The Mysterious World of Khajuraho
By Pandit Rajmani Tigunait
India is an impenetrable mystery. It is the land of the pampered prince, Siddhartha, who was born under a tree by the wayside, became the Buddha, and died under a sal tree. He owned nothing but a begging bowl, and yet the wheel of dharma he set in motion continues to bestow nirvana twenty-five centuries later. King Rama of north India built a bridge between Sri Lanka and south India so that two ethnic groups could intermingle more easily. In contrast, Chinese rulers built the Great Wall to seal off their country from outsiders. While Roman emperors celebrated their victories by constructing huge monuments, emperors in India used their wealth to have sacred fire rituals performed. Here in the West we have built our universities, museums, and libraries in cities, but in India they chose jungles and remote hilltops for their centers of learning. Westerners believe that places of worship should be in easily accessible locations, but in India the more sacred the site, the more remote the location.
Consider the shrines in the Himalayas: Kedarnath, Badrinath, and the shrines in and on the way to the remote Valley of Flowers. This is where Hindu and Buddhist monks built their monasteries, preserved their manuscripts, and dedicated their lives to self-discovery. Paradox has drawn people from all over the world (as well as Indians themselves) to explore the enigma that is India. One of the greatest riddles is a mysterious complex of temples at Khajuraho, in central India.
I first learned about Khajuraho as a university student, when newspapers and magazines were filled with stories about the discovery of a complex of magnificent temples belonging to all the major spiritual traditions of ancient India. Covered with intricate carvings, the temples had been mysteriously abandoned for seven centuries or longer. I wondered what had inspired people to spend five hundred years building a complex of elaborate temples, only to abandon the site and let the jungle reclaim them.
I knew that from time immemorial this land had been a stronghold of saints and sages who wanted to live in solitude. 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. Nearby Kalanjar had been one of the greatest seats of learning in ancient India. What is more, another great sage, Matanga (whose daughter was the Divine Mother), chose Khajuraho as the place to pursue his spiritual practices. Matangeshwara, a magnificent temple named after him, still stands there today. Further, history tells us that the Khajuraho complex was built by the kings of the Chandela dynasty, whose genealogy traces back to Sage Chandrama, the son of the illustrious sage Atri. In all probability Chandrama lived there, as did his two brothers, the sages Durvasa and Dattatreya. Clearly the area in and around Khajuraho is charged with spiritual energy.
I continued my academic pursuits, and just as I was preparing to write my doctoral thesis I met my spiritual preceptor, Swami Rama. I soon discovered that he had a special affinity with Khajuraho. This is where he had his first glimpse of the Divine Mother; for him the shrine known as Sixty-Four Yoginis was at the core of the entire temple complex. “Sixty-Four Yoginis is my Mother’s courtyard,” he used to say.
From time to time Swamiji explained to me the spiritual significance of this region, the general nature of tantric practices that the adepts undertook there, and the specific characteristics of the traditions represented by the various temples. But the conversations always brought him back to Sixty-Four Yoginis.
In the tantric tradition, the Sixty-Four Yoginis are the presiding deities that guide and govern the entire fabric of life. Together they constitute all the benevolent forces of nature. They are the presiding deities of the sixty-four arts and sciences, which cover the whole range of human creativity. Tantric texts, such as Rudra Yamala, explain that it is these yoginis who breathe life into matter. Manifesting in the form of prana (the life-force), they not only hold the body and mind together, they also animate them. Awakening these forces is the essence of spiritual accomplishment. In fact, only when these forces are awakened do we find meaning and purpose in our own worldly achievements. As long as they are dormant, we are weighed down by life’s burdens.
According to the tradition, there are special places charged with spiritual energy which help aspirants reach their goal. This energy gives a unique personality to each of these sites. The spiritual energy of Banaras, for example, is characterized by knowledge; at Allahabad it is characterized by inner balance; at Ayodhya, by self-sacrifice; at Brindavan, by love; at Bodhigaya, non-attachment; and at Kamakhya, siddhis (supernatural powers). At the site of Sixty-Four Yoginis, the spiritual energy of Khajuraho enables us to experience our body as a living shrine.
