How do tourist guides explain (away) the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho to inquisitive visitors?

Indian tourists, of course, were not the first priority when the Indian government first decided to develop Khajuraho as a heritage destination in the 1950s. Protected by the ASI, the twenty-two surviving temples at Khajuraho continue to be identified by the monikers given them in the mid-nineteenth century by Alexander Cunningham, first director-general of the ASI: the Western Group, the Eastern Group and the Southern Group.

The Eastern and Southern groups are not collectively landscaped or ticketed, though many of the individual temples have received the standard ASI treatment: a plaque inscribed with architectural details, a small lawn surrounding the structure, a gated boundary wall around the lawn, and a single, usually taciturn, security guard at the gate.

Meanwhile, the Western Group – a ticketed rectangular complex including the Lakshmana, Kandariya Mahadev and Devi Jagadambi temples, which was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1986 – ranks consistently among the Indian monuments most visited by foreigners. The ASI figures from ticket sales in 2018 show that it had 80,000 foreign visitors that year, in tenth place (the Taj Mahal tops the list, with 7,90,000 foreigners having bought tickets to see it that year).

In the fiscal year 2020, only about 42,000 foreigners visited the site, a stark drop that probably has to do with the lockdowns and travel restrictions put in place from March 2020. But even before the Covid-19 pandemic made international travel impossible, the proportion of foreign tourists at Khajuraho has been slowly dropping – as have their absolute numbers.

Between 2006 and 2015, the annual count of foreign tourists in Khajuraho declined from 73,843 to 65,034. The number of Indian visitors, meanwhile, is growing. In 2006, only 1,64,000 Indians visited these temples. By 2015, that number had risen to 2,79,000. For the year 2018, the ASI reported that foreigners visiting the Western Group of temples numbered less than 61,000, while the number of Indian visitors had risen to 3,61,594 – that’s over 3 lakh more Indians than foreigners.

While there are fewer foreign tourists coming, a larger proportion of those who arrive are likely to spend the extra amount needed for guides. More studies are needed to make the argument conclusively, but the exponential rise in Indian tourists at the site has probably begun to affect how Khajuraho is described and understood by its guides. Indian visitors – most of whom recognise the major Hindu gods and goddesses and have certain ideas about temples – are an audience very different from the average Western tourist who could possibly be fobbed off with historically dubious references to “the Kama Sutra temples”.

But what really makes the Khajuraho tour guide’s task difficult is the delicacy with which Indian visitors need to be drawn into the sexual aspects of the temples.

For far too many Indians, sex is either something muffled and awkward that you do hurriedly in the dark and hide all evidence of – or a much- fetishised item on an aspirational list of achievements that you need to pretend you have lots of. Swinging between the guilty secret and the fake boast, we know little and judge a lot.

And yet it is sex that brings most Indians to Khajuraho. The biggest category of Indian visitors, my guide tells me, are young married couples. For at least twenty years, the temples have also made this landlocked Madhya Pradesh outpost a favoured holiday destination for those in the throes of romance.

If the just-marrieds are enticed by the attractive honeymoon packages, there’s a carrot for the others, too – or at least the absence of the usual stick. An internet search for budget hotels in Khajuraho throws up a “Hotel Rule” still rare enough in India to read as both assurance and advertisement: “Unmarried Couples Allowed”.

The other frequently seen category of Indian tourists is the all-male group of young students, wandering through the temples with their arms around each other, pointing and laughing. A recent study by a Lucknow-based anthropologist suggests that 29 per cent of tourists visit the temples for the explicit carvings – “not interested in understanding the history and architecture, they only come to look”. Indians, she claims, make up the bulk of that number.

So, most Indians are there for the sexy sculptures, but don’t want to be treated as if they are. That double standard is the unspoken basis of the tour guide narrative. It shapes both the form and content of the genre, beginning with the telling of Khajuraho’s ancient past. Thus, if the scholarly version of Khajuraho’s history foregrounds conquest, religion and architecture, the tour guide version manages to foreground sex. Or more accurately, a mythical sexual encounter.

