(This is the sixth in a series of columns on Brandon Taylor's recent trip to India.)
Sex sells. It sells very well. For the relatively sleepy and secluded town of Khajuraho in central India, sex drives the tourist industry, just not in the same way that it lures many an individual to places like Las Vegas. In Khajuraho, it's the heavily advertised erotic statues and "sex temples" that draw in crowds. From across the globe, people come to ogle at, blush over and take photos of the busty carvings of bodacious, scantily clad sandstone babes and bros.
Built between 950 and 1050 A.D. by the Chandelas, the ruling clan of much of the central jungles of India, the temples showcase some of the most intricate stone carvings and statues in the world. They're also some of the most provocative, a 3-D display of a variety of interesting positions from the guide to lovemaking, the Kama Sutra. Today, only 22 of the original 85 superstructures still remain.
Adjectives like "erotic" and "sex" only lead the lonely traveler down the wrong trail, creating expectations that what's hidden away in Khajuraho is somehow on par with what's hidden away in the back rooms of most video rental stores. As if X-rated versions of the more conventional temples of the subcontinent will be found there. And while many of the statues feature men and women embroiled in passionate sessions of love, limbs wrapped around each other in sitting or standing positions, the temples are not a crass celebration of pornography or smut. They're a wondrous celebration of love and life.
Hundreds of the elegant figures line the sides of each wall of the imposing temples. About 650 can be counted on the outside of the largest temple. Every inch of the exterior has a statue or carving of man, woman, child, beast, god or goddess, each crafted in such detail that one might expect them to descend from their places to engage visitors as they pass.
The figures acting out explicit licentious acts certainly draw the eyes' attention, leaving little to the imagination and tantalizing the senses, but do not completely overshadow the rest of the cast of characters. Mothers with children, couples holding hands or sharing a simple kiss, and dancers preparing to perform, in addition to numerous gods and goddesses, make special appearances, demonstrating themes of ancient everyday life. Each temple base is highlighted by a long frieze of warriors, maids, entertainers and a menagerie of wild animals providing a peek into the Chandelas' past.
Perhaps what is most fascinating about Khajuraho is that each temple provides a window to an ancient, more liberal Indian society. Modern India, despite its rise as an economic power trying to find its place in a globalized, Western-dominated world, is still largely conservative with traditions like arranged marriages the norm. Kissing in public is taboo, too sexual even; wearing tight shirts or short shorts is too revealing. Most Hindu women wear saris; Muslim women wear head coverings or full-body burqas; and even the men for the most part wear jeans, all to cover up excess skin. The statues in Khajuraho, however, seem content to bare it all as they have for centuries.
The Chandela masterpieces to love and passion are lucky to have survived the ages. Muslim invaders in the 16th century pillaged places of worship that didn't conform to their more conservative beliefs. Khajuraho would almost certainly have been ransacked had it not been for the surrounding jungles and terrain that helped hide its locations.
One important detail still hidden today is why these places of worship and their detailed facades were built. Who wanted them constructed? Who carved the statues? Why all the sex? Some experts speculate the temples may have acted as educational tools, a "how to" guide to life or ancient form of sex ed. Others take a more religious, social approach, saying the temples were built to pique people's interest in sex, have kids and settle into a family-oriented lifestyle. Many think the Chandela viewed sex as an art form, something practiced by all but perfected by a few in an elite class of artisans.
Or maybe those Chandela kings, argued by some scholars to have lived lives of extreme luxury, really did have the temples built purely for entertainment purposes. What better way to impress their own people and any foreign emissaries who stumbled across Khajuraho than with articulate structures chronicling everyday life and people's favorite carnal pastime? Temples built for worship, pleasure and praise for their kingdom. Because sex sells, and it sells very well.
Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. Read Brandon's blog at www.btay200.wordpress .com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.