Legend has it that Khajuraho was founded by Chardravarman, the son of the moon god Chandra, who descended on a beautiful maiden as she bathed in a stream. The Chandela dynasty built the temples, many of which originally rose from a lake, and survived for five centuries before falling to the Mughal onslaught. Most of the 85 temples – of which some 25 remain – were built during a century-long burst of creative genius from AD 950 to 1050. Almost as intriguing as the temples’ size and beauty is the question of why they were built here. There’s nothing of great interest or beauty to recommend Khajuraho as a building site and no great population centre nearby.
How did the Chandelas manage to turn their exhilarating dreams into stone? Building so many temples of such monumental size in just 100 years would have required a huge amount of labour. Whatever the answers, Khajuraho’s isolation helped preserve it from the desecration Muslim invaders inflicted on ‘idolatrous’ temples elsewhere.
Under threat from Afghan invaders from the north, the Chandelas forsook Khajuraho for their forts. People no longer prayed at the temples, which fell into ruin and the jungle took over. The wider world remained ignorant until British officer, TS Burt, was guided to the ruins by his palanquin (enclosed seats carried on four men’s shoulders) bearers in 1838. There this stalwart Victorian soldier was surprised at the architectural treasure house but shocked by what he saw, first describing the erotica as ‘a little warmer than there was any absolute necessity for’.