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KHAJURAHO Khajuraho, a medieval temple town, situated in the state of Madhya Pradesh in central India, preserves twenty-five magnificent Hindu and Jain temples. Known in inscriptions as "Kharjura-vahaka," it flourished between a.d. 900 and 1150 as the capital of the powerful Chandella Rajputs, who ruled the region called Jejakabhukti, now the Bundelkhand area in Madhya Pradesh and southern Uttar Pradesh. Surrounded by hills of the Vindhya Range, the original town extended over 8 square miles (21 sq. km) and contained, according to tradition, about eighty-five temples, built by the successive Chandella rulers, their ministers and merchants.

The Chandellas were originally local chieftains and feudatories of the imperial Pratihara monarchs of Kannauj, but by the middle of the tenth century they consolidated power and became independent rulers. The Chandella prince Yashovarman acquired the prestigious image of Vaikuntha-Vishnu from his Pratihara overlord, and he celebrated his victory by building a splendid temple (now called Lakshmana temple), the first in the elite Nagara style, at Khajuraho around 950. The Chandella kings encouraged poetry, drama, dance, and music. Two of the rulers were themselves poets. Above all, they were great sponsors of temple art. Under them Khajuraho became one of the most important temple towns of northern India. In 1022 the Muslim historian Alberuni mentioned "Kajuraha" as the capital of the Chandella kingdom. From the twelfth century, however, the Chandellas shifted their activities to the nearby town of Mahoba and the hill forts of Kalinjar and Ajaygadh, and consequently the temple building at Khajuraho lost momentum. Even so, it remained a religious center, important enough to attract the attention of the Arab traveller Ibn Battuta, who visited Khajuraho in 1335 to see its jogis (yogis, mendicants) and their magical feats. Thereafter, Khajuraho gradually slipped into oblivion.

Some five centuries later, Captain T. S. Burt, a British engineer, spotted the vanished temples amidst a jungle growth that had all but covered them, and he presented his colorful account to the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1838. The local maharaja of Chhatarpur undertook extensive repair work on the temples between 1842 and 1847. Major General Alexander Cunningham, later the first director general of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), visited the site from 1852 onward and systematically described the temples in his ASI Reports. Khajuraho monuments have remained under the care and supervision of the ASI, which has identified eighteen mounds and has undertaken excavation of at least two. Today Khajuraho is a small village, serving the tourist trade with its fine hotels. It has three museums: the Archaeological Museum, the Jain Antiquities Museum, and the Tribal and Folk Art Museum. It can be approached by road from Jhansi (109 miles [175 km]) and Satna (73 miles [117 km]), and by air from Delhi, Varanasi, and Agra. Khajuraho was designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in 1986.

The Temples

Of the twenty-five temples, eighteen are dedicated to the two main Hindu deities: ten to Vishnu, including his powerful composite form, Vaikuntha; and eight to Shiva. There is one temple dedicated to the sun god, one to the esoteric Yoginis (goddesses), and five to the Jain patriarchs of the Digambar sect. A colossal inscribed image of the seated Buddha was also found at this site, indicating the prevalence of Buddhism as well, though on a limited scale. An inscribed image of Hanuman attests to the worship of this monkey god. Khajuraho thus was a religious center where many cults flourished. A synthesis of cults is also indicated by a number of syncretistic icons that combine divinities, as well as by the presence of sculptures of Hindu divinities on Jain temples, and vice-versa. The Hindu religious systems of Khajuraho were Tantra-based but, unlike the skull-bearing Kapalika sect, were not extreme Tantric.

The temples are clustered in three zones. The western zone, located near the Shivasagar tank, is associated with the Chandella royal family, and it includes some of Khajuraho's most magnificent monuments: the Varaha shrine (c. 940); Lakshmana or Vaikuntha-Vishnu temple, built by King Yashovarman (consecrated in 954); Vishvanatha, built by King Dhangadeva (inscribed 999); Matangeshvara (c. 1000), originally a memorial shrine with a colossal lingam 8 feet (2.5 m) in height; and the Kandariya Mahadeva, possibly built by King Vidyadhara (c. 1030). The eastern zone comprises Jain temples built by merchants, most notably the Parshvanatha (c. 955), Ghantai (c. 970), and Adinatha (c. 1075). The southern zone includes the Chaturbhuja temple (c. 1100) with a majestic 9-foot-(5.6 m) tall icon of a unique form of Vishnu—some scholars believe it to represent the Dakshinamurti (Teacher) form of Siva—and the Duladeva temple (c. 1130), the latest in the series, built on a stellate plan. An open-air sanctuary, dedicated to the Sixty-four Yoginis (c. 900), is situated to the southwest of the Shivasagar tank, away from the main western group of temples.

Recent excavations by the Archaeological Survey of India at the Shatdhara mound in the northeastern zone have yielded early Chandella (pre-950) sculptures and architectural remains of a temple complex, affiliated to Vishnu (Dwarf incarnation). Excavations at the Bijamandala mound, in the southern zone, have exposed remains of an eleventh-century Vaidyanatha Shiva temple (112 ft [34 m] long), the largest discovered at the site.

