commingling and jostling among these merrymakers. There were animals too; bulls, deer, horses.

 

The Vamana temple (pic 1) is dedicated to the Vamana or dwarf avatar of Vishnu. The myth goes that a King, whose name I seem to be forgetting, had asked Vishnu (while he was in his dwarf avatar) to take three steps of land as alms. Vishnu, being Lord Vishnu (my guide stressed the point here), took his first step to cover the earth, the second to cover the underworld and when nothing else was left, the King reduced to the depths of humility, bent on his knees made an offering of his head.

 

2vishnu

My guide, Prajapatiji, was quick to instruct me about the statues. He distinctly pointed Lord Vishnu and Lakshmi (pic 2).

3vamana wall

I was also stunned by the array of sculptures of beautiful women. Their poise, their panache was truly statuesque. In my first camera shot of them, I captured the twelve; all in different poses, in the middle of some activity or another. Prajapatiji informed me that whatever these sur-sundaris were doing was imbued with a provocative, deliberate sensuality (pic 3).

 

Prajapatiji also made me understand the different nuances of their expressions. For instance (in inset, pic 4), while one of the sundaris pleasures herself; the other one looks on with one eye, while blushing with the other profusely.

Slide4

I also noticed that except in the subsidiary niches of the roof pediments (pic 5), erotic scenes were absent here.

Slide5

 

Rather, either sur-sundaris or the Gods themselves were more predominant. In the picture above, one can spot Nandi, Kartik on his left, and Surya Dev below him (pic 6).

Our next stop was the Javeri temple, which I was told derived its name from the local name for wheat, or ‘jau’.

Slide6

 

The Javeri temple (pic 7) too is dedicated to Vishnu. It seemed like a small but well-proportioned temple. The first thing Prajapatiji pointed to me as we reached there was the arch at the entrance.

 

He spotted and made me see that it was a profusion of various things that made up the arch. While initially I had only seen the open mouth of a beast, he slowly deconstructed the whole figure (pic 8 & 9).

Slide7

 

He first spotted the open mouth, saying it was that of a crocodile; a symbol of Ganga. The trunk-like protrusion on top of it, and the ears of a mouse signified Ganesha. The faint impression of a Rudrakash garland was symbolic of Lord Shiva and the protrusion at the base of the head was Lion’s feet reminiscent of Durga (pic 9).

 In essence, the placement of such a conglomeration of Gods at the entrance of the temple was aimed at casting a purifying effect on a devotee before he/ she entered the sanctum of the temple.

I remembered that generally, a similar practice of hanging a garland of mango leaves at the entrance of the house to ward off evil spirits was even prevalent today.

Slide8

On entering the temple, the roof was the first thing that caught my gaze(pic 10 & 11). And for good reason! I noticed that while the part of the roof in the ardh-mandap or the outer sanctum had five holes neatly embedded in it, the roof in the inner sanctum had a total of nine. On casually enquiring, I found that in mythology, after the samundra-manthan had occurred, wherein the devas and asuras churned the seas, pulling out its various treasures, they had stumbled upon 14 ratanas, or jewels. According to local lore, the fourteen holes were symbolic of the fourteen ratanas.

 

The other important symbolisms I was acquainted to here were the arch on the floor (pic 12, below) at the doorstep which leads into the garbh-griha or the inner most sanctum of the temple, and the significance of the various statues which adorned the entrance of the garbh-griha (pic 13).

Slide9While in other contexts, such a shape signified a ‘half-moon’, in this specific temple dedicated to Vishnu, this was symbolic of a bow.

In mythology, Ram, Vishnu’s sixth avatar had broken Parshuram’s bow. Hence, this arch, signified or rather led a semblance to Ram, who also used the bow and arrow as his most favored weapon.

I had always been curious to really know as to who or what were these figures adorning the entrance to the inner sanctum of a temple. After all, it is sacred territory!(pic below)

Herein, I was told that the three primary niches are occupied by Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh, the three Godheads in the Hindu pantheon. The centre niche is occupied by the one to whom the temple has been dedicated to.

Hence, in this temple, Vishnu it is, who occupied the centre niche. Between them, there are nine figures.

Prajapatiji playfully quizzed me to hazard a guess, but I was no good. He informed me that those nine figures signified the nine planets which too are an important part of Hindu lore and mythology(pic 13). The center figure, which I realized I had been spotting in quite a few places, was that of Kichak; an asura who had been killed by Bhima for casting an inappropriate gaze at Draupadi. The asura was later condemned to serve the Gods for eternity. Hence, this figure was present at almost all the temples, mostly as if bearing the weight of the temple over his head.

