Beyond the erotic

Print edition : January 10, 1998

The Religious Imagery of Khajuraho by Dr. Devangana Desai, Franco-Indian Research Private Ltd., Mumbai, 1997.

KHAJURAHO has been the subject of both scholarly and popular literature, and the fascination for Khajuraho seems not to diminish. With Dr. Devangana Desai, it is a magnificent obsession, and her study of this medieval Chandella temple town spans nearly three decades and covers every conceivable aspect of its religion, art and philosophy. Her work represents the most scholarly and thorough reading of the temples and their imagery.

The present book is perhaps the most significant of all her works, as it dispels many of the misconceptions that exist in the popular and scholarly understanding of the art of Khajuraho. Dr. Desai establishes beyond doubt that it is time to delink Khajuraho's sculptures from the Kamasutra, the secular handbook on love. She demonstrates that Khajuraho has erroneously become synonymous with erotic sculpture. Erotic sculpture, in fact, constitutes not even one-tenth of its imagery and indeed belongs, as in the case of other medieval temples, to a different tradition in which both religious and worldly interests merge. The religious imagery of Khajuraho far outweighs the erotic in numbers and importance, and iconology is the key to the understanding of the conceptual basis and the architectural and iconographic scheme of the temples.

Another misconception that is refuted is the suggested association of the hedonistic Kaula-Kapalika sect with the erotic sculptures as representing their extreme ritual practices. Dr. Desai also demolishes the more recent and somewhat novel and fanciful interpretation that the different groups of temples dedicated to Siva, Vishnu and other deities (including the Jaina?) represent a divine audience at Siva's marriage to Parvati, celebrated on Sivaratri at the Matangesvara temple, and that the erotic sculptures mark the consummation of the marriage. This Dr. Desai achieves by showing that such a marriage festival supposedly based on the Siva Purana was unknown in the Chandella period (10th to 12th centuries A.D.), nor does the Siva Purana mention the marriage rite on Sivaratri festival. Such a festival was perhaps a 19th century innovation under the Bundella rulers, who revived the neglected temple town by introducing new festivals. The author quotes Tantric texts to show that the erotic figures on the juncture wall of the temples are metaphoric and that only the ignorant would interpret them in a literal sense.

Dr. Desai's arguments and conclusions are based on meticulous research and correlation made among a variety of textual sources (Puranic, Tantric, Vastu Sastra and court literature) and inscriptional evidence and the fact that a conscious effort went into the design of the temples and into their art. While studying the architecture and art of the temples in their totality, Dr. Desai focusses on two major temples, the Lakshmana (Vaikuntha Vishnu) and Kandariya Mahadeva (Siva as Sadasiva), and their iconic schemes. As the finest achievement of the Nagara style of temple architecture, they are "monuments of manifestation" of Vishnu and Siva, symbolising the cosmic Meru and Kailasa mountains. Not built mechanically according to Vastu Sastra dictums, they are conceived of as mandalas or consecrated sacred space guarded by dikpalas and vasus. The architect-priest has consciously produced the yantra formation to symbolise cosmic order on earth by following closely the highly structured metaphysical order of the Pancaratra and Saiva Siddhanta Tantric system in their images and their placement in the scheme of the temple. The architect-priest has used the non-discursive language of visual imagery to present this metaphysical structure, harmoniously integrating them with architecture, thereby unfolding the evolution or manifestation of the supreme being in the universe. The ascent and descent of graded peaks (miniature shrines called urah-sringas) on the sikhara centreing on its highest point, the finial, the cosmic axis, convey the rhythm of Dissolution and Creation. While cosmic symbolism characterises all major temples of the 11th-12th centuries in India (such as those in Thanjavur and Bhubaneswar), the design of the temples of Khajuraho seems to surpass the others precisely in its ordering of the miniature shrines and the religious imagery in a hierarchical organisation.

