The Kandariya Mahadeva Temple

The Kandariya Mahadeva is the largest and most magnificent temple at Khajuraho and is a popular tourist site. It is on a level field in Central India (Alles 1988:4). It forms a parallel row with the Chitragupta and Jagadambi temples and is part of the Western group of temples. Vidyadhara, who was part of the Chandella kingdom,  is credited as being the author of the Kandariya Mahadeva, which is supported by an inscription on a mandapa-pilaster in the temple, which reads, “a gift of courtesans on a certain sacred occasion during the reign of king Virimda” (Deva 1987:15). Virimda is thought to be another name for Vidyadhara. Vidyadhara is thought to be the most powerful Indian ruler of his time. He succeeded his father Ganda as king. Under Vidyadhara’s leadership, the Chandella kingdom reached the pinnacle of their prosperity, evident in the intricate and rich design of the Kandariya Madeva temple. There were two contemporary rival powers in Central India, the Kalachuris and the Paramaras, and Vidyadhara had victories over both of them (Deva 1987:15). Vidyadhara’s prestige was heightened when he, with the help of feudatory Kachhapaghata Arjuna, exterminated Rajyapala, the Pratihara king who had retreated when Mahmud, a powerful foreign invader that invaded Kanauj in A.D. 1018. Because of this, Vidyadhara was both feared and respected by the Paramaras and the Kalachuris. Mahmud considered Rajyapala’s assignation as a serious threat and so he challenged Vidyadhara in war. Vidyadhara put together a large army of cavalry, infantry and elephants (Deva 1987:15). Mahmud was scared by the large army. When the two sides met on the first day of battle there was no victor. Mahmud returned to Ghazni. Vidyadhara and his feudatory Kachchhapaghata Vajradaman defended the fort of Gwalior when Mahmud returned in 1022 to challenge Vidyadhara. Vidyadhara was praised as a hero after holding off Mahmud (Deva 1987:15). Vidyadhara built the Kandariya Mahadeva, continuing the tradition of the Chandellas to build great temples.

The Kandariya Mahadeva is dedicated to the god Siva, as shown through the large marble Siva-linga in the sanctum. There are many depictions of Siva, usually with four arms. It is common to see him with a lotus stalk. The images are all over the interior walls and the exterior. Some images are missing hands, heads or other parts. These images have been broken throughout time from age and weather, but the Kandariya Mahadeva is still one of the most well preserved temples from Indian medieval times.

The art at Kandariya Mahadeva is often used as an example for the erotic designs of the Hindu temples. Erotic sculptures are seen on the facades and interior of the temple. The forms of sexuality are intertwined with religious philosophy (Berleant 97).

Sculptures on the temple are tall and slender. They exhibit the sophistication of Khajuraho at the peak of its prosperity. Depicted are nymphs and people in lively or violently agitated postures (Deva 1987:95). The largest monument of Khajuraho is the marble Siva-linga. This form is 100 feet in height and 66 feet wide. These dimensions exclude the platform. The linga is similar to the Visvanatha temple, however it is more elaborate and magnificent.

On one of the outer niches is an image of dancing Chamunda who has twelve arms and is ugly and vicious. He has bulging eyes, large mouth, and shown with veins and bones, dried-up hanging breasts and a scorpion on his sunken belly (see Deva 1990:156). Chamunda wears a jata-mukuta studded with a grinning skull and a pendant with scorpions (see Deva 1990:156). She stands over a headless corpse and there is a preta, which is a soul of the departed, on either side of her. One of these pretas is munching on a human hand. This is just one example of the grotesque depictions on the Kandariya Mahadeva.

The Kandariya Mahadeva is mostly in darkness, excluding a few days of the year. The days when it is not in darkness are when “the rays of the rising sun strike, as if to waken the image of the deity from its slumbers” (Kelley 281). The intent of this illumination process is not elaborated upon (Kelley 281).

The Kandariya Mahadeva is different from other temples of Khajuraho in its architecture in that each element of the plan is grand with elaborate designs and ornamentation (Deva 1987:95). There are a large number of protruding parts and recesses throughout the entire temple. The basement has elegant ornamented moldings. The interior is similar to other temples, however, it is more spacious and filled with sculptures and carvings.

