If Sanchi is balm to soothe the travellers soul, then Khajuraho is the herbal bubble bath that goes with it. Lonely Planet warns you that the touts and auto-rickshaw drivers here in Khajuraho will drive you insane and bother you to death. Lonely Planet, I say, you obviously wrote this before you went to Jaipur.
We arrive ahead of time. Yes you heard that right, we were on an Indian train and we arrived ahead of time. And ain’t that always the case when you want a little more sleep?
How to get to Khajuraho
We’d taken the train from Bhopal to Jhansi Junction. From there where we hiked 750 metres to the incompetent Hotel Tulsi to spend a few hours. It was an early start for our 2am train, which set off just a few minutes late.
The train from Jhansi is in two parts. One goes to Manikpur Junction and the other to Khajuraho. The online timetable shows only Manikpur. I only panic internally standing on the platform, seeing my train number but not the correct destination. Finally someone takes pity and tells me that the Khajuraho part of the train is at that end. And of course it is. So, after 4 hours we arrived at the newest station we’ve been to.
Khajuraho Station to Khajuraho Town
Khajuraho station opened in 2008 and still looks pretty good. There are two platforms and it’s about 8 kilometres from the village itself. The airport is closer than the train station. There’s no bus, just auto rickshaws and taxis.
Cost from Khajuraho Station to Town
We meet Aju who lives in a local village and he takes us in his auto for 100 INR to the Hotel Zen. All the while he tells us that the hotels that you prebook are never the same as what they look like on the Internet. We know, Aju, we know. He says that you get a better deal – perhaps a room for 500 INR if you turn up in person. I wonder if that means our 300 INR a night pre booked room is a great deal or a hell hole.
It’s a great deal. You might only get Internet in the room if you stand on the edge of the balcony, ok outside the room. However, the internet access speed is too slow to do much. The view over the surrounding fields is sublime and makes up for it. This sleepy little village means we pretty much spend the who day snoozing and catching up on a few bad nights sleep.
It’s a tiny place, Khajuraho. It’s now purely here for tourism purposes, although, a millenium ago, the city here stretched for 21 square kilometres.
Now all that remains are temples. And what incredible temples they are.
These are the Khajuraho temples that house and display erotic carvings….
Known for its ornate temples, among the most beautiful medieval monuments in India, the temples were built by the Chandella rulers between AD900 and AD1022. 25 temples remain from a local list of 85 and while three temples are built of granite, the remainder are from fine grained sandstone in a variety of shades.
Unesco World Heritage Khajuraho
Inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage list of sites for their “outstanding universal value” and “human creative genius”, the temples and the town disappeared from public consciousness after the decline of the Chandellas in the 13th century. It was TS Burt, a British engineer who ventured into the jungle and made the discovery in 1838.
Khajuraho Temple Design Principles
Each of the temples follows a similar basic design premise. There is no enclosure wall, and they are erected on a platform (jagati), which also provides an open walkway around the outside of the temple. They run east to west. There is an entrance porch (ardha-mandapa), a hall (mandapa), a vestibule (antarala) and a sanctum. Larger temples also have a transept and an inner ambulatory.
The Temple Groups
There are three groups of temples – named for their cardinal location compared to the village. The Eastern Group is about 1.5 kilometres away, the Southern Group a little further and both these two groups are free. Yes. Free. Although you might want to rent a bike or an auto-rickshaw from town to get there and back.
The Western Group of Temples
We focus on the Western Group, the best preserved ones, right here in the village and of course the ones you have to pay for. This time its only 25 times what domestic tourists have to pay – 250 INR compared to 10 INR. And as all the audio guides (113 INR for foreigners) are out on loan – actually it looks like most of them are broken, we make do with buying the Archeological Society of India’s guide to Khajuraho. The AIS has started discounting these. They’re now 60 INR compared to the usual 100 INR and provide a great deal of background, maps and indeed details of how to get to India as well as the location itself.
Is it Wall to Wall Erotic Carvings?
