A visit to the Hindu temple complex at Khajuraho, miraculous survivor of India’s Muslim invasion, provides rather more than an opportunity to admire a vast assembly of remarkable friezes. It also prompts thoughts of Islam’s compulsion to dominate and destroy
The most visited site in India is the Taj Mahal at Agra, a short flight south of Delhi and sprawling regional centre that once hosted a large colonial British cantonment. A legacy of the Mohammedan invasion from the north, it was built by Shahabuddin Muhammad Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal Emperor of India. This mausoleum of Mumtaz Mahal, his favourite consort, is decorated with floral inlay and Koranic script, as is typical of a mosque. It is a magnificent tribute to the Jahan’s wife, who died giviong birth to their 14th child.
The second most-visited site in India is the Hindu temple complex at Khajuraho, twice the distance south of Delhi. The temples, the 24 that remain, are very similar to each other and have parallel bands of extravagantly carved stone friezes which combine the sublime and the sensual.
The Khajuraho temples were all erected in the 100 year period between 950AD and 1050AD, and it was mostly their isolation that saved them from the destruction wreaked by the invaders of northern India, the first being Mahmoud of Ghazni. He took back vast wealth from the destruction of Hindu and Buddhist temples and, fortuitously, was repelled twice on the outskirts of Khajuraho, in 1019AD and 1022AD.
At Khajuraho the temple friezes display the life of a vibrant people who were not coy about human sexuality. To the extent that some carvings show the sensuous relationships between males and females, including explicit depictions of sexual congress, then the tourist may decry the carvings, as did MK Ghandi, as “indecent and embarrassing”. The female figures are clad in clinging sarees; in their composure they are very much the equal of the male figures. The females wear no veils or headscarves. They are voluptuously portrayed in a frank admiration of womanhood, an artistic presentation that is common also to Buddhism — women with small waists, rounded hips and prominent, hemispherical breasts. Jewish/Christian text is also not without some romantic and sensuous word pictures, as in the Old Testament’s Song of Solomon.
Mohammedanism differs in its regard for females, as one would expect of an ideology committed to polygamy and expectations of a paradise where females serve the sexual fantasies of males. Females are often cast as sexual slaves to men, much as, in a similar and subservient way, males see themselves as slaves to Allah; hence the common male name ‘Abdullah’, slave of Allah. The ideology also endorses the record of Mohammad consummating marriage with a nine-year-old.
From The Review of Religions (April 2013), a periodical supporting the Indian subcontinent Muslim revivalist Imam Mahdi,
If hypothetically, we were even to accept this, that she was in fact 9 years old; even then no intelligent person would object – research doctors have come to agree upon (sic) that girls can attain maturity even at the age of 9: in fact they can even have children at the age of seven.
A distinct characteristic of Khajuraho architecture is the lofty platform on which the temples stand, not surrounded by the usual enclosure walls. At eye level, around the base of each temple platform, the sculpture frieze shows the more base nature of humankind with war, orgies, even one confronting image of bestiality.
Climbing steps and then standing on the platform over the base one sees the friezes displaying what the builders regarded as normal, socially acceptable behaviour. Hindu deities are monogamous, an ideal of marriage that permeates Hindu society. Conjugal intimate affection is portrayed in one typical upper-stone sculpture in which a Hindu deity is shown with his left arm around his consort, the extended left hand fingers gently touching the side of her left breast. Other of the lower friezes display various and mundane human activities, but some show explicit lovemaking, even to the most flexible Kama Sutra degree (albeit in a cold-as-stone artistic medium).
All this at Khajuraho could have been demolished by the marauding armies of the Qutb-ud-din Aibak. From the rubbleof his demolitions at Delhi he built a mosque and victory column now called the Qutb minar. His armies bypassed Khajuraho but descended on the nearby holy city of Varanasi and demolished 1000 temples, including what is said to have been the greatest Hindu temple, and built a mosque on the site. Some 1400 camels are said to have been required to carry away the loot. Aibak’s armies also demolished the nearby Buddhist monastery complex and the centre of Buddhist art and learning at Sarnath, on the outskirts of Varanasi. The destruction of Sarnath stalled the growth of Buddhism, which had the means to remove the burdensome caste system that continues to burden India’s cohesion and potential.
To preserve Buddhist history and artefacts at Sarnath, the colonial British archaeologist and the consulting architect to the colonial government of India built the large Archaeological Museum in 1910. Within the museum a curator’s wall panel explains:
In its original form Buddhism was a socio-religious reform movement against prevailing rituals and religious practices. It was simple a code of conduct for leading a simple life free from miseries.
With Buddhism seeing itself thus, as more of a contemplative and reforming social movement than a religion, then the destruction of Buddhist and Hindu temples by invading Muslims attests once again that Islam is more of a militarised political movement than a religion.
The temples at Khajuraho were gradually abandoned by the 16th century. They were lost to the outside world until discovered by the British official, Captain T.S. Burt in 1838, and preservation work commenced. The British ethos, with its Christian underpinnings, respected the historic objects of other cultures, be they Greek, Roman, Hindu or Buddhist. That same respect has not been shown by Mohammedanism which has shown itself intolerant of other religions and religious objects. The intolerance has continued with the destruction in recent times of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, and the ancient temples at Palmyra. In India it was the practice of Mohammedan invaders to destroy every significant Hindu temple complex and replace them with mosques.
From 1206, with the establishment by Qutb-ud-din Aibak of the Delhi Sultanate, the entire Ganges valley, apart from Khajuraho, came under Muslim domination and remained so for over 500 years. The iconoclastic destruction of Varanasi did not stop after the ideological fervour of Muhammad Shah Jahan’s son, Muhammad Aurangzeb, in the mid-17th century. However, it did survive his futile attempts to have it renamed Muahammadabad.
Aurangzeb was a fearsome zealot who constructed another mosque on the Varanasi Hindu temple site. Hindu shrines surround the mosque area and there is an adjacent, relatively new Hindu temple with a gilded spire inserted into this contested space. There is a heavy security presence in the close surrounds to prevent violence in an area contested by the two communities.
It is a continuing reminder that Hindu-Muslim tension is not entirely a thing of the past in India. However, unconquered Khajuraho is entirely peaceful in its green and grassy rural setting.
Brian Doak first visited India when its population was less than half what it is today. Experiencing temperatures of 48°C confirmed him in his career as an air-conditioning engineer