“What the heck were they thinking?”
That was my first reaction when I visited the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho.
I mean, I have seen my share of famous erotic art, many of which involved characters that are not relatable or half-human as you can see here. But in Khajuraho, they look like everyday people indulging in acts that you and I would go to jail for these days.
Before I get into that, let me take a step back.
If you live outside India and have heard about Khajuraho, you would be in the minority. If you live in India and have heard about it, you have probably not visited it. Yet, it remains one of the most visited monuments in India.
And, a marketing dilemma worth the study in a business school!
Khajuraho, for those of you who are wondering, is a nondescript town in the state of Madhya Pradesh, India. It is home to a group of Hindu and Jain temples built around 1100 years ago. Depending on whose list you read, Khajuraho typically figures in the top five most visited monuments in India and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you didn’t already know, the Taj Mahal features at the top of the monuments in India.
Khajuraho is different from most other ancient Indian temples. The walls that surround the temples display intricate carvings and sculptures some of which are explicit and erotic in nature.
The Khajuraho sculptures depict a no-holds-barred sexual bohemia that suggest permissiveness in the society and a general predilection for the pursuit of pleasure.
The local tourism department, MPTDC, will remind you that only 10% of the sculptures are of the erotic verity. I concur. Though, I would hazard a guess that most of the tourists who visit Khajuraho are here for the 10%.
For that matter, I am not sure that I would have made it all the way to Khajuraho if I hadn’t heard about the erotic aspects of the sculptures. To me, it was mind-blowing that a conservative country like India, where public display of affection is frowned upon, can have such a liberal past!
For perspective, as recent as three years ago, the Government of India took a moral high-ground and banned online pornography – eventually revoking the ban a few months later. And the last time I checked, same-sex relationships are not yet completely “legal” in India.
So what changed?
Clearly, the folks who lived a thousand years ago were way more permissive in their outlook than their current descendants. How did the Indian society evolve to become so prudish?
Or, maybe the folks who lived during those times were just wild party animals (pun intended!)
The more religious Mughal kings who invaded and ruled large parts of India are known to have destroyed many temples along the way and put an end to all the fun by enforcing a more stricter moral code for the society.
It’s kind of ironic that I had travelled to Khajuraho through Varanasi, a city that dates back to 1800 BC and considered “holy” by the predominantly hindu population of India.
Going from Varanasi to Khajuraho was like going from salvation to sin!
After Varanasi – a city teaming with devotees, priests, cycle rickshaws, and cows – the calm and the quiet of Khajuraho, a 50-minute flight away, was a welcome change.
The Lalit Hotel in Khajuraho lived up to its billing and some. A chance encounter with the hotel’s Resident Manager, Devendra Singh Parihar, gave me some perspective on the town’s dilemma:
Should Khajuraho promote the erotic aspects of the sculptures, or pitch it as a family-friendly monument?
It appears that the current consensus is to take the latter option.
It is sort of like Amsterdam trying to clean up its red-light district, and shed its image as a soft-drug mecca. Except, people may still go to Amsterdam for other things – the tulips, the windmills, the canals…. All Khajuraho has are the sculptures; can they afford to take a chance and downplay the erotic aspects of the monument?
If Khajuraho was discovered close to Las Vegas, Amsterdam, or Bangkok, what would those cities have done? My gut says that they would have built on Khajuraho’s erotic theme to draw more tourists to the city. Irrespective of the path the MPTDC takes, it is obvious that the monument does not receive the level of tourist traffic it deserves. Making it easier for travellers to get there would be a start.
However, I can completely relate to the Tourism Department’s marketing dilemma. For instance, I struggled with the choice of an image for this post.
Obviously, I realize that using racier images will get me more hits for my blog. But, would I be straying from the tone and substance of the blog? After reading an article on Huffington Post titled “14 Classic Artworks That Are Way More Erotic…”I decided to go with the more explicit images that I have included here.
After all, we are talking about the land of Kama Sutra!
The marketing guy in me sees an opportunity to play it up without being crass.
As to why these erotic sculptures were created, who really knows?
There are many interpretations.
My take: The temples were built by the kings of the Chandela Dynasty. The sculptures themselves would have had to be commissioned by the kings. Some random sculptor or artisan could not have gone willy-nilly and created erotic carvings on temple walls without getting his or her head chopped off. Perhaps, it was a medium for the king to enlighten his subjects about the ways of the birds and the bees.
After all there was no wikiHow those days.
For a few other interpretations you can check out this post.
As someone who came to see the erotic sculptures, I found myself marvelling at the level of detail that many of the non-erotic pink sandstone figures and carvings showed. It is said that many jewellers and designers in India have been inspired by the accessories worn by the women depicted in the sculptures.
The beauty and the intrigue around the Khajuraho sculptures are indisputable, but the real “why?” shall remain a mystery.
You should go!
You can see Google Images of Khajuraho here.
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