What I had learned from the scriptures and gathered while sitting at the feet of the learned ones had convinced me that I must seek and find my own freedom in the world, not from the world. And I was certain that Khajuraho is where the key to that freedom lay.
I made several attempts to go to Khajuraho in the next twenty-five years, but each time I failed. This only strengthened my belief in its importance to my inner journey. So with each failure I resolved to study more and broaden my understanding before I tried again. But when I finally managed to get there last April, I was taken by surprise.
I landed at the Khajuraho airport with my wife and two other companions, planning to simply drop our luggage at the hotel and go directly to the shrine of Sixty-Four Yoginis. But in spite of my instructions, the taxi driver took us to the gate of the western complex of temples, saying flatly, “This is where everyone goes.”
“Okay, then,” I thought, giving esoteric interpretation to the driver’s intransigence. “You are the driver. Steering is in your hands. Wherever you drop me is the right spot to start my journey.”
The logic of surrender worked its magic. I walked through a gate and found myself in front of the majestic Sun temple (the temple of the Sun god who banishes darkness from the face of the Earth), sometimes known as the Chitragupta temple. It was so imposing and beautiful that my mind instantly gave up its habit of linear thinking, and forces imperceptible to our senses, hidden beneath the surface of the numberless statues lining the temple walls, took charge of my journey. In this meeting ground of gods and humans, the benevolent forces within and without joined hands and, struck with wonder, I stood silently as they unraveled for me the mystery of life. My mind’s eye went back and forth, seeing both the beauty of God’s creation and the beauty of the human creation as they were manifest in this temple complex, and I recognized that human beings are the perfect reflection of the perfect One.
The architectural designs of the temples, along with the teeming statues of animals, humans, demigods, nymphs, gods, goddesses, and demons so systematically arranged on the walls, were the counterparts of the currents and crosscurrents of energies—both positive and negative, constructive and destructive—that make up our world. Humans too are a perfect blend of these twofold energies. Using sculpture and architecture, the builders of the Khajuraho temple complex have created a dynamic panorama of anger and love, hatred and kindness, greed and generosity, revenge and forgiveness—one impulse granting spiritual freedom, its opposite weaving a snare of sensual slavery and frustration. Seeing this, I understood how the spiritual journey begins: with the recognition that these same thoughts, feelings, emotions, urges, and habit patterns—both positive and negative—swirl within each of us. And I realized that spirituality is the art of making good use of everything we have, including our weaknesses and negative tendencies.
My eyes fell on a cluster of images depicting humans involved in the base level of our existence—fighting, fleeing from battle, fornicating, beset by confusion, fear, and doubt. But the voice of my heart said, “We are blessed with abundant gifts; it is fear and doubt that hold us back from enjoying them. We know that life is precious, yet we rarely make good use of it. What motivates us to make the inward journey? Philosophical knowledge and intellectual understanding are not enough.”
I knew that the understanding that had just dawned on me was only a stepping-stone on the journey. If this temple here in the corner of the complex is so potent, the experience awaiting us at the shrine of Sixty-Four Yoginis must be overwhelming! I hoped our visit to the Sun temple had generated enough good karma for my driver to find me worthy of the journey.
We left the Chitragupta temple at the hottest time of the day. Most of the other visitors had disappeared, and only a few vendors remained outside the gate where our taxi driver stood waiting in the shade. Seeing us, he proudly exclaimed, “Sir, now I know where the site of Sixty-Four Yoginis is!” I told him we would visit that shrine in the cool of the evening or perhaps the next morning, but he insisted. “No, no,” he said, “it is right here—it is on the way to the hotel.”
Knowing that we were so close to our goal, our enthusiasm returned. Mercifully, the taxi was air-conditioned and we were content to ride along slowly while the driver pointed out the small palace belonging to the former kings of that province. Just past the palace we took a right turn, drove several hundred yards between rows of eucalyptus trees, and stopped at the edge of a barren field. Pointing toward a rectangular stone platform about twelve feet high, the driver said, “Here is Sixty-Four Yoginis.”
