The Sacred and the Sensual: Experiencing the Medieval Eroticain Temples of Khajuraho, India

Various statues carved on the temple walls depicting the Indian Gods in various moods. / Photo by Ankit Saha, Wikimedia Commons

While most temples in India are considered to be sacred sites for pilgrimage and worship, a group of twenty-two temples at Khajuraho are known for the thousands of erotic carvings that saturate its exterior walls.

By Swetha Vijayakumar / 11.12.2017
PhD Student in Architecture
University of California, Berkeley


While most temples in India are considered to be sacred sites for pilgrimage and worship, a group of twenty-two temples at Khajuraho, a small town in central India, have gained much international prominence for the thousands of erotic carvings that saturate its exterior walls. Khajuraho thrives on the dichotomy of being damned as pornography and the transgression of Indian culture on one hand, and on the other being endorsed to international tourists and Indian urban elites as an epitome of Indian liberalness – as the quintessential Kamasutra Temple. Deifying eroticism and promoting tourism using sensual imagery by an otherwise puritanical government in a fairly conservative Indian society is complex, paradoxical, and riddled with contradictions. This paper discusses the process of eroticization occurring at Khajuraho – a process that is a unique amalgamation of religion, culture, and tourism. Drawing from Indian government’s advertisement strategies, marketing of erotic souvenirs, tourist surveys, and statistical data obtained from the ministry of Indian tourism, I identify three distinct ways in which eroticization occurs at Khajuraho: first, through a uniquely romanticized marketing by Indian tour operators who offer enticing honeymoon and holiday packages; second, through the abundance of erotic souvenirs sold on the streets as a symbol of Khajuraho; and third, through the creation of an “experience economy” supported by local prostitution. Visiting a remote and highly eroticized site like Khajuraho, despite it being a Hindu temple, results in a distinctive touristic behavior that is uncharacteristic for any Indian tourism site. At Khajuraho, I contend that all tourists irrespective of their nationalities are foreign.


“Beauty is no quality in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others”. – David Hume, Of the Standard of Taste, 1757

Figure 1: Rajan Atrawalkar/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

What is considered beautiful or ugly, and whether the nature of beauty is subjective or objective has been one of the most pursued and most controversial topics in aesthetic philosophy. Historically, architecture and sculptures of Hindu temples in India have conveyed sacred narratives. They often narrate stories from the lives of Hindu deities and pious kings, and feature modestly clothed human figures and depictions of battle animals like elephants and horses. These sculptures are considered beautiful by all visitors and devotees. But a group of twenty-two temples at Khajuraho, a small town in central India, is an anomaly – the temple’s exterior walls are saturated with explicitly sexual imagery. The mystifying carvings, often referred to as the mithuna sculptures, depict men and women in various explicitly sexual acts. Although one of the temples in the group still functions as a pilgrimage site for locals, in the last four decades the entire group of temples has gained much international recognition primarily for its erotic sculptures. As a celebrated UNESCO world heritage site, it receives over 350,000 visitors annually[1]. Unsurprisingly, not all tourists perceive this erotic art as an object of beauty.

The rationale for Khajuraho’s erotic art has remained a mystery till date. In the last two decades, several scholars have tried to understand why and who sponsored these temples and present a historical interpretation for the abundance of oddly titillating sculptures at Khajuraho. While the unclothed, sensual feminine figure has always been one of the most canonical motifs of medieval Hindu temple art[2], at Khajuraho female nudity is interspersed with graphic portrayals of sex and communion. Historian William Darlymple opines that such portrayals were unreservedly embraced in medieval India as a path to divinity[3]. Female nudity, at that time, was not seen as a sinful temptation, but rather as a symbol of female fertility and spirituality. But with the arrival of British colonizers, Darlymple argues, came the decline of the era of unabashed sexuality. For 17th century British, the plethora of sexual imagery on temples was perplexing, immoral, and obscene. Partha Mitter in his book chronicling the reactions of 17th century European travelers towards Indian art, quotes a European traveler complaining that Indian art is “much immodest, filled with heathen-style fornication and other abominations.”The travelogue continues to say that:

“the figures of Gods and Goddesses at Khajuraho are so full of lascivious figures of monsters that one cannot enter them without horror, and they are shown in such obscene postures that it would puzzle the Covent Garden nymphs to imitate them.”(Mitter 1992).