Architectural features

Though affiliated with different religious sects, the temples have a cognate architectural style. Except for the early shrines of the Sixty-four Yoginis (c. 900), built of rough granite, and the Lalguan Mahadeva (c. 900–925) and Brahma (c. 925), constructed of both granite and sandstone, other temples from the middle of the tenth century are constructed of fine-grained sandstone in the Nagara style with its typical curvilinear spire over the sanctum. Unlike the Orissan temples in eastern India, which have their halls as separate structures, the Khajuraho temples are compact, integrated monuments consisting of four or five units: the cella or sanctum (garbhagriha), vestibule (antarala), large hall (maha-mandapa), hall (mandapa), and porch (ardha-mandapa). Four of the large temples are sandhara; that is, they have an inner ambulatory. Two of these, namely the Lakshmana and the Vishvanatha, are five-shrined (panchayatana), with subsidiary shrines in the four corners of the platform. Most of the temples are erected on the eastwest axis and get the direct rays of the rising sun. They have no enclosure walls, as in the case of the South Indian and Orissan temples, but they have their own separate platforms to demarcate their sacred space.

The Khajuraho temples stand on a tall jagati (platform). They have three main divisions on elevation: basal story (pitha), wall (jangha), and the roof or spire (shikhara). The basal story consists of a series of ornamental moldings depicting rows of human activities (narathara), "masks of glory" (kirtimukha), and geometrical designs. The wall section is divided into two or three sculptural zones, consisting of figural sculptures—celestial maidens (apsaras), griffins (vyalas), couples (mithunas), and divinities. The numerous indentations and projections carried upward from the ground level to the superstructure of the temple produce a wonderful dramatic effect.

The architectural imagery of the Khajuraho temples helps us to conceive of the temple as a model of the cosmos. While the subordinate structures such as the porch and halls have pyramidal roofs, the sanctum is covered with a soaring curvilinear spire with graded peaks clustered around it. The architect creates the semblance of a mountain by emphasizing the progressive ascent of superstructures of the component units, converging at the pinnacle. Significantly, the inscriptions of Khajuraho compare the temple with Mount Kailasa, the abode of Shiva, and Mount Meru, the center of the universe. The Kandariya Mahadeva, 102 feet (31 m) high, mountainlike with its eighty-four minispires clinging to its central spire, is a masterpiece of Indian temple art.

The plan of the cella of the large temples (Lakshmana, Vishvanatha, Kandariya, Parshvanatha) resembles a three-dimensional yantra (geometric diagram), with the eight corners guarded by the regents of space (dikpalas). The three cardinal niches represent manifestations or incarnations of the main divinity enshrined in the sanctum. The iconic scheme is integrated with the religious cult of the temple.


Sculpture in the Khajuraho temples is harmoniously integrated with their architecture. The unified design of the temple, with its horizontal bands of sculpture, is perfectly balanced with the rising verticality of the building. Both the exteriors and interiors of the temples are lavishly carved. Ceilings are decorated with intricate geometric and floral designs. Pillar brackets bear sculptures of griffins alternating with maidens, standing under trees, carved in high relief. The sanctum doorway is decorated with conventional auspicious motifs: mithunas (couples), creepers, and dwarfs. It is guarded by dvarapalas (doorkeepers) and is "purified" by the river goddesses, Gaṅgā and Yamuna, sculpted in human form. Indeed, the profusion of figural sculptures is overwhelming. Cunningham counted 646 figures on the exterior and 226 in the interior of the Kandariya Mahadeva alone.


The human body is depicted in sensuous charm in a variety of postures and attitudes. The figures are not muscular, as in Greek sculpture. The beauty of the human form is revealed from many angles through diaphanous clothes. Sculptors were adept at turning the figure around its axis. The figures of nymphs combine two views of the front and the back. Divinities smile softly and stand with languid grace. The measured elegance of the divine images, as well as the spontaneity and lyricism of the loving couples on the walls, is remarkable.

There are three phases in sculptural portrayal: prior to 950, in the excavated Shatdhara mound, revealing elements of the style prevalent in Kannauj and other sites of the Pratiharas overlords; c. 950–1100, in the principal temples starting with the Lakshmana up to the Chaturbhuja temple, with typical Chandella features such as serenity of expression, tight volumes, and full modeling of figures; c. 1100–1200, the style seen in the Duladeva temple (c. 1130), with sharp features, angular bodies, and heavy ornamentation, represented also in other late Chandella sites such as Jamsot, near Allahabad.

Several categories of sculptures are seen in temples, among which are divinities, sacred and mythic animals, celestial maidens, and secular themes, including erotic figures.


