Khajuraho has to be one of the most extraordinary archaeological sites in India. Every year thousands of visitors make the journey to see the superb Chandela temples, best known for their erotic carvings, but which also demonstrate an exceptional quality of craftsmanship. Khajuraho preserves India’s largest and most magnificent groups of medieval temples, and provides an intriguing snapshot of 10th – 12th century life.
This Khajuraho introduction and guide brings together all my separate articles for each monument, clicking on the monument will take you to that separate article with photos.
That is followed by some useful map links highlighting the Khajuraho temple locations, a (very) brief overview of Khajuraho temple history, and finally some recommendations from my visit.
My hope is this guide will help you plan your Khajuraho itinerary more successfully !
Khajuraho Group of Monuments
Twenty six monuments survive at Khajuraho, and are divided into three distinct groups; the western, eastern and southern groups. To see all the monuments at a leisurely pace I would recommend your Khajuraho itinerary should be split over two days; day 1 for the western group of monuments, and day 2 for the eastern and southern groups.
The western group consists of 15 monuments in total, of which 10 are located within a compound managed by A.S.I. for which there is an entrance fee. The remaining 5 monuments are outside the compound and free to visit.
The grid below is organised assuming you will visit the compound first, and tour the site in a clockwise fashion, from Lakshmana to Pratapeshwar Temple. The last 5 monuments, Bhairava Statue to Chopra Tank are all reachable on foot from the western compound.
The grid order below broadly follows the route to take if you start from Khajuraho Village. Whilst it is possible to see all these on foot, some form of transport is recommended.
The most dispersed of all the Khajuraho group of monuments, the grid order assumes you visit these after the eastern group.
I’ve created three google maps, one for each Khajuraho group of monuments. All the monuments are pinned, with a link to their respective blog entry. Note that due to an interesting “feature” of google maps, the pin location accuracy improves the further you zoom in to the map.
Khajuraho Temple History
Between 900 and 1200 A.D. Khajuraho was ruled under the Chandela dynasty, who were feudatories of the Gurjara-Pratihara Empire, which controlled much of north India from Kannauj in modern day Uttar Pradesh. Back then Khajuraho was known as Kharjuravahaka, and was a flourishing temple town. It is believed that there was once 85 temples around Khajuraho, covering an area of 13 sq km.
The role of Khajuraho in the Chandela kingdom remains largely unclear as there are no remains of secular buildings, and nor is there any evidence of building constructions prior to 900 A.D. As the local Chandela chieftains amassed wealth and power, it appears as though Khajuraho was selected as a sacred “city” rather than a center of government. We do know that for a period of time that center of government was at Mahoba, 50km to the north.
By the 13th century, Khajuraho and the Chandela dynasty had fallen into decline, and as a result the later temples (mainly in the southern group) are seen as less impressive aesthetically.
According to local tradition, most of the major temples were erected to commemorate military victories, although there is little evidence to back this up. It does seem likely that individual temples were associated with a specific rulers of the Chandela dynasty.
After the decline of the Chandela dynasty, Khajuraho remained as an important religious center until at least the 14th century. In 1335, the Arab traveller Ibn Battuta visited the area and described a large pond one mile in length surrounded by tall temples. This must be the Shivsagara tank next to the western group of temples.
By the 16th century however, Khajuraho had disappeared off the map, seemingly vanished into oblivion. No Mughal records make any reference to the place, which perhaps explains why so many of the temples escaped destruction at the hands of Muslim iconoclasts.
After a dormant 300 years, Khajuraho history sparked back into life on February 3rd 1813, when Lieutenant William Price reported a Sanskrit inscription found at Mau near Khajuraho. By 1818, Khajuraho was once again back on the map and drawing the attention of historians, keen to understand more about the Chandela dynasty.
The first modern account of the western group of temples was published by Captain T. S. Burt in 1838, who recognised the importance of the high concentration of temples and started recording their inscriptions. Between 1843 and 1847, Maharaja Pratap Singh carried out renovations on the Khajuraho temples. He was the first local ruler to take interest in the monuments and their preservation, although some of his repair methods were perhaps questionable. He subsequently built his own temple in the western group, the Pratapeshwar Temple.
The most comprehensive description of Khajuraho during this period is thanks to Major Alexander Cunningham, who visited in 1852, 1864 and 1865 as the Archaeological Surveyor to the Government of India. His detailed accounts are priceless, and he too recognised the importance of the monuments.
The temples were first photographed in 1882 by Raja Deen Dayal, and in 1892 the major inscriptions of Khajuraho were published by F. Kielhorn.
The first systematic conservation and protection program for Khajuraho was instigated in 1904 by the A.S.I, with guidance from Sir John Marshall and Henry Cousens. Since 1953 the Khajuraho monuments have been under the direct charge of the A.S.I. who continue to maintain the structures today.
There is still much to be discovered at Khajuraho. More than 50 mounds have been located, of which 18 have been identified for possible excavation. One of these mounds, now known as Bijamandal Temple, has been partially excavated and the site opened to the public in March 1999.
What remains the biggest mystery related to Khajuraho is why so much erotica has been carved on the temples ?
There are of course many theories for that, ranging from a reflection of less prudish times, naked or near naked bodies being the greatest test of skill for the medieval Indian sculptors, or a strong religious element associated with the erotica.
It is interesting that the more geometrically-stylised and gymnastically complex erotica are usually in the external recesses between the assembly hall and the sanctuary, which is traditionally held to be the weakest part of the temple in spiritual terms, and therefore in need of protection with powerful images.
It could be the case that all these theories may be relevant in understanding the temple erotica, and it is worth remembering that the vast majority of the images at Khajuraho are not erotic at all, but no less beautifully carved.
I only stayed in Khajuraho for a couple of nights, but here are my independent recommendations – I’m not benefiting from making them !
Hotel – Hotel Harmony, Jain Temples Road, Khajuraho, 471606. Tel: +919425143559. This was a very decent hotel with large rooms, clean, and brisk service. The location is also ideal, just 5 minutes walk to the western group of temples and nearby restaurants.
Food – The best place to eat in Khajuraho village is the Raja Cafe, directly opposite the western group of temples. There’s a variety of cuisine available, Indian and European, veg and non-veg. Their pizzas are the best I have tasted in India!
Transport – For my entire tour around MP I used “Historical Tours and Travels”, who are based in Orchha. They can a provide car and driver throughout MP and beyond, and I can highly recommend their service.
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