Tantra - Mystic Mandala of Khajuraho
by Roohi Saluja
Temples built in ancient India are living emblems of tradition. They are not only an insignia of that civilization's culture, customs and people, but also a sacred sanctuary of deities, gods, spirits, and are powerhouses that hold within them specific energy patterns.
Today, these temples are celebrated as magnificent architectural marvels, but more importantly, they reflect oneness with the cosmos. Of these, the Khajuraho temples are mystically the most stimulating. Nestled in a sleepy village in the heart of Madhya Pradesh, flanked by palm trees, the dark overpowering silhouettes of the stone edifices claim your attention.
The Khajuraho temples were built between the 9th and 12th centuries by the Chandella dynasty. This was a period when feudalism developed and temple building became a common phenomenon—articulating a statement of power and control. Consequently, the temples became larger and grander. A common current was the depiction of sex in art forms. Intricate sculptures enhancing erotic attitudes of gods and goddesses, men and women, animals, demigods, nymphs and demons animated the temple walls.
Originally a complex of 84 temples, only 23 survive today in varying conditions in Khajuraho. While the complex is unanimously acclaimed for its imposing sandstone structures and panorama of life depicted on the wall-to-wall sculptures, its true Tantric significance has been glossed over by the largely erotic readings by historians the world over. Since centuries, the site has been a stronghold of saints and sages who wanted to live in solitude.
Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute, says in his article ‘The Mysterious World of Khajuraho’ published in Yoga International magazine (November 2002), “Sanskrit epic literature called the site Vatsa Desha (the land of sage Vatsa), and not far away, on the bank of the Mandakini River, the ashram of one of the seven primordial sages, Atri, and his wife Mother Anasuya, still exists…Another great sage, Matanga, (whose daughter was the Divine Mother), chose Khajuraho as the place to pursue his spiritual practices. Matangeshvara, a magnificent temple named after him, still stands there today…Clearly, the area in and around Khajuraho is charged with spiritual energy."
Professor Rana P.B. Singh of the Cultural Geography Department, Banaras Hindu University, notes in his essay ‘Sacred Territory of Khajuraho, India: A Search in Landscape Geometry’, "According to Hindu mythology of the sixth century, Shiva after his marriage with Parvati lived on the dramatic hilltop of Kalinjar, known as the entry point in the mythical landscape. The center of this territory is Khajuraho, a place where the gods loved to visit, a timeworn realm where myth, history and cosmo-vision mingled."
What is not so well known perhaps is that Khajuraho is one of the ten most predominant seats of Tantra practice. According to the Tantra tradition, there are certain special sites that are charged with spiritual energy, enabling the seeker to reach her goal more readily. Pandit Rajmani Tigunait documents some of these sites, "The spiritual energy of Banaras, for example, is characterized by knowledge…at Ayodhya, by self-sacrifice…at Kamakhya, siddhis (supernatural powers), and at the site of 64 Yoginis (in Khajuraho), the spiritual energy of Khajuraho enables us to experience our body as a living shrine."
Georg Feuerstein in his book Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy identifies the number 64 with Tantric implications, "as meaningful and sacred to Tantra as the number 108 to the Hindu traditions". He further argues that the number corresponds to the 64 Tantras, the 64 Bhairavas (forms of Shiva) and 64 Kalas (aspects of the Supreme Goddess), as mentioned in certain Tantric texts. Pandit Tigunait also observes, "In the Tantric tradition, the 64 yoginis are the presiding deities that guide and govern the entire fabric of life.…They not only hold the body and mind together, they also animate them (prana). Awakening these forces is the essence of spiritual accomplishments."
While there exist multiple explanations for this profusion of erotic imagery in Khajuraho, I bring some of the most plausible ones to the foreground. With the gradual intensification of feudalism in India, local interests and polities strengthened. Regionalism strongly influenced art forms, and eroticism, an integral part of life, got canonised in art.
