The Sunday TimesPlus

26th January 1997



Khajuraho: profile of love and joy

By Hemantha Warnakulasuriya.

Vamana temple: erotic relief

I first came to know about Khajuraho from my good friend and mentor, Douglas Amarasekara. He showed me a book called Kama Kala containing a large number of beautiful photographs of sculptures at Khajuraho, with a most interesting introduction by the famous Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand.

I was so impressed, that it became one of my ambitions to visit Khajuraho some day and see the sculptures myself. Recently I was able to fulfill that ambition, and in this article I wish to present some notes on Khajuraho which I hope will stimulate some readers to visit the temples there, and see these remarkable sculptures themselves.

Khajuraho lies almost at the very centre of India. About the 11 th century AD. - i.e., a little before the time of Parakramabahu in Sri Lanka, Khajuraho was a great and flourishing city; and some magnificent temples were built there. Shortly afterwards however, as a result of incessant wars, Khajuraho began to decline, like Polonnaruwa, and after the Moghul invasion of India (about the 16th Century) it was completely overgrown by jungle.

In 1838 it was rediscovered by Captain T.S. Burt, an English officer of the Bengal Engineers, while hunting. Since then the jungle has been cleared and the ruined temples have been restored, and today the place is attracting an ever increasing number of tourists and serious students of art, archaeology, history etc.

The numbers have grown so large that there are daily air services from Delhi, Agra and Varanasi, and several good hotels have been built in Khajuraho to accommodate visitors.

The temples are decorated with hundreds of sculpted figures covering a wide range of human activities; processions with horses and elephants, soldiers, musicians, dancers, etc. A special feature of the sculptures and the most important one, is that a considerable proportion of them are "erotic": they depict human beings having sexual intercourse. The lovers are shown with perfect frankness, and without any attempt at concealment: They reflect a perfectly natural and realistic attitude to sex .

Unfortunately, in Victorian England of the 1 9th Century there was a great deal of hypocrisy and suppression about sex. Unfortunately also, this attitude was transmitted to the colonies of the British Empire, including India (and Sri Lanka). As a result Captain Burt himself when he discovered the temples was quite shocked by the erotic sculptures which he described as extremely indecent and offensive .

My friend Douglas told me that about 40 years ago when the book 'Kama Kala' was first published and reached Ceylon, our chief of customs, who had evidently received a Victorian upbringing, was so shocked that he ordered his officers to confiscate all copies in our bookshops, and declared his intention of publicly burning them. However there were strong protests from several leading Hindu Organisations, and the project of burning them was dropped (The book was well received in Europe. One of the leading English newspapers described it as "This brave and beautiful book")

In this connection the following comments in Mulk Raj Anand's book Kama Yoga are interesting and instructive. The foreign rulers, recruited clerks and inferior officers mostly from among the puritanical lower middle section, and brought their own ignorant and arrogant complacency about Western (Christian) civilization to bear on the ways of life of the people they ruled, barring a few forward and courageous spirits who tried to get to know the "heathen". And their collaborators from among the "natives", frequently educated in the colonial schools and colleges, as well as probationers in universities "at home", became thoroughly anglicised, adopting the alien pruderies as the hallmark of culture, thus remaining ignorant of the ancient heritage of paganism of their own lands, which was aware of the rhythms of the sun, the moon, the earth, the air, on humans.

And a century of Europeanisation created, as Lord Macaulay had wished, an educated middle class, in our country, to whom Greece and Rome were more important than Magadha and Mahbalipuram. And generations of our people, among them the most intelligent, became "paralysed bodies, paralysed minds and paralysed souls", to quote Ananda Coomarasawamy, so that the obiter dicta of most educated Indians about the carvings in Khajuraho or the Sun Temple of Konarak has not been very different from that of the most obtuse of the erstwhile rulers.

In fact, while some of the most valiant British archaeologists struggled hard to preserve the ancient monuments, their Indian successors remained for a long time completely apathetic, and willingly lent their ears to puritan die-hards who declared their wish to replace the temples of Khajuraho, Konarak, Puri and Bhuvaneshwar, with new modern temples!

My first impressions of Khajuraho were no different to any Indian place of historical significance, except that peddlers were selling vulgar replicas of some of the statuettes. Others were trading "view master" viewers with three dimensional pictures of stone statues which had been photographed to highlight the phallic symbols in order to titillate the vulgar and the inhibited.

