Nothing I had read, or heard had prepared me for Khajuraho.
It is not hard to imagine a temple town in India: take a few ancient sandstone temples, fill them up with religious crowds, add a handful of foreign tourists; line its streets with cheap hotels, dot its squares with beggars and touts; finish off with piles of garbage and a few stray animals. This is the picture in my mind when my train arrives at the Khajuraho junction on a crisp, cold morning.
Set amidst fields of mustard, the railway station at Khajuraho hardly looks functional. The station is just five years old and only a handful of trains pass through it. Most passengers here are from the neighbouring towns of Panna and Chhatarpur. Khajuraho gets the minimum — and mostly tourist — footfall.
If the station with its desolate and picturesque setting surprises me, the drive to the hotel prepares me for the town. Lined with shady trees, flanked by fields and the occasional ruin, the road is quiet and refreshing. But it is not until I see the main square of the town, where the Maharaja of Khajuraho lives in his palace, right next to the western group of temples, that I realise Khajuraho is not the town of my imagination. With no chaos or crowd, it is different from other temple towns, as are its temples.
Standing tall in a sprawling lawn against a sparkling blue sky, the seven main temples of Khajuraho together constitute the western group and are a part of the UNESCO world heritage list. More than a thousand years old (the earliest are supposed to have been built around 900 AD), the temples lie scattered, some at an arms distance from the gate, others at the far end of the compound.
The temples in Khajuraho share both design and layout. They are built on a high plinth, with multiple ascending spires, which are believed to be inspired by the peaks of the Himalayas. The larger temples, like the Lakshmana, Vishvanatha and Kandariya Mahadeva, are accompanied by smaller temples; the not so large ones stand alone. Their interior and exterior — and sometimes the platforms too — are adorned with figures of gods, goddesses, nymphs, humans and animals. It is among these depictions of life that the famous — or infamous — erotic sculptures can also be spotted.
Although erotica forms less than 10 per cent of Khajuraho’s rich sculpture heritage, it remains the most popular aspect of the temples. Whether it is the guide who promises to show you the ‘important points’, or the souvenir shops in and around the complex that sell ‘kamasutra’ as books, cards, magnets, or even pens, everyone wants to cash in on the sexual element of the temples. Guides can be seen highlighting the poses and postures to their awestruck clients; tourists, in turn, ensure they have every sculpture – and pose – safely captured on their cameras.
“The temples, if you notice, depict all stages of human life – from birth to death. Only when you perform all your worldly duties can you gain moksha, and what is kama but another responsibility that each one of us has to fulfil?” asks the young caretaker at Parshuram temple. He then highlights the other aspects of the temples: the mythical animal that looks like a dragon, Ganga and Jamuna, who stand on the gates of the garbhagriha to cleanse devotees, the pillars engraved with keechak holding the spire with his bare hands. There are also scenes from gurukuls, war fields and musical performances.
Parshuram is one of the many temples around town in various degrees of decay. These are not a part of the world heritage list and comparatively draw far fewer visitors than their grander counterparts. Set among the tiny houses, hutments, and even schools, these temples are surprisingly well kept. Some are even used for worship by the locals. It is clear that the people of Khajuraho take pride in — and are protective of — their heritage.
The main attraction of the town, however, remains the central square. It is the only part of the town with places to eat and shop; this is also where the tourist population congregates in the evening for the sound and light show.
The lawns at the western group are dark and cold, and the grass beneath my feet moist with dew when I step in for the show. I spot constellations in the clear sky, and among them the odd airplane too. Within a few minutes, the lawns — and the temples inside — come alive with the trains of classical music and hues of red, orange, green and yellow. The deep, throaty voice of Amitabh Bachchan soon begins to narrate the story of Khajuraho.
“On a full moon night in Kashi many, many centuries ago, Hemvati, the extraordinarily beautiful daughter of the royal priest, decides to bathe in a pond full of lotuses. So enchanting is her youth that the moon, who is watching her from above, descends on earth to meet her. They fall in love and do what all lovers do. When it is time for the moon to leave, Hemvati is worried: how will she bear the burden of their love child alone? The moon tells her to go far away from Kashi, to the forests of Khajuraho, and bring up their son there. The son named Chandravarman grows up to be a valiant young man and an illustrious king. He goes on to establish the Chandela dynasty, sets up the city of Kalinjar, and lays the foundation of Khajuraho — a legacy that his descendants carry forward for generations until the fall of the dynasty 150years later. With time — and with the fall of the empire — the temples get buried under thick forests and remain hidden from the world for almost 500 years until a British engineer accidentally discovers them.”
While I sit transfixed by the story of Hemvati and Chandravarman, Kalinjar and Khajuraho, a full bright moon rises behind me, wistfully listening to the tale of his love being told yet again.