Slide10

Coming to the carvings outside, the one that caught my eye instantly in view of its frequent occurrence was that of Kirtimukh (pic 14); a demon cursed to eternal dissatisfaction (I was reminded of the main flaw in Biblical Satan/s character, and to an extent, even in my own!). This too was a recurring motif in most temples and fulfilled the objective of warding off the evil eye.

Slide11

Unlike the Vamana temple, the eroticism among the carvings was much pronounced here.

The lovers boldly explored each other’s bodies, contorting in inspiring positions.

But Prajapatiji was quick to point an important observation and derivation. On seeing closely I too noticed that all the erotic sculptures had been placed slightly inwards in comparison to the carvings of gods and lonely sur-sundaris. To explain this very minuscule, yet discernible variation, he went back to the history book recalling the fact that during the time the temples were being built, Tantrism, a religious practice slightly different from mainstream Brahmanism had begun spreading in the region.

 

More so, the Chandela kings, at least some of them had been influenced by its practices. Amongst other things wherein it varied from Brahmanism was the path it chose for itself and its devotees to attain salvation. It was believed that copulation, or sambhog in itself was a means of ridding oneself of existential anxieties and coming close to self-realization. Hence, sambhog or sex was given prime of place because it was one of the ways to pierce the veil of Maya and transcend the material world.

 

Here in too, quite literally, one has to look beyond the first layer of sculptures or Maya in the form of the sur-sundaris to catch a glimpse of lovers entwined in that cosmic embrace, relieving themselves of their desires and reaching an ecstatic state of bliss (pic 15 & 16).

Slide12

Our next stop was the famous Jain temples. The group of Jain temples (pic 17), comprising of Parsvanatha, Adinatha and Santinatha, besides numerous modern shrines, some of which stand on the stones of older ones, are enclosed within a modern compound-wall and accessible by a metalled road. These structures too stand in a magnificence of their own, although in regard to design and generic outlay they seemed similar to the ones I had seen until now.

 

 

In the picture above, one can spot the Parsvnath temple on the extreme right and the Santinatha templeSlide13 in the centre. (Adinath temple lies to the right of the Parsvnath temple). The rest of the temples are newer shrines built recently. One thing I hadn’t known until coming here was the difference between temples hoisting a flag over their structures, and the ones which didn’t. Apparently, the ones with flags atop their structures were still ‘active’, while the ones without a flag were didn’t see any active worship/ pujas happening.

Slide14

Another important spectacle I was lucky to have witnessed was the giving of alms to the Digambar Jain monks in a traditional manner. While I had heard of this sect on and off, to have actually witnessed a Digambar monk in flesh and blood, was something else (pic 19, 20 & 21).

Slide15

No! I wouldn’t want to run the risk of romanticizing their image, but what I saw was much colored by awe and wonder.

 

I saw one of them standing naked in front of people who beckoned him to give them a chance to serve him. There indeed was an aura of humility, of ‘knowing’, of already having known, around this man and his gait. With a blackened utensil in one hand, and a brush made of peacock-feathers he gave-in to the requests of his subjects, who looked ecstatic at this.

The monk’s face brought to mind the image of a frozen hour-glass serenely floating on water.

 

The Dulhadeo and Chaturbhuj temples comprise of the Southern group of temples.

 

Slide16

 

The startling 18-feet idol at the Chaturbhuja temple was quite a treat(above).

 

Moreover, even though I had read in the local guide books that this was the temple commemorated to Vishnu, Prajapatiji had an altogether different story to tell. And he had quite a few reasons to back his claims. He said that the idol here was an amalgamation of all three Godheads. While Shiva’s presence was signified in the form of an exaggerated headdress, which wasn’t a headdress at all but the Ganges flowing through his head, Brahma was signified at the liveried waistband which the idol was adorned with. And for Vishnu, he pointed to the feet of the idol, and the anklets adorning them. This, he said were Krishna’s, thereby being symbolic of Vishnu (pic 22, 23, 24 and 25).

 

The Scorpion Motif

Dr. Devangana Desai, in the beautifully compiled audio-guide by the ASI, mentions the poets and sculptors imbuing their sculptures with a sense of pun. This goes back to the name ‘Khajuraho’, which if broken down consists of the Sanskrit word ‘Khajr’ and ‘Khajur’. While the former means a ‘Scorpion’, the latter means date-palm. Hence, the sculptors intended, by adorning a scorpion here or there, to allude to the place where these sculptures were originating. To be sure, I also searched for date-palm trees, and although I didn’t find too many carvings, I sure did find at least in two places women or sun-sundaris collecting date palms or quashing them into matkas or clay urns (pic 26, 27 & 28).

