Revisiting Khajuraho

The name Khajuraho seems to evoke instant images of a certain kind in people’s minds – some kind of illustrated ‘kama sutra’ sans color! But nothing could be further than the reality. In fact, Khajuraho is a wonderful, relaxing tourist destination where you can leisurely view some of the most beautiful  gems of Indian temple architecture. The competitors for the ‘most beautiful’  are many – the Hoysala temples, the great temples built by the Cholas, the wonderful Jain temples around Mt Abu and many more.  I have not visited all of them, but I am certain these temples built by the Chandelas in the 10th to 12th century, can match any of them.

This was not my first visit, having made the first trip in 1995 from Lucknow by car in our non-AC 1985 vintage Maruti with Subhash, Mukta and a French friend. Then we stayed at the UP Government hotel in Mahoba – budget tourism, the kind where you made bookings by visiting the local tourism office and never thought of a travel agent because the hotels they offered were way beyond your budget. That really used to be fun! And on that trip we had the insightful observations of younger Mukta, then a second year architecture student. Then, a few years ago, one of the national societies, organized a conference at Khajuraho. Of course, this time I flew to Khajuraho, stayed at the Clarks and between the conference schedule and meeting up with friends, I only had a couple of early morning walks in the temple park. By then, the son et lumiere in the sonorous voice of the great Bachhan was in place. And the delegates had a special showing, albeit a mosquito riddled one.  Again I felt that it was one of the nicest historic sites I had visited.

This time around the visit was to accompany my brother and his daughter who live abroad. In his many previous visits to India during his working life, he seldom had had the time to see the country. Now that he had retired, he wanted to travel around more and so we went off to Khajuraho.

Khajuraho, itself is little more that a small village with a population of 20,000 or so. There is little in the form of any sort of development in the whole area around, which clearly has its advantages. It has not acquired many of the haphazard construction, dirty bazaars or the other trademarks of the many hundred small towns scattered around North India. All livelihood is around the tourist traffic which is predominantly of the International variety and these arrive in large numbers!  Domestic tourists, on the other hand are seems to be low key. This was something that I had noticed on previous visits as well. So, as you walk around, the kids can greet you in a variety of languages (German, French.Spanish….) and beg for “toffee”, which some of the tourists seem to distribute.

In its heydey, between 950 and 1150, the Chandela kings built around 85 temples in this small area. Although their capital was at Kalinjar, they chose this site for creating these marvelous structures, to celebrate various victories and achievements of their kings. Presently,  22 temples are scattered in three distinct groups, Eastern, Western and Southern and one has been recently excavated in the southern group.

The evening that we arrived – 3 hrs behind schedule – we watched the ‘son et lumiere’ – which was far more enjoyable with adequate Odomos on! Watching it for the second time was still enjoyable, although, the post KBC Bachhan sound was a bit irritating! For the first timers accompanying me, it was a wonderful introduction to the history of the place.

The next morning we walked from our hotel to the Eastern group, a distance of maybe 4 Km. But, this was much to the irritation of the operators of the many forms of transport – motorbikes (who only tout the lone tourist), rikshaws, tempos (who label themselves tuk-tuks in S east Asian style), taxis – who consider walking tourists as threat to their livelihood. This group has 4 four Jain and 2 Hindu temples. The Jain group is really interesting as these are within a walled complex that is maintained by a Jain Trust and one of the temples is an active one with daily puja. This temple is in a 100 year old building in which the many pieces collected from the site have been incorporated, quite aesthetically.

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And as you walk out of this temple, around the corner stands these 2 exquisitely complete temples that come as a total surprise. The 2 Hindu temples of this group stand isolated in the middle of open fields – but viewed from a distance give a great perspective of the lines and proportions.

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Then we meandered through the small town of Khajuraho, towards the Western group.  It is a typical large village/town, with the 4 distinct communities living parallel and mutually exclusive but interminfgled lives. In spite of the open drainage, the little paved streets were fairly clean and did not have the strewn litter which is so characteristic of the larger towns and cities. Maybe, simpler lives translates into less litter!!

There are 2 primary school and a secondary school and one of the 2 primary schools is run be a voluntary organization. We were invited in by the Principal, a young man with a B Sc degree from the science college in the adjoining town. The school in its 6 small rooms and 5 teachers, provides education to 300 students and the teachers dare paid a monthly salary ranging from Rs 1500 to 2000.

The children were as lovely and full of smiles like everywhere! The people maybe engaged in a little bit of farming and life has probably changed little since those times, 1000 years ago. But, now all livelihood revolves around the tourists.

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The western group has been a  UNICEF, World heritage site since 1986. This group is well maintained and set in clean and well laid out gardens.

The self-guided audio for Rs 100/ per set took us on a 2 hour exploration through the varioustemples in this group.

The tour was available in a number of languages and the English one had informative commentary  in well  modulated English. It was accompanied by excellent signage – a new feature in out historical sites.

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One only hopes that the facility is maintained and would become available at more sites.  The temples, because of their excellent proportions, look deceptively small. But the climb up and down the many temples in this complex, can be exhausting. The commentary discusses, in the most academic terms, all the theories about the ‘sexually explicit’ sculptures. And, yes, there are these too among the thousands of beautifully proportioned and adorned sculptures of gods, goddesses, courtesans, common people and animals.

After a 2 day break to visit Orchha and Panna games reserve, on the last day of our stay we walked to the southern group where a new temple has been discovered. It is being painfully reconstructed and is protected by ASI with a ordinary barbed wire fence and 2 unarmed chowkidars!! Hundreds of the 1000 year old friezes are stacked on the floors. Their security measures include a “No photography” rule.

For those of you who like culture tourism (with no shopping etc), it is a wonderful week end destination!!

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