We got out, bewildered. Where were the temples? Where was the shrine? Swamiji’s stories had led me to expect lush trees with mischievous monkeys swinging through the branches and sadhus (holy men) with matted locks resting under them. In my imagination sixty-four temples were arrayed on the platform, each embodying a stream of the divine energy that nurtures and guides both the inner and outer worlds. But what I saw were a few scraggly trees and thorny bushes poking up from a sun-baked field around what appeared to be an empty platform. There weren’t even any steps leading up to it.
Trying to see this holy land through the eyes of the masters who once lived here, I walked around, struggling to square what Swamiji had told me about this place with what I was seeing now. He had often told me that he had lived with his master here at the shrine of Sixty-Four Yoginis. “It is my Mother’s courtyard,” he had said. “Here I spent many winters with my master. It is here that my master picked me up, swirled me in the air, and was about to hurl me at her feet when she appeared, took me into her lap, and blessed me.”
As I remembered these words I could see Swamiji’s face clearly, illuminated with the joy of remembering the Divine Mother. I remembered how excited he had been when we found ourselves a few miles from here in 1985 and how disappointed he was that events kept him from bringing me to this spot. I recalled how vivid his relationship with her seemed when he said, “She is my mother. She is always with me, even when I am not aware of her presence.” How profound was his conviction when he said, “Tomorrow I will show her to you.” In his speech and action I had seen more than once that he had a living relationship with the divinity who resided here at Sixty-Four Yoginis—for him it was as if she was there in the flesh.
But now I stood a stone’s throw from the shrine I had been longing to visit, feeling nothing but disappointment. The temples I had seen earlier were still charged with energy: their architecture, the motifs on their exterior walls, the sanctity of their interior spaces—all told me something about the journey of life. But here was only emptiness. I found a foothold in the protruding stones and climbed onto the rectangular platform. The ruins of some twenty small temples could be seen here and there along the edge of the platform. Three of them were big enough for a few people to sit in; the rest were even smaller, and most had no roofs. Originally there had been sixty-four temples, each dedicated to an individual goddess. Collectively they were one shrine—to the Divine Mother, Sri Vidya, the most benign, beautiful, and exalted tantric goddess.
The run-down condition of this place hit me hard. I considered sitting in front of one of those little temples and meditating, but it was impossible to regain my inner balance. I was preoccupied by an inner monologue: What has happened to this place? Even though the temples have been destroyed, their spiritual energy should still be here. Have I become insensitive, or is this place actually dead? Swamiji made such a big deal of this site. Was that simply to teach me a lesson about expectation and disappointment? Oh well; if this place doesn’t measure up to my expectations, that’s all right: there’s still much to see and learn here. I have hardly scratched the surface of the profound beauty and wisdom that lies in the western temple complex, and I have not yet seen the eastern complex or the temples in the villages nearby. I haven’t even visited the museum. Perhaps I should go there next.
So after a late lunch at the hotel I made my way to the small museum that housed statues, inscriptions in stone, and other items recovered by archeologists. A magnificent statue of the dancing Ganesha caught my attention. Over the years I had seen thousands of Ganeshas in all shapes, sizes, and materials, but none had cast a spell like this. I was riveted. It was as if my heart had been pulled from my rib cage and was beating inside the statue. And along with my heart went the sense of emptiness that had descended when I saw the remains of Sixty-Four Yoginis. It was an overwhelming experience.
It was only after I made inquiries and learned that this statue had been recovered near Sixty-Four Yoginis that I remembered that the scriptures say no one enters this shrine without the permission and blessings of Ganesha. How could I possibly enter the shrine of Sixty-Four Yoginis without his help? I remembered, too, that sadhus call Khajuraho Yogini Pitham (the seat of yoginis) because the whole area is the shrine, not just one complex.
