Despite its mawkish banter, the son et lumière manages to draw me away from where I am
Despite its mawkish banter, the son et lumière manages to draw me away from where I amsitting, somewhat chilled by the unexpected nip in the evening air. I may have been swatting mosquitoes away, but Amitabh Bachchan’s baritone — speaking sombrely for all the spirits of Khajuraho past — and the dream-lit temple spires left me suspended, floating gently at the limn of the here and now, and the distant then.
Interspersed were moments when I felt dangerously close to giggling at the literal translations from Hindi to stilted babu English. I had to bite my tongue to keep the peace when Bachchan informed us of Captain T.S. Burt’s reaction when he rediscovered this town of temples in 1838. “Jolly good, old chap,” he exclaimed to his Indian bearer who had convinced him to travel several hundred miles out of his way. “I say, you certainly weren’t having me on!” The voice is infused with the essence of kippers and Earl Grey and, in the mind’s eye, I see a ruddy-faced, sweating Englishman in a sola topee parting the overgrown jungle grass and exclaiming in rank disbelief.
I can also imagine his consternation on closely observing some of the panels, mutton chops aquiver with righteous indignation at the unchristian attitudes of the sculptures. In a brilliant display of Victorian understatement, he is said to have reported this discovery to his superiors in Calcutta, saying, “The sculptor had at times allowed his subject to grow a little warmer than there was any absolute necessity for his doing.” I prefer to linger, however, on the moment of unveiling, when, after travelling through the thick jungles of Central India, our discoverer Captain Burt — perhaps in the dying light of day — lay sights on temples that could very well have been carved in burnished gold.
I am stunned, I think, as dear Captain Burt must have been, at just how well-preserved these temples are. Of the three temple complexes (Western, Eastern and Southern), the Western group is almost pristine — for monuments over a thousand years old. Most of the panels, even those at eye-level, are surprisingly intact.
The antiquity is perceptible, of course. Some extremities of the multi-limbed Shivas and artistically contorted apsaras are missing, and noses and swooping eyebrows have been rubbed nearly flat with the passing of the years, but nothing that cannot be explained by nearly 11 centuries of rain and forest has happened here. And given the nature of the sculpture — erotic, sensual and religious — it is even more surprising that hordes of iconoclastic marauders have not shattered panels of ménage à trois in mid-orgasm.
Even the modern invader — the intrepid tourist — has not had a chance to leave his ‘Bunty loves Meenu’ mark on the temples anywhere. As the ghostly sculptors of Kharjuravahaka inform us in Bachchan’s timbre, this town was simply inaccessible. It would have taken extreme puritanical determination to forge a path through the surrounding hills and forests through to the temples. In recent years, these temples came under orthodox scrutiny by none other than the Father of the Nation himself, who wanted the temples to either be buried or destroyed for their erotic content. It took the alarmed intervention of Rabindranath Tagore to forestall such an event.
It is hard to imagine today that this pleasant town was once so inaccessible. A morning flight from Delhi, even after a delay, puts me in Khajuraho by noon, and I lunch within eyeshot of the temples before setting off with my notebook, stylus and Rajesh, my diligent photographer, in tow. On the way back to Delhi, I have the option of taking an overnight train to Nizamuddin — a very recent development.
The luck the temples have had has rubbed off on its precincts — I am yet to see a small tourist town in the hinterland of India as well-maintained and clean as this one. Declared a heritage site back in the 1980s, the world, through the auspices of Unesco, pays for the upkeep of Khajuraho. The citizenry pays back as well. The town is virtually crime-free, if you discount the theft of personal space by the scores of touts in the market area brandishing translations of the Kamasutra and cheap cotton kurtis in your face. Business after the Bombay tragedy has been thin this year, I am told by our self-appointed guide, escort and auto rickshaw driver, Mr Laloo.
The mornings and evenings are devoted to temple-hopping when the azure sky makes for the best picture-taking, but during the day we leave ourselves to the devices of our auto-man, who is prone to exaggerating numbers for the benefit of incredulous tourists. He charts out our itinerary, and we hop into his sturdy auto for a day trip out to the Pandav Falls and Panna National Park. How many temples were here, Mr Laloo? Thousands and thousands, madam. How old are they? Many thousands of years old, at the very least. How many tigers are in the park? Oh, who knows, maybe several thousands, madam! How old are the Pandav Falls? Madam, thousands of years old! And this is where Kunti mata cooked for her sons, madam. How old are you, Lalooji…?
There may not have been thousands of temples, as Mr Laloo opined, but archaeologists have identified 85 complexes, of which only 20 have survived. Perhaps my initial opinion stands to be revised. Wherever I look in the temple complexes, there are elaborate webs of metal scaffolding set up. The Archaeological Survey of India is conscientiously at work here, chemical-washing the sandstone sculptures and meticulously applying stone-strengthening chemicals to the monument façades. Eleven more mounds have been identified as potential temple sites and we are driven out to one, which, at a distance, looks like nothing more than a dusty hillock with a few craggy rocks sticking out from it. It is here that it really dawns on me, when I inadvertently step on the face of a sura sundari buried in the soil — the prodigious effort to find the temples, unearth its jigsaw pieces, put them back together into relative array, and keep the elements from wreaking any more havoc on them — what we see today in Khajuraho has not come easy.
This effort, or course, is not more than a fraction in the lifetimes devoted by the generations of Chandela sculptors. In an honest interlude during the son et lumière, the ghostly sculptors speak of the master craftsman, the architect and the king courteously offering each other the acknowledgment for the erection of the temples. We, the audience, are urged to remember the sculptor, however, whose craft it was that was ultimately responsible for what we see around us, and who is ironically left out of this ritualistic administration of credit. I do remember the sculptor in my circumambulations of the temples and am very happy that several panels are devoted to him at work. Even though the temples no longer serve their original purpose, the sculptor has succeeded in chiselling his way to immortality. None of the temples is in use, except for the Matangeswara temple (which houses a 10-ft Shivalinga) in the Western complex.
I may not know my plinth from my finial, but as I walk through the temples, I see the general faithfulness of spirit to which all the architects — sometimes separated from each other by a century and more — have adhered to. I am also struck by the indulgence of it all. There may be reams of paper devoted to the how and why of the erotica of these temples, but I find that they occupy at best a fraction of my perception. I am more captivated by the attention to the moment, whether it was a woman plucking a thorn from her foot, or giving her child a breast, or a man twisting the braid of a woman next to him, or even hiding his face in mirth or embarrassment as his mate demonstrates that the horse, and not the dog, is a man’s best friend. In the silence of the immaculate lawns, the temples fairly hum with energy. The statues leap and plié, fondle one another, wrestle mythical beasts and march in endless line of horse, elephant and man.
If, by some monumental tragedy of fate, the visitor had only a few hours to devote to these temples, I would suggest a leisurely walk around the entire Western complex, starting at the Lakshmana temple, followed by a slow plodding around the Kandariya Mahadeva temple with its copious intricacies, a gentle loop around the Chitragupta temple with its imposing Surya statue to the Nandi shrine, where I would suggest cheating a quick climb up the stairs to view the enormous bull sitting slightly off-kilter in all its bovine placidity. This, of course would be far from ideal….
A place like Khajuraho absolutely lends itself to legend — there are many stories of amorous gods, blushing maidens and griffin-like beasts. Mr Bachchan informs me that this wondrous town was built by the Chandelas, and that the moon god, Chandrama, had much to do with the conception of the first Chandela and the temples he and his descendants built. However, in the late spring daylight, I choose to believe my eyes, and believe that the sun had something to do with the venture — how else would the temples glow gold like this?