 

Slide17

The Western group of temples (pic 29) comprise some of the most majestic and awe-inspiring edifices. I entered the fenced enclosure of the Western group (entry ticket: Rs. 10 for Indian nationals and Rs. 250 for foreigners. Plus an added Rs.130 for hiring an Audio-tour guide which is strongly recommended.) to find the exquisite Lakshmana temple right ahead, with the Varaha shrine in front of it.

Behind stood the extraordinary Kandariya-Mahadeo temple that shares its plinth with the Jagdambi temple. The only Surya temple in Khajuraho, known as the Chitragupta temple is in the same row as the Kandariya, while the Vishwanatha temple with its Nandi shrine is in the front row, to the right of the Lakshmana.

Slide18

As instructed by the audio-guide I made my way to the Varaha shrine in front of the Lakshmana temple.

I was overwhelmed by an awe-inspiring figure of a boar, adorned by minute figures which I later learnt represented more than 605 Gods of the Hindu pantheon.

 

Beneath the boar, I saw what looked like a snake and two feet. The audio-guide went on to inform me of a legend which went like this: Hirankashya had emerged to be one of the most powerful demons. He would frequently terrorize the Earth goddess, who finally descended into the underwater world to escape his tyranny. Vishnu thereafter, took the avatar of a boar and descended into the depths to literally smell her out. Finally, not only like all good stories with a moral in the end, he vanquished Hiranakashya and rescued the earth goddess from underwater depths to install her to her previous glory (pic 30, 31 & 32).

 

During the period of Chandela rule, this shrine was also symbolic of the function the kings were to play in service of their subjects; protecting them from all kinds of evil.

 

Slide19Slide20

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not only was the workmanship absolutely flawless, but I observed a certain formidability in the aspect of the boar.

 

Moreover it was rewarding to pay heed to the finer details. For instance, the snout; I was to learn the goddess inscribed was Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge. It was only logical that if Vishnu was undertaking such a mammoth task of finding and rescuing the Earth Goddess from beneath the depths of the oceans, and then going on to vanquish the great Hiranakashya, he ought to have the power of knowledge, along with his own powers, on his side. The two feet belonged to that of the Earth goddess while the snake-figure was that of Shesh-naag, the hundred headed snake who inhabited the underwater-world (pic 32, inset).

 

The Lakshmana Temple was built during the reign of King Yashovaram to celebrate Chandela victory and their consequent breaking away from the Pratiharas. More precisely it was built to celebrate King Yashovaram’s successfully conquering the Kalinger fort.  This Vaishnava temple preserves intact the jagati or platform with its moulds and friezes, the latter showing a moving pageant of hunting and battle-scenes, processions of horses and elephants, soldiers and sundry representations, including domestic, erotic scenes.

Slide21

 

Slide22

 

The Kandariya-Mahadeo Temple

The Kandariya-Mahadev temple is the largest and loftiest monument of Khajuraho (I have intentionally not put a picture of it here). Its mature plan, its grand dimension and symmetrical proportions, its superb sculptural embellishment and architectural elaboration, all mark it out as the most evolved of the central Indian building-style and one of the most sublime creations of Indian architecture. I was truly stunned at the sight and spectacle of this one!

Not only are the sculptures on this temple taller, slender and more conspicuous, they also show the richest variety of apsaras in lively postures. Moreover the erotica takes several leaps into highly complex territory, whereby some of the sculptures make us wonder, “Wow! How is that even possible?”.

Yet, such is the artist’s rendering that how much ever the human body seems stretched to the limits of imagination, its sensuality and sense of beauty never cease to tug at our amazement and admiration (Pic 41, 42 & 43).

But the real point behind the erotic sculptures shouldn’t be lost in our speculations about them. Because far from being titillating (even at that time) or acrobatic (as they seem to us), these poses and carvings are representative of yantra, or magic and meditative mantra, to be meditated upon to ward off evil spirits and other worldly distractions. The ultimate goal however is to literally fuse into the partner’s body and become one with god.

Another interesting fact about the Kandariyo-Mahadev temple which came to light was that in spite of its mammoth structure, no mortar was used in middle of the stones. Rather, the all the stones have been interlocked with each other and are held by gravity.

I am providing some alluring glimpses from the walls of the temple for the benefit of the reader.