But today, the same sculptures are caught in a constant negotiation between conservative Indians who see nudity and sexuality in temple art as shameful and as an embarrassment of traditional Hindu values, and liberal Indians who embrace it as a celebration of human body.

While the prudishness of contemporary conservatives seem to follow Victorian ideas of sexual immorality, acceptance of eroticism by liberals seem to acknowledge medieval Hindu traditions and heritage that viewed the aesthetics of sex and nudity as archetypical of Indian art. Most recent writings on Khajuraho, most noticeably that of art historian Devangana Desai (1975, 1996, 2000) who is perhaps the most prolific academic of Khajuraho temples in the 21st century, argue that the erotic sculptures in this context should be envisaged as a part of the overall architectural and sculptural scheme of the temples, and not be sensationalized as individual erotic friezes. As historian Guha-Tukarta writes “…how and when a particular genre of images acquires or sheds connotations of immorality depend largely on what is being defined and programmed as artistic and Indian.”While conscious of this debate, this paper does not seek to propose or propagate what attitude the Indian public must have towards sexual imagery in a temple’s premises. The focus of this paper is to understand how these opposing views collide in the space of tourism. While some tourists are revolted at the horrors of the sculptures, others are pleased to witness the Kamasutra temple in all its glory.

As a case study of how eroticization of a site affects tourism, this paper on Khajuraho begins by exploring the history and architecture of Khajuraho, and discusses some of the myths surrounding the presence of erotic sculptures in a religious environment. Here, 18th and 19th century travelogues chronicling the outrage of early British officials to sexual imagery provide a contrast to the current western fascination with this Indian Kamasutra temple. Further, Khajuraho’s dichotomous existence of being a sexual extravaganza in a largely prudish Indian society is explored through government’s marketing strategies, dance festivals, and tourism brochures. The paper discusses the booming tourism in Khajuraho by tracing the evolution of an isolated town into a bustling tourist destination supported by a chain of suggestively themed hotels, local residents acting as tour-guides and makers of erotic souvenirs, and a clandestine network of sex workers and organizers. While the tour guides often arrange for female company for those who seek them in the comfort of their hotels, I also briefly discuss the presence of a once-nomadic tribal community called the Bedias, who live around the highway connecting Khajuraho to other major tourist centers in Madhya Pradesh[4]. The tribe practices prostitution as a community tradition where the eldest daughter of every family is inducted into the trade.

In this paper, I primarily draw from two methods of research. First, field observation–my initial notes on tourist behavior come from my visit to Khajuraho in the summer of 2009, where I spent two days in and around the temple premises as a tourist. Further, I study behaviors of tourist through discreetly captured photographs of tourists exploring the site, marketing brochures offered by private tour operators and those published by the Indian ministry, and from reviews from male and female tourists (especially single female tourists) on travel review sites like TripAdvisor. These help in understanding the differing perceptions and reactions to nudity and explicit sexual imagery, the effect of erotic friezes on the male gaze, and the obvious sexualization of female tourists in a background of unclothed and semi-clothed sculptures.

Second, I study literature surveys, statistical reports, and content analysis to analyze how gaze, gender, and sexuality are perceived and acknowledged in the socio-cultural realm of tourism. For a historical interpretation of Khajuraho’s unique sculptures, I draw from works of scholars like.

Shobita Punja (2010, 1992), Michael Rabe (1996), James Allen (1999), BK Bastia (2006)Niloufer Ichaporia’s research on tourism in Khajuraho in the 1980’s provides a backdrop to compare and contrast the current tourist frenzy to the sculptures. To contextualize the scale of tourism at Khajuraho, and to track its development from a small town housing a few hundred residents to a bustling tourist site boasting an airportof its own, I draw primarily from annual surveys conducted by Indian government’s ministry of Tourism, and AK Menon’s statistical report of how tourism in Khajuraho[5]. Using the theoretical frameworks of gaze and voyeurism, I focus on the complex gender issues that come to play while sightseeing the erotic sculptures, the differences in perceptions between men and women, and between foreign and Indian tourists towards exhibitionism.

