Erotic sculpture adorns many temples in the subcontinent. None, however, depict sexual ecstasy in so many forms and with such consummate skill as the sandstone shrines of Khajuraho.
Around twenty ornately carved structures comprise this world-famous archeological site in Madhya Pradesh, 400km/250 miles southeast of Delhi. Great mystery surrounds the buildings. They are known to have been erected between 950 and 1180AD by the Chandella dynasty, but quite why their architects chose to ornament them with such explicit imagery remains a subject of much debate. Although a connection with the Tantric cults that predominated in early medieval India seems likely, underlying the iconography is a sensuousness and delight that transcends time and culture.
Writhing across the flanks and bases of the shrines are orgiastic panels showing bejewelled mithuna couples locked in amorous embraces, often attended by masturbating cohorts, mythic creatures and troupes of musicians. Oral sex, three-somes and fore-somes abound, as do acts of eyebrow-raising bestiality. Generously proportioned nymphs show off their ample curves in languid hip-shot poses, draped in sexy silver chains, belts and flowing necklaces. Celestial maidens, or apsaras, rim their eyes with kohl, wash their long hair, apply henna to the soles of their feet, and unknot their robes provocatively.
Whether the figures were intended to render visible the divine, life-giving energies of the union between male and female, depict the cosmic marriage of Shiva and Shakti, or merely titillate, their underlying appeal is certainly timeless.