Love cast in stone

Khajuraho temples perhaps are the living models to announce love as their devotion and the allegories of erotica as their most beloved occupancy,

Vincent Van Gogh (the great artist of Post-impressionism) writes beautifully in his letter to his brother- “Whether love be bewitching or tormenting, whether pondered by poets or scrutinized by scientists, one thing is certain- it is art’s most powerful and enduring muse, fuel for the creative process more potent than anything the world has known.” Though he is slanted in his thoughts when he quotes love as torturous, for love is subjective and inexplicable.

Also, we are correct when we state that love knows no language and art knows no bounds. Both are expressions of human delight. The erotic literature of India is based on the sentiment of Sringara – the king of all the nine sentiments (Ras-Raj) forms the most crucial part of Natyashastra, a splendid feat of Bharata. Bharata envisages the emergence of love arising from a person imbued with the thought of love in the first place.
Khajuraho temples perhaps are the living models to announce love as their devotion and the allegories of erotica as their most beloved occupancy. Calling attention to these medieval temples one could not refrain from becoming wonder struck for these temples are rather quite audacious to represent the passions of love. It is said that sexual energy is the way to unite one with the supreme God if the practitioner is sincere in his efforts. The sculptures are embodiments of the transcendence of human’s carnal desires reminding us of the Garden of Eden perhaps. The allegories of human desires are knit perplexingly into each other.


Indian art celebrates love and eroticism at every phase of its aesthetic experience. Several temples have embraced this theme quite jubilantly. There have been millions of erotic vistas that raise eyebrows and invite academic debate among the commoners and eminent scholars.                                              

Khajuraho group of temples (Hindu and Jain in affiliation) in Madhya Pradesh were built around 950 A.D. by Chandellas. Out of the some 85 temples, 20 survive. Chandella rulers were greatly influenced by tantric traditions. The tantric beliefs were based  on peculiar rituals and practices which helped to channelize the divine energy of a being towards attaining Moksha.
The rows of sculptures show Devanganas (attendants of gods), Mithunas (couple), Apsaras (heavenly damsels) and Surasundaris (women of the gods) etc. honed in the art of furnishing the gods and men with pleasures of all kinds. These women are pictured in myriad forms embellishing their persons, dressing or undressing themselves to provoke the onlookers to the core. The depiction of such nude and highly sensual women, oozing with beauty of youth and womanly charms are not here for a certain upsurge, rather it is the result of an inherent tradition followed since ages. Interestingly many women are pictured remembering the tender moments of love, smiling as they travel down the memory lane. Love marks present on their body are proofs of the intense acts of love. In many reliefs we see group figures showing multiple partners engaged in love making pointing to the polygamist, polyandrous, lesbian and gay cultures.

Beyond the carnal aspects, these effigies suggest more cryptic implications. For the same, Earnest Binfield Havell condones that the obscenity in them is a result of popular belief where these images guard one from the evil spirits. It can also be seen in the light of the art practices of the previous periods where art never betrayed the human living and his social milieu. Therefore, they simply stand for the prevalence and demand of the society and the artist’s taste for representation.

The erotic treatise, Kamasutra by Vatsayan (3 C A.D.) illustrates that the practice of such delights was prominent in the literary tradition as well. Several scholars also believe the stupendous carvings of Khajuraho are the visual illustrations of Kamasutra, the ancient text on the art of love making.  Men and women on the outer walls, make no effort to limit or obliterate their true feelings. Nor does the artist or the sculptor feel diffident in showcasing such themes publically. The frank display of human desires as seen in their intimate poses is hardly encountered anywhere else. To highlight the erotic subjects furthermore, the sculptor accords them special place in the temple scheme by befitting them to the temple walls- between the two balconies, where they arrest the viewer’s attention in no time.  

Amorous couples in every nook and corner of the temple edifices are shown exciting romance. They are expressive of their enticing temper. Some are shown holding hands, some embracing, some kissing, caressing or cuddling each other. The interesting feature is that both men and women are equal participants in all such acts as by this time the effigy of women was completely overturned. Now she was above the moral censorship of the age and the artist without slightest inhibition could project her as more bold and dauntless. They are abundantly represented on the several freezes running on the outer walls for both decorative and symbolic meanings. They stand comfortable and confident with their partners locking each other in their arms, sharing glances and touching each other to proceed with their lust and sensual desires.

Man-woman unification has been shown in various ways. It can be in the form of lovers or spouses. Woman has been compared to the Prakriti; fragile, blissful, naïve and candid like nature, while the male principle, the Purusha; has been described as rugged and toilsome. It is the Prakriti that conjures the male principle to unite with her and form a single unit. The cosmos is said to be a harmonious conjugation of the two, which is why everything in this universe is into two. Every man is a half woman and every woman is a half man is better explained in concept of Ardhanarisvara, which is a harmonious union of Siva and Parvati into one image. The re-union of the two principles, the Essence (Purusa) and Nature (Prakriti) is a symbol of Moksha for Stella Kramrisch, and the symbol of this is Mithuna. Mithuna is the term employed to denote a pair has been the most loved theme of Indian art, presented in the utmost crafty manner. The sculptor always visualized women in all her brilliance as a great lover. Her ability to appease her admirer is discussed in vast literature of the early times. These couples also denote the need of Kama as an important exponent for the functionality and progression of human race and also they stand for drawing one’s attention towards the “functionality of life”.

Many scholars associate the relation of the devotee to God as a sacred union, which Upanishads, like Brihadaranyaka (IV.3.21) says-
“In the embrace of his beloved a man forgets the whole world – everything both within and without; in the very same way, he who embraces the self knows neither within nor without. This is his true form in which his desire is satisfied, the Spirit and the whole of his desire. He then has no desire anymore, nor any pain.”

The sculptures are world known for their acrobatic postures and nearly impossible contortions of forms which baffle the onlooker for the sheer complexity of representation. Men and women shown in carnal pleasures are depicted in many poses and forms. A heavy contrast is offered inside the temple walls: in the sanctum sanctora, where the divine figures and principle deities find representation as against the enticing females and love struck Mithunas indulged in sexual activities outside the temple. These erotic motifs are exquisitely carved and clearly establish the liberal norms of Medieval period. The shapely women and their handsome partners are shown in innumerable distorted positions. These damsels are living models of beauty and perfection. They are Chirayu (ageless) and Chiryauvan (ever youthful); in the peak of their splendor. They are supple and smooth.

The love theme, therefore, got accomplished in Indian art to its fullest extent. The temples of Khajuraho have offered us the most gentle means to understand love, its power and its bounties.