Exploring the Temple Town of “Khajuraho” (Part – 1)

To attempt capturing a place like Khajuraho with words is no mean feat even for a historian or an architectural genius. An epitome of grandeur with beauty beyond description – it is simply not meant to be described in layman’s terms. Today, the magnificent “Khajuraho Group of Monuments” is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and amongst the Seven Wonders of India. On surface they might be strikingly similar; however, each one of them has a remarkable identity. This travel guide takes you through a list of all the temples not to be missed on a visit to Khajuraho.

Location – The small town of Khajuraho lies in Chattarpur district of Madhya Pradesh. An ancient city of medieval India, it was the capital of Chandela kings (rulers of Bundelkhand).

How to reach Khajuraho

  • By Road – Khajuraho is well connected from other cities of Madhya Pradesh by road. MP tourism buses are available from Satna, Mahoba, Jhansi, Gwalior, Bhopal and Indore.
  • By TrainThere is a direct overnight train from Delhi to Khajuraho station. Alternatively, most trains run till Mahoba (from Mumbai, Mathura, Allahabad, Varanasi, Gwalior, Jabalpur, Kolkata, etc).
  • By AirKhajuraho has its own city airport and the monuments are approximately 3.5 kms away.

History of Khajuraho temples

The legendary tales narrate the story of Hemavati, an enchanting beauty for whom the initial temples were built. On a full moonlit night, she stepped out to bathe in a pond full of lotuses. Mesmerized, the moon god himself descended on earth in human form to woo her. Their union resulted in the birth of a son who was named Chandravarman. Fearing societal pressure for giving birth out of wedlock; Hemavati threatened to curse moon who advised her to leave for the forests of Khajuraho and raise her son. The boy grew up to become a great king and established the “Chandela” dynasty. The temples were built as a tribute to his mother to portray human passions in various forms.

Most Khajuraho temples were built between 950 and 1050 AD by the Chandela rulers considered as great patron of arts. A majority of these temples are either Hindu (Saiva or Vaisnava) or Jain. It is presumed that every Chandela ruler has built at least one temple in his lifetime and most were during the reigns of the Hindu kings – Yashovarman and Dhangadeva. During the course of history, these temples have faced much destruction and later restored. The restored parts of the temples are lighter in colour (than original) and have nothing carved on them.

In 1830, British surveyor, T.S. Burt rediscovered the temples and continuous efforts were made towards their excavation and restoration. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) continues the renovation and maintenance of this treasured site till date since 1904.

Architecture of Khajuraho temples

The temples at Khajuraho are perfect examples of Nagara style, north Indian temple architecture style. The primary feature is a central tower (shikhara) whose highest point is directly over the temple’s primary deity often surrounded by smaller, subsidiary towers (urushringa) and intermediate towers. These naturally draw the eye up to the highest point of the structure giving it a towering effect. Usually, each temple in Khajuraho has a combination of two or more of these elements. The identification of the temple construction time is determined based upon the elements used, the sculptures architecture and grandeur of the tower height.

The Temples of Khajuraho

The Khajuraho group of monuments are most popular for an exquisite assemblage of largest Hindu and Jain temples from Medieval India. Many of the earlier creations could not withstand the test of time and out of them approximately twenty five survived. These temples are broadly categorized into three groups.

NOTE: Entry tickets are required only for the Western Group of Temples.

The Western Group of Temples house the most beautiful of the lot and is center of major tourist activities (hub of cafes and restaurants outside the complex). Being in the center of town, they have better preserved temples than their Eastern and Southern counterparts. The main temples are listed below:

