Art

Khajuraho, Where Each Caress Lasts a Century

In the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho, the distinction between the sacred and the profane is dissolved. Eroticism is not regarded profane but a sacred measure of the divine.

A sculpture at the Khajuraho temples. Credit: Ross Burton/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A sculpture at the Khajuraho temples. Credit: Ross Burton/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

At the top of the world
Shiva and Parvati caress
Each caress lasts a century
for the god and for the man
an identical time
an equivalent hurling headlong
Octavio Paz, Wind From All Compass Points

The Khajuraho temples, situated in the Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh, are now a UNESCO world heritage site. According to a report in Hindustan Times, members of Bajrang Sena under the leadership of its president of the Khajuraho unit, Jyoti Agarwal, approached Chhatarpur police on Tuesday, complaining against the alleged selling of Kamasutra books and figurines considered obscene inside the premises of the Western Group of Temples, including the tourist canteens. Agarwal is reported to have said, “Such things affect the image of Indian culture and traditions in the eyes of the foreigners… Whatever has been depicted can’t be allowed to happen here now. What sort of moral values are we passing on to our younger generation? These temples have religious significance. There is a Shiva temple here. How can you allow Kamasutra to be sold in the sacred premises?”

This is a bizarre attempt to sanctify the meaning of the Khajuraho temples, and speak of the Kamasutra as if it is defiling. In the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho, the distinction between the sacred and the profane are dissolved. Eroticism is not regarded profane but a sacred measure of the divine. Yet the sculptures aren’t only about divinity. Built between 950 and 1050 CE, legends have it that the Chandela king, Chandravarman, was persuaded by the goddess in his dream to build the shrines. They were mentioned both by the Persian historian Al-Biruni as well as the Moroccan traveller and scholar, Ibn Battuta. Among the 85 temples, only 25 survive today. The temples faced a long period of vandalisation after Qutb-ud-din Aibak of the Delhi Sultanate annexed the Chandela kingdom in the 13th century. After long years of obscurity, the shrines were rediscovered in the 1830s with the help of the British surveyor, T.S. Burt.

Among the many works based on these erotic shrines, Shobita Punja in Divine EcstasyThe Story of Khajuraho, mainly based on the ‘Shiv Purana’, sees the shrines as a representation of the divine marriage between Shiva and Parvati. Devangana Desai’s The Religious Imagery of Khajuraho is a more complex scholarly work, where she interprets the written and visual language in the shrines as “double-meaning” codes of the tantric tradition. She carefully dissects the complex erotic poetry and imagery, full of puns and double-entendres, depicted in the shrines. In fact, the Sanskrit word for pun, slesha, Desai reveals, also means “clinging or adhering to… union (also applied to sexual union)”. In fact, the ancient name of Khajuraho was Kharjuravāhaka, the carrier of date palms, which also has a deep sexual connotation. It is amply clear that the Chandela kings, who were moon worshippers, had built the most unique temples in history, where moral and cultural demarcations between religion and frank eroticism were blurred to produce the most exquisite artistry on stone. Some interpretations suggest that the women depicted in the sculptures are ‘devadasis’, young temple girls used for religious service. There are enough studies about the (sexual) exploitation of these devadasis. It offers a complex historical picture behind the feminine figures in the Khajuraho sculptures. Vātsyāyana was a Vedic scholar and the Kamasutra celebrates kama or sexual pleasure as the necessary stage and pursuit of youth. There is a cultural correspondence between the Kamasutra and the Khajuraho sculptures, where dharma, kama and earthly moksha (bliss) intricately intersect. To argue that the presence of an ancient text on sexual mores violates the sanctity of the stone sculptures is a refusal to see them as different versions of engaging with the art of sexuality. The Shiva in the Khajuraho temples is the amorous god in the company of his beloved, Parvati. There is no moral distinction or quarrel between Shiva, the god in love, and Shiva, the ascetic. The celebratory aspect depicting sexual art, both in its divine/spiritual and mortal/material form, need to be seen in images of likeness rather than rupture. To treat the Kamasutra as something shameful in relation to Khajuraho  is to infuse a moralistic distortion that has no connection with the bold and heterogeneous imagination of the past. Perhaps it is this very disconnection that allows a pseudo-morality and understanding of old religious cultures to face the absurd trials of modernity.

