From Tigers to Tombs

and all things heritage…..a trip covering the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India.

Archive for the month “June, 2012”

Khajuraho..A place beyond spirituality

Khajuraho! The name itself elicits a certain response of curiosity, intrigue and mystery, whenever discussed. The usual questions put around are, do they really have those erotic sculptures there? But why would anyone portray such sculptures on temples?Is that all that they have there? To get answers to these questions to understand the frenzied interest that it generates we decided to experience it, first hand.

The Khajuraho temples were built by the Chandela Kings from the period between 950-1150 AD. This period of two hundred years saw a staggering 85 monumental temples built, off which only 25 exist today. Khajuraho today is a small village with a population of twenty thousand but having five 5-star hotels and an international airport, indicating the enormous interest shown by foreign as well as local tourists towards these epic monuments.

Khajuraho consist of three groups of Temples- Western (being the most popular, and the actual World Heritage site), Eastern (predominantly consisting of Jain Temples) and the Southern Group.  The most popular way to go around these groups of temples is bicycles.  The Eastern group consists of the Hindu temples like the Hanuman and Brahma Temples and a walled enclosure housing the Jain Temples.  The Parsvanath and Adinath temples here are some of the finest examples of Jain temple architecture seen anywhere in India. With beautifully adorned sculptures (not erotic) including the popular one of the lady removing a thorn from her foot, these temples soar into the sky giving a glimpse of the fine talent of the local craftsman of those times.

The Southern group is further away from the main town but is no less exquisite. The Duladeo Temple is the largest temple in Khajuraho and is dedicated to Shiva. Surrounded by a large courtyard and next to a small river, this temple has the perfect setting and one can spend quite some time admiring the beautiful sculptures adorning the temple. Further down the road is the Chaturbhuja Temple which contains a colossal 10 ft. figure of Chaturbhuja Vishnu. As per locals the figure has the crown of Shiva, face of Buddha, the body of Vishnu and the stance of Krishna. Never have we seen such an interesting sculpture fusing four different deities in one image.

After finishing the Eastern and Southern group, we headed out to the main Western Group of Temples. The World Heritage site is located very close to the new town and is the most popular amongst the three groups. Once you enter the walled enclosure, you are awed by the number of temples present and their sheer size. These temples are nestled in beautifully maintained lawns (good job, Archaelogical Survey of India!) giving them a royal look surrounded by lush greenery. Most of the temples here have a similar style, but that does not take anything away from the awesomeness of the structures and the mesmerizing sculptures that adorn every inch of space.  The main temples here are the Kandariya Mahadev (KM) Temple, the Lakshmana Temple, the Parvathi and the Varaha temples. The KM temple can easily be considered one of the finest Hindu temples in this country, just for its brilliant architecture.

The Western Group is where; the erotic sculptures take their full shape. Man, women and even animal engaged in coitus and different sexual activities in numerous positions are abound in almost all temples of the Western group. Some of them actually border on the realms of impossibility and you really need to have a wild imagination to figure out how they are actually possible! When we enquired with our guide, as to why do they have these erotic sculptures in these temples, he gave a fairly straightforward answer.  The King just wanted to portray the four aims/goals of Hindu life- Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha and the erotic sculptures were just the Kama aspect of life. This could be true to an extent, since erotic sculptures form just a part of the numerous sculptures abound in Khajuraho. Most of the others were images of Gods and different aspects of human life like marriage, scenes from everyday life etc. There are other theories that the king here subscribed to a tantric form of worship and hence these images.

Whatever the reasons the temples of Khajuraho definitely leave a lasting impression. Be it the erotic sculptures, or the number of temples or the sheer size and beauty of the architecture, one can never forget this wonderful place. Slowly cycling around the rural belt of heartland India, hopping from one temple to another, we are once again reminded of the cycle of life. This now silent countryside was once filled with the hustle and bustle of fervent temple construction lasting over a period of two hundred years that bore fruit to probably the greatest example of a magnificent temple township, unmatched anywhere in Indian history.


An enlightening experience

Our time in the East drew to a close when we boarded a train to Patna from Guwahati. The concept of confirmed seat bookings on trains in West Bengal and Bihar are as pointless as the intelligent quotient ratings “required” by contestants in a beauty pageant. A three seater bench sometimes seated close to six people. A seat on the commode was more or less the only place you could sit on even after your job was done. When we did get our seats again, we witnessed a middle aged man and his wife gulp down five rasgullas and five gulab jamuns for only twenty rupees. Vendors went about selling unshelled peanuts not as a snack but as an activity called “time-pass”. We were getting the real Indian railways experience.

When we did reach the Patna railway station, we were welcomed by the smell of urine that followed us all the way to the bus stop. We did get some respite when we stuffed our faces with delicious Sattu Parathas at the food plaza in the railway station. The Indian summer was beginning to hit us as we boarded a local bus that was packed to the rafters with people heading to Bodhgaya and other places. Fortunately we got a seat, unfortunately we were still going to be drenched with sweat. We reached Bodh Gaya well after it had got dark. Finding a place wasn’t too difficult, considering the town is very popular on the Buddhist circuit and hence attracts visitors of all classes of income and nationalities. We woke up early next morning to catch the Mahabodhi temple at sunrise.

Siddhartha Gautama or the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment under a Bodhi tree. In approximately 250 BC, about 200 years after the Buddha attained enlightenment, emperor Ashoka visited the Bodhi tree with the intention of establishing a monastery and a shrine. As part of the temple, he built the diamond throne (called the Vajrasana), attempting to mark the exact spot of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Ashoka is considered the founder of the Mahabodhi temple. The temple has undergone many restorations and changes over the years. The present temple dates from the 5th-6th century. On closer inspection, one can easily see signs of the Mahbodhi temple to be a nineteenth century temple reconstructed by the Archaeological Survey of India(ASI) based on that of a fifth-century structure. What one sees today may not be what Ashoka or any of the 5th-6th century emperors built, but the historical significance of the place is so immense that it would be a shame if ASI did not do anything to preserve it.

The monument today is a neat structure situated right next to a Bodhi tree and the diamond throne. The original Bodhi tree was cut down by Ashoka’s wife who felt that her husband was giving more importance to the tree than to his wife. Fortunately, Ashoka’s daughter Sanghamitra had carried one of the saplings from the tree to Sri Lanka to spread Buddhism. The tree that stands today is an offspring of the Sri Lankan Bodhi tree and is protected. The main temple houses a Buddha statue. The gardens surrounding the temple and the tree are ideal for meditation and monks in maroon robes walk in these gardens chanting prayers. At night, the temple was beautifully illuminated giving the structure a nice aura while still maintaining the peace and serenity of the gardens.
Monks from Sri Lanka, Japan, China and India roamed the temple courtyard freely, meditating under the Mahabodhi tree when they chose. Our attempt at enlightenment was short-lived, but sitting cross-legged under the Bodhi tree was such a calming experience that it may just make sense to go back to Bodhgaya and complete the rest of the Buddhist circuit.

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