How do you photograph what is arguably India’s most photographed temple complex?

Raghu Rai used a ladder.

The temples built by the Chandela dynasty in Khajuraho, in present-day Madhya Pradesh, over 1,000 years ago, are world famous for their intricate stone carvings that depict men and women in a variety of erotic positions.

The temples are devoted to the Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu, with some dedicated to Jain Tirthankaras. However, only 20-odd temples remain of the once sprawling cluster of about 80 structures.

In his latest book, Khajuraho, photographer Raghu Rai, one of India’s most prolific lensmen, celebrates the intricate beauty of the temples and sculptures, as well as the devotees and tourists who gape at the structures.

Rai is a member of Magnum, an international collective of photographers, co-founded by the legendary French photographer, Henri-Cartier Bresson. He carried around a 20-foot-tall ladder as he worked in Khajuraho because he wanted to photograph the sculptures at eye level in order to create an image as intimate as many of the acts being photographed.

Inside Shantinath Jain Temple, 1986. (Photograph by Raghu Rai.)

Rai has captured daily life in the little town in sharp detail too – villagers going about their daily routines, devotees filing in and out of temples, a woman attempting to keep the place of worship clean, and a priest in front of a temple facade draped in a chadar whose pattern provided a striking contrast with the temple that loomed before him.

The exquisitely produced volume published by Niyogi Books has an introduction by Usha Rai which lays out the history of the temple complex.

Tantric influences

Though Khajuraho is often referred to as the home of “sex temples” or “Kama Sutra temples”, the erotic sculptures account for just 2% of the art work on the temple walls.

“Erotic decorations feature mainly in the Shiva temples,” writes Usha Rai in the introduction. “The spine according to the tantric theories current in the Chandella period, was likened to the serpent of energy, kundalini, stretching from the base of the sacrum to the crown of the head, supporting the six stages (chakras) of spiritual evolution. Each of these stages must be awakened to transmute sexual energy into pure spirituality for attaining union with the divine”.

Vishwanatha Temple, 1978. (Photograph by Raghu Rai.)
Khajuraho Dance Festival, 1988. (Photograph by Raghu Rai.)
Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, 1988. (Photograph by Raghu Rai.)

The text accompanying Rai’s pictures is deeply engaging too. It lays out the story behind the rise of the Chandelas – who believed that you could not achieve spiritual satisfaction without sexual satisfaction. It charts their architectural sensibilities and includes anecdotes about the temple complex from over the years.

One of the most famous sculptures at Khajuraho is that of a man balanced on his head and pleasuring three women at once (above). In his captions, Rai reveals that since many of the carvings were done with the stone slab lying flat on the ground, when they were put upright on the temple walls, the positions seemed more adventurous than they really were. "The combination of Yoga, Tantric Sex and the Kama Sutra in this sculpture showcases India's contribution to the sensual world," writes Usha Rai.

Vamana Temple, 1977. Village life is being replaced by a garden created around it by the Archaeological Survey of India. (Photograph by Raghu Rai.)
A visitor with his flowery shawl at Duladeo Temple, 2011. (Photograph by Raghu Rai.)
Outside Shantinath Jain Temple, 2011. (Photograph by Raghu Rai.)

One popular anecdote relates to the time archaeologists debated whether the explicit sculptures should be covered up lest they offend the modest sensibilities of a visiting dignitary from Russia.

In the introduction, Usha Rai reflects upon the architectural movement that took place under the Chandelas, which resulted in the construction of several palaces and temples in Mahoba, Kalinjar and Ajaygarh, and that reached the pinnacle of creativity and skill at Khajuraho.

The section of the book that focuses solely on the erotic sculptures has an interesting layout. Photographs of stone sculptures of the female body from Khajuraho are juxtaposed with nudes of present-day women arching their bodies in a similar manner. This heightens the sense of eroticism inherent within the human body and reminds us that the human form was celebrated for all its sensuality over a thousand years ago while the 21st century shies away from it.

Photograph by Raghu Rai.
Intricate panels, northern wall of Parshwanatha Temple, 2011. (Photograph by Raghu Rai.)

Khajuraho, published by Niyogi Books, is priced at Rs 3,000.