Khajuraho temple complexes are divided into three sections according to geographic location: the Western, Eastern, and Southern groups.
Known for the profusion of sculptural embellishments on both exterior and interior walls, the Khajuraho temple structures are also recognizable for the exaggerated vertical sweep in the majority of the temples, with a series of shikharas (spires) that grow successively higher. Serving as both metaphoric and literal “stairways to heaven,” these shikharas are believed to be a visual echo of the soaring Himalayan Mountains, abode of Lord Shiva. Most of the sculpted temples are elevated on large plinths (often also shared by four smaller corner shrines), and follow the same five-part design.
After admiring the raised entrance area, you will enter a colonnaded hall that leads to a smaller vestibule and then an inner courtyard, around which is an enclosed sanctum. You can circumnavigate the sanctum (move around the temple in a clockwise direction, in the manner of the ritual pradakshina, with your right shoulder nearest the temple building) to view the beautifully rendered friezes of gods, nymphs, animals, and energetically twisting bodies locked together in acts of hot-blooded passion.
Originally spread across a large open area, unprotected by walls, the temples, most of them built from sandstone lugged on bullock carts from the banks of the River Ken 30km (19 miles) away, are today roughly divided into three sections according to geographic location: the Western, Eastern, and Southern groups. The most spectacular, and those most obviously dripping with erotic sculptures, are within the Western Group. The Eastern Group is located near the old village, and the Southern Group, which are the most missable, lies south of this.
Tips for visiting the Khajuraho Temples
As none of the temples outside the Western Group are likely to evoke quite the same delighted reaction, see these first; they’re also conveniently located in the centre of town. You can cover the Western Group in 2 hours.
Try to enter as soon as they open (sunrise), not only for the quality of light but to avoid the busloads of tourists who will almost certainly detract from the experience.
The baritone voice of Amitabh Bachchan, arguably India’s most popular screen icon, narrates the fascinating history of Khajuraho for the 50-minute sound-and-light show in the Western Group of temples each night at 6:30pm (1 hour later in summer).
Try to time your visit to the Eastern Group for about 3 or 4pm, so you can enjoy the sunset while you return either to the Western Group or to the imminently more peaceful Chaturbhuj Temple in the Southern Group.
Remember when setting out to explore the temples that you need to wear shoes that you can easily slip on and off before and after you enter a temple building—even if it is no longer in use.
Western Group of Khajuraho Temples
The sheer volume of artwork at Khajuraho’s best-preserved temples can be overwhelming. Initiate yourself with this introductory tour, which highlights some of those easy-to-miss details.
First, admire the sandstone boar in the Varaha shrine before heading towards Lakshmana Temple to study the south side of the temple’s base, which has some of the raunchiest artwork in Khajuraho: firrst up, a nine-person orgy; further along, a guy getting very friendly with a horse. Up on the temple platform see a superb dancing Ganesh carved into a niche (south side), before walking to the west side for graceful surasundaris (nymphs): one removing a thorn from her foot; another draped in a wet sari; a third admiring herself in a mirror.
Next is Khajuraho’s largest temple, Kandariya Mahadev Temple. Carvings to look for here include the famous handstand position (south side), but the most impressive thing about this temple is the scale of it, particularly its soaring rooftops. Mahadeva and Devi Jagadamba share the same stone plinth as Kandariya-Mahadev, as do four beautifully carved sardula (part-lion, part-human mythical beasts), each caressing a stone lion – one is at the entrance to Mahadeva; the other three stand alone on the plinth.
Walk north from here to Chitragupta, with beautiful carvings hidden on the west side, as well as elephant friezes around the temple’s base (north side). The interior here is particularly impressive.
Continue east to Vishvanath Temple for more fabulous carvings before admiring the impressive statue of Vishnu’s bull in the Nandi shrine opposite.
Eastern Group – Old Village Temples
The eastern group includes three Hindu temples scattered around the old village and four Jain temples further south, three of which are in a walled enclosure.
The granite Brahma Temple, with its sandstone sikhara overlooking Narora Sagar, is one of the oldest in Khajuraho (about AD 900). Resembling Chaturbhuja Temple in the southern group, Javari Temple is a good example of small-scale Khajuraho architecture for its crocodile-covered entrance and slender sikhara. Vamana Temple, 200m further north, is dedicated to the dwarf incarnation of Vishnu.
Eastern Group – Jain Enclosure
Inside the Jain enclosure, Parsvanath Temple is the largest and most well preserved of the Jain temples. Some of the best-preserved of Khajuraho’s most famous images can be seen here, including the woman removing a thorn from her foot and another applying eye make-up. The adjacent, smaller Adinath is similar to Khajuraho’s Hindu temples, particularly Vamana. Shanti Nath, built about a century ago, houses components from older temples.
Southern Group of Khajuraho Temples
A dirt track runs to the isolated Duladeo Temple, about 1 km south of the Jain enclosure. This is the youngest temple, dating to AD 1100–1150. Nearby, the ruined Chaturbhuj Temple is Khajuraho’s only developed temple without erotic sculptures.
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