Lessons from Khajuraho
The temples of Khajuraho ... celebrating the spirit of life.
IN early March, I went to Khajuraho for the first time. This was when the issue of a Ram temple in Ayodhya was the topic of a heated debate.
Over the years, I had seen many images of the Khajuraho temples, the so-called erotic sculptures. I now realised the images were a most inadequate representation of the spirit of temples and the vision of the temple builders and have utterly failed to communicate the spirit of integration that is the essence of these temples. Let me explain.
For three days I looked at these utterly beautiful temples, their architecture and the hundreds of carvings, and slowly, the vision of the temple builders (the kings, other patrons, priests and artists) became clear to me. What they were trying to communicate was that life is multi-dimensional, diverse and that all facets and levels of life are sacred and divine. This filled me with both awe and pride, at the beauty of an Indian culture, call it "Hindu culture" if you like, that had risen beyond the usual polarisation of sects, gender, religions and sanctimonious morality. This was the great spirit of this land, the essence of our spirituality tolerance, incorporation and integration.
Tolerance, incorporation and integration are expressed at many levels at Khajuraho.
First, there is the bringing together of the many levels of life, of the temporal and divine. In each temple, there is the incorporation of armies, royalty, kinship, war, wrestling, courtship, lovemaking, marriage, dancing and music, spiritual teachings, meditation, union, bliss, gods, goddesses, plants, animals and an abundance of all forms of humans. Garlands of images exist in ascending layers, from the mundane to the sacred. All are part of the parikrama (circumambulation) of the temple, a metaphorof the journey of life.
Second, the incorporation of all the gods and goddesses of the Indian tradition Shiva, Parvati, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Brahma, Brahmi, Kama, Yama, Rama, Rati, Sati, Sita, Krishna, Ganesh, Durga, Ganga, Hanuman, Nandi, Varaha, Varuna, Vayu ... and furthermore the integration of expressions of the divine in both form and formlessness.
Last, the bringing together and integration of Buddhism and Jainism, the other spiritual traditions of the land. All these multiple layers co-exist in harmony in the temples of Khajuraho in a rich symphony of exquisite carvings. As an artist I celebrated the magnificent aesthetic achievement of Khajuraho. It is an enormous expressive achievement art depicting, capturing and inspiring the spirit of integration at so many levels. Khajuraho's art is wonderfully representative of the essence of the philosophy of Indian aesthetics. To create form and images that are imbued by chhandomaya and that inspire the viewer to a higher transformative realisation.
Then, one morning in Khajuraho, I began to read the newspaper only to find a photograph of an uninspiring pillar and a difficult to decipher architect's drawing of the new Ramjanmabhoomi temple in Ayodhya. And there was an issue about doing a shila daan of this pillar! Had they not seen the pillars at Khajuraho, I wondered? A news report said that the carvings for the new temple were complete and so the hurry to begin construction on the promised date of March 15. And then the terrible violence erupted in Godhra and other parts of Gujarat, triggered in some way or the other by the passions inflamed around the building of this new temple and parenthetically the destruction of a mosque and a temple before that.
This got me thinking about building of temples and mosques. I wondered what the vision behind the new Ramjanmabhoomi temple was and how it compared to that of the temples of Khajuraho.
Khajuraho was built in the 10th and 11th Centuries. I was told that one of the temples the largest was built to celebrate the victory of the Chandellas, the builders of Khajuraho, over Mahmud of Ghazni. Waves of temple looters and breakers had started and it wasn't long after that that the Muslim rule started in earnest with the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate, by the slave dynasty of Qutbuddin Aibak whose Qutab Minar complex has evidence of the use of fragments of destroyed temples.
In terms of destroying temples and building mosques, I have seen the mosque that is built so crudely over the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi, and more recently, the walls of an entire fort near the Rann of Kutchh that used beautifully carved stones from Hindu temples as "raw" material. The breaking of Hindu temples and the use of their sites and stones to build mosques was clearly not a very good example of tolerance and integration, though there certainly was some very crass incorporation.
But let us not think that it was only the Muslims who broke or desecrated temples. Hindus have done it too. I remember the pang I felt when I saw the construction of a silly guest room on top of a stupa in Sarnath for Emperor Jehangir's one-day visit by a Hindu Raja of Benares. (I suppose it must have seemed like a good spot to give the Emperor a nice view.) It is also a fact that the destruction of the beautiful carvings and structures (stupas, viharas and temples) at Buddhist Sarnath were done by a Hindu raja with no tolerance for Buddhism and crudely used the stones for constructions in his kingdom. I am told our recount of history has glossed over the breaking of each other's temples by the Shaivas and Vaishnavas and the breaking of Jain and Buddhist temples by Hindus.
So breaking of temples has not only been an Islamic propensity, it has also been argued that in the past the breaking the temples of the defeated ruler was not only an act of religious intolerance but was also the ultimate signature of conquest. And, yes, many of the temples that were broken were by the Muslim raiders who were motivated by loot and robbery and not by religious ideology. This should help us see that there is more texture to the breaking of temples than just an issue of Hindu-Muslim religious rivalry. The Hindu zealots could be less self-righteous.
But what about the Ramjhanmabhoomi temple?