 

Slide23

 

 

Slide24

 

I would have gone on and on about all the things I saw, and not only that, but also managed to look beyond the symbolism of it. For instance, two motifs which really stayed on in my mind long after I came back were the ‘half-moon’ (pic 42) and the ‘Vyaiis’ (pic 43) figures recurring in all the temples

The half-moon motif which appeared at the entrances of the Kandariya-Mahadev and Jagadambi temple was a half-moon flanked 2 conch-shells (pic below).

It is referred to as the ‘Chandra-shila’ and is placed at the entrance of temples to remind devotees that they should enter the shrine with humility, in the knowledge that like the half-moon they too are imperfect. And the conch-shells symbolize the blowing of conch-shells before starting of a puja, thereby ridding the mind of devotees of any unwanted distractions, with its primordial sound of ‘Om’.

Slide25

 

The Vyaiis motif appears almost constantly amongst the other carvings. It is a mythical animal, with a lion’s body and the head of various creatures i.e. lion, elephant or that of a tiger. And more often than not, it is shown to be in a fierce fight with one or two human figures. According to one school of thought, it is symbolic of man in conflict with his desires. While according to another, it’s a symbol of the victory of the spirit world over that of the material world.

More importantly, these along with the other figures like the erotic ones, animals and that of Kirti-mukh, fulfill a very important function of warding off the evil eye from the precincts of the temple, thereby preserving its holiness.

 

Endnote

 

To be honest with you, I went back to Khajuraho, figuratively speaking, to understand the difference, or similarity between space and time.

To come face to face with a phenomenon which belonged to another time, while simultaneously belonging to another space, made me realise, at least briefly, the topsy-turvy nature of history.

On reflection, I also came upon this: Were all the women at that time as ‘perfect’ and ‘flawless’ as they were depicted to be in this statues?

Common sense would say, NO! Of course not! Just as if, if one were to pick up a beauty magazine and ask oneself whether the women on the cover of Cosmo are representative of all the women of this age, of course, one could not be farther than the truth.

This brings me to my final point: The power of symbols, especially the ones that survive Time; to distort history, and impose narratives, often false, mythical narratives, through art and beauty cannot and should not be undermined. Taking the argument further, for a brief instance, I would want to enter the head of the craftsman who would be painstakingly carving those statues from dawn to dusk. What he comes up with – is it a reflection of his own desires (as some in psychology call, Sublimation, or giving vent to feelings through socially desirable outlets such as art and creativity), or are they a reflection of what the society of ‘that time’ needed and wanted to see (going by the demand-and-supply model)?

 

The second question becomes problematic in certain ways. Because then one realises there wasn’t any difference between ‘that time’ and ‘this time’. They wanted to see voluptuous, fulsome women cavorting and cooing and sensuously provoking the ‘male gaze’ then, and the same is the meat and marrow of most advertising/popular culture now (sifting through a few popular music videos/ magazines/ advertising techniques/ and even ‘beauty pageants’ would shed enough photons on this!)

 

In essence, time really doesn’t flow in a line, but goes around in a circle (old, established theory from Gita to Nietzsche to Schopenhauer etc. although I am sure I stand to be corrected here). And space, isn’t and can’t be restricted to one time, because objects themselves may and do imbue themselves with different meanings at different junctures.

 

To cut a long story short, our anxieties for the future always end up outrunning the experience of our past, and hence we can never be constrained in one space and one time. not even if we are made of stone! Although multiple spaces and times can and do occur within and without us with frightening alacrity almost all the time!

 

Do think it over, dear reader.

 

After all, it is just a matter of conjecture.

 

Sincerely,

 

 

Post script: Bad picture quality is regretted. Firstly, these pictures were clicked by a not-so-smart phone. Secondly, I am still learning my way around working with images.

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One response to “Khajuraho: A Place of Infinite Epiphanies

  1. One of the reasons why our temples had such erotic sculptures along their peripheries, I have heard, is this-

    When a person comes to the temple he is supposed to look carefully during parikrama and find the sculpture that attracts him the most. and then sit there, stare at it and meditate on it, till he is freed of the feverishness that arose in him seeing that. (Imagine the number of sculptures they needed to build in this light:p) so that by the time he reaches the sanctum sanctorum, he is already free of the rajasic (restlessness) & tamasic (inertia/jad) pravritis and he himself becomes divine; the deity inside the temple, then is a reflection of his own potential, his true nature which he can experience having gotten over the desires of the mind-body complex.

    Imagine what an amazing understanding our ancestors had about the rules of the mind, the breath and its relation to emotions…

    Liked by 1 person

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