This region of Madhya Pradesh has many interesting places. Near Satna is a village named Bharhut, the site of a Buddhist stupa from where many rich artistic sculptures were excavated. North of Satna is the famous fort of Kalinjar. A little farther is a similar fort at Ajaygarh. With limited time on my hands it is not possible to see everything of this vast country with many centuries of rich legacy. Choices have to be made. I head straight for Khajuraho, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The place to get off along the highway is Bamitha. Shared jeeps and auto-rickshaws are frequent from here to Khajuraho 11 kms away. I jump into the boot of such a rickshaw that’s already packed in the front. The short drive to the famous village is through broad well-paved roads cutting through rural scenes typical of a dry Indian landscape. The breeze is cool and the afternoon softly warm. I am already getting to like Khajuraho.
I get off at the bus station. The auto-driver says he will not go into the village about 2 kms away. His service runs only till the bus station.
‘Where is the temple?’ I ask the him naively.
‘There are 22 temples here,’ he says. ‘Perhaps you might consider hiring an auto for the whole afternoon?’ he adds.
Obviously I have not done much research. I had assumed there is only one famous temple.
‘Are the temples close to one another?’ I ask hopefully. Clearly not a question for an auto-driver.
‘Very far,’ comes back the expected reply.
I had thought of moving on to Orchha for the night. I have to halt here for the night. It is not possible to see so much in just a few hours. For an extra fifteen rupees, I ask him to take me to the village near the Western Group of temples where I can find rooms. The village is just a kilometer away. I bargain a room down to Rs. 250 a night and check into Hotel Jain. Hotels runs by Jains are impeccably clean just as their bright and calming temples.
The driver is persistent. ‘The temples are all far from each other. You will need to hire a vehicle,’ he protested even after my repeated refusals.
‘I prefer to walk and take my time at each temple,’ I say confidently. I have a lingering doubt that he might be right. The map in my hands shows the temples scattered around town. The map has no scale.
‘On foot, you may have to cover 20 kms,’ he says by way of intimidation.
Finally, a number. Numbers are wonderful. They give assurance. Within seconds they dispel uncertainty. They define the boundary between what’s possible and what’s not. They put aside doubts and hopeful guesses.
‘Twenty kilometers is easy. I am still young and I have a whole day ahead of me,’ I conclude.
The poor fellow lingers around for a few more minutes until he is finally convinced that he can get nothing out of my miserly being.
For the first time in my travels I see lots of foreign tourists. When they disembark from their ari-conditioned coaches in large groups, they clearly outnumber Indians. Elderly Japanese and French tourists are common. So are young backpackers and couples. Less common are the solitary wanderers to which I belong.
There are 22 surviving temples of the original 85. Khajuraho is famous for its erotic scupltures, poses of Kama Sutra depicted in stone. Except for the Jain temples on the Eastern side of town, the Western Group has the best of eroticism. In many cases, the couple’s limbs are so entwined that it is not immediately apparent which leg belongs to whom. A guide pointed at the trance-like expression of these couples. In one case, I observed at the Lakshmana Temple, the forefinger of the make figure lightly touching his thumb, clearly a meditative mudra. Sex was the union of male and female energies, a path to bliss and liberation. It was to the medieval people Tantric Yoga for inner realization.
When these temples were built between 10th and 12th centuries, Jainism was prominent. Some say the erotic sculptures were a way to deter men from going into monkhood and enter family life.
There is more to Khajuraho than just erotic art. Common scenes of daily life are wonderfully sculpted. More than the details of jewellery oor dresses, it is the round voluptuous forms of female figures that are the real gems of Khajuraho. The shrine of Varaha with its exquisite more-than-life-size image is unique. Also unique is a temple dedicated to Vamana, one of Vishnu’s avatars. In an extraordinary spirit of tolerance, the Jain temples contain many Hindu images. One of the Jain temples has a outer shrine at the back wall of the sanctum, in a manner echoing what I have recently seen at Alampur.
Architecturally, the temples are highly developed. Many contain ardha mandapa, mandapa, maha madapa, antarala and garbha griha. Some contain an ambulatory. Some have elevated balconies on the sides leading out from the maha mandapa. While every part of these temples is packed with details, in and out, it is the view of the Kandariya Mahadeo from a distance that is most striking. The temple shikara towers loftily like a mountainous peak with the pinnacles of lesser shikaras crowding it on all sides and levels. It is truly a magnificent sight in all of Khajuraho.
Despite what I had been told, I have managed to cover all the temples on foot including the distant Chaturbhuj Temple across the River Khudar. The walks took me past some village settlements in and around Khajuraho. The villagers look and stare. Village women are quick to cover their faces completely with their sarees. It is not normal for tourists to come this way. They normally hire a vehicle or cycle around town along the main roads.
The highlight of this morning’s walk was quite unexpected and not at all related to temple art or architecture. Within a span of fifteen minutes, between 7.45 am and 8.00 am, I spotted twenty different species of birds. They were sunning themselves on treetops and wayside bushes. Their morning calls filled the air. I am no expert to name these birds of the Indian countryside, many of which I had sighted for the first time in my life. The ones I recognized were the mynah, the common kingfisher, the Indian robin, the green parrot and the rent-vented bulbul.