Next day after breakfast we stood before the Lakshmana temple, the largest of the temples at Khajuraho. I was wonder struck by the magnificence of the creation. I was informed that this is the best preserved temple. This was not only the earliest temple, but also the best preserved one, where the subsidiary shrine, the platform and decorations are intact. As one enters, one beholds a procession of elephants, horses and soldiers together with domestic and erotic scenes. I witnessed a Japanese couple in meditation. The smell of incense from the joss sticks they had lit, at the feet of a statute depicting a couple in amorous union, filled the air. They meditated gazing at the statue where the male and female with the assistance of others were in the most convoluted sexual union. Later I met them at the market place and spoke to them. They were able to converse in fairly good English. They were Zen Buddhists who had studied Tantrik Buddhism. According to them, yoga meditation helps one to get rid of hindrances like Klesa, Avidya, Dvesa and other imperfections like egoism, attachment and love of mundane things.

Once these imperfections are got rid of, then one could achieve the highest value, which is perfect isolation and detachment. The Tantriks have developed a method by which all energy and its source are situated at the base of the human spine. The Kama Yoga lightens the soul, which enables a couple by the control of breath to prolong the pleasure of the union.

By the practice of this yoga wherein by intuition or through the senses one acquires knowledge, the worshipper becomes one with the object of worship. The best way to achieve this is through Kundalini yoga, or sexo-yogic techniques which are depicted in the sculptures of Khajuraho. The way to joy in life is through sexual experience, and the denial of it leads to perversion. And it clears the mind of shame and the sense of guilt attached to the sexual act.

The philosophical and religious hypotheses as expounded by the Japanese couple led me to believe that their form of Buddhism regards the enjoyment of sex and the worldly pleasures as one way of achieving supreme bliss. Tantrism affected Hinduism to such an extent that sage Vatsyayana, included Kama (Love) in the Hindu way of life.

In India one can marvel at the magnificence of the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal on a moon-lit night is a wonderful spectacle. But the colossal Kandriya Mahadeva, the Lakshmana and other temples at Khajuraho arouse a sense of mystery with which no wonder in the world can compare. All the human passions of love, greed, war etc., are depicted on their friezes. The gamut of human emotions are frankly expressed .

The human body is depicted as something beautiful, and not to be shrouded by fig leaves. The depiction of the statues creates an impression that the approach to coitus is through gentle kisses and caresses, and not through violent sexual activity. The love and joy of life are what the temples at Khajuraho depict.

When and if the world becomes free of sexual taboos, and of the belief that it is a sin for one to indulge in sex except for the purpose of procreation, women will not be raped by their husbands due to these ignorant, taboos and customs.

When men believe that their wives have an equal part to play in the union, then I believe, if that day dawns, a new religion will supersede the antiquated ones, and Khajuraho will become a new temple of enlightenment for those believers.

Chunky Monkey

Good to see the affable Mr. Ravi John back on our screens again , sporting a rather nifty bald head a la Michael Jordan. He is the only good thing in a new TV commercial for a washing powder, that attempts to mimic those realist commercials - you know, the ones where the average person on the street is asked to take the secret taste test, or see if she can identify their favourite coffee brand.

This one features a rather sweet old lady who rambles on about how her washing powder is really good at washing - as opposed to being really good as a seasoning substitute, I suppose.

Oh dear. Hopefully , next months SLIM Awards should reveal a considerably better series of commercials , and you can rest assured your favourite simian columnist will be checking it out. I must ask Piyadasa to start setting out my spats immediately..........

Majestic City continues to bring us top quality fare as promised by now showing ....a Terence Hill and Bud Spencer movie? Come on, those things were hip back in the early Eighties. Who are you trying to fool by trying to pass off this second rate fodder as top of the line entertainment ?....................

Scarlett and the Chunk passed a rather pleasant evening last week sampling the sumptuous buffet at the Curry Leaf restaurant in the Hilton's backyard.Traditional Sri Lankan food like hoppers, pittu and mallum , plus rogan josh and doner kebabs on a spit are all provided in a value for money buffet menu - also don't forget to sample the free freshly made kavum and kokis while you listen to the cool oriental sounds of some musicians from the SLBC. Now if only they charged oriental prices, my happiness would be complete....

Incidentally, the Hilton seems to be continuing its policy of trying to cram as many restaurants as possible into its confines - opening up soon in a recess of their coffee shop seems to a moghul restaurant......

The buzz on the street is that Sri Lanka's own Oscar Wilde, funny boy Shyam Selvadurai is back in town, and is set to begin filming on his magnum opus of life in Colombo. Watch this space for more details.

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