Most respected political analysts seem to agree that it is the political calculations of an aspirant Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to galvanise a new voting bloc that has made this the huge issue it has become. But the issue is at hand, and it has touched some underlying resentment in the Hindus for some real or imagined mistreatment: the Muslim colonisation, the Partition, the continuing hostilities between Pakistan and India and the continuing sectarian disasters in Kashmir. We cannot put the genie back in the bottle but we, the majority of Indians, must discover ways to minimise the corrosion and tragedy caused by the misuse of religious zeal by politicians.
After Gujarat, I am sure most Indians must be alarmed. What a contrast between the amity and beauty of the temples of Khajuraho and the primitive, barbaric, dehumanised events in Gujarat.
Now, in Ayodhya, I don't think anyone can really prove that Ram was born, or not born, at the site claimed to be his birthplace, and it is quite plausible and likely that a temple there may have been broken to build the Babri mosque. I think we, all of us, every Muslim included, can recognise and acknowledge that the possible building of the mosque by destroying a temple was wrong then. But to now break down a mosque that was wrongly built then, so as to build a temple, doesn't feel good either. To put it simply, the breaking of temples, stupas and mosques is mean spirited and small-minded. It is recommended that all the kar sevaks building the new temples, as well as all the VHP, Bajrang Dal, Muslim Personal Law Board, Babri Masjid Action Committee and secular leaders embroiled in this new temple drama must visit Khajuraho for inspiration.
In my view, it is imperative that we don't confuse present-day Muslims for the temple-destroyers of many centuries ago. They must not be blamed, hurt, punished for temples broken and ill-conceived mosques being built hundreds of years ago. And for it to in some way lead to the madness in Gujarat is so terrible, so tragic. I think that present day Muslims should recognise the mean-spirited mosque building between the 12th to 17th Centuries and have a new dialogue with religious Hindus that allows some redress for the lost temples. If there are a few (I am told there are three or five) really important temples that need to be returned from mosque to temple status, I think wise Muslims, courts and governments should facilitate this.
It is a failure of contemporary Muslim leadership not to have said: "We contemporary Muslims agree that the building of mosques over temples in the past was wrong. In the spirit of amity, we agree that some of these are really important to Hindu sentiments, so please build a Ram temple in Ayodhya." And for the Hindu leaders to say: "We cannot blame contemporary Muslims for the past and have animosity for them, nor must we destroy any mosques to build temples."
We (Muslims Christians, Buddhist, Jains, atheists, secularists et al) need to be assured, reassured and convinced by the VHP and fundamentalist Hindu political movements and parties that this will satisfy them, that this is not the thin edge of the wedge continuing to sunder India on Hindu-Muslim sectarianism. That no more mosques will ever be destroyed. That this will be a beginning to a new sense of Hindu-Muslim brother-sisterhood.
So if this new temple or temples are to be built, the Khajuraho question of vision and the spirit of integration in temple building arises again. Can we build these temples in a new spirit of tolerance, incorporation and integration, in such a way that all sects and religions, and indeed all Indians who were marginalised by the caste system, feel that this is a sacred place?
Can the new temple builders embrace a vision for a contemporary India that is diverse, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious? Can the new temple builders get today's architects and artists to build these new temples in a way that can integrate the dvait God and Goddess-rich bhakti traditions of Hindus and Christians, the advait unity of Hindus, the formlessness of Shunyata and of Allahand the non-theist Jain and Buddhists? Maybe the garbha griha, the womb, creatively expresses and embodies formlessness that would be a true representation of Ram. For, I'm told, the root meaning of the word `Ram' is that essence that is the same in each and every being and indeed in everything. The walls could be garlands of images from life and could include images of all the major religions of India.
Why can't we honour Jesus and Mohammad, through images or symbols along with all the divinities found in Khajuraho? The temple's eastern face could be the traditional entry for the Hindu devotee into the sanctum, and the west designed to enable Muslims to pray facing Mecca. These are just design ideas and not my main point, which is to develop a new vision of integration for these temples. And let's build these temples at a level of aesthetic excellence that travellers in future centuries will be inspired by their spirit and beauty. Can we rise to this challenge? Surely, Khajuraho gives us a starting point.
If not, then I agree with the Shankaracharya of Kanchi. Let there be a moratorium on all temple, mosque (and may I add, church and gurdwara) building. We have enough of them already. So many of them are just so tacky and ugly and garish, with ungainly and dull statues, pillars and just about everything else. I often hear voices that laud and venerate "our profound and great Indian culture". Regrettably, I have never heard them bemoan the abject decline in our aesthetic culture, never heard them complain about the temples and other public monuments we have built and continue to want to build. Let's stop wasting money and put it to better use building schools, hospitals and productive enterprises that will lift our people out of degrading poverty.
I think the road from Khajuraho to Ayodhya has so far been a steady decline in vision and aesthetics. A step in the right direction would be a new temple that expresses the integration that is the essence of our culture and tradition, and I am talking of Hinduism and all our inspiring traditions, of Buddhism, Jainism, Sufis, Guru Nanak, Akbar, Kabir, so many Sufi pirs, Ramakrishna, Sri Aurobindo and Gandhiji.
Can we rise to build a new Khajuraho in Ayodhya? And for those of you who haven't been to Khajuraho, go and be inspired by the pervasive spirit of integration there.
Shakti Maira is a noted contemporary artist who lives in New Delhi.
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