History and Myths

Figure 2: Map of Khajuraho showing Eastern an Western group of Temples

Khajuraho is small isolated town located in the state of Madhya Pradesh, in central India. The rulers of a Hindu dynasty called Chandelas who ruled over central India built eighty temples at Khajuraho over a period of 200 years from 950 CE to 1150 CE. But by 14th century, with the invasion of Mughal armies into Central India, these temples were gradually abandoned and fell into ruins. Perhaps the dense shrubs surrounding the temples and hiding them out of sight helped the temple from being destroyed by the conservative Islamic rulers (Mitra 1977).Out of the 80 temples originally built, only 22 temples are currently standing in a state of reasonable preservation. These 22 temples were included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1986. These temples are spread over an area of eight square miles, and are divided into eastern and western groups.While most temples in the western group are Hindu temples, with the most famous being the towering Khandariyo Mahadev temple, temples in the eastern group are Jaina temples, most famous being the Parshvanatha temple. It has also been considered that these temples also were initially built as Hindu temples, but later converted to Jaina use. (Hegewald and Mitra 2008)

After centuries of neglect and disrepair, Captain TS Burt, an exploring British Officer from the group of Royal Bengal Engineers, re-discovered the abandoned set of temples in 1838. The temples of Khajuraho get mentioned for the first time when he published his findings in the Journal of the Asiatic Society(1838). Burt writes in his journal,

“I heard from a palanquin bearer of the wonders of this place Khajrao. I found in the ruins seven large diwallas, or Hindoo temples, most beautifully and exquisitely carved as to workmanship, but the sculptor had at times allowed his subject to grow rather warmer than there was any absolute necessity for his doing; indeed, some of the sculptures here were extremely indecent and offensive; which I was at first much surprised to find in temples that are professed to be erected for good purposes, and on account of religion.”

A few years later British Army Engineer Alexander Cunningham who was appointed as the first archeological surveyor of India, surveyed the temples Khajuraho for the first time and systematically documented them. In his 1870 report to the Archeological Commission (Cunningham, 1871) he writes,

“The sculptures at Khajuraho are highly indecent and most of them are disgustingly obscene. In the Vishvanatha temple, everywhere there are numbers of female figures who are represented dropping their clothes, and by this purposely exposing their persons.”

Figure 3: Left: The idol of Lord Shiva (Lingam) inside Matangeshwar Temple, Khajuraho. Right: Empty Sanctum Santorum at Jagadambi temple. / Bittudubeyj, 2016 via Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License. Photo by Author.

While almost all of the temples that Burt found were in a state of ruins, he makes note of one particular temple that was still being used for worship. He writes, “…while I was at this last temple, the natives objected to my going inside without taking off my boots. There was a huge lingam[6] inside this one, eight feet in height and four feet in diameter” (Punja 2010). This account elucidates the fact that at least one temple in the group had been in use even at the time of this discovery. Even today, people from neighboring villages visit the Matangeshwar temple for pilgrimage and worship. The temple is thronged by thousands of visitors on auspicious days of Hindu festivals, especially on the night of Shivaratri – festival of Lord Shiva. Around 25,000 people are said to visit the temple during the 3 days of this annual festival (Singh, R.P. 2009). The site functions as an active pilgrimage site for locals, even while catering to national and international tourists for entertainment and leisure. The sanctum sanctorum of all other temples on the site is either empty or has deformed mutilated idols, showing that all the temples were in use for rituals and prayers at the time of their construction, and gradually fell into disuse due to neglect or disinterest of the locals.

Uncertain Origins

Figure 4: King Kirtivarman Chandela visits the temple of Khajurahu / Hutchinson’s story of the Nations/ Public Domain/ Author Unknown

Throughout Indian history, powerful kings have commissioned megalithic temples to demonstrate their might and to leave a formidable legacy. However, it is puzzling what the intention of Chandela rulers were in adorning temples with unusual erotic imagery. It remains to be known what customs and traditions Chandelas were propagating, and what cultural legacies they were aiming to build. Numerous myths (see Agarwal 1964, Gill 2008) and theories exist regarding the meaning and purpose of these erotic sculptures. Much ink has been spilled in examining various possibilities and explanations. While some theories are mythological (Mitra 1977), and claim that a divine architect carved the temples to depict the love and courtship of Moon God and the woman he fell in love with on earth, some others are more practical and argue that the sculptures were carved to arouse sexual desires among the dwindling population of local Jains and Hindus in the Chandela Kingdom! (Keay 2011; Desai 2000) While art historian Shobita Punja (2010)sanctifies the sculptures, and claims that they depict the divine consummation between Lords Shiva and Parvathi on their wedding night, Indologists David White (2006) and Michael D Rabe (1996) suggest these sculptures depict tantric sexual practices that tantric yogis used to meditate upon. This group of scholars believes that the sexual imagery represents a society where sex was not a taboo, but an integral part of daily life. Vedic cosmologists present an opposing view. While agreeing that the sculptures are a part of a tantric tradition, this set of scholars argues that the sculptures were carved not to promote desire, but instead to cease them. (Mumford 1998).

