July 07, 2020
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A Stone Carnival Relived

Excavations at Khajuraho unearth the largest Chandela temple yet, with Tantric-Buddhist erotic panels

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A Stone Carnival Relived
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It’s the biggest and perhaps the grandest of the erotic 10th century Chandela temples that we know about. And now, in the millennium year of Khajuraho, fresh excavations unearthed its ancient splendour at Jatarka, 6 km south-east of the main western temple cluster. In archaeological terms the discovery parallels the Dholavira excavations which extended the links of Indus civilisation. In terms of worldwide interest in the home of the Kamasutra, it surpasses anything since the first discovery of the temples.

Of the 85 temples built by the ancient Rajput kings, the Jatarka one is the 26th to be uncovered. It is reckoned to have been higher than the 30 m-high Khandariya Mahadev temple, as its pitha (second level of plinth) is 34 m long—which would mean it once rose to the same height. Careful digging around the pitha and parts of the adisthana (level above the pitha) have revealed that the brick structure may extend another nine metres to the north-east.

The excavation mound is being treated by the asi as gingerly as a patient on the operating table. Small hammers, tongs, brushes and careful fingers are being used to clear away the centuries-old debris. "We’ve an advantage in that we know the basic structure of the Khajuraho temples and quadrants have been measured and drawn accordingly," says P.K. Mishra, superintending archaeologist incharge of overall operations.

The ruins have sparked much exhilaration among scholars, and also much confusion. Some of the sculptures are of the highest quality, paralleling that of the highly-acclaimed Lakshman temple of the western cluster, with immaculate chiselling of sandstone. Other figures depict the inferior craftsmanship found in Duladev which belongs to the latter half of the Chandela rule that extended from 850 AD to the 14th century. But the best works at Khajuraho were produced between 1000 AD and 1150 AD.

Mishra tentatively puts the newly excavated site in the 1000 AD category. But the fact that some figures found on the adisthana are incomplete may lead to an entirely new interpretation—that the largest temple and most ambitious project of the dynasty of the Moon God was never completed. Then again, pieces of amlaka and kalash have been excavated, indicating that the temple actually rose to its full height.

The finds so far include sculptures of amorous couples, one lesbian couple, apsaras, elephants and war scenes and the most prized possession—a two-feet high, exquisitely moulded, four-armed figurine of Devi Saraswati, valued at over Rs 1 crore.

Of enormous historical and archaeological interest is the sculptural suggestion that Buddhism had an impact on the builders of the Khajuraho temples. Remains of Buddhist art have been found in a mound 20 metres from the one presently under excavation. "There are several theories as to why the temples were built. One suggests it may have been a rebellion against the pacifism of Buddhism and Jainism. I see it as a harmonious synthesis of various art forms. There is Hellenistic influence as well, so the more we excavate the more we will learn," says Mishra.

The excavated panels depict the classic meditation pose of the Jains and Buddha and also figures of a Jain tirthankar. War scenes are punctuated by copulating couples, orgies in progress, depictions of man-animal union with an underlying sense of humour—a lady smiles at a man making out with a horse, an amused elephant watches a copulating couple. Mishra refers to the theory that the Chandelas lived in a tough age of constant troop movement and armed attacks. The influence of the 6th and 7th century pacifist Jain and Buddhist monks had not fully petered out, and youth were taking to monkhood in large numbers. To dissuade them, the Chandela Rajputs demolished the Jain and Buddhist temples and mixed eroticism in the new temples to remind the youth of carnal pleasures. The most accepted theory, however, credits the Tantrics. In the 8th and 9th century AD Tantra had achieved its peak and advocated attainment of cosmic consciousness through sex.

"With Khajuraho celebrating its millennium, the new find will increase the interest in the village both as a tourist as well as archaeological destination," says Ajai Shankar, director general asi. He plans to bring in experts to help dig, reconstruct and perhaps revise a little bit of history. But funds are a problem. While 18 mounds had been identified by the asi in an 8-km radius around Khajuraho in 1980, the money for excavation came only some 20 years later. asi officials suspect that gold-diggers may have already looted priceless statues. "We have excavated a vacant spot on the mukhamandap side where a statue of Ganesh may have existed," says Manuel Joseph, archaeological assistant supervising the daily operations.

The seven-member asi team, braving the 47 degree heat along with 30 labourers, is also worried about the protection of the idol of Saraswati—at present two unarmed guards watch the site 24 hours a day. asi officials want the idol to be protected at the site because removing it may damage the fragile structure.

The crumbling temple will have to be put together piece by piece like a mammoth jigsaw puzzle. And for the average tourist in search of a grand exhibition of erotica, Jatarka is still some years and millions of rupees away.

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