Let me explain. If you read an academic art historian like Devangana Desai, the history of Khajuraho begins when the Chandella prince Yashovarman conquers the nearby hill fortress of Kalinjar, throws off the yoke of his Pratihara overlords, takes an iconic Vishnu statue from the Pratihara king Devapala, and commissions the first sandstone temple (the Lakshmana Temple, consecrated in 954 CE as the abode of Vaikuntha, Vishnu, as the enemy of demons) – as well as a huge water tank (likely today’s Shivsagar).

The Tour Guide version prefers to take things further back – and make them steamier.

One night in Banaras, the story goes, a pretty young woman called Hemavati (who was the daughter of a priest called Hemraj), found herself burning up with lust. To cool off, she decided to take a midnight swim. But the vision of Hemavati in the water was so tempting that Chandra Dev, the moon, decided to descend to earth in human form to make love to her. The product of this “madhur milan” was Chandravarman, first of the Chandellas.

“Belief or disbelief is up to you,” my guide said, perhaps observing my sceptical expression. “Main khud science student raha hoon” (I was a science student myself), he added generously, hinting that we might be in agreement. The myth doesn’t figure in the Chandellas’ own historical records. It appears to be a bardic addition made in later medieval texts like the Mahoba-Khanda, Varna Ratnakara, Prithviraj Raso and Kumarapala-charita, claiming a genealogy that’s half-divine, half-mortal (unsurprisingly for Indian dynastic claims, the mortal half is Brahmin).

Versions of the tale do exist on the internet, but they do not mention Hemavati being (as my guide put it) “kaam se vyaakul” (desperate with desire). Khajuraho’s guides, however, appear to take special pleasure in that salacious detail. It sets the perfect tone: myth + sex, dressed up as dynastic history.

Of course, a careful line needs to be drawn between the juicy and the inappropriate – especially with female visitors.

My guide spent several initial minutes telling me that he had been showing people round the temples for over fifteen years, that he had recently accompanied a single woman client (with a car and driver) on a five-day trip around the region, and that I could speak to her if I so wished. In other words, that his character was vouched for.

Having thus insured himself, he proceeded to draw attention to the sexy carvings by delicately offering to not discuss them: “Madam, can I show you the erotic sculptures, or otherwise I will leave it…?” Having reassured me, he now wanted reassurance. Only once I made clear that I wasn’t going to take offence did he begin to point out all sorts of sexual positions and practices, often observed in the breach.

One young woman, he said, was being punished for bestiality by the king. A set of depictions of oral sex elicited a practiced spiel: “Soch ke dekhiye: jo videshon mein aaj kar rahein hain, apne poorvaj hazaar saal pehle kar ke chhod chukey!” (Think about it: what people do now in foreign countries, our ancestors finished with a thousand years ago!)

The “kar ke chhod chukey” (finished with it) is a masterful touch. In one fell swoop, it suggests that while Indian civilisation was, in sex as in all things, far in advance of the rest of the world, we were done and dusted with it a thousand years ago – so there was no need to think about its occurrence in present-day sanskaari India!

A little later, having asked me to spot the difference between two near-identical surasundaris, he was thrilled when I said one might conceivably look happier than the other. “Shayad nahi, aisa hi hai! Hum log vulgarity mein nahin jaate madam, lekin yeh hai satisfied aur yeh unsatisfied,” he gestured first to the smiling statue and then the other.

Then, looking rather satisfied himself, he turned back to me for the punchline. “Yeh hai art!”

Where the Gods Dwell: Thirteen Temples and their (Hi)stories

Excerpted with permission from the essay “The Sacred and the Profane: Experiencing Khajuraho”, by Trisha Gupta, from Where the Gods Dwell: Thirteen Temples and their (Hi)stories, Westland Non-Fiction.