The Kandariya Mahadeva’s platform is the only one that shows protrusions on the rear and the lateral sides; these protrusions correspond with the protrusions of the transepts (see Deva 1987:95). There is a 10 ft. high terrace on which the temple rests. Only a little of the “original façade of the platform survived in the south-eastern corner on the flank of the imposing flight of steps leading to its terrace” (Deva 1987:95). The foundation is granite covered with a plain course of sandstone. There are two overhangs on the west and south that correspond with the overhangs of the west and south transepts (see Deva 1987:98).

The basement is on a granite foundation, covered with two layers of sandstone. The socle (stone serving as a pedestal) rises on the plinth (a flat stone at the base of a column). The socle is comprised of five mouldings. Underneath these moldings is a “recessed band carved with a processional frieze” (Deva 1987:98). On this frieze are depictions of dancers and devotees, acrobats and musicians, warriors and hunters, horses, elephants and erotic themes. The kapota-hood is the last of the five moldings of the socle and is where the junction of two series of nine niches occurs. The niches are large and are set back to back with the basement. The lower niches are now empty and stop just below the kapota, which is an “overhanging cornice or molding representing it” (Deva 1990:398). The upper niches display images of “the Seven Mothers and Ganesa and Virabhadra” (Deva 1987:98) and they start above the kapota.

A sikhara is the “principal spire or tower over the sanctum” (Deva 1990:403). This tower is where the highest roof rises over the sanctum and reaches its highest point, from which are four diminishing half-spires or urah-sringas on each side, and many minor spirelets or sringas. These minor spirelets are of varying sizes (see Deva 1987:98).  The sikhara’s main stem has twelve compressed stories (bhumis), which are specified by eleven semicircular bhumi-alakas. Each bhumi-alaka has a kapota. There are chaitya-arches covering the sikhara (see Deva 1987:98).

The wall or jangha has three rows of sculptures, all equal in size. The boundaries are marked by two series of moldings. The lower series has a projecting band of kirttimukhas. There is a frieze of rosettes below (see Deva 1987:98). The upper series has a projecting faschia that is decorated with stenciled scrolls, which have a ruffled triangular design below. The first series of moldings repeats above the third row of sculptures (see Deva 1987:98). A broad recess showing diamonds in niches is interceded by a pair of kapotas that make up the varandika mouldings of the eave-cornice that separates the wall (jangha) from the sikhara (Deva 1987:98). Balustrades on the five transepts and facades of the mandapa and porch show four moldings. The balconied windows are above these balustrades and the windows have ribbed eaves supported on pillars with atlantean brackets (Deva 1987:98). There are elephant figures found carved in the round, supported by the corners of the eaves. This is similar to the design of the Visvanatha temple.

The north and south faces a vertical row of four sculptured niches that are shown on the roof the vestibule, which is above the eave-cornice (Deva 1987:98). The top of the sculptured niches has a pyramidal roof. Three rows of framed niches, which are behind the four sculptured niches, rise to the gable of the front antefix, which is an ornamented above the top horizontal molding. This particular antefix has a lion figure. There are two rows of sculptured niches on the front of the roof. These niches have an ascending row of four pediments (Deva 1990:150).

The roof over the transepts starts with a row of sculptured niches. There are pyramidal rooflets on either side of the row of niches. Above the niches are four pediments. The lowest pediment on either side is beside a balconied window, while the upper pediments “are adorned at the terminal ends by model pyramidal rooflets” (Deva 1987:99).

The roof of the maha- mandapa has a dome in the place of a point on a pyramidal shape, which is made of “pyramidal rooflets converging to the crown of the roof” (Deva 1987:99). There are four rooflets that form the base horizontal row. Two of these rooflets are on either side of the central pediments. Over the rooflets is a pyramid made of four other horizontal rows of rooflets (Deva 1987:99). The rooflets are arranged symmetrically in vertical and horizontal rows, marking diagonal progressions, which converge to the crown of the maha-mandapa roof (Deva 1987:99). The roof of the mandapa is similar to the roof the maha-mandapa. The main difference between the two roofs is that the roof of the mandapa is smaller.

