119 Years of Trust


Saturday, March 20, 1999

This above all

regional vignettes

Ode to immortality
Celebrating 1000 years of celestial ecstasy
By Ashwini Bhatnagar

IT is a classical case of one beautiful thing leading to another. One summer night, Hemvati decided to take a dip in a pond near her house. As she bathed under the canopy of stars, her exquisite beauty caught the eye of the Moon God, who was on his daily journey across the heavens. The Moon God could not resist the charm of this young Brahmin widow and descended to earth. Hemvati submitted to the proposal of the Moon God. When the night ended, the Moon God rose to leave. He "blessed" his consort with a child who, he said, would start a dynasty of rulers who would be known not only for their valour and enlightened rule but also for their contribution to the culture and arts of Madhya Bharat. Chandratreya, the first Chandela, was born.

Thus about a 1000 years ago began a process of creation which has become a source of perennial joy. The Chandela dynasty’s handiwork carries this celestial quality with it -- the quality of timelessness and near-perfect beauty. Bold in relief and exquisitely fine in detail, the 20-odd temples in and around Khajuraho stand as majestically as they first did a millennium ago -- as mute testimony to divine inspiration.

It is said that originally the temple cluster comprised 85 edifices of which now only 20 remain. They were built by various rulers of the Chandela dynasty between 950 and 1050 AD. Of the many Chandela kings, the names of Yashovarman and Dhanga stand out for their contribution towards making Khajuraho what it is today. Yashovarman built the "Himalaya -high" Vishnu temple, known as Lakshmana temple now. The image of Vishnu, which was installed there, was received from the then king of Kangra, Sahi, who in turn had got it from "Lord of Tibet."

Yashovarman’s son, Dhanga, was the greatest king of the Chandela dynasty. He assumed the title of Kalanjaradhipati. He annexed the eastern portion of the Pratihara kingdom of Kannauj and had even challenged the might of the kings of Andhra and Kuntala. His influence was such that Jayapala, ruler of Punjab at that time, sought his assistance when he was attacked by Sabuktgin.

But Dhanga’s name is immortalised not for his exploits in battle. Rather, he is known for nurturing artistic activity with so much empathy that art and architecture flowered in their full glory during his reign. Most of the temples in and around Khajuraho were constructed under his personal supervision and represent the zenith of medieval art. He died around 1002 A.D.

The sun-moon float at the inauguration of Khajuraho millenniumThe two questions which are often asked about Khajuraho are: Why were these temples built in the middle of nowhere? And why does erotica find such a prominent place on the outer and inner walls of the structures. There are a number of answers to both these questions. According to some scholars, Khajuraho ( known as Vasta in ancient times and Jejakabhukti during the medieval era) was the political capital of the Chandelas, though the fort was at Kalinjar. Ibn Batutah and Alberuni have recorded their visit to the town. However, there is very little archaelogical evidence around Khajuraho to support the theory that it was the capital of a flourishing empire. Apart from the temples, excavations have not yielded the remains of a town which would befit the size and grandeur of a capital. There is virtually no trace of large residential buildings or those used for public purposes. The Shivsagar lake at the edge of the town is barely a mile long, though it has ghats on the two sides which adjoin the town. Historians, therefore, believe that Khajuraho may have been the "cultural" or "religious" capital of the Chandelas.

The town is situated in a valley of sorts which is surrounded on all sides by rugged hills. The terrain is extremely difficult and it provides the site excellent protection against invasions. All around, rocks and thick jungles abound and water availability is scanty. There is very little agriculture and even date palms are absent from the scene. Historians argue that the Chandelas founded their capital here because of these natural conditions. Gwalior and Chanderi, too, are similarly located, they say.

Moreover, though the temple town may appear to be remotely located today, it is situated virtually at the hub of one of the most ancient regions of the country which had the richest art traditions. This is the region which comprises modern Ujjain on and around Shipra river, Mandsaur on Chamba, Pawaya on Padmawati, Vidisha on Betwa and Dhasana on Dasarna. It is in this region that the greatest and the most ancient cultural centres from third century B.C. to the 12th century A.D. flourished. Notable sites were Sanchi, Vidisha, Besnagar, Udaigiri,Kadawaya, Gwalior, Mitaoli, etc on the western side; Sagar, Bheraghat, Amarakantak, Sirpur and Eran on the south and south-eastern side and Chitrakoot, Kannauj and Varanasi on the north-east side.Many of the best and ancient monuments of India are situated in this region which was always famous for the development of stone art to "its most sophisticated standards." This was conditioned as much by the cultural traditions as by geological factors. " A wide variety of stones suitable for various techniques of chiselling, eg, incised, low, high and round relief, were abundantly available and the artisans of this region had acquired extraordinary proficiency in stone art since the earliest times." Thus, it is no wonder that under the patronage of enlightened art-loving rulers, plastic arts found their full glory in Khajuraho.

