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Khajuraho Sculptures : Themes and Meanings

Khajuraho Sculpture: Themes and MeaningsMade of finely grained stone and ranging from a variety of colours from pale buff, pink and yellow and brown, The Khajuraho sculptures yet have an element of smoothness and softness. The depiction of the human body in various sensuous postures is very widely found in Khajuraho. The figures, though not well built and muscular like the Greek sculptures, but an attempt to reveal the beauty of the human body is very much prominent through the transparent clothing carved along with the sculptures of Khajuraho.

Khajuraho Sculpture: Themes and MeaningsThe mid tenth century sculptures from the ancient temples of Khajuraho represent the subtle warmth of classical Indian modelling. Big temples such as the Parashvanatha and Lakshmana temple stand as testimony to this fact. The Vishvanatha temple has perfectly proportioned and poised figures. Some temples which follow the Devi Jagadamba and the Chitragupta retain the rounded modelling and the graceful forms. In the Kandariya Mahadeva, the figures become slender and tall, and some of them revolve round their own axis. However, too many khajuraho sculptures in this architecturally magnificent monument seem to have affected the quality of the sculptures. In the Duladeva temple, built in. AD 1130, we find human forms with sharp angles, pointed features and lavish ornamentation. In spite of many of the statues losing their vitality, yet some of the flying figures on the wall and the bracket statues still have signs of the past vigour.

Khajuraho Sculpture: Themes and MeaningsThe harmonious integration of architecture to the sculptures, add to the rhythm of the monuments. Irrespective of one`s iconographical understanding, one is still impressed by the unified design of the temple, with its horizontal bands of sculpture in perfect balance with the vertically towering building. Each temple has a unique pattern in the placement of its sculptural motifs; in the Lakshmana temple, surasundaris on the projections alternate with vyalas in recesses of the walls. The hundreds of divinities carved on the walls and niches of the inner halls are conceptually integrated with the central deity enshrined in the sanctum. Each sculpture seems to be a part of the whole.

Main Categories of Khajuraho Sculptures :
The sculptures in the Khajuraho temples can be classified into eight categories:

1) Khajuraho Sculptures : The cult icons
Installed in the sanctum, these are generally sculpted, in strict accordance with prescribed conventions of the Shilpashastra. They have a halo and a host of attending figures, hierarchically arranged in frames of steles. The best specimen is undoubtedly the 2.75 m. (9 ft.) high image in the Chaturbhuja temple. This exceptional icon is shown in tribhanga (three bends of the body), while the icons in other temples stand erect in sarnabhanga. The colossal statue of Parvati performing penance, now in the Museum, and those of the Jain Tirthankaras in meditative postures are also interesting cult icons.

2) Khajuraho Sculptures : The surrounding figures :
Khajuraho Sculpture: Themes and Meanings Built either in the ground or on a high relief, These figures are generally seen in the prominent corners of the temples and are generally important figures. The images of the Dikpalas, in the eight directions of the temple, and those of Shiva and Vishnu on the exterior walls stand with ease in tribhanga. They carry weapons in their hands in accordance with the scriptures. They look like humans, but are distinguished by the shrivatsa (diamond-like mark) on their chests, crowned head-dresses, long strands of hair reaching below the knees, and their vahanas at their feet.

3) The dynamic figures of the demi-gods such as the vidyadharas, gandharvas, ganas are generally carved on the top row of the wall, perhaps symbolizing the celestial world. The flying vidyadharas surround the divine figures with garlands. The playful ganas are found on door jambs and pedestals of Shaivite images. Four armed dwarfs are seen on the pillar brackets of all the temples, and a few even have comical facial expressions.

4) Khajuraho Sculptures : Apsaras or surasundaris - the celestial women are shown in front, back and side views. They are also shown engaged in various activities.

5) Mithunas or romantic couples and erotic groups have provided additional importance to Khajuraho.

6) Khajuraho Sculptures with a general theme, for instance those depicting the royal hunt, the king at court, marching armies, domestic scenes, teacher and pupils, dance processions, a dancer conversing with an Acharya sculptors at work, traders with camels, and others are shown in relief panels placed on the platform of the Lakshmana temple and on the narathara row on the plinth of the temples.

7) Animal figures include the mythical vyala, a creature with a lion`s body and the head of different creatures such as a parrot, an elephant, a boar and others. The vyala is a typical motif of medieval temple art. Elephants are depicted in a row on the basement of the Lakshmana temple and as large figures in the round, placed near the entrance of the Vishvanatha temple. Nandi, Shiva`s bull, is one of the most magnificent animal representations. This Nandi is carved from a single huge stone, and sheltered in a specially built mandapa (pavilion), facing the Vishvanatha temple.

