Khajuraho The Mundane And The Erotic

The Chandella rulers who commissioned the temples had clearly intended them to be a class act
Stone carvings, Khajuraho     Photo credit Dmitry Rukhlenko/Shutterstock
Stone carvings, Khajuraho Photo credit Dmitry Rukhlenko/Shutterstock

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.

We had made an appointment with a tourist guide to meet outside the temple precincts. 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.

He was a slender, pale-skinned young man, with an air of melancholy clinging to his shoulders, like a shawl made of sighs. It was so obvious that some secret sorrow was gnawing at his soul that my sister, whose instincts as a journalist are tuned to register the least anomalies in human behaviour, immediately began to interrogate him. He had not even started on his tea when she had uncovered the fact that he had been a guide at Khajuraho for eleven years but at the age of thirty-eight, was still single. &ldquoMy goodness&rdquo said Geeta, struggling to keep the conversation light, &ldquoThat&rsquos...unusual, isn&rsquot it A bachelor at thirty-eight&rdquo To this, the guide said, wincing and growing paler still, &ldquoI...I got divorced. Three months ago.&rdquo

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. &ldquoHere you see,&rdquo he would say, indicating a writhing couple, &ldquoa 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...&rdquo 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&rsquot 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.

Be that as it may, it was clear that the revellers depicted on the temple walls could afford to devote their entire lives to frolicking. All the women were jewelled and coiffed &mdash and so were the men. No five o&rsquoclock shadows, no business suits, and everyone had dimpled, well-fed bellies. I did not discern any farmers or labourers with amorous intent over village belles, nor any ayahs, fishwives or mothers. Indeed there seemed a noticeable unconcern with procreation, as if the civilisation that sponsored the carvings had a knowledge of contraception more elegant than any known today. There was no sign, among the carvings, of the fumbling for douches and other devices that would today be required to sustain an athletic many-partnered sex life. Or perhaps that was the true meaning of the scorpions A scorpion a day keeps the baby away &mdash perhaps the entire complex had been intended as an elaborate family-planning campaign

But our guide was not of the temperament that encouraged frivolity so I didn&rsquot 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&rsquos probably all for the best that we will never know. The existing temples appear to have already exhausted the store of possible &mdash and even impossible, since some positions clearly required one partner to levitate &mdash erotic situations. Even our indefatigable guide, towards the end of the tour, was content to point our gaze in the appropriate direction while saying, &ldquo...and here, as you can see, they are busy...&rdquo

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&rsquod never have seen it if it was not for our guide&rsquos determination to explain every last wriggle on display. It would have been a fitting note on which to end our stay in Khajuraho &mdash except that it didn&rsquot 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&rsquos 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&rsquot 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 &mdash these were her words &mdash &ldquodebasing himself,&rdquo by eating mud and removing his clothes in public.

&nbspEleven years as a guide to the temples of love might do that to any sane person, I thought. There&rsquos just so much one can take of rising scorpions and heaving buttocks, all in unyielding stone. The guide&rsquos 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.

&nbspPerhaps 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&rsquos 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 &mdash these are what institutional art typically focuses on. But jokes It&rsquos rare. I went away with the sound of ancient laughter ringing in my ears, glad for once to have been a tourist.

The Information

Getting there Khajuraho is the nearest airport. Khajuraho has a railway station, but only a few trains halt there. Mahoba is the nearest major railhead, 63 km away.

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