Friday, November 4, 2011

Khajuraho – Making Friends among the Erotic Temples

In front of one of the Temples of Khajuraho
We left Varanasi on a short (45 min.) Jet Airways flight.  Of course, the airport was confusing but luckily our handler, Hareesh gave Frank a good tutorial on airport procedure in this country.  Interestingly enough, the Hindu security system forms 2 separate lines, one for the guys, and one for the girls.  Yep, just like back when you were still in grade school, they keep the sexes apart.  The flight however, was comfortable and pleasant.
The town of Khajuraho with a population of about 20,000 is a refreshing change from Varanasi.  Altho a busy place too, it is by comparison a sleepy, small town out in rural India -- sellers and touts are still waiting for us every time we step out of the hotel, but they give up quickly because we have now learned a few choice Hindi words, like “nay-hee, soonia” which means “no, excuse me”, or, if you want to be a little more emphatic, “pagal”, which means “get lost”.  We settled into our new place, a nice cheapie hotel with surprisingly large rooms called the Hotel Harmony.  Even in this budget hotel, all the floors are made of the most gorgeous marble and granite. Then, we headed for Khajuraho’s reason for being: the ancient temples with their Kama Sutra-inspired carvings.
The Angkor Wat-like temples of Khajuraho
Our latest guide, Anu is a University-educated art historian with a good sense of humor.  We began at the Western Group of temples and immediately saw cone-shaped temples that reminded us of Angkor Wat, the famous temples of Cambodia.  Anu agreed with the comparison but proudly told us that these temples are 300 hundred years older than Angkor!  Just like Angkor, these temples were totally covered by the jungle vegetation and were only rediscovered accidentally in the mid-1800’s by a Brit named of T.S. Burt doing a geographically survey in the area.
The temples were built during a time of religious upheaval when newer religions like Buddhism were competing with Hinduism.  The new religions were highly spiritual, seeking a pure existence free of material things.  This was confusing to the Hindus who are pretty much good time boys and girls who thoroughly enjoy the physical world.  The Hindu book known as the “Kama Sutra” was written specifically to glorify sex as an essential part of life and an integral part of the Hindu religion.  These temples are covered with carvings of Kama Sutra positions for the purpose of celebrating the physical side of love.
Erotic sculputres of Khajuraho
Anu happily pointed out the interesting sex positions and associated contortions, as well as the erotic highlights of these statuettes, often supplying his own names to the positions, like one he called “The Quickie.”  He also warned us with a grimace and a follow-up wink not to “try this at home.”  Beyond the obvious eroticism, the sculptures are amazingly lifelike with a grace and movement way ahead of its time (and more skilled than the carvings at Angkor).  Some of these sculptures could rival Michelangelo’s works for their detailed knowledge of human anatomy.  Anne’s favorite was a beautiful sculpture of a woman holding up her foot to remove a thorn in her heel – the accurate depiction of her twisted form was truly remarkable.  (We would describe Frank’s favorite sculpture, but this trip report is rated G, so you will have wait for our Photo Gallery to see the X rated lot!  Let’s just say it involved some serious gymnastic ability and fell into the “do not try this at home” category.)
Don't try this at home!
But even more than a portrayal of interesting sexual positions, these statues provide a kind of Rosetta stone which storyboards facets of life at that time (circa 1000 AD), depicting musical instruments, domesticated animals as well as mythical creatures, gods and goddesses, warriors and their weapons, daily dress and hairdos, and the simple tools of the day.
Next, we visited the Eastern Group of temples which were built by a group called the Jains.  The Jains are an unusual religious group unique to India that were one of those newer religions like Buddhism. It began about 2600 years ago, and Jainism exists only here and has never spread to any other country.  These folks are known for their strict regimentation, their repudiation of the material world, and for an extreme respect for all forms of life.  The most devout Jain monks even gave up wearing clothing – they would walk around naked wearing only a mask over their mouths to prevent accidentally inhaling (and thus killing) an insect.  The sculptures here are not erotic, but focus on everyday life duties. They include many sculptures that look just like the Buddha except that the Jain statues have a diamond carved in the middle of the chest.
Kandariya dancers
That night, we attended a delightful light-hearted dance performance at the Kandariya Art & Culture Center.  These events tend to be very touristy, but, like tonight, once in a while they can be quite good.  This was a spirited performance of traditional Indian folk dances by an energetic and earnest group of young svelte dancers.  The costumes were extremely colorful, and the lively music has clearly inspired Bollywood!

Open jeep for jungle exploration

The following day we rode to Raneh Falls in an open jeep.  The falls were a bit disappointing because much of the water had been diverted for irrigation, but the variety of rock (granite, jasper, basalt, quartz) contrasted with the green water of the lake created a picturesque spot. 

Langur monkey stares at us as we invade his jungle
 We also went on “safari” through the surrounding jungle where we saw peacocks (India’s national bird), Langur monkeys, antelopes, and spotted deer.  We had hoped to see crocodiles, but no luck there.  (Poor Frank still hasn’t recovered from the disappointment of not seeing crocodiles in the wild when we were in the Daintree Rainforest in Australia 6 years ago.  Looks like India will be not much better.)

