Kandariya Mahadev temple at Khajuraho is the epitome of the North Indian Temple architecture style. It is a 10-11th CE gem left to us by the then-ruling Chandela dynasty. Chandela kingdom was called Jejahuti with its capital at Khajuraho or Kharjuravahaka.
10-11th CE India has seen some of the best examples of Indian Temple Architecture across geographies and styles. This includes Brihdeeshwara Temple in Thanjavur, Hoysala Temples in Karnataka, Sun Temple at Modhera, and Lingaraja Temple at Bhubaneshwar.
History of Kandariya Mahadev Temple
As per an inscription found on the mandapa of the temple, it was built during the reign of King Vidyadhara who reigned during the early part of 11th CE. He is best known for fighting the first invasion by Ghazni. Ghazni returned after a few years and fought another inconclusive battle. As per some sources, this temple was built to celebrate the defeat of Ghazni.
Temple was built between 1025-50 CE.
It is also possible that it was indeed conceptualized by Vishwanatha – the predecessor of Vidyadhara. It was dedicated to Shiva, the family deity of the Chandelas. Anyway, the temple belongs to a period that can easily be called the golden era of Indian Temple Architecture.
Since 1986, Khajuraho temples are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Kandariya comes from the word Kandara which refers to the caves on the mountain tops. So, Kandariya Mahadev can simply mean the cave of Mahadev or the lord of the caves.
It is said that along with Matangeswar and Vishwanath temples, Kandariya Mahadev temple completes a trinity of 3 primary Shiva temples of Khajuraho. The three Devi temples belonging to Chausath Yogini, Chhatri Devi, and Jagadambi form the other intersecting triangle. Together these 6 temples form a Yantra or a sacred diagram as defined in this paper.
Visiting Kandariya Mahadev Temple
I remember standing in front of the temple early morning one winter. Sun rays were playing with the contours of the temple. You could almost hear their morning conversation.
The temple shimmered with the first rays of the sun falling on it. It did not look like it is carved in stone. It appeared to be made in sandalwood, with fine shades of pale pink appearing and disappearing with sun rays.
I sensed a rhythm in the constitution of the temple. If it were the perfect proportions of the Jagati, Mandapa, and Shikhara, or did the builders use the perfect formula to re-create the Kailash Parvat of Mahadev? I do not know. I only remember that I had tears in my eyes as some resonance took place between me and the temple.
It changed my relationship with temples forever. I have mentioned it in my book Lotus In The Stone – Sacred Journeys in Eternal India.
The prior evening, I had seen this temple come alive during the light and sound show. I could see its external beauty then but, in the morning, it was the rhythm in its form that struck a chord deep inside.
This temple like most other temples of Khajuraho is made of Sandstone. Stone came in various shades of pink and yellow from the nearby quarry at Panna on the banks of Ken River.
It is a part of the western group of temples at Khajuraho, and it stands freely on a tall platform. There is no prakara or wall of any kind. It allows you to have a good 360 deg view of the temple as you walk around. It shares the Jagati or the platform with two other temples – a smaller one dedicated to Shiva and the other bigger one dedicated to Devi Jagadambi.
Biggest Temple at Khajuraho
It appears a rather compact temple, even though it is the biggest temple on campus. Built on an East-West axis, it measures 30.5 meters in length and 20 meters in width. It is 31 meters in height and stands on a Jagati that is 4 meters high. It has all the elements of a typical Hindu temple.
You enter through the Ardha Mandapa or the entrance that leads you to Mandapa or the hall. An Antrala or a vestibule connects the mandapa to the garbh-griha or the sanctum. A Parikrama path or an ambulatory path goes around the sanctum.
Rhythm of Shikhara
Shikhara of this temple is what gives it the rhythm. It is composed of 84 independent Shikhara, each replicating the other, but increasing in size as you move up. It creates a pile that leads to the top. In a way, it recreates the Kailasha Parvat – the favorite abode of Shiva. Is it the way to make Shiva feel that he is at home – maybe?
Mandapa is actually called Mahamandapa since it has corridors with windows looking out. Windows sits on the projections coming out in three directions, the two sides and the back of the temple. Inside you have platforms where you can sit. One wonders if these were used for meditation or rituals.
Moldings on the outer walls are full of ornate sculptures. These include processions of elephants, horses, musicians, dancers, everyday life, and erotica.
Bigger and more explicit sculptures can be seen on the three bands running at the window level. It has sculptures of Devi Devatas but being a Shiva temple, he dominates along with his consorts and even Saptamatrikas. Other sculptures include Sur Sundaris or auspicious women, erotica mainly at the junction of Garbhgriha and mandapa, and figures of Nagas and Vyalas.
Sculptures of women on the outer walls of this temple are the most evolved, with perfect body proportions. The curves are highlighted through Tribhangi Mudras or the body posture that bends at three places. The jewelry and the fine clothing of these figurines will leave you mesmerized.
Inside the temple
At the entrance an exquisite Makar Toran or an arch with the crocodile ending welcomes you. Toran is carved in a single stone. Kandariya Mahadev is the only temple in Khajuraho with two Makar Torans.
The ceilings of the mandapa are made of concentric circles carved in stone, all of them profusely carved. To me, they are some of the most wonderful engineering marvels that show us the best blend of precision and aesthetics.
The pillars here have floral scrolls carved on them.
There are as many as 646 sculptures on the outer walls and 226 on the interior walls of the temple, as per George Michell.
Can we make it a practicing temple?
Kandariya Mahadev temple is dedicated to Shiva as the name itself indicates. It is not a practicing temple at the moment. I sincerely hope that Pran Pratishthha can be performed and this temple can be made a living temple once again.
Books can be written about its beauty, and photographs, and videos can leave us in awe. However, what matters is that the divine energy of the temple is revived so that every visitor can benefit from it.
As Sthapati Ponni Selvanathan explains to us, the renovation or Jeernodhar of abandoned temples is duly mentioned in our shastras.
This is temple is important not just from an architectural perspective but also important in terms of preserving the sacred geography of Khajuraho. It is the ultimate gem from the golden era of Indian Temple Architecture. The least we can do is to keep it alive.
You can visit the Temple from sunrise to sunset on all days.
Khajuraho has an airport, some railway connectivity, and good road connectivity from Jhansi.
The temple is a part of the western group of temples in Khajuraho. Once you reach Khajuraho, all roads would lead you to this place.
There are hotels of every range available in Khajuraho. We stayed at the MP tourism property which is located very close to the temples. It is easy to walk to the temples early morning from here.
Being a popular destination with international travelers, global cuisine is easily available in the streets of Khajuraho.
You can spend 1-2 days seeing all the temples. I would suggest keeping at least an hour for the temple visit.
Being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, tour guides and audio guides are easily available. My suggestion is to pick up the ASI guide and walk around at your own pace.
Photography is allowed in most places.
We highly recommend the Light and sound show in the evening.
You can visit Panna National Park, Orchha, and Jhansi along with Khajuraho.