We reach Khajuraho on a clear, bright morning and are soon at the gates of the Western group of Temples. Together these temples are a part of the UNESCO World Heritage list. I look for signs of a typical tourist centre -- hawkers, touts, rickshaw pullers, beggars -- but cannot see any; the place is clean, quiet and inviting. A few guides hover about but we refuse their services, buy the Rs 10 ticket and enter a sprawling expanse of lush green lawns, dotted with vibrant seasonal flowers -- marigold, bougainvillea, candytuft -- and numerous temples.
The origins of these temples are steeped in an enchanting mix of legend and history -- the story of Khajuraho is said to have begun more than a 1000 years ago when Hemwati, the enchantingly beautiful daughter of the royal priest of Kashi, decided to bathe in a pond full of lotuses, on a full moon night. The moon god was so mesmerised by her beauty that he descended on earth and made love to her. When it was time for him to go, he instructed Hemwati to leave for the forests of Khajuraho in Central India to bring up his son.
"Built to replicate the peaks of the Himalayas, the temples have high ascending towers, multiple halls and are constructed over a high platform."
The son was called Chandravarman and he grew up to be a great king, establishing the famous Chandela dynasty and setting up the kingdom of Kalinjar. To atone for the sins of his unwedded mother he also laid the foundation of the temples in Khajuraho, which until then was a forest of date palms. For generations the Chandela kings added to the temples of Khajuraho -- each structure more magnificent than the other -- until the fall of the dynasty. With the passage of time, the temples were buried under thick forests and remained lost for 500 years until a British officer stumbled across them in the 19th century.
And now here we are, ready to make our own discoveries.
First up in the Western Group is the Varaha Temple. Small but high, it houses a smooth, shiny and intricately carved statue of the boar Varaha that occupies the entire sanctum.
The Lakshmana Temple, right opposite, is much larger and much more elaborate; it also stands on a high platform and is flanked by smaller temples on all four corners; inside, it is dark, empty (none of the temples here are used for worship), and is adorned by exquisitely carved figures of humans and animals. Outside, on the platform, are panels depicting life during the times of the Chandela kings. It is here that the first traces of erotica, in the form an orgy can be seen. Although I have heard about the erotic element of the temples, I find the blatant display a little shocking and quickly walk towards the other end of the temple.
The other temples in the complex are the Vishwanath Temple, with a smaller shrine of Nandi standing right in front of it; the Kandariya Mahadev Temple, grandest and the largest, with a smaller temple of Jagdambi Devi next to it and some Jain temples, that were perhaps added much later. In all, Khajuraho has about 22 temples that remain out of the estimated 85.
All the temples are similar to look at. Built to replicate the peaks of the Himalayas, they have high ascending towers, multiple halls -- ardha mandap, mandap, maha mandap, antarala, garbhagriha and pradakshina path-- and are constructed over a high platform.
All the temples are extensively carved too, with Kandariya Mahadev and Vishwanath being the most richest in erotic sculptures depicting every conceivable pose and posture. No wonder they attract the largest number of tourists, some gazing in awe, some in horror. I am glad that I do not have a guide explaining the technicalities to me.
Kandariya Mahadev Temple
"During the time these temples were constructed, Buddhism was at its peak and it was normal for people to leave their homes in search of nirvana," says the caretaker at Dulhadev Temple, giving us an interesting insight into the erotic content of the sculptures. "The kings, therefore, instructed the sculptors to include scenes of domestic life on the walls of the temples. The idea was to lure the men back to their homes, and what better way to get them back than to arouse sexual desires in them?"
We are now in the other part of the town where a few more temples -- Chaturbhuj, Dulhadev, Vamana, Parushram and some Jain temples - lie scattered. They constitute the eastern and southern group of temples and are not enlisted with UNESCO. Belonging to the same school of architecture -- high platforms, ascending spires, and intricate sculpting -- they are much smaller in scale; they do not have many visitors either. Which is why perhaps the caretakers here -- like the one at Dulhadev temple -- also double up as guides. This part of the town resembles any other urban village with govt schools, tiny houses, hutments and stray animals, and yet the temples are clean, quiet and untouched. The people of Khajuraho, says the caretaker, realise the value of these monuments, and are protective of them -- they even us some of these for worship.
Devi Jagdambi Temple
Dulhadev Temple, for example, is very popular among the locals and it is mandatory for all newly married couples of the town to pay their obeisance to the 1100 Shivlings here. I spot a lamp, flowers, incense and some coins, something that I have not seen in any of the temples at the Western Group. The Jain temple is alive too with tourists and pilgrims thronging its courtyards.
But the main action in the town remains in and around the Western Group, so we head back to where we began.
At 6.30 in the evening, the lawns of the Western Group are eerily dark, cold and unrecognisable, more so because we are at another end of the complex. The moon has not yet risen and all we can spot is a tastefully illuminated sculpture, dedicated to the unknown sculptor of Khajuraho, in the centre of the lawn.
The sculptures and the temples soon begin to glow with multicoloured lights casting shadows on them. In another moment the quiet lawns are reverberating with music and the imagined voice of the "sculptor" who narrates the story of Khajuraho to us. He tells us about the kings and the queens of the Chandela dynasty, the culture and the heritage of Kalinjar, the rise and the fall of the Chandravanshis. By the time we finish, the moon is shining in all its glory; all we need now to complete the picture is a pond full of lotuses and the enchanting Hemwati.
A version of this feature first appeared in The Week