Woman cooking a meal for her family in her primitve kitchen

What made the jaunt in the jeep most fun was having an unobstructed view of the villages that we passed through as we traveled to and from the falls.  We even stopped at one village home where a young woman churned goat’s milk in a demo of how to make butter, and then showed us her primitive outside kitchen, where she sat on the dirt floor and tended to a few pots that were brewing unknown food-stuff over a small open fire.  As we drove by, we got a terrific view of village life and lots of friendly waves and “hallos” from the locals.  By the way, you have to picture Frank standing up in the back of this jeep holding onto the roll bar, taking pictures and waving to the locals – it was like “return of the Maharajah!”
Uddam (left), Anne, and Jyote Das
Back in town, we decided to brave the touts and go for a walk.  Anne found some great souvenirs and Frank did some fun dickering with the street vendors.  Then, we ran into a young Hindu couple we had met yesterday at the temples.  Jyote and Uddam Das were very sweet young newlyweds – we think they are enamored of all things American and that’s why they really took a liking to us.  They wanted to buy us something to eat from one of the vendors along the dusty main drag, but Anne got nauseous just looking at the street food that they wanted to treat us to, and the cooking methods and utensils used.  We finally settled on a fresh juice stand.  Anne still had visions of a full night on the crapper dancing through her head, but we just couldn’t insult these nice people who only wanted to be friendly.  Luckily, we had no repercussions from the juice.  One odd thing was when Jyote and Uddam showed us all the jewelry they were wearing and told us the price they paid for each piece.  Anne had read that rather than deposit money in the bank, Indians will invest in gold jewelry, and wear it.  These kids were obviously quite proud of their gold acquisitions, so I guess this whole gold discussion was like taking a look at their stock portfolio!
We exchanged email addresses with our new friends, and for some reason, they give us a ton of contact information: 3 or 4 email addresses each, along with an assortment of cell phone numbers.  They seemed stunned when we tell them we don’t have a cell phone.
Chowing down on the roof terrace of the
 Mediteranneo Restaurant
A word about the food:  For those of you who may not know, stomach ailments are quite common for travelers in India, and we have to be very careful.  We obviously cannot drink the water, so we use bottled water for almost everything including brushing our teeth.  We also clean all of our silverware using beer, hot tea, or some strong booze from the flask of 100 proof whiskey that Frank brought along just for this purpose.  We are also eating mostly vegetarian food with some chicken (any other meat is iffy).  Frank loves the spicy hot foods and soups, and the fabulous unleavened breads, but it could create some embarrassing situations if you consume too much of their spices.  Anne is a big fan of paneer, a solid cottage cheese that is cut into cubical chunks (looks like tofu) and served with various vegetable sauces.
Raneh Falls in the Indian wilderness
For the most part, we have been eating at our hotels, which works out well – their food is pretty safe and convenient too.  In Varanasi, we ate dinner at a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant called The Brown Bread restaurant.  What an experience.  The restaurant was in the Old City, so it looked like a real dump on the outside – a typical Varanasi hovel-type place carved from stone with a narrow stairway to the 2nd floor.  The decorum of the restaurant was raised up stone cubicles where the patrons sat on a thin mattress at a low table using cushions to support their backs – sort of “sultan” style.  The ambience was further enhanced by an old man with flowing white hair playing the sitar alongside a bongo player.  Anne thought it was romantic (like eating in a Kasbah), and she could easily picture the expats of the 60’s hanging out in a place like this.  Frank thought the seating horribly uncomfortable and impractical, and was very leery of the overall food sanitation.  Surprisingly, the food was fabulous, and nobody had repercussions.

Young Indian boys entertain us at the Jain Temples
Another challenge here in India has to do with the plumbing in the bathrooms.  Hotel Harmony is a good example.  Nobody seems to know how to make a decent bathroom in this country! This bathtub shower kluge of spigots and water delivery devices looked like an overthought control panel on some kind of primitive Flash Gordon space craft. It had five knobs with which to play around with to somehow make the water flow, two faucets, and one showerhead.  In order to take a shower, you had to turn on the two lower knobs, one for hot and one for cold, which caused water to flow out of the two faucets.  Once you had what seemed like a good balance between hot and cold water, you moved on to the upper dials which activated the showerhead, adjusting these dials between hot and cold also.  By the way, this whole operation is conducted as you stand perched on the ledge on the side of the bathtub (to avoid being either scalded or frozen when the water comes on suddenly).  And of course, after you finish your shower, you have to reverse the whole process.  Additionally, there are all sorts of unexplained water valves all around the bathroom that don’t seem to do anything.  Also, there are lots of spigots protruding from the walls at ankle height, and they are easy to trip on if you are not watching your step. Thank God, Frank the engineer sorted this all out – otherwise Anne would have been taking a sponge bath at the sink!

Standard road hazards of India

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