Kandariya Mahadeva Temple
Hindu Architecture and Sculpture at Khajuraho, India.

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Kandariya Mahadeva Hindu Temple,
Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India.

Kandariya Mahadeva Temple (Khajuraho)
(Built 1017-29)


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Along with the Angkor Wat Khmer Temple in Cambodia, and the Taj Mahal in northern India, the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple in Madhya Pradesh, India, ranks among the most magnificent examples of religious art in the whole of Asia, and is comparable to any of the great expressions of Gothic architecture or Renaissance architecture, to be seen in Europe. Part of the medieval Khajuraho Group of Monuments - a UNESCO World Heritage Site comprising some 20 Hindu and Jain shrines located in the district of Chhatarpur, about 385 miles (620 km) southeast of New Delhi - Kandariya Mahadeva is the largest and most ornate of the Hindu temples and is renowned for its Nagara-style architecture (characterized by a central tower), as well as its sculpture, which appears throughout the building. Khajuraho was formerly the religious capital of the Chandela Rajputs, and Kandariya Mahadeva was constructed about 1017-1029 by King Ganda, one of their greatest figures. The temple is dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva, the Supreme God within Shaivism, one of the three most important sects in Hinduism. It is from Shiva that the temple derives its name since "Mahadeva" is another term for "Shiva". Another major site of art from India, located in the Madhya Pradesh region, is the Auditorium Cave - home to the famous Bhimbetka petroglyphs, believed by scholars to be the earliest art ever found.

For more Asian arts, see: the Indus Valley Civilization (3,300-1300 BCE); Chinese Art (1700 BCE on); Korean Art (3000 BCE on) and Japanese Art (14,500 BCE on).


Most of the temples at Khajuraho were constructed between 950 and 1050 CE by the Chandela dynasty, who became the most powerful rulers of northern and central India from the 9th to the 12th century, achieving their zenith around 1030. According to historical records, during the 12th century the site had as many as 85 temples spread out over 20 square kilometers. Today, only about 20 temples are still standing. Of these, the largest surviving Saiva shrine is Khandarya Mahadeva, while the largest Vishnu shrines include those of Chaturbhuja and Ramachandra. Although still in active use in 1200, during the next century the complex was overrun by forces of the Delhi Sultanate, under the command of the Muslim Sultan Qutb-ud-din Aibak. Under Muslim rule, some temples were desecrated, while the remainder were left to rot.
In the 1830s, a British surveyor, T.S. Burt, "rediscovered" the temples and brought them to the attention of the rest of the world.

Art in India
For more about painting in the Indian subcontinent, please see the following:
Classical Indian Painting (Up to 1150 CE)
Post-Classical Indian Painting (14th-16th Century)
Mughal Painting (16th-19th Century)
Rajput Painting (16th-19th Century).


Kandariya Mahadev Temple occupies an area of about 6,500 square feet and rises 117 feet above ground level. Like all the temples, except Chaturbhuja, Kandariya Mahadev faces east, and is built upon a raised platform (known as an adhishsthana) approached by a steep flight of steps. The architectural plan provides for a series of interconnected chambers, approached by visitors in the following sequence. A rectangular entrance hall (ardhamandapa) leads from the steps into a central pillared hall (mandapa). This leads to the darkened sanctuary (garbhagrha) above which is the main tower and spire. Inside the sanctuary is a marble devotional image (linga) representing Shiva. The sanctum and mandapa are encircled by an ambulatory. Throughout the building the architecture and the accompanying decorative art is deliberately symbolic, and follows a standard pattern of Hindu iconography. Thus the ornate carvings on the pillars, walls and ceilings of the interior as well as the exterior of the temple include depictions of kama, artha, dharma and moksa - the four just and necessary pursuits of life.

The exterior structure of Kandariya Mahadev is based on a main tower (shikhara), the temple's highest point, which symbolizes Mount Kailash, Shiva's Himalayan mountain home. This main tower is surrounded by 84 smaller spires (urushringas). The whole building is made of sandstone, with a granite foundation. No mortar was used in the temple's construction: the stones were connected with mortise and tenon joints, held in place by gravity. The columns and architraves are composed of megaliths weighing up to 20 tons.


Kandariya Mahadev is decorated with a huge amount of stone sculpture, depicting matters of everyday life as well as animals and humans. The entrance porch, for instance, is flanked by carvings of crocodiles springing from the diminutive columns and supported by a multitude of smaller figures, each with a profusion of minutely carved details. On the exterior of the towers are repetitive friezes of intricately carved human and divine figures. The quality of the carving is especially high due to the superior quality of the sandstone used. As a result sculptors were able to represent fine details including strands of hair, manicured nails and intricate jewellery.

As it happens, the temple's outside surfaces contain one of the most extensive arrays of erotic relief sculpture in the world, although much of the iconography is symbolic. At any rate the erotic figures are consistent with the Tantric belief in the primal life energy of physical coupling, incorporated into religious buildings for its associations with fertility and joy. Not surprisingly however, the English colonial archeologists who excavated Kandariya Mahadev in 1906 were deeply shocked by what they saw. As a result, guidebooks of central India strongly discouraged visitors to the site for fear of impropriety and moral corruption. See also: Indian Sculpture (3300 BCE - 1850).

In fact, erotic themes account for less than 10 percent of the plastic art at Kandariya Mahadev, and these scenes are neither prominent nor emphasized and the viewer has to look hard to find them.

NOTE: The other temples at Khajuraho include: Lalgun Mahadev (completed 900), Hanuman (922), Brahma (925), Lakshmana Vaikuntha (939), Varaha (950), Parshvanath (954), Vishvanath (999), Ganesha (1000), Matangeshwar (1000), Chitragupta (1023), Rishabha (1027), Vamana (1062), Javeri (1090), Chaturbhuja (1110), and others.

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