A visit to Khajuraho has been on my to do list for long. History and architecture in a beautiful setting can transport you back centuries and that’s exactly what this visit did – it exceeded all my expectations. Getting to Khajuraho is a challenge. Flights are Via Agra or Varanasi, Road journey from any Airport/Big City is a minimum 4 – 5 hrs. The only direct connectivity is a train from Nizamuddin Junction – (12448) that leaves Nizamuddin at 20.10 and reaches Khajuraho at 6.30 AM. The return is at 18.10 reaching Nizamuddin the next day morning at 6 AM. (You also have an option of taking the New Delhi Bhopal Shatabdi to Jhansi, spending a day at Jhansi, Orchha and then driving the 185 km to Khajuraho in 3 – 4 hrs)
Khajuraho is home to architectural splendor. Probably the only temples in North and Central India that have survived the 1000 years of Muslim invaders. Built in a span of 100 years between 950 – 1050 AD*, there were 85 temples across a 2 Sq. Km radius. (25 of them survive today – of which 3 are ruins) You can divide them broadly in 3 clusters – The Main Western Cluster, the Eastern Cluster and finally the Southern Cluster. Built in the Nagara architecture style they all look similar and were built by different kings of the Chandella Dynasty (More about Chandella Dynasty in the footnote).
* 900 – 1100 AD appears to be the best time in India for building temples. The great temples at Badami by the Chalukyas. The Tanjore temples by the Cholas, the Sun Temple at Konark, the Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram and the Temples at Khajuraho all seem to have been built around the same time.
The Western Cluster is the UNESCO World Heritage site and this is where you spend most of your time. (2 – 3 hrs) Well maintained, spread over a large area in a compound spanning 12 temples – the two main temples here are the Lakshmana Temple and The Kandariya Mahadev Temple. The Matangeshwara Temple is part of the same cluster but is outside the compound as it’s the only functional temple. This temple has an 18 foot tall Shiva Linga.
Built of sandstone the carvings and the sculpture are exquisite and depict life in its different forms. The walls of the temples are so profusely sculptured that for a minute it looks like a single gracious wall of fine intricate designs. Not an inch of space has been left devoid of sculpture. The eye for detail is amazing. The depiction of strained muscles, cuts on the calf muscle are all unparalleled in any architecture across the world. Beside the erotic sculptures there are court scenes, scenes of battle, scenes of daily life and scenes that advice the citizens. All the sculptures and figures are dynamic and they appear to be in action and movement.
All the sculptures can be divided into three categories
- Image of principal deities – Shiva, Vishnu, Surya and the Jain Tirthankaras
- Second category is of minor gods and divinities – Apsaras and Surya Sundaris
- Third category is of “Mithunas” or couples engaged in sexual acts
Across the temples erotic sculptures are prominently visible only in a few – namely the Lakshman, Kandariya Mahadev, Devi Jagadambi, Chitragupta and Vishwanath temple. Some are also found in Chaturbhuja, Vamana and Duladeo temples. These have been a cause of controversy although they are the key brand value that attracts tourists in hordes.
Given the rapid spread of Buddhism and Jainism there was a need to have the common man focus on family life – that’s one school of thought for building these temples, given that the temple was the Centre of day to day life for the common man. The other explanation is that it’s important to complete your desires before you proceed on the path to spiritual consciousness.
Point to note is that even the puritanical (and maybe hypocritical) M.K.Gandhi protested and gave permission to vandals to deface the temple of these sculptures before Sri Rabindranath Tagore wrote to him and was able to stop this rampage. (Reminds me of the Taliban defacing the Bamiyan Buddha Statues in Afghanistan).I sometimes wonder if Gandhi was a saint or a shrewd politician! But thats a separate debate.
The highlight of the visit to the Western Complex is the Light and Sound show. It starts at 6.30 PM and runs for 45 min. (The Hindi version starts at 7.30 PM) Easy to get tickets priced at Rs 200. I was there on a full moon night with the sky full of stars. The majestic voice of Amitabh Bachan and the vast open greens of the complex brings alive the mesmerising past as the spirit of the master sculpture carries you back to the golden ages of 950 – 1050 AD. The commentary, the light effects and the sound of temple bells, armies marching are surreal. This is a must attend show. (There are other folks Dance shows also organized by MP Government and Private hotels, which I believe are very entertaining)
The Eastern Complex is dedicated to the Jain Tirthankaras. It is smaller, functional and is managed by the Jain community. The artistry and theme remains similar, but there are only a few temples and there is no erotic sculpture visible anywhere. Located a few Km away from the Western cluster – should take you no more than 30 min to cover this.