The historian and diplomat K.M. Panikkar had called the Khajuraho shrines a “degeneration of the Hindu mind”. Where does such a prejudiced perspective come from?  Panikkar’s sexual moralism comes from the peculiar, lingering conservatism of modern sensibility regarding sexual mores and artistic representation. If frank eroticism is degenerate, wonder how we may define repressed sexuality. In contrast, a poet-intellectual like Octavio Paz delved into the mystic eroticism of Khajuraho with a much more nuanced sensibility. “The entwined bodies of Khajuraho,” Paz writes in Conjunctions and Disjunctions, “are like those commentaries of a commentary of a commentary of the Brahma Sutra: the subtleties of the argument do not always add up to real profundity, which is simple.” Paz offers a subtle critique by suggesting, in Khajuraho “eroticism reaches the point of being monotonous.” He finds either “happiness or death” is missing in those sculptures, something that he discovers in the Buddhist monuments in Bharhut and Karli.

Nothing I had not known about Khajuraho prepared me for the sheer wonder of the shrines when I visited in the winter of 2014. I ended up feverishly writing a slim volume of short poems when I returned to Delhi. I imagined what the figures reveal of sexuality, eroticism and the body, challenging our perception of the past as well as the present. I also thought on the disfigurement of the sculptures by those who were in violent denial of the body. Here is a small sample of a few poems:

Khajuraho: Poems

I 

The first shrine
Stood expunged           from place
And time.
A solitary marvel of a nameless
Nowhere
Rescued from hammer, rust and darkness
To recover the sun
On its body of parched stone

II

Nymphs and lovers
Eyes closed over centuries
You are awake to pleasure
But deaf to history

What can you tell us of history?

You lived centuries –
Breathing of hands
That sculpted your body
Of luscious stones

You were born of eyes and laughter
You are the proof of mortal arousals
For mad divinities

What can you tell us of history?

You witnessed your
Destruction
Wordlessly –
Only time heard you
Sigh

You were dreaming your past
Your body of frozen butterflies
Dreaming in forests unsheltered
From marshy nights

What can you tell us of history?

So many interpreters out there analyse you
Reading the broken signatures of your body

So many birds draw near to loose feathers
Gawking at your fixed tepidities

Can you tell us of your history?

We who ask you to tell your history
We live in the iron laws of our time

What can we tell you of your history?

III

The ascetic flanked
By amatory couples
His silence flanked
By amorous noises

How does he meditate?

Shiva & Kama
Rule side by side

Momentary
Harmony
Amidst
Perpetual
Discordance

The Chandela kings
Commission
A truce
A unity of opposites

Divine names
Mortal bodies
Play for a century
With rasas

Till hammers
Stun the bliss

V

Bodies of shrines
Are broken
Bodies of shrines
Speak in broken bodies
They echo amputations
– Sappho’s poetry

De-faced
De-bosomed
De-limbed

Face-less bosoms
Bosom-less faces

Missing organs
Speak in pieces

Missing
In altars of love

My eyes bandage them

VI

If you want to see
The intense beauty
Of a single bosom

Go to Khajuraho.

Gods die in the shade
Of that single bosom

VII

Khajuraho
Once Kharjuravāhaka

Men carried date palms
Women bore scorpions

Addicts made love
To poison-bearers

Who planted what in whose body?

Kharjuravāhaka:
The ancient carnival of ruses

Its inhabitants rendered
All worships – amorous

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee teaches poetry at Ambedkar University, New Delhi. He is a frequent contributor to The Wire and has written for The Hindu, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Outlook and other publications.

  • Rohini

    Indeed, the Khajuraho temples stand alone not only for their artistic value but stand as a testament to a culture that looks at the human body as a an embodiment of creation itself and considers every human emotion as one way of connect with the divine.
    The woman who filed the petition in the court has incomplete information of her own religion.
    The forces of ‘civilisation’ that ‘taught’ us what Hinduism has to be for over 200 years have won – I have said before that when we leave minds empty, malevolent forces can plant their evil ideas there. (read extremists, obscurantists)
    About time our education system took corrective action by including art and cultural appreciation as a subject in school curricula.