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13 / The Body

Vamana Temple (exterior)
Vamana Temple (exterior)
Artist / Origin Unknown artist, India
Date 11th century
Material Sandstone
Medium: Sculpture
Location Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India
Credit Photo courtesy of Tamara Sears

expert perspective

Vidya DehejiaProfessor of Indian and South Asian Art, Columbia University

Additional Resources

Craven. Roy C. Indian Art, rev. sub ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 1997.

Daniélou, Alain. The Hindu Temple: Deification of Eroticism. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2001.

Dehejia, Vidya. The Body Adorned: Dissolving Boundaries between Sacred and Profane in India’s Art. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Dehejia, Vidya. Indian Art. London: Phaidon Press, 1997.

Desai, Devangana. Khajuraho. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Guy, John. Indian Temple Sculpture. London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 2007.

Vamana Temple (exterior)

» Unknown artist, India

Between 950 and 1050, as many as eighty-five ornate, sculpture-laden temples were built by the Chandela kings in Khajuraho, a small village in central India.

This peak in temple-building occurred at the same time that major developments were taking place, not just in the art and architecture of the region, but also in religious and philosophical thought. Today, only a fraction of the temples remain standing. The Vamana Temple is one of these.

Devoted to the Vamana, the dwarf incarnation of the god Vishnu, the temple is a metaphor for the sacred mountain. A central peak and surrounding towers draw the eye upward, while horizontal sculptural friezes anchor the structure within the earthly realm. Like the exterior carvings on other Khajuraho temples, the sculpted forms decorating the Vamana Temple represent an array of figures—men and women, half-human creatures and anthropomorphic deities.

Although at first glance many of the Khajuraho temple sculptures would appear to be naked, there is no nude body in Indian art. Adornment, associated with auspiciousness, is a requirement not only for living individuals, who virtually never went unadorned, but also for figures represented in art. The bodies lining the exterior of the Vamana Temple, for instance, are represented bedecked in jewelry and draped in translucent veils.

The emphasis on exposed, yet adorned, bodies adds an erotic element to the sculptures decorating the Vamana Temple. This eroticism is taken further at other temples in Khajuraho, where amorous couples engage blatantly in sexual acts. Although the melding of erotic sculpture and religious structure might seem contradictory, it makes sense in the context of traditional Indian culture, which did not recognize a solid dividing line between the sacred and the secular. Associated with fertility, abundance, prosperity, and good fortune, voluptuous female bodies and loving couples were perfectly acceptable subject matter for temples.

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