President K.R. Narayanan and his wife visited the temples during their two-day stay in KhajurahoThe answer to the question as to why erotic images adorn the walls of these temples is still being hotly debated amongst scholars. Some of them contend that the temples commemorate the wedding of Lord Shiva and Parvati. As evidence they point to a very large number of images of Shiva and Parvati in these temples. Till today, Shivratri is celebrated with much fervour by the locals and the only temple where worship continues is the Matangeshwar Temple located just outside the precincts of the western cluster of temples. It is, therefore, believed that the sculptures depict the union of Shiva (consciousness, a male principle) and Parvati (energy, a female principle). Scholars are of the view that many of the sexually explicit statues in various yogic postures are actually tantric symbols and convey a meaning which we are yet to decipher. Another view is that the sculptures were made to convey that one must rid oneself of kama, krodh, lobh and moh before venturing to enter the sanctum sanctorum .

There is yet another school of thought that associates the erotic carvings with the decadence which may have prevailed at the beginning of the millennium, though others refute this by saying that they could have been a protest against the austere and celibate credo of Buddhism which was reigning at that time. Whatever may be the truth, the fact remains that the sculptures are indeed a celebration of the beauty of the female form in one way or the other. There are hundreds of finely crafted statues of women in the shingara mood. Though carved in stone, each of them is alive and vibrant. Whether it is a statue of a woman waiting for her lover, or in union with him or going about the daily chores, each panel holds one spell-bound. It celebrates the concept of the naikya in all its splendour. Indeed, it is love’s labour dedicated to the centre-piece of love — woman.

The impressive facade of Kandariya Mahadeva templeBut apart from the images which adorn the walls of these finest manifestations of human imagination, is the development of the art of temple architecture. As one enters the precinct of the western group of temples, the grandeur of scale and design of these structures takes one’s breath away. Though the art of temple building in India dates back to very ancient times, it was in the 7th century that it reached an altogether new stage of development. The architects had evolved an integrated temple building pattern with a stylised personality of its own. Its essential components were the mandapa, the antarala and the garbhagriha. However, by the 10th century they began to realise that for the fullness of a temple ardha mandapa, mandapa, antarala, garbhagriha and mahamandapa were also also essential elements. Elaborately ornamented spires (shikars) over temples were also being built by the 10th century A.D. The Kandariya Mahadeva temple at Khajuraho is the best specimen of the medieval era’s architectural aspirations.

In fact, the striking, and perhaps the most distinguishing, quality of these odes (in stone) to immortality is the development of shikhars (spires). The main spire is surrounded by a number of miniature spires, which, rising in a series, culminate in the gracious purity of the main shikhar.

They may be said to represent the never-ending human urge to soar higher and higher. Interestingly, there has been virtually no improvement on this practice of shikhar-building in India after the completion of the temple clusters in and around Khajuraho. Moreover, it is perhaps only at this site of Madhya Bharat that we see the creative processes transcend religious boundaries. The main cluster, the western group which comprises 12 temples, comprises Vaishnav, Shaiv and Jain temples. However, it is in the eastern group of temples that one finds most of the Jain temples. The best of these are : the Parsvanath temple, Ghantai temple and Adinath temple. Though the Chandela dynasty virtually disappeared from the political horizon of the area now known as Bundelkhand in the later half of the 14 century, its "Himalaya-high" creative aspirations have withstood the test of time. The heat and dust of 10 centuries of existence has not dimmed the joyous spirit that propelled the minds and hands of yore to put stone on stone and carve out a fantasy which, though present in the mind’s eye of ordinary mortals, is never actualised.

Khajuraho diary

AS the "seatbelts on" sign was switched off and the plane levelled to cruise position, the excited chatter hit a new pitch. The gaggle was there in full strength, occupying almost half the seats on the plane. Members could easily be picked out from the rest of the crowd because of almost marble-sized gold or pearl chokers they wore around their necks. "Hello, darlings", cooed the leader of the pack and briskly proceeded to kiss Malvika Mitra performing at the dance festivalthe air around the cheeks of the other members of the brood. "Isn’t it lovely that we are all here?," she managed to say in between the airy pecks that she was delivering to the seats all around me. "Soon we will be there. Isn’t it lovely?" The remark made no sense to me as I wondered as to what she found to be "lovely" on a plane which was packed like a can of sardines. "It will be fun," said an enthusiastic voice from behind my seat. I turned slightly to view the font from which such girlish enthusiasm was gushing forth. The moon-face had seen middle-age many,many moons ago, but she was charged up alright. "Shobaji," she continued flashing a set of teeth which had seen better days,"I told my husband when the programme schedule arrived that I will definitely go. You see ji, us woman face a difficult plight all through our years. When we are young girls we are under are parents. When we get married, husbands won’t let us do anything to enjoy. Later, children dominate our lives. So, I told him — busji. Now I am going to decide. I am going to Khajuraho."

