Khajuraho is a small village in Madhya Pradesh, Central India, where over twenty extraordinary temples were built in the tenth and eleventh centuries. These temples with their frankly sensuous and erotic sculptures have been the subject of much debate over the last few decades. Why were these temples adorned with erotic art? The author, after much original research, offers a new and innovative explanation for the design and symbolism of the temples and their sculptures.
In telling the story of Khajuraho, the author draws on several disciplines: physical geography and environmental considerations, history and aesthetics and combines her knowledge of these with an understanding of present day Hindu rituals.
The book is divided into three parts, each dealing with a different way of seeing and understanding art. Part One takes the perspective of the British officers who rediscovered Khajuraho in the nineteenth century. In Part Two the author describes the rituals still performed at Khajuraho, by the local rural community, a thousand years after the temples were built. In the rituals and celebration of Maha-Shivratri she finds the mythological "essence" of the temples and the sculptures of Khajuraho. In Part Three she recreates the Khajuraho of the tenth century, using historical information that provides clues to how the temples were built, how the artists worked and who the patrons may have been. And in the last chapter of the book Shobita Punja goes beyond the confines of Khajuraho and attempts to explain the significance of temples in India and the unifying concept that directs their expression.
Shobita Punja holds a B.A. in Art History, an M.A. in Ancient Indian History from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and an M.A. in Art Education from Stanford University, California. Her doctoral research dealt with designing an integrated cultural education programme for Indian schools. Her book The Museums of India was published in 1989.
She currently lives in New Delhi with her publisher husband and two daughters.
During a recent lecture, a student asked me why I had chosen Khajuraho as my field of study. I replied instinctively that I hadn't chosen Khajuraho, but that it had chosen me. I was trying to explain the extraordinary circumstances in which this book came into being. Khajuraho, a village in Central India, is today a World Heritage site, with more than twenty magnificent, tenth-twelfth century temples. Each temple is adorned with hundreds of sensuous sculptures, some of which are explicitly erotic. For this reason Khajuraho has been the subject of many books. This little picturesque village in Central India is a photographer's paradise and the exquisite architecture and erotic sculpture have been at the centre of many academic debates.
Since the middle of the 14th century, when the site was first documented by European scholars, many theories have been put forward to account for the seeming incongruity of religious structures being adorned with sculptures with frankly erotic themes. The sculptures were documented and described as "indecent", "offensive" and indicative of "the depths of decadence that Hindu society had fallen to" before the arrival of Islamic and, later, British rulers. Later generations of scholars took it upon themselves to explain the appearance of erotic art in Hindu religious architecture by implying that it was part of some esoteric cult or tradition. Some said that the sculptures depicted permissible ritualistic sexual practices, notably of the tantric cult. Others went on to explain that, at Khajuraho, the artists had given visual expression to the teachings and practices propagated in the Kamasutra, the Sanskrit text on the art of love-making. It was explained that Indian religious philosophy gave sex, love and physical pleasure their rightful place in human existence. Other theories explained that temples were seats of learning and therefore Khajuraho provided free "sex education" for all devotees who visited the temples and admired their sculpture. Such speculations were coupled with arguments that suggested that Indians were highly superstitious and that the erotic sculptures were so positioned on the buildings as to protect the magainst lightning and earthquakes. More scholarly works followed in the 20th century when art historians attempted to describe the symbolic significance of some of the erotic sculptures. These theories too, like the earlier ones, tended to explain only the erotic element which actually forms only a small part of the entire sculptural scheme of the temple decoration at Khajuraho. I am not an art historian by profession, but have always loved the artistic expression of my own country and, in my travels, the art of other lands. As a student, Khajuraho with its temples and sculptures with erotic scenes remained an enigma to me, an inexplicable mystery, and none of the theories or explanations put forward at that time seemed entirely plausible. I was content to accept that some things in life are best left unexplained. In 1990 I was reading a translation of the Shiv Purana and, quite by accident, opened the book on a glorious poetic passage narrating Shiva's marriage to Parvati. My spontaneous reaction was to associate this passage with Khajuraho. At that point I began to realise that the divine marriage of Shiva, a pivotal metaphor in Hindu philosophy, was perhaps the key to understanding the art of Khajuraho.
After that brief moment of inspiration, it was hard work all the way to relearn art history, history and the Puranas, to try and verify my ideas and concepts; for, in effect, I was questioning the current theories and existing approaches to the study of art history. I made several trips to Khajuraho to study the temples and to speak to the villagers, and had the good fortune to witness the celebration of Maha-Shivratri at the site both in 1991 and 1992. It was then that I realised that one of the many problems of art history is its isolation from other disciplines. Culture is a complex subject, and in India it is multilevelled, many tiered, and, in the contemporary context, deeply significant. There is an urgent need to develop an approach to Indian culture in the framework of many interrelated disciplines, to bring environment and aesthetics, myth and philosophy, plastic art and rituals, into a single arena. In this book I have attempted such an approach to a study of Khajuraho and the problems it poses concerning the motivation of those who created these magnificent monuments. I have tried to present Khajuraho from several angles and points of view, including those of architecture, literature, mythology and living traditions.
With this as my challenge, I tried, as far as possible, not to burden the text with excessive footnoting and referencing; I have avoided arguing points of purely academic interest; I have used Sanskrit terms as sparingly as possible and have not used diacritical accents in transliterating them. I have had several debates with myself on the translation of words from Sanskrit into English. For example, Shiva means Auspiciousness or Happiness which are qualities and not a person or objects. When translated the word assumes a new, unintended dimension. Myths, by their intrinsic nature, personify qualities and dramatize abstract concepts. For this reason, I have adopted a format which segregates the myth from the interpretation by indenting these paragraphs on both sides. A myth can be studied in a number of ways. My concern was to bring out the philosophic and narrative content rather than deal with socio-historical or psychological aspects. No doubt, as in all translations and interpretations, something is lost, but that was my challenge.
In an effort to attain a fresh view of the material evidence, I have based most of my theories on primary sources rather than secondary commentaries. I have relied most heavily on one single text, the Shiv Purana, often to the exdusion of others, to explain details of philosophy and iconography. This was to avoid complexities arising out of variations in different texts. I also feel that the Shiv Parana is an intriguing text, full of humour and wisdom worthy of appreciation in its own right.
In a world full of misunderstanding, hatred and fear, I am hesitant to discuss religion. I have no religious affiliations though I have always believed that, in the past, it was faith that inspired the finest literature, architecture, painting and music throughout the world. It is possible to appreciate religious art without knowledge of its philosophic framework, but it is equal-ly true that such appreciation would be limited and incomplete. In this study, it was necessary to reflect on the beliefs that inspired the creation of these magnificent temples.
The book is presented in three parts. Each takes a different perspective and offers another "way of looking" at the art of Khajuraho. The first deals with Khajuraho from the perspective of the British officer, T.S. Burt, who rediscovered the site, anningham's documentation from the archaeological reports, and a broad overview of the comments of later historians concerning the temples of Khajuraho and the sculptures.
The second part of the book is devoted to the Puranic description of the marriage of Shiva and Parvati and how it is re-lived in contermporary Maha-Shivratri festival at Khajuraho. The poetry of Klidas also provides an understanding to the metaphor of the marriage of the gods. I have tried to keep the strands of philosophy, Nark reality and art in distinct sections, but myth often becomes warty and lines of poetry merge into sculptural art. While keeping _Sere disciplines separate, I would like to stress that sculpture is not merely a translation of poetry into stone, but that poetry can, in the hands of a master, achieve new heights not attained in any other medium.
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