The Khajuraho Dance Festival in February (Image Credit: Madhya Pradesh Tourism)

The Cultured Traveler – A column exploring the many miles of what South Asia has to offer.

When travel restarted post-Covid, an invitation from MP Tourism to attend the Khajuraho Dance Festival was like a breath of fresh air. The journey took me from New Delhi to Orchha and then to Khajuraho.

 Orchha is a small town, but every place speaks volumes in terms of architecture, which has a combination of Bundelkhandi and Mughal influences. Every monument speaks to the glory of its past – be it the fort, the various Mahals, temples, or the remarkable chhatris or cenotaphs constructed in memory of the Maharajas of Orchha. Every stone tells a story.

While traveling from Orchha to Khajuraho, near Nowgong (Mau Saniya Village), you cross Dhubela, once the kingdom of Maharaja Chhatrasal, who fought against the cruel Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and established his own kingdom in Bundelkhand. In Dhubela, what attracts most visitors is the palace of Chhatrasal’s adopted daughter, Mastani Bai – the second wife of the great Bajirao Peshwa of the Maratha empire. Although in a depleted condition, the palace reminds me of Mastani, and yes, the Hindi film Bajirao Mastani, in which Deepika Padukone played the role of Mastani.

Preserving Tradition

Reaching the world-famous UNESCO World Heritage Site of Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, was like a dream come true. I think there is no one who doesn’t want to explore this place, known for its centuries-old temples and always talked about for its exquisite architecture and erotic sculptures. During the Khajuraho dance festival from February 20-26 this year, these temples sparkled with colorful lights, tunes of Indian classical songs, soothing music, vivid rhythms, and beautiful expressions of the performances. The festival brought to life various forms of classical dance. Every day was like a celebration; every moment was glorious. That is the reason a large number of people from India and abroad attend it every year.

Enthralling performances. (Image Credit: Madhya Pradesh Tourism)

The Khajuraho dance festival was started in 1975 and today, in its 48th year, is still making an impact on art lovers. The dance festival was organized with the joint effort of Ustad Alauddin Khan Sangeet and Kala Academy, Madhya Pradesh Sanskriti Parishad of the Culture Department, Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board, Archaeological Survey of India, and District Administration Chhatarpur. The idea behind organizing the festival is to preserve the cultural heritage of Khajuraho temples and make new generations aware of Indian arts.

The dance festival opened with a delightful performance of Kathak from the disciples of the late Pandit Birju Maharaj. Next was the captivating presentation of Bharatnatyam by Shanta-VP Dhananjayan and her group. The charm of the second day was performances by Sujatha Mohapatra (Odissi), Nirupama Rajendra (Bharatnatyam), Samagama (Kathak), and Jairama Raon (Kuchipudi). The third day showcased Mohiniyattam, presented by Neena Prasad, Bharatnatyam by Parshwanath Upadhyay, and Kathak by Tina Tambe. Highlights of the fourth day included Sonia Parchure (Kathak), Bharatnatyam, and Kathakali, presented by Kalamandalam Sunil and Paris Lakshmi, and Kathak and Udarta Netuma by Ragini Nagar and Danuka Ariyawansa. Bharatnatyam by Sandhya Purecha and Kuchupudi by Shraveri Jamenis and their teams stole the show on the fifth day, while the sixth day brought a special treat, with Devika, a pioneering transgender Kathak dancer, drawing repeated audience acclaim. The last day was an unforgettable experience with high-energy performances from Shama Bhate and her team, Tapasya’s Manipuri dance, Shweta Davendra, and Kshama Malviya, and their groups.

Intricate Sculptures

When in Khajuraho, one must visit the magnificent temples, adorned with well-defined sculptures, built between 950 and 1050 AD by the Chandela Dynasty. They represent the Nagara-Style architecture,  with meditation, spiritual teachings, relationships, erotism, and love-making positions all featured on the sandstone walls of the temples. Of the original group of 85 temples, only 22 remain and represent two religions: Hinduism and Jainism.

Khajuraho Temples

Khajuraho’s temples are grouped into three areas: eastern, western, and southern. Some of the prominent temples in the complex are Lakshmana, Kandariya Mahadeva, Chaunsath Yogini, Devi Jagadamba, Chitragupta, and Parsvanatha. The Kandariya Mahadeva temple, dedicated to Shiva, is the largest and has 872 statues. The Chaunsath Yogini temple once had 64 cells dedicated to yoginis, or female attendants. The trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva stood in the Lakshmana temple on a high platform, which has a tiered format with intricately carved columns.

Moksha: A State of Enlightenment.

 Core Hindu values are expressed in a multitude of ways in these temples. Even the erotic scenes depict moksha- meaning that through ‘kama’, one can attain salvation. According to art historian Stella Kramrisch, this state, which is “like a man and woman in close embrace,” is a symbol of moksha, “the final release or reunion of two principles, the essence (Purusha) and nature (Prakriti).”

A general view of the erotic sculptures is that they protect the temples from lightning, and so many of the erotic panels are placed at junctures where some protection might be structurally necessary. Some believe that the kama positions are only portrayed on the outer walls and that the interior of the temples is centered on deities only. Whatever the truth, Khajuraho temples are not a mystery but a sensual, worldly heritage that attracts people.


Suman Bajpai is a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 14 books on different subjects and translated around 160 books from English to Hindi. 


 

Suman Bajpai

Suman Bajpai is a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 14 books on different subjects and translated around 160 books from...