This explanation suggests that the Chandela rulers were followers of a tantric cult which believed that the devotees should not to be perturbed even by sexual arousal in their pursuit of god, and the sculptures were put in place for the yogis to overcome all their desires before entering the sanctum sanctorum. Despite an abundance of such theories, the true significance of these sculptures remains one of the biggest mysteries in Indian architecture. But as this paper does not aim to corroborate the origin and reality of various theories, it limits itself to understanding how a remote town in Central India became a popular tourist destination, and exploring the effects of tourism on a small town, and to analyze how eroticism is perceived and acknowledged.

A Dichotomous Existence

At Khajuraho, the dichotomy of being damned as pornography and transgression of Indian culture on one hand, and on the other being promoted to international tourists and Indian urban elites as an epitome of Indian liberalness – the Kamasutra Temple – continues to persist. Khajuraho’s scintillating sculptures are most prominently featured in the brochures and posters produced by the ministry of tourism. On one hand, the ministry has released stamps[7], postcards, and glossy coffee table books[8] featuring the sculptures, and the town is widely advertised in the brochures of “Incredible India”[9] – India’s most advertised tourism campaign initiated by the government. On the other hand, these advertisements often feature inconspicuous side notes that underplay the erotic nature of sculptures, and present them as purest form of love and spirituality.

Figure 5: The visitor information plaque outside the Khajuraho temple complex. / Photo by author

One such side note on a brochure produced by the Madhya Pradesh Government reads

  • 10 Incredible! India Brochure by Government of Madhya Pradesh – page71, and also the tourism info boar (…)

“Whatever the interpretation of the erotic scenes sculpted on the walls of the temples at Khajuraho, there is certainly nothing sordid or coarse about them. In fact, these representations have given us some of the finest sculptural compositions, which vibrate with a rare sensitivity and warmth of emotion.”[10]

While it is true that there are several spiritual interpretations of the erotic sculptures, deification of eroticism and promotion of tourism using erotic imagery by an otherwise puritanical government in a fairly conservative Indian society is complex, tricky and riddled with contradictions. In India, how and when a particular genre of images acquires or sheds connotations of immorality depend largely on what is being defined and programmed as artistic and as Indian. Despite Khajuraho featuring prominently on the world tourism map for its erotic sculptures, it is important to note that not more than 10% of all sculptures at the temples are erotic in nature.

Tour guides around Khajuraho often narrate the popular but uncorroborated story of Mahatma Gandhi advocating the demolition of Khajuraho temples for being sordid and ludicrous (Ichaporia 1983), while the artist-poet Rabindranath Tagore vehemently opposed their demolition. Finally, when a liberal-minded Nehru became India’s first prime minister in 1947, he recognized the potential to market the temples of Khajuraho to westerners, and initiated the first concerted tourism development plans. While Gandhi’s call for demolition remains unsubstantiated, it is well documented that Nehru resolutely pursued Khajuraho’s tourism development in his new scheme of “five-year plans” started in 1950 (Bhatia 1978). Ever since, successive governments have taken initiatives for development.

Figure 6: A dancer performing in the foreground of Khandariya Mahadev temple. / Photo by author

In the year 2000, to commemorate a thousand years of Khajuraho temples, yearlong celebrations called “Khajuraho Millennium Bash”[11] (Shastri 2017)were organized. The tourism ministry also organizes an annual dance festival where celebrated dancers are brought to perform in front of the mesmerizing sculptures. While on one hand, dancers romancing each other in front of copulating sculptures can be seen as oddly titillating, on the other hand it is portrayed as a re-imagination of Indian culture justifying the sculptures as stemming from past traditions. Khajuraho thus becomes a place where spiritual, social and cultural images of a country are created and propagated.