The porch is a smaller arrangement similar to that of the mandapa roof. A row of sculptured niches is on a pediment. On each side of the row is a pyramidal rooflet. A bell-rooflet occurs at the roof between the pediment and crowning member of the roof (Deva 1987:99). The bell-rooflet occurs on all four sides at the same level, each with a pyramidal rooflet.

The terrace of the jagati (platform) is entered through a flight of steps, the last two steps being represented as moon-stones. The temple is entered through a makara-torana (an ornamental entrance) of four loops. The upper edges of the loops are decorated and the junctions of the loops carry long pendants that resemble pinecones (Deva 1990:151). Two figures of Siva-Parvati are on the sides of the makaras niches. The inner face is Lakshmi-Narayana on the right and on the left is Brahma-Brahmani (Deva 1990:151).

The mandapa has eight pillars and four pilasters. The pillars and pilasters are similar to the ones in the porch (Deva 1987:96). There is an abacus with a divine couple above the atlantean brackets on a pair of pillars. The cornice of the mandapa makes a square shape, as the cornice reduces the length. Scrolls and kirttimukhas cut off the corners, changing the square into a circle shape. The ceiling has a circular design also, with eight cusped flowers. The ceiling has large void in its centre, which represents the seed-pod of a floral pattern (Deva 1990:152).

The maha-mandapa’s hall is a slight variation of a rectangular plan as it has a rectangle shape along with protruding niches in each corner. The ceiling is supported on the walls and atlantean brackets of the pilasters (Deva 1987:102). There is a beam that the brackets and walls hold, which is 18” high and has the common icon of stenciled scrolls, along with a band of kirttimukhas. A cornice surmounts the beam and has floral and geometrical designs and a lotus petal band. Above this cornice are “three corbelled courses of ribbed rafters simulating timber construction” (Deva 1987:102), similar to that of the Lakshama and Visvanatha temples.

There are two pairs of pilasters from the entrance from the hall to the transepts. The pilasters are of the bhadraka variety (Deva 1990:155). In the space between the two pilasters are two nymph figures on lotus leaves. The balconied openings are on two pillars and pilasters with the upper half resting above the asanapatta and the lower half is below the asanapatta (Deva 1990:155).

The pillars of the vestibule have octagonal shafts; they have sixteen sides with circular sections that rest on a heavy octagonal base (Deva 1987:102). The pilasters of the vestibule are beside the sanctum doorway. They resemble the transepts of the maha-mandapa. However, they support an attic section. Their base rests on the back of elephant figures (Deva 1987:102). The eastern side of the shaft has a picture of a Siva door-keeper and the outer side has a female chauri-bearer (Deva 1987:102).

Steps leading to the doorway of the sanctum are four stepped moonstones with conch-shells. The depiction on the lintel of the doorway is of Siva riding a bull. Brahma is on his right and Vishnu on his left and attendant divinities are in niches and recesses. The doorway itself is made of nine sakhas. The first and seventh are carved with stenciled scrolls, while the second and sixth have dancing asparases. The third and fifth have vyalas and the fourth has mithunas and has a circular capital. The eighth and ninth are decorated with lotus petals and scrolls in bold relief (see Deva 1987:102-103).

The ceiling of the entrance to the sanctum is plain, but the ceiling of the cella is decorated with lotus flowers and scrolls. The inner walls of the sanctum are plain. A sandstone pithika supports a marble Siva-linga and is enshrined in the middle of the sanctum (Deva 1990:155).

The sanctum rests on a high adhishthana, a basement of a temple that supports a wall, pillar or pilaster and consists of distinct molded tiers (Deva 1990:395) and the sanctum has adhishthana moldings of pitha (pedestal) and vedibandha (Deva 1990:155). The pitha moldings have elephants, horses and men, erotic scenes and kapotapali. Kapotapali marks the plinth level (Deva 1990:155).

The architecture of the Kandariya Mahadeva is complicated and covered in various images and sculptures. While most of the images on the interior are of Siva or refer to Siva, on the exterior can be found many erotic depictions, for which the Kandariya Mahadeva is well known.


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Chandella kingdom



Visvanatha temple




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Article written by: Cara Horwood (March 2010) who solely responsible for its contents.