It takes a lot to make me blush; but, Khajuraho’s erotically embellished temples certainly raised my eyebrows. Beyond the infamous kama sutra carvings, the sheer skill and craftsmanship on display were awesomely astonishing. I’d go as far as saying this World Heritage site houses the most beautiful temple art in the world. The diversity and level of detail would certainly give Angkor Wat a run for its money. Yet, it’s relatively “off the beaten track” and unknown outside of India.
Indeed, during the long drive from Varanasi to Goa, Ben and I decided to take a temple detour merely on a whim. Man, were we glad we did! At first glance, Khajuraho seemed like a small dusty town in the middle of nowhere. But, as soon as we stepped into the ancient grounds, we were surprised and delighted. What lay before us were the most immaculately manicured lawns we’d ever seen, with proudly preserved temples peppered around the place. It was like a mystical oasis.
Before long, a quirky elder was petitioning to be our guide. We’d heard local knowledge was worth its weight on gold, so we settled on a price and started the grand tour. Our trusty sidekick, Anante Khare, turned out to be incredibly well-versed in Indo-Aryanarchitecture. We soon discovered he’d been telling the temple’s tales since 1972! It was obvious he’d spent a lot of time around tourists – he took digital photos like a young pro. But, back to his stories…
Legend has it that Khajuraho was founded by Chandravarman, the son of the moon god Chandra, who descended on a beautiful maiden as she bathed in a stream. There were 85 temples in the compound originally, while only 25 remain today, revealing the burst of creative genius which took place from AD 950 to 1050. Khajuraho’s isolation helped preserve the temples from the desecration Muslim invaders inflicted on temples everywhere else; but, perhaps for the same reason, the area was slowly abandoned and many temples eventually fell into ruin.
Having said that, the ones that remain are spectacular. Around the outside of the temples are bands of exceedingly artistic stonework showing a storyboard of life from a millennium ago, including: deities, warriors, dancers, musicians, farmers, animals and mythological creatures. Throughout the compound, two elements appear repeatedly: women and sex.
The sensuous female figures have been carved with a half twist, making them swirl and dance playfully out from the flat stone. According to our guide, the “pure” women could be distinguished by their hands, which were placed tantalisingly over their breasts to reveal their unmet urges. The women who’d already enjoyed sexual pleasure were portrayed with a “dishevelled undercarriage” and open sari, as though they were still caught up in the afterglow and had forgotten themselves. Our guide could also decipher the age of the women by comparing their boobs to fruit. “Young girl have the breast like lemon, young woman have the breast like ripe mango.” They looked more like bolt-on melons to me!
Next we moved on to the liberally embellished kama sutra carvings, which have put Khajuraho on the map. Beyond the obvious religious and community purposes the temples served, they also provided an educational function – sex education to be more precise. Our straight-faced guide shared some lessons with us, as if he was describing how to cook samosa. Lesson #1: If you want to have sex with someone who’s not your wife without getting her pregnant, opt for oral sex or “butt fun”. Lesson #2: if your husband has a skin disease, prescribe him a high dose of sulphur in the form of sexual relations with a horse. I can’t recall being taught these things in sex-ed!
While the erotic carvings of Khajuraho are certainly eye-opening, the graphic content shouldn’t detract from the meticulous and masterful stonework. It’s also important to approach the temples with an open mind, as they are open to interpretation. As one of my Insta followers put it, “They are a delight for the eclectic traveller seeking truth about love as a form of worship”. That comment made me see things a whole lot differently.
>> Stay at the Radisson Hotel and scour Agoda for cheap deals. It’s a true sanctuary, located just around the corner from the temples and away from the chaotic tout ‘n’ tourist zone.
>> Eat at the Mediterraneo Restaurant. It’s officially one of my favourite places to feast in India. Mouth-watering Italian meals in the middle of India, who’d of thought? The thin-crust pizzas are to die for and they’re cooked in a wood-fired oven. The whole menu is made with love and attention to detail. It’s a must-try.
>> If you want to see Khajuraho in its moment of glory, visit during the week-long Festival of Dances (Feb/March), when the Western Group of temples becomes a stage of fun-filled action.
>> Opt for a tour guide. For a decent price, they offer a library of information which can’t be beaten. Plus, it’s entertaining listening to their stories about the kama sutra carvings. You’ll find them milling around the main entrance gate.
>> Head to the temples for mid-afternoon so you can capture them with a golden glow. Finish your tour by taking epic sunset pics.