Comparisons of Khajuraho to other tourist destinations like Lijiang in China (China Daily 2014; Zhu 2012), which are strife with sexual undertones, is inevitable. But what makes Khajuraho unique is a distinctive amalgamation of religion, culture and eroticism, in an ancient isolated town. While the marketing campaigns explicitly promote Khajuraho’s sculptures to be the solitary attraction of the town, there are other cultural attractions like the annual dance festival[12] organized in the backdrop on the temples. Celebrity dancers and world-famous artists come together in this prestigious dance festival, which is held in the first week of February every year. But as the tickets to this famed dance festival are too expensive for locals, it inadvertently becomes an elite dance festival showcasing famous classical dancers in an erotic backdrop to fascinated foreigners – a phenomenon termed ‘pornokitsch’, by Ugo Volli (Dorfles and McHale 1969), an Italian semiotician. The west tends to transform and commercialize both the past and the exotic into pornokitsch, he says. A few weeks before this illustrious dance festival, the Tribal Art Academy organizes another weeklong dance festival – Lokranjan[13] – not against the backdrop of temples but in the village grounds. Admission is free for this local festival, and it is hugely popular with locals, and also is greatly enjoyed by foreigners who are visiting at that time.

Following the steps of Tourism Ministry, Air India – India’s official air carrier – has produced an intriguing advertisement featuring a picture of a Khajuraho sculpture where a man and a woman are kissing, captioned “11th century.” On the side, it states in bold letters “Of course, kissing is an import from the West!”[14] There is a pointed focus on sensuality, implicit in the government’s undertakings and more explicit in private tour books. This particular advertisement can be perceived as a taunt to westerners, and easterners alike, that if they think, “kissing is an import from the west”, then they should visit Khajuraho to witness the glory of a medieval Indian society. While the government markets Khajuraho to Indian and foreign tourists through art and cultural festivals, private tour operators use as different strategy to attract customers. Hundreds of domestic tour operators have less interesting, but just as alluring advertisements targeted towards Indian tourists. Khajuraho is also listed as one of the top ten honeymoon destinations within India where couples are enticed to gaze at the sculptures. It is an invitation for a romantic experience. Here again, it is important to note that the driving force for all the marketing campaigns and advertisements are the handful of erotic sculptures present in an otherwise arid and desolate town.

Small Town, Big Tourism

With such intense marketing, and with its popularity as a celebrated UNESCO World Heritage Site, Khajuraho gets the most tourist footfalls after the famous Taj Mahal in Agra, and the group of Mughal monuments in Delhi. The town of Khajuraho, with a population of 25,000[15] people, saw approximately a million tourists in 2015[16]. In comparison, Taj Mahal –India’s most famous and most visited tourist destination in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh drew 4.6 million tourists[17]. Travel companies and tour operators play a major role in attracting and ‘marking’ the site for tourists. Most tourists to Khajuraho take a short detour from the popular Delhi – Agra – Jaipurtourist circuit, famous as the Golden Triangle. Khajuraho is located around 250 miles from Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, and about 385 miles from Delhi. A bus stand and a railway station are also located a few miles away from the town, providing cheaper modes of transport. An airport also connects Khajuraho to other major cities of India.Starting from 2011, Air India, one of India’s major airways, operates a daily flight from Delhi. This has been a major boost for tourism in a town that could otherwise be reached only by bad roads and a far-flung railway station. Improving transit connections and targeted marketing strategies have propelled Khajuraho to the top of Indian tourist destinations. In 2013, tourism ministry announced a proposal for a new terminal at Khajuraho that would support international flights. The terminal is currently being built at a reported cost of about 90 crore Indian rupees[18].

Figure 7: Annual Final Report Collection of domestic Tourism statistics for the state of Madhya Pradesh, 2003 / Tourism Survey by Govt of India shows that Khajuraho is the most visited tourist destination by Foreign tourists and the least visited destination by domestic tourists in Madhya Pradesh.

Figure 7: 2011 Tourism Survey by Govt of India / Tourism Survey by Govt of India shows that Khajuraho is the most visited tourist destination by Foreign tourists and the least visited destination by domestic tourists in Madhya Pradesh.