In the essay ‘Sexual Imagery on the Phantasmagorical Castles at Khajuraho’, published in the International Journal of Tantric Studies (November 1996), Michael Rabe attributes the erotic imagery to protection. Rabe cites a passage from the Zilpa Prakaza (a contemporary text): "…the Naribandha (frieze of a woman) is indispensable in architecture. As a house without a wife, as frolic without a woman, so without (the figure of) a woman, the monument will be of inferior quality.…A place without love-images is in the opinion of Kaulacaras (Tantric authorities) always a base, forsaken place…a dark abyss."
Whether the Chandella dynasty was motivated by Tantra is unknown, but the belief that Tantra was known in the 9th to 12th centuries finds evidence. Rabe pursues that the famed maithuna couplings stand eloquent testimony to the ‘left hand’ path of Tantra, the Vamamarga—they embody the principle of ‘the yoga of bhoga.’ The Tantric tradition frequently juxtaposes yoga (disciplined action) and bhoga (pleasure), underlining a complex integration.
Taking the argument further, Georg Feuerstein ponders that the Tantrik as neither neurotically embrace sensory pleasures (bhoga), nor do they crave for mystical union (yoga). For them, women are Shakti; sex is the love play between Shiva and Shakti, and pleasure is a modification of supreme bliss. Vijnana Bhairava Tantra (a Tantric text) also explains that it is the mind that is the real cause of bondage or liberation. For those pure in mind, everything is pure. For those whose mind is defiled with misconceptions and base emotions, even the pure is polluted.
Rabe reasons that maithuna (sexual union) panels of group sex at Khajuraho serve another purpose. "They camouflage with titillating flesh something still more esoteric and inscrutable to the uninitiated." Georg Feurstein also concedes, "The heart of the left-hand sadhana is the ritual of twinning, or maithuna, in which a male and a female practitioner enact the divine intercourse between Shiva and Shakti…this ritual is performed in a group setting and then is called rasa chakra (wheel of essence/juice)."
The Zilpa Prakaza also documents the dominant role of yantras, schematic geometries into which deities are distributed for the longevity and protection of temples. Speaking of one of the most important yantras, the Kamakala Yantra, Rabe quotes, "This yantra should not be shown to everyone. For this reason a love-scene has to be carved on the lines of the yantra."
Professor Rana P.B. Singh argues that the idea of an observed order in nature, corresponding to physical reality, finds its most constructive evidence in the building of shrines and temples. A landscape study of Khajuraho identifies the latter as a predominantly Shaivite landscape. Since the numbers 3 and 5 are eulogised as sacred symbols associated with Shiva (Trilokinatha), it is interesting to note that the outer geometrical shape of Khajuraho is made of three triangles, which finally converge into a pentagon.
The Khajuraho complex is divided into three parts. The most significant is the western group that comprises the oldest Chausath Yogini, Chitragupta temple, Lakshmana temple, Matangeshvara temple, among others. The eastern group includes Brahma temple and several Jain temples. The southern group has only two temples—Duladeva temple and Chaturbhuja temple.
The western group of temples symbolically forms a cosmic design of a hexagon (a yantra or cosmogram) with the three faces of Shiva (Matangeswara, Kandariya and Vishvanatha)—male/matter, and the three forms of Devi (Devi-Chhatri, Chausath Yogini and Devi Jagadamba)—female/spirit. At the centre of this hexagonal star-shaped yantra lies the Lakshmana temple. This centre symbolises the integration and synthesis of matter and spirits, resulting in a creation of energy.
Historian Shobita Punja offers a cutting-edge perspective on Khajuraho. She envisions the entire complex as a permanent mythic recreation of the Divine marriage of Shiva and Parvati. On Shivaratri, the giant lingam of Matangeshvara temple is bathed, dressed and adorned like a bridegroom. In fact, it is believed that besides Matangeshvara, Kedaranath and Kashi are the only two mythologised cremation areas where Shiva wanders.
Built on raised platforms, all temples barring one, face the eastern horizon. The overall design of the complex thus resembles an alchemical symbol of sacred energy recharged by the rays of the sun. Archaeologists see this process of converting the landscape into a cosmogram as sanctifying the territory and fertilizing Mother Earth.
But for a seeker, Khajuraho is the land of the creative quest, encoding signs and symbols that need to be deciphered by the inner eye. Leaf by leaf, the mystery unfolds...
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