Sometimes in public parks, one sees little dogs being dragged along, their eyes bulging and desperate, all four limbs rigid with resistance, behind owners determined to take them for a walk. This, in essence, is what I feel like about being taken sightseeing. Usually the captor is my formidable elder sister Geeta. Usually the places she drags me to are of superlative cultural and aesthetic value, so it is only my unmatched perversity that makes me unwilling to go. Khajuraho, however, was one of the few places that I did wish to see.
My sister and I boarded an Indian Airlines flight that stopped in Agra en route to Khajuraho from Delhi. My brother-in-law was with us on the flight, though he planned to leave later in the day, having seen the temples on a previous visit. During the halt in Agra, onward passengers remained on board. My brother-in-law sat two seats away from us, with the result that the pilot who sauntered out of the cockpit saw my sister sitting in the front row, apparently unaccompanied by any man. He immediately fell into a deep, meaningful conversation with her, starting with, “Ahh?...so you’re travelling to see the temples of love, then?”
When we deplaned at Khajuraho, the pilot trotted up again, obviously hoping to expand on the theme of erotic sculpture. He said, “At which hotel are you putting up, Madam? We’re in?...” My sister smiled very sweetly and said, “Have you met my husband?” just as he loomed into view, all ten foot twelve of him. The pilot reversed out of sight like a deflated balloon.
The point I’m trying to make is that even though tourists are strictly forbidden, by information brochures, to think of the temples as the world’s first 3D porn-site, that is the effect they have, regardless. Once my brother-in-law had left, my sister and I sensed that we had become, as unattached females, the magnet for every watching eye. Just to be in the vicinity of the temples suggested that we might, at any moment, curl our torsoes around and pluck at scorpions climbing up the bulging curves of our thighs, like so many of the ladies depicted in the carvings.
We had made an appointment with a tourist guide to meet outside the temple precincts the next morning. A modest dhaba beside the enclosure supplied us with tea, omelettes and bread for breakfast. Our guide joined us just as we were about to begin.
By the time we were ready to see the temples, it was clear to all of us that our guide was a person for whom the scenes depicted on the temple walls were like thorns in the flesh of a burn victim. But he was good at his job, sober, thorough and determined. He would leave no pose or position undescribed. The sky was slightly overcast and it was early enough in the year that a diaphanous mist lightly caressed the temple tops. The guide had a black umbrella with him, furled tight, which he used as a pointer. “Here you see,” he would say, indicating a writhing couple, “a man is with a woman. Her hair is disarrayed, indicating abandonment...? Here we see a couple where the woman has a scorpion high on her thigh, indicating that she is approaching orgasm?... Here we see a group of ladies, one is supported by companions, while she has pleasure atop another lady who is upside down, and who, with both hands is stimulating the companions?...” And so on.
There were several surprises. One was that the carvings were quite small, requiring to be viewed at close quarters to see the beautiful, finely wrought detail. The Chandella rulers who commissioned the temples had clearly intended them to be a class act. I hadn’t expected, either, that the erotic poses would be interspersed between so many other completely straightforward ones. Without the guide to point them out, we would have missed several orgasms altogether. This mingling of the mundane with the erotic, according to the guide, was a clear indication that sexual love, in those far-off times, was regarded as an unremarkable feature of daily life.
But our guide was not of the temperament that encouraged frivolity so I didn’t get to raise these interesting queries. He told us that there were once eighty-five temples in the complex, though only twenty-two remain. He was not able to say whether they had all been similarly embellished. It’s probably all for the best that we will never know. The existing temples appear to have already exhausted the store of possible — and even impossible, since some positions clearly required one partner to levitate — erotic situations. Even our indefatigable guide, towards the end of the tour, was content to point our gaze in the appropriate direction while saying, “...?and here, as you can see, they are busy...?”