The Southern cluster is not inside a compound and most temples here are spread across the villages. Barring a few almost all are in ruins. You can skip this or maybe visit only the Duladeo and the Chatarbhuj temples – these were the last set of temples built by the Chandelles.
If your Train reaches at 6.30 AM – you can reach the hotel by 7, freshen up get started at 9.30 AM and by 12.30 you can cover all the temples and head back to your hotel for lunch and an afternoon siesta before you come back at 5 PM for viewing the W Complex in the sunset and then stay back for the light & sound show.
Few more points to help in your Khajuraho visit
Khajuraho is a small town. Its got a rustic rugged feel. Distances are small and you can reach the hotel, station, Temples in 10 – 15 minutes. Along the temple road most of the hotels are situated – the best are Lalit, Taj Chandella, Radisson and Clarks. I stayed at the Clarks – a nice 100-room property with sprawling lawns. Good service, decent food, Working Wi Fi, Comfortable rooms with Tata Sky. A good 4 star hotel and the rack rate is Rs 6000/- .
- Lots of places to eat and you can get Veg / Non veg / Italian food – mostly place is frequented by Foreigners. Try the Marwari Agrawal Restaurant for pure Veg Thali and Veg food. Small place like a mess – serves excellent food. Is always packed. I had a great Thali and even packed my Train Dinner from here. (Located Near Harmony Hotel , Jain Temple Road)
Places to visit near Khajuraho include
- Panna forest reserve and National Park – a 1 hr. drive (32Km) very bad road – surprised that it’s a National Highway. The Jungle and River Ken are calm and serene – but all you see are spotted Deer’s and Sambars. Its a large reserve spread across 543 Sq Km of dense Teak Jungle
- There are 4 Dams and a few waterfalls located at 30 – 45 min driving distance
- Ajaygarh Fort – 61 Km from Khajuraho, further ahead of Panna
- Jhansi – 158 Km, Good place to see historic forts and learn about Rani Lakshmibai. Shatabadi from Delhi stops at Jhansi.
- Rajgarh – 25 Km , Majestic 150 year old Hilltop Palace
- Kalanjar fort – 100 Km – a ancient site in Bundelkhand and a venerated seat of Lord Shiva. It was originally a prominent city built by the Gupta’s. in 3 Century AD.
- The closest Big city is Satna about 110 Km – Bhopal, Indore, Jabalpur, Varanasi are all 300 – 500 Km away
- An overnight Train connects Khajuraho to Varanasi – and Varanasi to Bodh Gaya is not far away. So if you plan a holiday you can do Delhi – Jhansi / Orccha / Khajuraho / Varanasi / Bodh Gaya in 7 – 9 days.
- Bandhavgarh one of the best national parks in the country is 250 Km away – 6 to 7 hrs drive. The NH75 is under development and hopefully in next 6 months will be better.
Weather can be extreme – similar to Delhi. Winters are cold and summers are very hot. Best time to visit is between Oct and Feb. This is Bundelkhand the heart of the country. Surrounded by the Vindhyas it is well fed by rivers and has rich dense forests. The terrain is rugged. Still not developed well for tourism.
Myth & History of Khajuraho
The name Khajuraho comes from “Khajoor” or date palms. In 900 AD this place was a garden of date palms. It was well bestowed by nature with river, forests, fertile soil. Chandellas are a part of the Rajput Clan and claim to be descendants of the moon god. Legend has it that the moon god was attracted to a young widow Hemvathi and therein started the clan of the Chandellas. History however records the Chandellas as feudatories of the Pratihara kings. They proclaimed themselves independent when the Pratihara empire weakened. The Chandella dynasty ruled for about 400 years from 900 AD. On of the Chandella rulers Vijaydhara even successfully fought against the invader Mahmud of Ghazni. The Kandariya Mahadev temple was probably built to commemorate this victory. After 1100 AD the Chandella dynasty and Khajuraho declined rapidly and in 1350 when Ibn Battuta reached here it was a sad state far from its days of glory. It was only in 1838 that a British Officer T.S.Burt found Khajuraho and the British started its restoration.