All `saxed' up
|A woman tourist goes unescorted to Khajuraho and gets a whole new perspective on the place.|
PHOTOS: SHEILA KUMAR
GATEKEEPER: A lion acts as a guardian at the temple gates.
THE guide's voice is leer-laden, hissy. "Want to see a sax," he asks me, insistently. I stare at him and contemplate replying, "No thanks, I've been rocked enough." That would have been the god-given truth, too, seeing as to how I have survived an ill-advised road journey of eight hours, almost all of it on tracks studded with granite boulders. Instead, I ignore the man and turn coldly away.
It's late afternoon and the sun shines mellow on the Western group of temples at Khajuraho. I'm hailed by a lot of strangers as I walk up to the ticket booth, almost all of them native. A couple of young girls pass and I swear I'm not lying: one of them winks at me suggestively and breathes out a low "Hello". Hello? What is going on? Don't women come solo, to take in the splendours of the temples?
A guide mafia?
An irony, that, considering the Khajuraho temples were built by the Chandela ruler Chandravarman for his mother. It's just past season but there are quite a few tourists from abroad. Despite this, the guides are wooing me loudly, prepared to show me the temples ("sax" included, of course) for a mere Rs. 50. Sans regret, I decline the offer and go in. Spotting a sign that announces audio guides I ask for them. The hitherto bored ticket-puncher who has now woken up to eye me up and down says there is none. When I press the matter, I'm told the audio guides are courtesy Madhya Pradesh Tourism and most days, they aren't functioning or are plain unavailable. I take one look at the group of grinning guides nearby and wonder if a guide mafia is at work.
Originally there were about 85 temples, dating back to between 950 and 1050 A.D. style Indo-Aryan and set in the jungles of central India, but among green tracks of date palms. Today, there are a mere 22 temples and not one date palm to be spotted. Temples are still being excavated, throwing up more fascinating details. Today, washed by the afternoon light, they are truly a delight. Every available space is decorated so intricately, it takes one's breath away.
The Khajuraho temples are dedicated to the avatars of Vishnu, to Shiva, to Lakshmi (including one of the rare Chausat Yogini mandirsdedicated to sorceresses) and even Lakshman, though nary a sign of Ram. There is a Varaha, a huge boar carved all over its shining body, its earlobes, even its broad snout, supposedly with 674 gods and goddesses. The intricately carved pillars, the soaring sikharas, the curiously skinny lions that guard the courtyards, the massive Nandi in a temple of its own, these are the beauties of Khajuraho.
But they are not the Main Event. The main event is a celebration of women, a joyous celebration. It's like Lilith Fair but in stone, in still life. There are sculptures of women everywhere. Women dancing, achingly sensual. Women tending to children, women washing elephants, writing letters. Women dancing, dressing, women striking graceful pose as they take a thorn out of their foot or comb their flowing tresses. At the son-et-lumiere
, with Amitabh's mellifluous voice washing over us, a German tourist points to Venus twinkling extra bright in the ink-blue sky ... very appropriate, indeed.
And then, there are sculptures of women having sex, of course. A voice intrudes on my reverie. It is a guide talking to a group of French tourists, not to me, thank heavens. "Now this is an orghee" he says grandiloquently, pronouncing "orgy" so it rhymes with "ghee". I wince and move on. The erotica and most of it is very explicit, is so very much a part of the beautiful ornamentation, the flow is as natural as art anywhere. The Chandelas were supposed to be early followers of Tantra. Back then, they were cool about sex. Pity we can't say the same today. There are other guides talking fluent French and German to their groups and hopefully dwelling more on an ancient civilisation than the antics of that civilisation.
I send a mental bouquet to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) which has done a splendid job of maintenance in the Western group of temples, with neatly trimmed lawns, wooden benches placed at strategic spots and right now, the hedges a riot of flowers.
I ask directions to my hotel and a stripling who couldn't be more than 12 sidles up and tells me, "Main aapko
?" What he has to offer is clear as crystal. Putting on my most matronly look, I refuse this unappetising offer.
I can't blame the boy who, by the way, is sporting a faded Polo sweatshirt, obviously a tourist cast-off. Khajuraho town has all the hallmarks of a place set up around tourist interests. Horse and camel rides on offer, Swiss bakeries where they bake a mean Danish pastry. Italian restaurants (under Dutch supervision, says one sign) where you can tuck into great pasta and even a buckwheat pancake. A Kerala Ayurvedic Centre. Shops selling the ubiquitous Kashmiri handicrafts, photo shops offering "super vitesse" service, curio shops stocking the tackiest of metal bric-a-brac (no prizes for guessing what sort), and bookstores with a plethora of sex manuals. The patient seeker, though, can strike gold once he or she ploughs past all theJoy of Sex tomes ... I saw copies of Hitler's Mein Kampf in English, Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient in German and Harry Potter in some unidentifiable language.
Khajuraho's inherent beauty has been lost in all this sexing up. Sex is in the air. It's in the too-friendly smile of a young blonde being led down some galli by a voluble guide. It's in the lurid postcards on offer. It's in the way the temples are presented. And it's in the way a small crowd follows a woman alone, i.e. me.
IDEAL: A celebration of womanhood.
The Eastern group of temples, the Vaman, Brahma and Javari shrines, are scattered, surrounded by dirt maidans and not kept as clean as the Western ones. Further out, along the route out of Khajuraho, stand the Southern temples, including the newly excavated Dulhadev temple. The Parsvanath temples are functioning ones and I beat a hasty retreat when I realise I am more of a solitary attraction there than the sculptures; small crowds started to follow me, stopping where I stopped, staring up at what I was staring at.
The Chatturbhuj temple is the only one that faces west and watching the sun set from this spot is an unforgettable experience. It is also where the prudery of a later time has obviously crept in; the sculptures all seem lack-lustre and no sexual connotations are to be found here. I sit down to a spot of contemplation but am not left alone for long. Two young men sit down close by, bright scarves knotted around their scrawny necks, eyeing me speculatively. More offers are patently on the way and it's time for me to move on, so I do.
When I finally leave Khajuraho, I realise it's a place where all the clichés come alive. The beautiful dancing maidens, the ornamental soaring sikharas reaching out to the pure sky. A vivid past captured vividly on stone. A tourist trap, a haven for Westerners in search of India via the Kama Sutra. And yes, a place packed with frustrated Indian males.
The Western Group of temples closes by 6 p.m.
Audio guides are available, if you are lucky, for Rs. 50 and a refundable deposit of Rs. 550.
Cycles are available on hire, a good way to see the place.
Khajuraho is 616 km from Delhi, 320 km from Jabalpur and 120 km from Satna but avoid the roads as much as you can.
The nearest railhead is Satna. From there you can hire a cab to and from Khajuraho.
Khajuraho has an airport servicing
Indian Airlines and Jet Airways flights.
Madhya Pradesh Tourism has two decent hotels, the Payal hotel and the Jhankar hotel for budget travellers. The Clarke's, Holiday Inn and Taj all have hotels for those who are there sans a budget.