8) Geometric and floral designs are carved on the ceilings, on the borders of panels and walls, on pillars and elsewhere. The lotus is an important motif in ceiling decorations and on pedestals of divinities.

Some Themes in the Sculptures of Khajuraho Celestial Women (apsaras, surasundaris)

Khajuraho Sculpture: Themes and MeaningsThe medieval temples of India feature a huge number of female figures in their sculptural strategy. Khajuraho has not compromised in this pattern also. They are represented on walls, pillar-brackets and other architectural parts of the temple. Various everyday activities of women are portrayed, such as applying make-up, removing a thorn from the foot, tying or untying the waist girdle, rinsing water from wet hair, writing a letter, playing a game of ball, carrying a baby, and dancing The medieval Vastu texts specifically ordain the carving of female figures on temple walls. According to the Shilpa Prakasha, an Orissan text, "As a house without a wife, as frolic without a woman, so without a figure or a woman the monument will be of inferior quality and bear no fruit." This text further describes 16 types of female figures in various activities such as nupurapadika, one with ankle bells, darpana, one with a mirror, and so on. By the fifteenth century, detailed descriptions of more than thirty types of female figures in the western Indian text Kshiramava are mentioned. The temples that co flourished along with Khajuraho, such as those at Jagat, Suhania, Modhera, and Bhubaneswar also depict a variety of female figures. They are, in fact, present in almost all places wherever sculpture is possible. The apsaras and surasundaris of Khajuraho and other medieval temples are auspicious motifs whose origin can be traced to vegetation spirits (Yakshis) and fertility figures of early Indian art at Sanchi, Bharhut and Mathura.

Khajuraho Sculpture: Themes and MeaningsThe surasundari undressing to remove a scorpion from her body, is the favourite sculpture in Khajuraho. Female nudity was regarded as a potent fertility charm, and hence this could have been the artist`s way of expressing fertility. Viewing through the linguistic lens, one cannot fail to notice the fact that one of the words for scorpion in Sanskrit is "kharjura" , and there is a possibility that this could be related to the ancient name of Khajuraho, i.e. Kharjura-vahaka, which could mean either date-palm-bearing or scorpion-bearing. The scorpion-bearing female figure hence, seems to be the emblem of the town Kharjura-vahaka !

Khajuraho Sculptures : Erotic Figures
Though Khajuraho is well known for its erotic sculptures, one must remember that erotic figures do not even account for one-tenth of the site`s sculptures.

Khajuraho Sculpture: Themes and MeaningsErotic sculptures are not only a characteristic of the Khajuraho temples. Even the temples of western and southern India, namely Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Karnataka portray similar and even more sensual themes, but they are located on smaller rows of the Plinth, below eye level, or on balcony panels. Hence they often go unnoticed. However, in places like Khajuraho, Puri, Bhubaneswar, and Konarak erotic figures are placed on the main wall portion (jangha) of the temples and therefore are about a metre in height, thus drawing immediate attention .

The convention of depicting erotic figures was not a trend which began at Khajuraho. In fact, the depiction in Khajuraho was just a part of a larger tradition prevalent all over the country.

Several hypotheses attempt to explain the presence of sensual figures in religious art. One argument says that erotic figures represent kama (desire), the third purushartha (aim of life), another argument says that they were designed to test the spiritual strength of the Yogis, Yet another theory is that they were intended for sex education. Neither can be considered as authentic due to the variety in both; the sculptures, as well as their positioning.

Erotic symbolism occurs in the art of all three religious sects Hindu, Buddhist and Jain and seems to have risen out a common substratum of beliefs and practices associated with fertility cults. Rites of fertility involved actual sexual practice or its symbolic representation. Fertility includes not only its primary purpose of procreation but also its wider connotations: the aversion of evil, death and misfortune, and the promotion of life, happiness, prosperity, and auspiciousness.

Khajuraho Sculpture: Themes and Meanings The auspicious and protective aspects of erotic figures have been recognized by the Shilpashastras and other authoritative texts on temple art. The Brihat Samhita of the sixth century AD clearly ordains that mithunas (couples) should `decorate` the temple door, along with creepers, ganas (goblins), and other auspicious and luck-bringing motifs. Erotic motifs were considered alankara, protective and auspicious (shubha, mangala) in function.

