When a tourist prepares their itinerary for India, visiting Hindu temples is high on the travel list. The temples in India are not only famous for their religious significance, but also for their historical, cultural, and aesthetical importance.
One site that is right on the top of travelers’ wish lists is the temples at Khajuraho, renowned for their ancient architecture and art.
Located in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, the city is a popular destination for both Indian and foreign tourists.
Khajuraho boasts many magnificent temples built by the Chandela dynasty in the 10th and 11th centuries. As per the records, more than 80 temples were constructed by various Chandela rulers, making this region one of the most significant in terms of the number of temples.
As the Chandela dynasty went into decline, the temples also got neglected for more than 500 years and were rediscovered in the 19th century.
Of the 80 temples that were built during the Chandela rule, only 25-odd temples survived the ravages of time, nature, and plunder. Most of the temples at Khajuraho are made of sandstone without any enclosure wall and are erected on a high platform.
Apart from the architecture, Khajuraho temples are celebrated for their elegant sculptural ornamentation that adorns the walls and platform. The figures and sculptures on the walls of the Khajuraho temples present an exquisite display of Indian heritage and culture.
The majority of Khajuraho temple sculptures belong to Hindu Gods and deities, divine figures, and nymphs (apsaras and sura-sundaris). In addition, one can also see daily lifestyle routines like musicians playing their instruments, animals, people in war settings, embracing couples, and erotic scenes, among others. The subtleties that are visible in the eyes, body, facial expressions, jewelry, and dresses of the sculptures are extremely exquisite.
On one hand, a lot of focus is given to the eroticism that is displayed on the walls in form of explicit figures, but that does not constitute more than 10 percent of the total number of figures. On another hand, there is one kind of sculpture that one cannot ignore noticing which forms the majority of all the temples in Khajuraho but is scarcely mentioned in most texts.
Vyala – A Sculpture that dominates temples at Khajuraho
That notable figure which is repeated regularly is Vyala. This animal-shaped figure is featured copiously on the walls of the temples and on the joints of the two walls.
A series of Vyalas decorate the temple – sometimes forming a long sequence and at other times coming alternatively. Another interesting aspect about these Vyala is their physical feature, the body resembles a lion that has one leg lifted up and a face that keeps changing but displays ferocity. In all the sculptures two men are shown fighting with Vyala, one kneeling near its foot and another near its head. Sometimes the human that is on top is also shown getting swallowed by Vyala.
Interestingly, Vyala does not appear in the inner walls of the temple, the sanctum area, or near the deities. For the ancient architects who have been so meticulous in decorating the Khajuraho temples with beautiful sculptures, the reason for displaying Vyala so generously only on the outside, ought to have a deep significance.
While most of these current Khajuraho temples are not used for religious ceremonies, we must not forget that during the period in which they were built, these temples must have been holistic centers of worship, learning, and upliftment. The temples were not just sacred structures and abode of God but they also played an important role in transforming the cultural, social, and economic aspects of life.
Vyala represents our ambitions and the two men symbolize our desire to conquer that. It is a constant struggle, where some of us are able to control and others fall prey to that.
Given the magnitude of the Khajuraho temples and the intricate carvings done on them, any individual walking into the temple would have discovered so much. Therefore, a creature like Vyala would have symbolically reminded people that to imbibe the teachings we must balance our desires and ambitions.
It is intriguing to see a monstrous-looking creature placed in the company of Gods, beautiful ladies, and other life scenes. The Khajuraho temples might have become a location for tourism, but the beautiful carvings still have a lot to offer in terms of knowledge.
In the context of our environment, it is our ambitions to economically grow that devastated our resources and the consequences of climate change are upon us. Therfore, if we can fight the battle with Vyala and take some concrete steps, we still have hope.
In some literature, the mythical creature is also referred to as Yali or Shardul. When you visit temples at Khajuraho, keep an eye on these sculpture and let us know what you think.
You can read about other places to visit in Khajuraho that are known for their natural beauty.