He showed us a few other sites, then took us to the museum. Until this point, I was undecided about the spirit in which the temples had been created: hilarious or pious? That seemed to me the crucial issue. On the one hand, it seemed impossible that anyone, even an ancient king, could have been entirely sober when he commissioned such an extravagant and, at the same time, exquisitely executed, exercise in sexual display. But, on the other hand, how could he have managed to finance a project of this scale without the backing of a full council of ministers? And if so, then surely an entire cabinet plus town-planners, engineers, architects and hoteliers could not all have been, simultaneously and for the full duration of the time it took to construct the temples, intoxicated?
In the museum, however, I found what I took to be a partial answer to my question. It was contained in just one modest frieze, about four feet in length. I’d never have seen it if it was not for our guide’s determination to explain every last wriggle on display. It would have been a fitting note on which to end our stay in Khajuraho — except that it didn’t end there.
My sister and I got to the airport moaning all the way, about how short and inadequate the stay had been. The gods must have heard us, because after an interminable wait in the departure lounge, during which the only entertainment was a party of Italians complaining loudly and with no pause for irony about the lack of punctuality, it was announced that the flight had been cancelled. It took a few seconds for the tour leader to translate this to the group, whereupon the entire party of about twenty adults leapt into the air like brightly coloured salmon in sight of their spawning grounds, exclaiming in musical shrieks. It was quite worth the inconvenience of being detained one complete day, just to observe this display of South European abandonment.
How strange it is to have a wish granted in such a prompt and unequivocal a manner! Geeta and I commiserated with a middle-aged couple who had not even brought a toothbrush with them or the man’s heart medicine, because they had expected to return the same day. We swapped survival jokes and had dinner together that night in the hotel provided for us by the airline in penance for its folly. The next morning, my sister and I set out to do all the little things we had assumed we didn’t have time for. This included visiting an interesting-looking establishment close to the temple complex which was run, it turned out, by two strikingly attractive women whom we immediately dubbed The Gabor Sisters, though these ladies were Swiss not Hungarian.
Eva Gabor, I think it was, who shared juicy bits of town gossip with us and revealed the sad history of our guide. He had never wanted to marry, she said, and had resisted till his parents forced him to, two years ago. But the girl had not remained more than a few months with him before returning to her parents, alleging physical abuse. Since then, the poor man had not been stable. He drank himself into a stupor every couple of weeks and sometimes roamed the streets — these were her words — “debasing himself,” by eating mud and removing his clothes in public.
Eleven years as a guide to the temples of love might do that to any sane person, I thought. There’s just so much one can take of rising scorpions and heaving buttocks, all in unyielding stone. The guide’s job was to explain the intricate dance of passion to snickering hordes of tourists, who came to stare, to leer, to expose miles of film and leave. He was paid to speak of panting lusts and engorged organs as if they were elements in a chemistry lesson, stripped of meaning or context. No wonder he had gone a little over the edge.
Perhaps he should have spent more time meditating upon the little frieze in the museum. Only two elements are relevant to the scene depicted upon it. At one end there’s a sculptor, apparently carving a block of stone for the temple walls. At the other end there stands...?a posing couple, entwined and panting! Can there be any doubt that this piece represents not only a highly evolved sense of humour but a desire to memorialise it? Public works are so rarely light-hearted. Gods and demons, history and myths — these are what institutional art typically focuses on. But jokes? It’s rare. I went away with the sound of ancient laughter ringing in my ears, glad for once to have been a tourist.
From most cities, Khajuraho is a one- or two-stop flight via Varanasi. The Sampark Kranti (Rs 702 on 3A) connects Delhi to Khajuraho; none of the other metros are directly connected.
Where to stay
There are many hotel options in all sorts of ranges at Khajuraho, among them Clarks (Rs 5,000; 07686-274038, hotelclarks.com), the Radisson (Rs 4,000; 272777, radisson.com), the MPTDC-run Jhankar (Rs 1,690; 274063, mptourism.com) and the many budget options on the Jain Temple Road, such as Hotel Casa di William (274244), where prices for AC doubles range from Rs 500 to Rs 1,000.