  • Varaha Temple or Varaha Mandap – The first structure is an open pavilion dedicated as shrine to a massive Varaha structure, the boar (third) incarnation of Lord Vishnu. It is made of a single sandstone block and symbolic in depicting Varaha as a pure animal.
  • Lakshmana Temple – This well-preserved temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and its terrace is of particular interest. They are furnished with carvings of elephants, camels, warriors, hunters and musicians form a procession.
Lakshmana Temple, across the Varaha Mandap
  • Kandariya Mahadeva Temple – The tallest, grandest and undoubtedly the most beautiful; this temple is dedicated to “the Great God of the Cave” or Kandar, Lord Shiva. It  has an unparalleled artistic beauty on display especially on the exterior walls adorned with exquisite work. One of the finest living examples of Medieval architecture, it is the most frequented one – by tourists, researchers, historians and students alike. The temple has a towering height standing on a granite foundation and made of sandstone. It is believed that the highest point symbolizes Mount Kailash; the lord’s Himalayan abode.
The central tower of Kandariya Mahadeva
  • Devi Jagdamba Temple – It was originally dedicated to Vishnu, but later to Parvati and then Kali. It stands next to Kandariya Mahadev temple and is comparatively smaller with medium height.
Kandariya Mahadev (Taller one to the left) and Jagdamba Temple (Right)
  • Chitagupta Temple – Dedicated to Surya, the sun God; this temple is very similar to the nearby Jagadamba temple. The highlight is an image of Sun God driving a seven-horse chariot (representing seven colors in sun rays).
  • Chausath Yogini Temple – Devoid of an actual form and sculptures, this place radiates a beauty in bareness. Though it is considered a part of the Western Group of Temples, it is not in the same premises as the others. It can be accessed from the southern side of the Shivsagar Lake located in isolation from rest. An ASI appointed guard acts as the caretaker. The name “Chausath Yogini” is dedicated to 64 Yoginis (Chausath meaning 64), worshiped as incarnation of Mother Goddess Shakti. It is currently in ruins and considered to be the oldest of all Yogini temples in India. While the others are circular in plan, this Yogini temple has a quadrangular pattern with an open courtyard in between. For each goddess, a dedicated plain cell (64 cells) has been constructed; however, no images or sculptures can be found. In the center, lies a large cell facing the entrance and it is believed that it was probably dedicated to Durga. Out of excavation and restoration only three survived now safely transferred to Khajuraho museum (in next part). 
Silent ruins of Chaushath Yogini temple
A view of Kandariya Mahadev temple from Chausath Yogini

The Eastern Group of Temples at Khajuraho include – Parsvanath Temple, Adinath Temple, Shantinath Temple, Ghantai Temple and Brahma Temple. While their western counterparts are mostly limited as tourist attractions, the Jain temples are still active with prayers and worship. There are fair chances to find Jain monks meditating or preaching religious practices in the premises.

  • Jain Temples – With increasing Jain followers in their kingdom, many Chandela rulers built these Jain temples as a mark of peace and religious harmony. Gradually, the eastern part of the town became home to Jain communities. A modern compound wall houses the eastern group of surviving Jain temples (except Ghantai temple). The key highlights include some souvenir shops, an archaeological museum within and Jain inscription from Chandela period. Parsvanath Temple, dedicated to Jain Tirthankara Parshvanatha, is the largest of the surviving Jain temples. Shantinath Temple was constructed from the remains of other temples. Ghantai temple was discovered as the only place in Khajuraho with a Buddhist statue and stands in ruins today.

  • Brahma Temple – Located on the banks of Khajuraho Sagar lake; it is one of the oldest structures. It is mostly bare, small and has a less complex layout. The sanctum has a four-faced lingam (symbol of Shiva); however, it is believed to be mistaken by locals as the deity of Lord Brahma (who has four faces). But some historians are of the opinion that it was a Vishnu temple (owing to Vishnu’s image on windows and the lintel above the sanctum door). So, the actual origin of the temple is still debatable and it is considered a Brahma temple.

The Southern group of temples consists of Duladeo temple, Chaturbhuj temple and Beejamandal temple.

  • Beejamandal (or Vijaya Temple) – Currently, in ruins with some defining structures, this place is more of an excavation site rather than an actual temple. The archaeologists believe it is one of the many temples yet to be fully excavated and might be the largest shrine (more than Kandariya Mahadev).

  • Duladeo Temple – Dedicated to Lord Shiva , this temple is believed to be the youngest of Khajuraho temples and the last built during the reign of Chandela dynasty. It is not as delicately embellished as the older ones. The main hall is shaped as an octagon with a magnificent Shiva Linga inside. It is customary for all newly married couples of the town to visit and pay respect to the numerous Shivlings (approx 1100) in the temple.
  • Chaturbhuj Temple (or Jatakari Temple) – Named after the village where it is located; this is the only temple in Khajuraho devoid of any erotic carvings. As the name suggests, the main idol is an enormous four-armed Lord Vishnu (broken state as excavated) around 9 feet tall facing south.

Some more pictures from the temple sites:

Me, completely awestruck by the towering beauty
Original construction and clearly visible restored surfaces
Clean premises of Western Group of Temples
On the walls of Chaturbhuj temple
Ending the day with a beautiful sunset

**Images used in the article are courtesy Suchita Roy

In Next partStory about the idea behind Khajuraho sculptures and more (Exploring the Temple Town of “Khajuraho – Part 2)

Online research (for technical details and historical facts) with stories/inputs from locals as gathered during our visit finally resulted in this write-up. For any further queries, feel free to leave a comment below or email. I will revert at the earliest.

Nearby attractions – Your complete guide to the breathtaking Raneh Waterfalls

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