In Madhya Pradesh, India, the most erotic and sensuous sculptures in comparison to any other Indian temple are found at Khajuraho. The Khajuraho temples have not received the attention they deserve for their significant contribution to the religious art of India, possibly due to the erotic nature of their outside decor. To analyse these sculptures, there must be an informal discussion of the history and background of the Khajuraho temples; visually discussing the sexual nature of the sculptures and then explaining the key interpretations of them (which are often rooted in Occidental perspectives on eroticism and neglect of original context), the access to the divine through erotica in Indian culture and, finally, the codification of the sculptures as true art.
The Khajuraho Temples were built by the Chandela rulers between 900 CE and 1130 CE, during the golden period of the Chandela dynasty. The scholar Vidya Dehejia states that, “About twenty-five temples are relatively intact, while the remains of another twenty-five may still be traced, lending some credence to the tradition that there were eighty-five temples stood on the site.” The western side of the site is the most popular area for religious ceremonies and celebrations, where lies the Kandariya Mahadeva, the largest and one of the most important of the Khajuraho temples. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the temple is studded with magnificent sculptures and was originally meant to be one of the most ornately crafted temples at Khajuraho.
The Khajuraho temples are located over an area of about nine square miles and depict the traditional lifestyle of women in the medieval age. In the stony poses, the Khajuraho women represent various themes around the temple: as in mithunas (amorous couples), maithunas (men and women engaged in coitus), orgies, as a dancer accompanied with musicians, as a solitary figure engaged in something as tame as removing a thorn from her foot, to actions more striking and suggestive, such as masturbation. As women are clearly an important theme in these temple sculptures, it could be that the Chandellan rulers wanted to honour women, amongst the deities and demigods, in a religious setting. Surprisingly, there is no research that prompts this possible meaning of the images, but there is an abundance of other speculation and theories towards the erotic imagery found on these temples.
Within mythological and religious studies of the rituals that would have occurred in the temple, it has been said that the erotic sculptures act as a reminder to worshippers to avoid all worldly temptations so that they may transcend. However, sexual acts in the Indian culture can be considered a gateway or connection to a higher power. This disparity highlights the nature of how worshippers approach the temples and how those not introduced into Indian religions or cultural norms see the temples. The purpose of women in Khajuraho may well have been to titillate a male audience who journeyed to the temples with the purpose of worshipping the deity but also harboured a subconscious motive to see the erotic sculptures. This could be interpreted as a way to fully show who came to these temples to worship and those who came to fulfil inappropriate internal urges. Yet, one’s motivation to see these sculptures is subjective to their own interpretation of these sculptures. As one might find these sculptures to be related to the divine, others might find these sculptures to have baser qualities.
Despite ample interpretations aiming to understand the context of the erotic masonry, there isn’t a singular, clear answer. I can conclude that there is an acceptance in the Indian culture and, more recently, in Western cultures of these sculptures, and this has prompted the reading of these temples and their sexed-up accoutrements to now be considered as historically important fine art, due to their very contemporary portrayals of the human form in relation to their age. Throughout the literature on the subject, however, aspects of eroticism are often glossed over and never fully addressed. There should be more in-depth research conducted to seek an understanding of why these explicit sculptures form such a central part of the Khajurajo temples, and why their soft-bodied figures are depicted so graphically in the throes of passion. This could lead to further examination of the artistic label these temples and sculptures have struggled to attain, and could also broaden contrasting notions of the rightful place of women and the morality of pleasure in East-West dichotomies.
Source: Dehejia, Vida, Indian Art, 1997, London: Phaidon, p.165