Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Mystery Photo 20: Khajaraho, India, home of Chandelal Empire temples.

     The photos seen in my post of Mystery Photos #20 are from the Indian village of Khajaraho in the northern central state of Madhya Pradesh. (On our trip our itinerary in brief was as follows: Delhi, flew to Varanasi; then flew to Khajaraho; then to Orccha and Jhansi; then train to Agra, drive to Rathambore National Park, Bharatpur National Park, then Fetahpur Sikri, and then to Jaipur. Then we flew to Mumbai and finally to southern India.)
     The name Khajaraho is derived from a word that means 'date palm garden.' This village was never large and today just has about 3000 inhabitants. But it is the site of one of the most unique complexes of temples in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and along with the Taj Mahal, one of the 7 Wonders of India. Below are photos of some of the 24 Hindu and Jain Temples that are scattered in three areas around this sleepy little village.

One of the Jain Temples at Khajaraho.

     In the 10th century, rulers from the north of India, expanded down into central India and developed an empire that included most of Madhya Pradesh. They became known as the Chandelas, named after their claim of lineage from the moon god, Chandra. The first Chandela emperor was Chandravarman and for a time his capitol was Khajaraho. During the medieval time of 950AD to 1050AD, Chandravarman and several of his dynastic successors oversaw the construction of a Holy City which consisted of 85 temples constructed of huge blocks of sandstone which were then intricately carved so that they were covered by row upon row of  almost lifesize figures carrying out the normal activities of life. Yet, unlike other temple complexes of India, the artistic carvings here concentrated heavily on the sensual. About 10% of the figures are engaged in very explicit erotic acts. Another characteristic is that many of the sensual portrayals concentrate on the woman; indeed she is the center of many scenes. She is shown caring for her hair, putting on makeup, posing sensually, singing, dancing, kissing, cavorting with other women, and indeed having sexual intercourse with male partners, threesomes, and in groups who are masturbating. Nudity or near nudity is universal. And yet these temples are not just monuments to lust. Indeed each and every one of them is dedicated to one of the most holy of Hindu gods or goddesses, or at the very minimum to one of their consorts or incarnations. Representations of Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma are located inside the small caves within the temples. And carvings around the deities are not erotic at all. Also Laksmi, Vishnu's consort, is commonly represented inside some temples. The deities are usually fully clothed. It almost appears that the day to day life of human kind including sexual life is represented on the outside and then the more esoteric life associated with common and loved deities of Hinduism are represented in the worship chambers of the temples. From lust to the sublime.
     Knowing the India that we have today, and its requirements to keep the women clothed modestly, how and why were these temples constructed in such a fashion? To this day a profound confusion about the origins of this creative burst of phenomenal sculpture exists.
     Various scholars have put forward various theories about why they were created. Some think it might have been the lax morals of a decadent society. The Chandela dynasty was already deteriorating in the early 11th century even as these temples were being constructed by literally thousands of workers. Some attribute this to a practice at the time in which adolescent boys were isolated from the world and kept celibate during their educations. Therefore the only way for them to learn of how to become a husband and householder would be to go to these temples. Others hypothesize that these sculptures were a way to ward off evil spirits because a ruler who portrayed such rich lives of his people along with the sexual practices must have been a powerful one and therefore should not be harmed or challenged. Could they  have been a reaction to the aesthetic ways of Buddhism that were arising at this time in this area?

     And yet, during the same time period, there were sects of Tantric practices both in Hinduism and in Buddhism which portrayed sexual union as a path to nirvana and release from the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. These Tantric cults revived primitive beliefs and practices in a simpler, less formal approach to the personal god. They also displayed a liberal and respectful attitude towards women, and a denial of the caste system. Such ideas were not uncommon in the 11th century while some of these temples were being constructed. By the 13th century they had almost died out in India, eradicated by the invading Islamic armies.

      Some have said the portrayals are carvings showing the Kama Sutra. Yet, scholars agree that the Kama Sutra is a much more ancient and complex writing which deals with much more than just a sexual manual. In fact, in the Kama Sutra, the first requirement is to maintain virtue in life, the second is to maintain a secure life, and only in third place is pleasure. This ancient treatise would not have been in favor of such temples.
     Legend says that these magnificent constructions are an attempt of the mother of the Chandela tribe to achieve redemption. Myth says that the god of the Moon, Chandra, came down and mated with a beautiful young woman by the name of Hemvati. A son was the result. His name was Chandravarman, the first emperor. But Hemvati, with her son, were rejected by her own local family in the north because she was not married. She therefore took her son and traveled to a remote part of the forest in north central India and raised her son to be an educated young man who became the emperor. The myth says that after she died she came to her son in a dream and asked him to erect monuments to her accomplishments in founding a dynasty which would portray the normal lives of his subjects including their sensual lives in a completely open and natural way. Is this myth more fact in the sense that it was built to redeem Hemvati? We do not know, and the reason for these temples shall always be a mystery. But they have survived and are a monument unlike any other in the world.

      The above carving is a typical erotic posture from Khajuraho, depicted on the upper band of the north wall of Vishvanath temple. The posture is based on yogic exercise, that of the sheerasana or the head posture, with the woman upside down. (Actually here the male is upside down, this scene appears both ways.) Two female assistants support the couple, with the man's fingers fondling the genitalia of one of them. At best this is an imaginary posture. Mithun exercises of this nature also have some basis in the spread of tantrism prevalent at the time in the region, with sexual union used as a shortcut to gaining moksha or liberation from the chain of rebirths

          The Chandelas empire in this location began to deteriorate in the late 11th century, though they were able to resist the Mughal invasion for a time. These temples in Khajaraho were fairly remote and were forgotten. The local forest vegetation invaded the area and because they were somewhat hidden and hard to get to, the Mughals did not come here to destroy Hindu monuments as they did in the rest of India. Therefore 24 of the 85 temples have survived in very reasonable condition. It was not until British rule in the late 19th century that some attempt to preserve the temples from the encroaching scrub vegetation was made. Currently the temples are housed in a park like setting consisting of three areas of mowed lawns and rose gardens. It is thought that this is not the way they would have been presented during the Chandela dynasty. There would have been trees, and ponds and perhaps vines and walkways, but there would not have been flowers or moved grass. Still the current landscape makes these fantastic buildings all the more striking, as though they were miniature Himalayas with the deity withdrawn safely inside and human kind cavorting through life on the outside. 
On one of the lintels is a carving of Ganesha,
a well loved Hindu deity.

The lion, symbol of the Chandelas.

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