Almost all temples in India predominantly receive domestic tourists, most of them for pilgrimage. As most functioning temples tout strict rules that prohibit non-Hindus from entering temples, less than 1% of their total visitors are international. To date, Khajuraho remains a religious center at the local level. Out of the eleven surviving Hindu temples, only one temple has been in continuous use. It is only at this temple that non-Hindus are not welcome. The villagers still use the one functional temple for worship. Thousands of people, including those from neighboring villages and tribes, throng the temple on one day every year – on the festival of Lord Shiva. Apart from this, all visitors to the temple are tourists. Due to its popularity for non-religious reasons, Khajuraho boasts a far greater fraction of international tourists. At the latest census, in the year 2009, it received 83286 Indians, and 81447 visitors of other nationalities[19]While an equal number of domestic and international tourists visit Khajuraho, the latter stay for twice the time as the former –2.9 and 4.1 days respectively. This leads to the conclusion that international tourists are more comfortable in the sexually charged environment of Khajuraho.

In the last two decades, as a result of a burgeoning tourism industry, the local village which was largely untouched by the tourist frenzy until recently, has noticeably changed. The primary economy of the town has changed from agriculture to tourism. Over 3,000 new jobs are said to have been offered to local populace in the last year. Most of the documented jobs are unskilled jobs in the food and beverage sector, while 35% of other jobs are tourism related. (Menon 1993). In the last decade alone, eight 5-star hotels (with two international hotel chains) and numerous 3 star hotels have been inaugurated. But most domestic tourists still stay in local hotels.

Figure 8: Keychains sold as souvenirs around the temples of Khajuraho / Photo by author

While eroticization of the site and the ensuing tourism has greatly improved the local economy, it has been detrimental to local arts and crafts. Crafting sculptures from wood and brass had been the prominent craft of the local artisans for several decades. But with an increasing number of tourists, cheaper, mass-produced replicas have flooded the market, fast replacing the exquisite but expensive handmade sculptures. The profits of local craftsman are dwindling as mass-produced souvenirs like postcards, magnets, key chains, and mold sculptures are sold in Khajuraho’s airport and fancy stores in five star hotels. With the demand for authentic handicrafts being farless than what is supplied to the markets, the livelihood of these craftsman further suffers.

As MacCannell writes, “the souvenir market, and by extension. the entire structure of everyday reality in the modem world depends on the perpetuation of authentic attractions which themselves are not for sale.” (MacCannell 1976). While the thrill of viewing sexual imagery in public is hard to replicate in an Indian society, the tourists however seek to take with them a piece of this sexual extravaganza as a souvenir. A large majority of the souvenirs sold at Khajuraho are of erotic nature. These include the titillating postcards, small scale replicas of sculptures, and key chains of sexual poses that move in interesting ways. These souvenirs are commonly bought by Indian men and foreign tourists as a “cheap thrill”. Around the Khajuraho complex, young boys who sell these souvenirs are commonly seen giggling and haggling for tourists’ attention, especially foreigners. For those who find buying these ready-made souvenirs awkward, there is always their trusted camera to take pictures of the sculptures they desire.

Gaze, Gender, and Sex


Several tourism scholars assert that gaze is the most important tourist activity. As Urry (1992) explains, ‘sites’ became ‘sights’, when they are no longer in use but rather only looked at and promoted. While ‘seeing’ is physical activity of looking at objects, ‘sight’ is a culturally learned way of viewing. MacCannell’s (1973) theory of ‘markers’ shows how sites that are hardly worthy of seeing on their own are made into ‘sights’ by placing tourism markers. At Khajuraho the signposts are clearly marked on the manicured lawn surrounding temples. At regular intervals, placards give a brief overview of the sculptures and their meaning. While most tourists stay inside this designated tourist complex, only the ethnically inclined tourist ventures out into the mysterious lanes and courtyards of the local village – a place that often goes unmentioned in tour books – seeking authenticity in a place that MacCannell calls the “backstage.” Today, Khajuraho has become so synonymous with explicit erotic imagery to such an extent that in the popular lexicon it is often referred to as the “Kamasutra temple”.