The author sets her discussion of the religious imagery against the cultural ethos of this region and period as well as the erudite court ambience of the Chandellas. She takes up the allegorical play Prabodha Chandrodaya, composed by Krishna Misra at the Chandella court, to explain the religious milieu of Khajuraho and the twilight language (sandhya bhasha) of the sculptural puns used on the temples, emphasising the interaction between the sculptors and poets of the court. The period was also marked by a synthesis of Tantric and Vedic-Brahmanic world-views, which the play reflects. Tantric practices thus drew authenticity from the Vedic and Smarta forms, a process widespread in India at this time and registered by the Kashmir Pancaratra system and the Saiva Siddhanta, both of which inspired the Vishnu and Siva temples in Khajuraho.

Inscribed Sadasiva image, circa A.D. 1000, Archaeological Museum, Khajuraho.-

The key concepts in the two temples are Vaikuntha and Sadasiva, representing the intermediate stage of the transcendental-unmanifest to the immanent-manifest forms, where the movement towards creation begins. From the formless to the form, there are several graded manifestations of Vishnu and Siva, and these find their hierarchical and ordered places in the various niches leading ultimately to the sanctum. The visual representation of the process from the unmanifest to the manifest guides the worshipper through the avarana or surrounding deities to the centre, that is, the innermost sanctuary. The diverse manifestations of Vishnu and Siva are placed in the main niches of the jangha, while dikpalas, navagrahas, Matrikas, and deities including Ganesa and Karthikeya are placed in appropriate positions from the inner doorway to the outer walls (vedibandha). Again there is a graded, hierarchical positioning as a protective mandala, magico-protection being a major function of such deities. Dr. Desai demonstrates this through numerous tables and diagrams indicating their placement. Sectarian affiliations determined even the placement of deities other than the chief deity in a subordinate position. This is a feature of all medieval Saiva and Vaishnava temples.

It is in this context that the positioning of the erotic figures becomes significant, for they are mostly found in the juncture (kapili) connecting the shrine and the mandapa, that is, the meeting point of the divine and the human (or twilight zone), as they are figures in conjunction and speak a sandhya bhasha or intentional language with double meaning or pun (slesha). Marriage scenes, conjoint images and pairing of divinities are other ways in which the ordering of images is determined. Female figures (sura sundaris) both as auspicious and fertility motifs and protective symbols figure commonly in medieval temples.

KHAJURAHO abounds in metaphors and puns. The very name of the town, Kharjuravahaka, means both the town of Kharjura (dates) and of the scorpion, a motif occurring on one of the female figures. The term Digambara or sky-clad for both Siva and Jaina Kshapanaka (monk) occurs in inscriptions and on representations. Both literature and art used these metaphors and puns. One of the most significant is the Yajna-Varaha or boar incarnation of Vishnu at Khajuraho, a political metaphor for royal power, rescuing the earth from the nether region and symbolising cosmic Visvarupa carrying on its theriomorphic form all the important divinities. This symbolism is found not only in Khajuraho but also in Gupta period sculptures and in Pallava, Chalukya and Rashtrakuta narrative panels. Siva as Sadasiva represented as a four-legged figure (chatushpada) and his unique iconography conveys by way of a pun the four padas of the Saiva Siddhanta system. Vishnu as Vaikuntha had a special importance in north India and the image was sought by rulers of different dynasties. Chandellas are in fact believed to have obtained it from Pratiharas, who obtained it from the Sahi rulers and so on.

Above all, the allegory of the Prabodha Chandrodaya, which combines Vedanta with Bhakti through the story of King Viveka (discrimination) and his victory over Mahamoha (delusion) is recognised by the author in the sculptures of these temples in their puns and intentional language, thereby showing the interface between art and politics and art and literature. Following Mircea Eliade, the author identifies homologies and equivalents to read the secret or intentional language of the physical acts portrayed in the Khajuraho temples. Dr. Desai writes on one aspect of this representation: "On the sandhi juncture of the hall for devotees (jivas) and the womb house of the divinity (Siva), on the juncture of the phenomenal and transcendental worlds, the juncture, 'which is neither here nor there', where the opposite energies of two architectural yantras meet, the architect-priest of the grand Kandariya Mahadeva temple has imaginatively and intentionally placed the scene of physical union to project the non-communicable experience of the Non-Dual state through the homologies and equivalents of Sandhya Bhasha."

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