We stepped off the train platform into the twilight and I actually shivered for the first time in India when a cool night breeze swept through. Even at this hour, the tuk tuks are insistent, so we shared a ride into town with a Scottish man from our train. The landscape here was much different, from what I could make out in the dark, with tall leafy trees, bridges over streams, and green grass. We didn’t have any reservations, so we knocked on the door of a hotel in the middle of town and luckily they had an extra room for us. We showered and napped for hours, with no desire to see the sights until we felt better.
After breakfast at the Rock and Roll Cafe (with no rock and roll music to be heard) we walked down the dusty Main Street to the Western Temples. Along the way, we were bombarded with people trying to get us to come to their shop, eat in their restaurant, or hop in their tuk tuk. It was overwhelming and it took all my patience to not shout in their faces to go away.
Seeing the ancient intricately carved temples was well worth the hassle. Here’s how the guidebook describes them:
The temples are superb examples of Indo- Aryan architecture, but it’s their liberally embellished carvings that have made Khajuraho famous throughout India and the world. Around the outsides of the temples are bands of exceedingly artistic stonework showing a storyboard of life a millennium ago – gods, goddesses, warriors, musicians, and real and mythological animals.
Two elements appear repeatedly – women and sex. Sensuous, posturing surasun- daris (heavenly nymphs), apsaras (dancing surasundaris) and nayikas (mortal surasundaris) have been carved with a half- twist and slight sideways lean that make the playful figures dance and swirl out from the temple. The mithuna (pairs, threesomes etc of men and women depicted in erotic poses) display the great skill of the sculptors and the dexterity of the Chandelas.
It felt almost like a treasure hunt, trying to use the guidebook to find the naughty carvings, usually just casually thrown in next to a sculpture of a goddess or an elephant. These well preserved temples were carved with such intricate detail in 984 AD, before any modern machinery was invented. Another astonishing part to me is the sexual liberation this culture has compared to the extremely conservative way Indian society treats the female body. I don’t understand how a society can devolve from celebrating sexuality to forcing women to cover up from head to toe. Each temple was dedicated to a different god, and the sun god temple was built facing the east so the first rays of sunrise would illuminate the inside of the temple. It was so tranquil inside the complex of temples since there were walking paths, shady trees, flowers, and a sense of serenity that is hard to obtain in the chaotic streets of India.
We were both still feeling tired and sick, so we headed back to the hotel to watch movies and research our next trip destination.
We slept in late, still a little sick and starting to get worn out by India. By this point, we’d been traveling for almost four months and we were feeling saturated. A friend of ours described it as us being sponges, soaking up all the sights and sounds and smells we could, but now our sponges were full and it was becoming hard for us to appreciate everything with fresh eyes. Also, the constant scams and insincerity we were experiencing in India were getting tiring, and it turns out they would only get worse that day.
Each time we left the hotel, there was this kid that followed us around everywhere. He even sat down with us at our breakfast table until the restaurant owner kicked him out. I don’t mind having a quick conversation while we’re walking down the street, but the 8 year-old was persistent and attached himself to us within thirty seconds of leaving the front steps. He boasted about all the languages he could speak (French, Spanish, Italian, Korean) and then only said a few numbers in each language. He even tried to sell us on getting bicycles, insisting that he could rent them for cheap since he was an Indian. The selling scams start young here.
However annoying he was, he insisted on following us around to see the Eastern Temples and showed us around his entire village. Soon a whole crowd of children were guiding us down the narrow dirt lanes of the village, pointing out their houses and telling stories about when the mango tree fell down, all of them claiming to be descendants of the Chandela family that built the ancient temples. We offered to buy the boys some ice pops to thank them for their help, but they refused and insisted they don’t take money. The boy led us to his school, which was a cement hut with a few chairs and many young children sitting on the floor in uniforms. The head teacher sat us down as soon as we arrived and explained how the school ran on donations from foreigners who visit the school. He shoved a book in front of us that was full of comments other travelers had written about the school. We felt pretty obligated to donate and make up some nice things to say.
Our miniature unofficial tour guides brought us to the Jain enclosure, which had even more ancient temples with similar carving styles, without the risqué depictions. Several of the enclosure walls were covered in serious vegan and anti-abortion propaganda. They showed graphic images of animal cruelty and cartoons of what meat supposedly does to your body. It all seemed a bit extreme to me.
As we were heading into town, the main boy started telling us about how all the other kids in school have lesson books, but he and his friend didn’t have money for their books. He claimed his father wouldn’t give him the money for it, so he asked us to pay for his books. Some may think we’re heartless, but we’ve been dealing with weeks worth of scams, so you have to understand that this goes on at every age. If he had taken us to the bookstore, I would have considered buying it, but he wanted the money for the books, which I had no way of knowing if it actually existed or not. Instead, we treated them to cold drinks and crackers, which they accepted.
Byron headed off to have pan (the leaf snack we tried in Kolkata) and chai with some local guys while I stayed at the hotel, somewhat frustrated by the fact that I can’t safely go anywhere without a male presence.
He returned an hour or so later and told me we were invited to have dinner at one of the local men’s houses. We hopped on the back of one of their motorcycles and they took us past the eastern temples, through the old village, and out to a farmhouse in the middle of fields and cows. It turned out the guy that owned the house was the one that started the school we visited earlier. He lived in this house by himself, which was weird because he was 37 and unmarried, and most Indians live with their parents until they get married. We sat on the floor with the teacher and his two friends, awkwardly looking around when they would go off into a conversation only in Hindi. We asked about dinner and they said they wanted to talk for a few hours and then go into town to get the ingredients. Feeling awkward, we tried to speed the process along by saying we were hungry and offered to go along to see where they get their ingredients.
Byron and I got back on motorcycle with one of the guys to head back into town. The man took us to a paneer shop (cheese), ordered half kilo and then said to us, “You can pay the man 200 rupees”. Now, we were completely prepared to chip in and didn’t expect a free meal. However, all we brought was 200 rupees because that’s more than what dinner for two costs in a tourist restaurant. We offered the 200 but explained this was all we had, but the guy said, “Oh, well you’re gonna need at least double that for the other ingredients”. We definitely weren’t expecting to pay for everyone’s meal, especially since we were the guests, but he kept trying to guilt us into footing the entire bill. We apologized, said our goodbyes, and ate at a tourist restaurant. Later we found out that paneer should only cost half of what the guy told us, so he probably had worked out a deal with the shop owner to charge us more. It just makes me so disheartened when things like that happen and you want to believe you can have an authentic experience with locals without entering a scam. Sadly, it really put a damper on our experience in Kujaraho, and if it weren’t for the amazing temples, I would never consider coming back.