"So what did bhai sahib say," asked a kindly voice. " He smiled at me and left for office," replied the moon-face. Squeals of laughter burst forth from many blue upholstered wide-bodied seats. Moon-face laughed too and continued, "You see ji, I have never been to Khajuraho. Always wanted to but no time even though there are many planes flying between Khajuraho and Delhi. You know we have always been flying to Mumbai, Chennai, Calcutta and even to London-Shondon. But we have never been there. You will be surprised Shobaji that we have never set foot in this Bihar state, what to talk about visiting this Khajuraho. Jab state hi nahi dekha to uske shahr ka to sawaal hi nahi." The loudly dumped verbal garbage was testing my patience. I unloosened my seatbelt, took a deep breath and started to count till 10. Before I muttered six...seven...under my breath, the enthu-sorts was at it again,"We are lucky ji that we will see history being made before our eyes." Shobaji smiled indulgently at her friend," Darling, you will not see history being made; you are already history."


The flight was via Varanasi and not through Agra-Gwalior as one would expect. The 55 minutes from Delhi to Varanasi provide me with an opportunity to have a bird’s eye view of the majestic expanse of the Gangetic plains circumscribed by the lofty peaks of the Himalayas. All along the flight path, the holy Ganga kept us company; meandering lazily through the crop-rich terrain on either side. Ganga has fascinated us Indians from times immemorial and I am no exception. The love for the river is more in my case (as I would like to believe) as I have traversed it entire stretch from Gangotri to Sagartirath beyond Calcutta where it meets the sea. In the Garhwal Himalayas, I have drank deep from the waters of the many tributaries — Alaknanada, Mandakini, Gori Ganga, Neel Ganga, Sawarsati,etc-- which meet each other at the five Prayags to ultimately form the Ganga as we know it. From an elevation of about 35,000 feet, the flow of the river reminded one of the flow of our civilisation, whether in the past or in the present. Like the Ganga, it is sometimes pristine, sometimes muddy and infested and sometimes frighteningly turbulent. But everytime and everywhere, it sustains life. From the plane, it looked like a silver strand running from one end of the horizon to the other binding together everything in its wake into one cosmic whole.

Lukewarm delights

My colleague from Gulf News said that the weather in Khajuraho was balmy. I quite agreed with him. It was indeed mild, fragrant and soothing. Neither hot nor cold--- just lukewarm. Being out in the sun meant getting a pleasant tan and enough heat under the collar to make you yearn for a swim in the open-air pool at the hotel. In fact, around the hotels and in the temple complex, flowers of all hues and scents were in full bloom. Set against harsh rocks and undulating landscape, the beds of bougainvilleas, petunias, dahlias, paper flowers etc made a perfect setting for unwarranted emotions to spring forth in the imagination. The sun, the flowers and the ambience of the "temples of love" made one feel heavy-limped and lazy with romance. I had to make that special effort to shake myself out of the stupor that engulfs anyone who visits Khajuraho at this time of the year.

Corporate "culture"

A lot has been said in favour of the corporates getting into the act of saving Indian culture. In fact, corporate sponsorships have been touted as the ultimate solution to the problem of preservation of culture. Putting this mantra into practice, the Madhya Pradesh government had tied up with a large corporate group, best known as manufacturers of tractors, to organise the millennium celebrations at Khajuraho. To put it very mildly, the organisational part was a disaster. Pretty Young Things in cotton sarees and Brash Young Men in suits, ties and RayBans were all over but, unfortunately, they did not know why they were there or what they were supposed to do. So, FICCI and CII delegates with VVIP entry passes had to shout and elbow through the crowd of lesser mortals to gain entry into different venues. Once in, nobody had a clue as to what would happen next or where to go. The Press was the least informed of the entire guest list. As a result, many a journalist had to virtually fight with the organisers and the police even to do routine things like clicking the President of India declaring open the millennium celebrations. As for the aesthetic part of the show, this tractor company had lugged tractors all the way from Gwalior and positioned them right at the entrance to the Khajuraho Dance Festival venue. Talk about mixing culture with agriculture!

— A.B.


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