Figure 9: “peeping toms” present in the mithuna sculpture on the platform of Lakshmana Temple, Courtesy: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections / Ingrandisci, Creative Commons

In analyzing the way eroticism is perceived and acknowledged in the socio-cultural realm of tourism, it is key to understand why tourists visit this remote town. “It is interesting what tourists expect out of this visit to an otherwise desolate town, as it is an expensive proposition and a long way to go for a cheap thrill!’ writes geographer Geoffrey Wall (1984). The tourist gaze suggests that tourist experience involves a particular way of ‘seeing.’ Tourists only view what they were invited to view, and leave soon after, without further interest in the local scene.

At Khajuraho, tourists are basically voyeurs, but in a public space. Laura Mulvey (1989)has defined voyeurism as viewing an objectified female as an object of sexual stimulation through sight. In several of the sculptures, men and women are depicted as observing other couples in various sexual positions. The presence of these “peeping toms” in the friezes appears to be an attempt to invite those who are gazing to join them in a collective voyeurism.

The other kind of “one-way gaze” that is all pervasive at this site, and is strife with sexual tension, is what Mulvey calls “the male gaze”. The male gaze occurs, according to Mulvey, when the camera focuses from a heterosexual man’s point of view on a woman, displaying her as an erotic object for both characters within the act and outside spectators (Mulvey 1989). At Khajuraho, much of the erotic imagery is portrayed from the point of view of a heterosexual man – consistent with the patriarchal nature of Indian society, and the dominance of the male sculptors in medieval Indian society. Women tourists, especially foreigners, often find themselves to be objects of gazing men. While staring at foreign women is a commonly noticed phenomenon all over India, at the temples of Khajuraho it takes a new dimension due to the distinct context in which starting is taking place.


Figure 10: Groups of women walking around the sculptures / Ricardo Hurtubia, 2010, Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Gender is understood differently across societies. Sociologists of gender explain it to be socially constructed and culturally learned. In a prudish Indian society, unabashed viewing of sexual images publicly is still largely in the male domain. Indian men, at Khajuraho, turn into inquisitive flâneurs wandering alone with their cameras. Statistics indicate a skewed ratio of male to female visitors to Khajuraho. 75% of all tourists at Khajuraho are men. Interestingly, close to 60% of all visitors seem to be in the age group of 26 to 40 (Menon 1993). Even while several families visit Khajuraho, mixed-viewing is frowned upon as an ideal Indian woman is expected to be chaste and sexually reserved. To strike a balance in this delicate situation, the troupe of family members often breaks into gender-homogenous groups. As the men wander alone, women folk group together and take quick tours, looking up coyly to catch a quick glimpse of the sculptures, and then moving on.

While westerners seek ‘otherness’ at these ancient temples, and come in search of the ‘past and exotic’, the local youth exoticize the foreign female, especially the light skinned woman. In the backdrop of sexual sculptures a foreign female appears not only exotic but also erotic. Several foreign women tourists mention of being uncomfortable with the gaze of local male youth following them incessantly. A G Krishna Menon (1993), in his extensive field study at Khajuraho notes: “Often, one sees groups of youths going around, giggling smuttily and ogling at foreign female tourists. However, their behavior did not appear to be aggressive or threatening”.


Tourists, who do not want to stop at purchasing souvenirs, are said to seek local women’s company, which is often facilitated by their tour guides. Clandestine prostitution is rampant not within the precincts of the tourist village, but in the neighboring villages and on the highways leading into the town. In parts of the national highway, national highways 31 and 39 specifically, that connects Khajuraho to most other active tourist routes in the state, there are prostitutes waiting to lure customers. This practice is so common that women who routinely provide such services to both foreign and domestic tourists are called “highway courtesans”. Mystelle Brabbee shed light on the state of “highway courtesans” for the first time in her 2005 documentary[20] of the same name. Interestingly most of women providing such services belong to a single tribe – the Bedia[21] community. This tribe practices prostitution as a tradition. The first daughter of the family is inducted into the trade of prostitution by the male members of her family – fathers and brothers – who act as facilitators bringing interested men into their homes. As the daughters of the tribe follow prostitution as their tradition, the sons are discouraged from marrying within their tribe. The male progenies of the Bediacommunity typically marry girls from neighboring non- prostituting communities, as they are mandated to have chaste wives. Anuja Agarwal, in her book aptly titled “Chaste Wives and Prostitute Sisters” (2008), extensively documents the customs and traditions of prostitution followed by this tribe. While for decades, these girls would only scatter around the highways near their settlement, off late they travel to bigger cities like Mumbai and Dubai pursuing it as a true profession. Here, it is important to distinguish Bediacommunity’s tradition with the Devadasi system that is largely absent today in modern India. The Devadasi custom was in practice from 6th century AD in India and reached its pinnacle medieval India –coinciding with the time of construction of Khajuraho temples. Devadasis were typically young girls who were trained in classical art forms and were symbolically married to Hindu deities. They were expected to perform certain religious duties, along with performing for the pleasure of royals and feudal lords. These women wore all the paraphernalia indicative of a married woman, were expected to be well versed in classical arts, and often lived under patronage of a single wealthy landlord or a particular king. Brabbee’s documentary follows the life of 16-year-old Guddi as she navigates the social pressures that force her into prostitution. While many decades ago, these girls would grow up and be respected as courtesans serving royalty, but as Brabbee discovers, these days the girls primarily cater to a seemingly never-ending line of highway truckers, and some tourists looking for a sexual adventure accompanied by their tour guides. Unlike traditional devadasis, Agarwal also notes, Bedia women practice prostitution much more candidly, more as a profession than as an institutionalized tradition.