From AD 900 onwards, the ruling dynasties of the feudal age competed with one another in displaying their wealth and power by building larger and more lavishly decorated temples. Many temples in India built between AD 900-1300 blatantly display erotic themes. Khajuraho is one such site, among many others, one may add.

Khajuraho Sculpture: Themes and MeaningsErotic figures first appear at Khajuraho in AD 950, on the Lakshmana temple, the earliest temple built in the elite Nagara style of architecture dedicated to Lord Vishnu. By this time, Indian architects were quite familiar with the use of erotic motifs in temple art as an auspicious ornament (alankara), protective in function. At Khajuraho, the architects assign erotic motifs to the following places: the door-jamb of the sanctum; the narathara or human activities row of the plinth; the row of the jagati or platform along with royal pastimes, battle scenes, and dancers; the recesses of the jangha; and niches of the superstructure. Couples are also placed round the images of Matrikas (Mothers) in the two Shiva temples the Vishvanatha and the Kandariya Mahadeva which brings to mind a similar practice followed in the temples of Gujarat and Rajasthan. The Mothers were said to be appeased by the performance of the procreative act, or its substitution. The depiction of erotic figures is a substitute for the actual act.

Khajuraho Sculpture: Themes and MeaningsIt is not only the variety of erotic subjects centering around ascetics and aristocrats and their frequent and loud display that makes Khajuraho unique, but also their peculiar placement in the sculptural scheme of the temples. Erotic sculptures has been placed on the wall portion between the two balconies in the three major Hindu sandhara temple. This wall portion is actually the juncture of the big hall (mahamandapa), and the sanctum (garbhagriha) Here, the architect seems to have employed puns, through a language called sandhya binasha. This is a code language used by esoteric religious practitioners and Tantric texts to conceal their doctrines from outsiders. This enigmatic language employs erotic terminology to convey non-communicable experiences, which cannot be expressed in ordinary language. For instance, when one reads: `A washerwoman clings to the Yogi (ascetic) on his neck`, it is found to be erotic if taken literally. But in the code language of the Tantras, it means that the washerwoman, i.e. Dombi=Kundalini energy, has ascended to the chakra (subtle centre) of the neck. Similarly, erotic figures on temple walls could be metaphoric and might conceal a deeper symbolism.

There are two head-down postures on the juncture walls of the two Shiva temples in the Western group. Their composition is remarkably similar to the Kamakala Yantra of the architectural text Shilpa Prakasha (c. tenth-twelfth century AD). This text states that such a yantra is to be placed on temples for propitiatory purposes. It would defend the temple against calamities and evil spirits. But the lines of the yantra have to be hidden from the gaze of non-initiated persons by covering them with erotic figures, which in turn would `delight` lay persons.

It may be appropriate here to discuss the sexual values of the period. At the social level there was a double standard for the genders. Men could enjoy sex with as many women as they could afford, financially and physically, and according to their status, whereas the married women of high society were confined to their polygamous husbands. There was no `free love` in the period, as some may naively imagine to be the case from the explicit display of sex in the art of the temples. High society ladies generally stayed indoors in their own apartments, not accessible to outsiders. Some of the Chandella queens, however, seem to have taken interest in charitable work. The Chief Queen enjoyed a distinctive position in the royal court. Chandella inscriptions cite examples of ideal women from Puranic tales, such .as Arundhati and Anasuya, and their devotion to their husbands. Social codes were strict on extramarital affairs, though literature and the arts paint a more romantic picture. Low caste women, however, had comparatively more freedom in their sex lives, but exploitation cannot be ruled out.

Khajuraho Sculpture: Themes and Meanings On the whole, women were respected and those belonging to the upper classes owned personal property. They were able to make donations for the construction of temples, wells, and other public buildings, and give charities to Brahmins. There is mention of queen Satyabhama who made donations to Brahmins on the day of a solar eclipse. Another Chandella queen, Kalyanadevi, built a well and a rest-house for pilgrims. She was educated and she arranged to get the genealogy of her husband`s and that of her father`s family inscribed. The chief dancer, Padmavati, at the Chandella fort Kalanjar is also known to have made donations to the Shiva temple. The varastris, `the best among women`, as an inscription mentions, presented gifts to the Kandariya Mahadeva temple on some special occasion.

The beauty of young maidens was appreciated and admired in public assemblies as suggested in the literature of the period and in the sensuous carvings of apsaras and surasundaris on temple walls. The play Karpuramanjari, written by the poet Rajashekhara, of the neighbouring Pratihara court, in the tenth century, brings on stage a bathing heroine to reveal her charms.

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