In reading about Khajuraho you come expecting that its going to be wall to wall erotic carvings and of course it’s not. It’s like those “naughty mags” that used to be on the top shelf of the newsagents years ago. You know, the ones that everyone used to sniggger about, that are probably either under the counter or in plain covers now. Put it this way, you’re more than likely going to get a crick in your neck looking for the eroticism here.
The temples are quite stunning, and the site is fabulously kept. Here in the Western Group there are 10 temples to see – the most magnificent are the first and last ones that we see.
Lakshim and Varaha Temples
The plan is easy to follow- we walk around in a clockwise fashion – finding the tiny Lakshim and Varaha (the boar incarnation of Vishnu) temples first, opposite the entrance to the magnificent Lakshamana Temple. It’s raining in fits and starts, so we spend quite a bit of time here, sheltering
This temple is the earliest and best preserved of the evolved temples. The carving is quite spectacular and the elephant frieze around the basement is beautiful.
Leaving the Lakshamana temple behind us we head to end furthermost point in the Western Temple complex. Here on a single raised platform are three temples. First, the Kandariya-Mahadev temple – its the largest in Khajuraho and is decorated with 84 smaller replicas of itself.
There are three bands of friezes and again the carvings are truly, truly stunning. The sculptures are taller and more slender on this temple than the others, although improbable boobs reign on all the temples as do provocative poses and sultry looks.
Next to this temple is the tiny ruined Siva temple – the sanctum has gone, leaving just the portico. Someone has taken up residence here and we don’t venture much further. It’s always hard to tell in temples if folks are official, semi-official and what their role is. Money is generally involved.
The final temple on this platform is the Jagadambi Temple – named for the image of Parvati which is now enshrined in it’s sanctum, although the temple was originally dedicated to Vishnu. The guide tells us to look for “erotic couples, distinguished by a rare sensitivity and an expression of intense absorption and rapture which transcend from the physical to the spiritual plane”. We crick our neck and snap photos hoping we capture the right ones..
Heading back towards the front of the complex the grounds are lovely. They’re very well kept gardens that, perhaps because of the weather are pleasantly empty. It’s no hardship that we’re taking this really slowly.
Nandi Bull, Khajuraho
The final group of temples starts with the Nandi (Bull) Shrine and houses, of course a huge bull. We approach Nandi via a flight of steps which are flanked by elephants. Steps on the other side are flanked by a pair or lions.
Here we find a massive image of Nandi ( Siva’s bull-vehicle). Its 2.2 metres long and 1.8 metres high and it directly faces the entrance of the Visvanatha Temple. Spectacular carvings of elephants decorate the exterior.
There’s maintenance work going on at the Visvanatha Temple, but entrance is still allowed to this temple which enshrines a linga and which is famous for (again) it’s erotic couples, a sura-sundari playing a flute and another plucking a thorn from her foot. Of course we miss these and have to make do with the photos from the guide book.
The Last Two Temples – Western Group
The two final temples are a Parvati temple on the same platform as the Visavanatha Temple and a new temple. The new one was built by the maharaja of Chhattarpur about a hundred years ago.
Khajuraho is a sleepy little town – the Lonely Planet warned us that the touts would drive us nuts. Clearly that writer hadn’t been to Delhi or Jaipur.
We’ve stayed in a quiet room at the Hotel Zen. We ate Backpakistan food – there were pizzas in our time here, there were a few beers. There was enough wifi to have a Skype conversation. We hung out for hours at the Mona Lisa cafe passing the time with a solo German backpacker. We bemoaned the trials and tribulations of women travelers in India.
Heading back to the Railway Station
Before long, we’re being met by Aju’s “brother”, Aju is sleeping he says and this man will take us to the station, so we head off along bouncy, bumpy roads. The Railway might have built a station, but they conveniently forgot about folks having to get there.
It’s 150 rupees to get back to the station and we’re there in plenty of time for a train that pulls up on time – this is the train to Varanasi, we’re in side upper and lower bunks in 3AC. We meet Max and Holly from Hong Kong, heading their way back the way that we’ve come – through China, Mongolia and Russia and we set off on time at 10pm, for an arrival into Varanasi tomorrow morning.