Given the westernization of Indian society in general, and the rapid increase in tourism to Khajuraho in particular, it is fascinating to speculate on the path Khajuraho might take as a tourist destination. Mediating on the future of Khajuraho brings to mind the sexually strife town of Lijiang in China, where millions of visitors descend upon the town, mainly to “people watch”. Lijiang has an 800-year history descending from late Song Dynasty. Ancient Nakhi music and busy modern bars are the two important components of Lijiang’s nightlife (N. Graburn and others 2002). While the ancient town is bustling with tourists in quest of authenticity during day, the city transforms into a “bar street” at night. Lijiang exemplifies the coming together of heritage tourism and sex tourism in an unprecedented way. While Khajuraho is ripe with possibility of turning into a perfect amalgamation of religion, heritage, and culture backed by an active nightlife, the political and social situations of a conservative Indian society provide constant deterrents to any further eroticization of the site.

With this, I argue that Khajuraho is a constructed tourism site. While most temples in India are considered to be sacred sites for pilgrimage and worship, Khajuraho is a site for eroticism and sexual desire. The thrill of publicly viewing sexually explicit sculptures in a conservative society is a big draw. Oddly, as the Kamasutra temple, Khajuraho gets equal attention as both the shame and pride of India. Were the scintillating sculptures meant to surprise and shock people, or were they built as a pornographic playground for medieval flaneurs to gaze at erotica, or was it a tool to train the mind not to be perturbed in a sacred temple? Whatever the intended purpose, today their presence only exoticizes the site for tourists. If the sculptures are considered as “markers” of this tourist site, then as MacCannell (1976) says, perhaps modern tourists can be thought of as making a pilgrimage to the erotic sculptures. Visiting a remote and highly eroticized site like Khajuraho, despite it being a Hindu temple, results in a distinctive touristic behavior that is uncharacteristic for Indian tourism sites. At Khajuraho, I contend that all tourists irrespective of their nationalities are foreign.



  1. Annual Report Tourism Survey for the State of Madhya Pradesh (June 2011-May 2012).
  2. See page 237, Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. Monuments, Objects, Histories: Institutions of art in colonial and post-colonial India. Columbia University Press, 2004.
  3. See William Darlymple. A Point of View: The sacred and sensuous in Indian art.BBC Magazine. 4th April 2004.
  4. The state in which the temples of Khajuraho are located in northern India.
  5. (Menon 1993)
  6. The idol of Lord Shiva, which some consider symbolic of an erect phallus
  7. A commemorative stamp issued on March 6, 1999, on the millennial celebrations of the Khajuraho temples.
  10. Incredible! India Brochure by Government of Madhya Pradesh – page71, and also the tourism info board at the Khajuraho Site.
  11. Millennium at Khajuraho
  15. As per 2011 Census of India (the latest census available):
  19. Annual Final Report Collection of domestic Tourism statistics for the state of Madhya Pradesh, 2003.
  20. Highway Courtesans’ is the title of a documentary directed by Mystelle Brabbee, released in March 2005 –
  21. Also called the “Bachara community”


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Originally published by Via Tourism Review under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.



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