For years I had been longing to come here as a seeker, but when I arrived I had turned into a tourist. I knew what to seek and how to seek it, but I had ignored the injunctions laid out by the tradition. I had forgotten that in places like this the pilgrimage must begin with Ganesha. Now I prayed to Ganesha and silently asked his permission to enter the mysterious world of Khajuraho, convinced that whatever I had seen at the Sun temple and whatever I could not see at Sixty-Four Yoginis were simply welcoming gifts from the playful goddesses who lived there. Now I would make my visit a pilgrimage.
I left the museum and returned to the western complex, and this time I was cautious and more alert. As I entered the gate I told myself, “There is no need to hop from temple to temple. Start here, where you are.” I took the first left-turning path and saw a small temple with two enormous temples looming behind it. The little temple intrigued me. It had no walls—the roof was supported only by pillars, and as I approached I saw that the interior was almost entirely filled by the monolith of a huge animal. A nearby sign read: “Varaha Mandir” [the temple of the boar incarnation of Vishnu].
The most famous incarnations of Vishnu are Rama and Krishna, and it is quite rare to find a temple dedicated to Varaha. However, in esoteric traditions the Varaha incarnation takes precedence over the others because its purpose is nothing less than the deliverance of the entire planet. According to the Puranas, it happened like this:
There was a mighty king, Hiranyaksha, who found great joy in amassing wealth (hiranya = gold). His senses and mind (aksha) were completely focused on it, and in the pursuit of material possessions he conquered the whole world. During his reign much of the Earth sank into the ocean; what remained was fouled with waste. Everyone lived in fear, and the ecosystem was so out of balance that the Earth fell from its axis. The vitality drained from humans, animals, plants, and even the minerals, and as the ecosystem crumbled, all forms of life began to suffocate. The soul of the planet cried out in despair.
Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, responded by assuming the form of a gigantic boar that ground to dust all those who tried to prevent him from rescuing Mother Earth. Then, cradling the planet between his tusks and forehead, he restored it to its axis, and as he did, the benevolent forces of nature reasserted themselves, restoring the planet to health and balance.
Still, the aura of fear and mistrust engendered by the wicked Hiranyaksha lingered. Everyone feared that Varaha, this giant creature, might be yet another tyrant (he was so huge and so radiant that no one could see him clearly). So the celestial beings descended from heaven and joined the sages in their prayers that Varaha withdraw his effulgence and restrain his glory. And as he did so, the awe and fear he inspired gave way to a sense of serenity, security, and trust. There was a grand celebration that culminated in the marriage of Varaha and Mother Earth. And that is why in Indian mythology the god Vishnu, in the form of a boar, and Mother Earth are worshipped as husband and wife.
According to historians, after Sixty-Four Yoginis, Varaha Mandir is the oldest temple at Khajuraho. As I walked around it I realized that its existence clearly demonstrates that Khajuraho is the shrine of Mother Nature. The Sixty-Four Yoginis represent the numberless forces that govern, guide, and nurture everyone and everything in this world. They are the benevolent forces of nature, and the first step toward meditating on the Divine Mother is to understand and heal our relationship with her natural world. In fact, maintaining our connection with nature is essential to any form of spiritual practice. According to the sages, those who see a difference between nature and God are bound to be destructive. The arrogance that makes us feel that we are the owners of this planet gives birth to Hiranyaksha, the self-serving, materialistic demon who lodges in the heart of each of us and causes us to destroy our own home. As we all know, the vitality of our natural resources—air, water, and soil—has declined drastically, and so has the vitality of the creatures who depend on them. This is because the Sixty-Four Yoginis, the creative forces within and without, are under constant attack from the forces of self-serving materialism.
I had gone to the shrine of Sixty-Four Yoginis with the eyes of a tourist and found it lifeless. How silly I had been! Now, thanks to Ganesha, the Divine Mother who had blessed my master with her vision had brought me to Varaha. Standing here, gazing at the ancient temple, I realized that in this era of planetary crisis it is time to turn to Varaha, the divine boar whose body is made of pure knowledge. This is the source of true understanding of ourselves and others. Ultimately, it is this understanding that will unravel the mystery of Sixty-Four Yoginis.
Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD, is the spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute. A teacher, lecturer, Sanskrit scholar, and author, he has practiced yoga and tantra for more than 30 years.