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Notes on the Geography of Northern India: Khajuraho

Khajuraho, located about 300 miles southeast of Delhi, is a small town adjoining a group of 10th-century temples.  A thousand years ago, the temples were secure on the Bundelkhand Uplands, out of the way of all the armies marching up and down the Ganges lowlands to the north.  Today, Khajuraho is anything but isolated: there aren't many Indian towns with daily 737's to Delhi.  Credit the temples, or at least their integration into the cultural-tourism network. Are they worth seeing?  The best judge may still be James Fergusson, whose pioneering and sharply opinionated History of Indian and Eastern Architecture (1876, rev. ed. 1910) remains probably the most interesting book on the subject.  According to him, Khajuraho "is now a wretched deserted place, but has in and around it a group of some thirty temples, which are the most beautiful in form as well as the most elegant in detail of any of the temples now standing in India." But you probably want to see for yourself.

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You can drive to Khajuraho, too, but if you do, your first impressions won't be promising.

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A couple of miles south of town you'll pass the ruins of Mijamandal, only recently discovered. "Hope this isn't the whole show!"

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The Javari Temple, a mile east of the main complex. OK: the jaded reaction is that it's intact and intricate but also a toybox. The question is: does the form mean anything? Is it more than a backdrop for some photo shoot?

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The same Javari temple, this time from the entrance, which--as it is in all the others--is on the east. The scrolled and unfortunately shaded entrance arch or torana is typical: two heads can be made out; they are of makaras, mythical creatures seen widely in South and Southeast Asian temples, both Hindu and Buddhist.

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The main temples are in a compound protected by a wall and mass of green.  Outside the wall, there are hundreds of people on the lookout for tourist dollars--since 9/11 in short supply.

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Inside the compound: the Lakshmana Temple, built about 950 and intermediate in size between the Jivari and the largest temples. It's dedicated to Vishnu. It's also the temple with the best-preserved ornament. We'll circle back to it.

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We've moved perhaps 200 yards further into the compound. The Lakshmana is off to the right. In the foreground is the entrance to the Jagadambi Temple; in the background is the Chitragupta.  Behind the camera is the towering Mahadeva. 

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This, finally, is the largest of the set: It's the Kandariya Mahadeva, built about 1050. As in European cathedrals, the horizontal axis runs east-west, but here the vestibule or ardhamandapa leads not to a spacious nave but to two small, pillared halls--the mandapa and the higher mahamandapa. All three can be discerned here by the line of three ascending roofs. Finally, under the spire or shikara, there is a dark, small sanctuary, the garbhagriha, literally the "womb house." Within the sanctuary and at the precise intersection of the temple's horizontal and main vertical axes, there's an image or symbol of a god.

The temple is understood to be a tirtha, literally a ford in a river but metaphorically a place where the divine and human worlds intersect. Such a place must be carefully designed by laying out a large square, a vastupurushamandala. The name suggests a divine chart (mandala) to stabilize or fix in space (vastu) the essence of existence (purusha). The main square is subdivided into a grid, usually of 64 or 81 cells. Each is associated with a particular god, but the central cell demarcates the sanctuary, the garbhagriha.

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A diagonal view of Mahadeva, emphasizing the climb to the summit, which represents Mt. Kailash, Shiva's home. Mahadeva, or Maheshvara, is literally "great god" but is understood as Shiva.

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Seen from the back, Mahadeva reveals its balconies, accessible from an inner path around the sanctuary; such double-walled temples are called sandhara prasada.

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Mahadeva from the east.

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Mahadeva on the left, with Jagadambi ("Mother of the World") on the right.  Built about about 1,000 A.D.(about 50 years before the Mahadeva), Jagadambi was originally dedicated to Vishnu but now belongs to Parvati, Shiva's wife. 


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