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Art Through Time: A Global View

The Body Art: Vamana Temple (exterior)

» Unknown artist, India

Vamana Temple (exterior)

Vamana Temple (exterior)
Artist / Origin: Unknown artist, India
Region: South and Southeast Asia
Date: 11th century
Period: 1000 CE – 1400 CE
Material: Sandstone
Medium: Sculpture
Location: Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India
Credit: Photo courtesy of Tamara Sears

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.

Expert Perspective
Vidya Dehejia, Professor of Indian and South Asian Art, Columbia University

“The body in Indian art is an idealized body and this ideal seems to be established, we see it in images of the second century BCE. And it seems to be that same ideal form—with a few changes, of course—but that same idealized form that persists all the way into the eighteenth century. Canons of proportion existed and they did change according to region and time in India, but one of the most accepted canons of proportion was a unit called the tala, which is sort of like the palm of the hand, or it’s a span, you could say about nine inches, if you wished. And a god had to be ten of those in total. One for the face, you could have the crown included, but then you had a tall figure, ten. If it was a goddess it was nine. If it was a human being it came down to eight for a man and seven for a woman. So there were canons of proportion. There were also certain ideals laid down, like think of a bamboo shoot and model the arm of a woman on a bamboo shoot.

There is no unadorned body portrayed in art. And the literature makes it very explicit. We have a sixteenth-century poet who just says ‘the woman may be gorgeous, she may be lovely, but if she is unadorned she is not beautiful.’ It’s as simple as that. And the other point is that adornment was also supposed to be protective. Necklaces protect the body. Earrings shelter the ears; armlets, likewise, bring fortune. There is no such thing as a nude in the art of India. It is always the body adorned. And it is adorned with fabrics, always. Very often you look at some of the images and they seem as if they don’t have clothing, but if you look closely you will see the lines along the ankles, around the neck, around the wrists—bits of floating, translucent fabric. The sensuous appeal is that there is clothing, but it’s almost not there.”

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.

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