Those were the days

Life as they saw it: Khajuraho sculptors must have worked in a milieu where love, beauty, and sensuality is worth a visit. were normal life experiences.

Life as they saw it: Khajuraho sculptors must have worked in a milieu where love, beauty, and sensuality were normal life experiences.   -  Shutterstock

On the rocks: Orchha, famed for its temples and palaces, is on the banks of Betwa river. Photo: Monica Tiwari

On the rocks: Orchha, famed for its temples and palaces, is on the banks of Betwa river. Photo: Monica Tiwari   -  The Hindu

A visit to Khajuraho and Orchha mirrors freedoms that have ceased to be

“All the ladies seem very well-endowed,” I overhear an elderly Englishwoman, who seems somewhat embarrassed by the unabashed sensuousness of the innumerable nymphs sculpted on the outer walls of the 1,000-year-old Lakshman temple. The well-endowed ladies of Khajuraho’s temples are so lifelike, they might dance off the sandstone walls if you stare long enough. There’s something else too. They appear at ease, without the burden of shame, guilt or fear about their bodies or sexuality. Their body language is playful, graceful, yet assertive. They knew their desires and weren’t ashamed to express them. Very different from the women of our times. It’s not just the sculptors’ love of pleasure and beauty that is reflected in Khajuraho’s surasundaris and apsaras. Artists mirror the society they live in, and Khajuraho sculptors must have worked in a milieu where love, beauty, and sensuality were normal life experiences.

It’s a bright mid-November morning and we’ve set out early from the hotel for the western group of temples to beat the swarms of tourists likely to descend in an hour or two. But there are no swarms. A few tourists disembark from a couple of buses, but generally we have the vast temple grounds to ourselves. Across from the Vishawanath temple is an enclosure housing a gigantic, monolithic statue of Nandi, the bull-vehicle of Shiva. The temple guard makes me climb up and look straight through Nandi’s horns. “You will see the Shivling, madam if you concentrate.” I concentrate hard but see nothing other than the morning fog.

Going by the forlorn look on the faces of guide book and DVD sellers, tourists are keeping away. Even later in the day souvenir shops and restaurants on the main street of Khajuraho wear a vacant look. One sari-shop owner says: “ Jab se notebandi hua hai, karobar to khatam hi ho gaya. Logon ke paas paisa hi nahin (Business is finished since demonetisation. People have no money).”

There is a long queue outside a bank. The optimism of those waiting patiently is baffling. We sip tea and watch the line. “It’s only a matter of a few days. If we have to go through hardships to target black money, we don’t mind. There’s never been such a brave step taken by any other government in the history of India,” says one man.

Raneh Falls and Ken Gharial Sanctuary are only 18 km from Khajuraho so we don’t want to miss it. In November the waterfalls have vanished and our driver tells us there’s nothing much to see but we insist on experiencing the granite canyon in its post-monsoon splendour. Ken river, one of the most unpolluted in India, is a clean, green ribbon cutting through the jaggedness of the pink-and-grey granite walls of the canyon. There are no tigers, but with the help of our extremely knowledgeable guide, Durgesh, we sight several birds: kingfisher, black drongo, rose-ring parakeet, rufous treepie and, apparently, a rock martin’s nest. There are plenty of langurs. And a sand-coloured gharial basking on a sandbank is the grand finale of our morning. These few hours spent in the canyon has healed me at many levels for my return to concrete, crowds and civilisation.

The next day we set out for the village of Orchha. Our taxi driver, on the four-hour drive from Khajuraho to Orchha, chats about demonetisation and politics. He concludes: “BJP supports the Hindus. I’m a Hindu, so I support BJP, whether they’re right or wrong.” Pluralism, inclusivity, democracy and secularism have transmuted into fancy-chancy concepts buried in unreadable documents like the Constitution.

In Orchha, the Bundelkhand Riverside, a heritage hotel located on the banks of the Betwa river, is full of gracious, old-world charm. Our first night there is a supermoon night. A reddish supermoon rises above the roar of the Betwa around 6 pm. We sit on the steps of the zenana bagh in awe of the moonlight that is like milk poured over grass and river and boulders. Everything is visible, bathed in the milkiness, and the absence of neon makes the moonlight unforgettable.

Orchha is quiet and friendly and famed for its temples and palaces. According to local mythology, the Chaturbhuj temple was built to house the statue of Ram which the queen brought back on foot from Ayodhya, a journey that took 12 years.

After a lovely breakfast, a short tuk-tuk ride from the hotel brings us to the Orchha’s centre, dominated by the imposing Jehangir Mahal and the Chaturburj temple. Lonely Planet tells me Jehangir Mahal was built by the ruler of Orchha, Bir Singh Deo, in 1605, in honour of the Mughal emperor’s visit.

As we cross the bridge into the palace grounds, a couple of sadhus in saffron garb stop us. My friend jokes: “Baba, give me aashirvaad. I have to marry off my daughter and the boy’s family is asking for a lot of dowry.” After she drops a few coins, the babas pronounce their benediction: “ Jao, jao, shaadi ho jayegi. Bahut paisa nahi lagega. (Don’t worry. Your daughter’s marriage will take place. You won’t have to spend too much money.)”

We reach Jhansi railway station for our return journey and hand the taxi driver the new ₹2000 note. He muses on the subtler psychological effects of sudden changes: “The old ₹500 notes used to feel solid. This new note is so thin... It feels like I’ve worked hard but earned nothing.”

Travel log

Getting there

There are daily flights to Khajuraho from Delhi via Varanasi. Also from Delhi — Sampark Kranti Express is a direct train to Khajuraho.

Stay

Hotel Zen in Khajuraho is inexpensive and close to the western group of temples, has a lovely garden and friendly staff but the rooms aren’t super clean.

Eat

Raja Dhaba in Alipura on the highway midway between Jhansi and Khajuraho has delicious food. Ram Raj Café near Jahangir Mahal in Orchha serves freshly brewed coffee.

Tip

Chandreshekhar Azad Smarak in Orchha is worth a visit.

Nighat Gandhi is the author of Ghalib at Dusk and Other Stories

Published on December 30, 2016

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