Divine images consist of cult icons in the sanctum, generally standing formally in sama-bhanga (equipoise, or weight equally on two feet), and carved according to canonical formulae; and multiple manifestations of the principal deity in the cardinal and surrounding niches. Also present are the dikpalas (regents of space), Matrikas (Divine Mothers), grahas (planets), and numerous lesser divinities, demigods such as flying vidyadharas, gandharvas (celestial musicians), and ganas (dwarfs) placed in different parts of the temple. There are hundreds of images of divinities holding manuscripts in hand, suggesting the importance of knowledge and learning. Several deities—Vishnu, Shiva, Surya, Devi, and Jinas—sit in yogic positions.

Sacred and mythic animals

There are carvings in the round of Nandi, Shiva's bull, and of Varaha, the boar incarnation of Vishnu. The zoomorphic icon of Varaha (c. 925), installed in the western complex of the site, is represented as a cosmic form, carrying more than 650 divinities of the Hindu pantheon carved in relief on its massive animal body. The vyala, a mythic composite animal, is seen in its many varieties, with faces of different animals and birds, combined with the body of a lion. Mythic aquatic creatures, makaras, decorate arches and niches.

Secular scenes

Warriors, dancers, musicians, hunting parties, sculptors at work, and royal figures are mainly sculpted in relief on the rows of the plinth, and in small niches of the superstructure. Men fighting a vyala or a lion is a favorite theme. Idealized portraits of a king and queen performing a ritual, carved in the round, are now in the site museum.

Erotic figures

It should be clarified that Khajuraho is neither synonymous with erotic sculpture nor do the temples illustrate the Indian handbook of love, the Kāma Sūtra, as is generally believed. Erotic themes constitute not even one-tenth of the total sculpture on the temples but have drawn undue attention. Erotic depiction was believed to be a good omen because it symbolized regeneration, and it was part of a larger tradition prevalent across India. As an auspicious and apotropaic motif, it is depicted on most temples of India—Hindu, Buddhist, Jain—built between 900 and 1300, and it is represented according to the sculptural canons of the region in which the temple is situated. Generally, however, the figures are small and placed in insignificant location. At Khajuraho, as in Orissan temples, erotic figures are placed, apart from several parts of the temple, conspicuously on the main wall. The sculptures are large in size and in graceful postures. Significantly, at Khajuraho the artists have made creative use of this already established theme, the conjunction of opposites, the union of the male and female principles, by placing it on the juncture walls (of sandhara temples) that link the hall for devotees and the sanctum of the divinity, to metaphorically convey something beyond the erotic. Though the surface meaning is erotic, a hidden meaning lies beneath, expressing a subtle yogic-philosophic concept—the goal of nonduality.


Apsaras or nayikas appear on all temples of the Nagara style, whether Hindu or Jain. They are shown absorbed in various everyday activities, such as applying makeup, removing a thorn from the foot, writing a letter, or carrying a baby. One of the favorite motifs of Khajuraho artists is a woman undressing to throw a scorpion from her body, a poetic device that expressed a fertility theme. The apsaras of Khajuraho and other medieval temples are auspicious art motifs whose origins can be traced back to vegetation spirits (yakshis) and fertility figures of early Indian art at Sanchi, Bharhut, and Mathura. In fact, the architectural Vastu texts specifically ordain sculptures of female figures on temple walls.

Meaningful Form

The art of Khajuraho reflects the highly sophisticated and Sanskritized ethos of the Chandella court. Knowledge of Sanskrit and its grammar was highly appreciated by the elite. Sculptors were innovative in creating images with unique iconography, for instance, the god Sadashiva with four feet (padas), suggestive of (by way of a pun on the Sanskrit word pada = foot = part) the four parts (padas) of the Shaiva religious texts.

The architects of Khajuraho were learned in Shastric (textual) traditions, as inscriptions and designs in the temples testify. They place sculptures in architectural schemes not just to decorate temples or to fill space, but also to convey concepts of cosmological import. In the Lakshmana temple, for instance, the architect arranges collective images of planetary divinities (grahas) on the exterior plinth, as if encircling the temple, thereby projecting the concept of the temple as Mount Meru, the mythical mountain in the center of the universe, around which the planets revolve.

The most refined achievement of Khajuraho art, the Kandariya Mahadeva temple, embodies the symbolism of the yantra in the plan of its sanctum, the imagery of the cosmic mountain in its multiturreted spire, and a visual expression of the Shaiva metaphysical system in its iconic scheme. Shiva-liṇga, considered the sign of the unmanifest ultimate reality, is installed in the center of the sanctum, with graded manifestations of Shiva, emanations and subemanations, in the surrounding niches, as if radiating the power of the divinity enshrined within. The temple is an ordered whole in which images are part of an integrated scheme. The Khajuraho temples represent a creative moment in Indian art when artistic talent combined with religious aspirations to produce a meaningful form.

Devangana Desai

See alsoAsiatic Societies of Bengal and Bombay


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Cunningham, Alexander. Archaeological Survey of India Reports, Vols. II, VII, X, XXI. Simla-Calcutta, 1864–1885.

Desai, Devangana. Erotic Sculpture of India: A Socio-Cultural Study. 1975. Rev. ed., New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1985.

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