Khajuraho is a village-town in the state of Madhya Pradesh, quite far removed from standard tourist routes, but famed for its legendary/controversial ‘erotic’, tantric temple carvings. Debauched scenes of animal husbandry, fellatio and elaborate orgies, the more hysterical voices scream, voices who probably haven’t visited I’d guess. The reality is not quite so dramatic.
Logistically, Khajuraho is not hugely easy to get to, unless you’re doing a more thorough/intrepid exploration of the state. A train, but only from and to a select few destinations, arriving early and leaving late, is among the few long-distance options. It makes for long, quite sleep-deprived days either side of a visit.
Coincidentally, though, it is this relative isolation that possibly helped preserve the temples so well, as Muslim invaders of past eras did not inflict on them the kind of destruction temples elsewhere faced. They were then reclaimed by nature and sat undisturbed for centuries, until the early 19th century.
The temples at Khajuraho are billed as overwhelming, a monumental experience. Everything I’d read conjured up images of a complex akin to something like Angkor Wat; an undertaking requiring multiple days of sustained attention. Both fortunately and unfortunately, it’s not. The whole complex, all three temple groups, are easily doable in a single day.
This could be unfortunate because of the chance that expectations become undeliverable. But, the reality of it being so manageable means you avoid the dreaded temple fatigue from taking hold, something that is inevitable as much as you don’t want to feel disrespectful by starting to find such important, sacred places a bit same-same, a bit boring. Luckily, for us, at this point in our trip, the temples being so manageable fell on the fortunate side.
An inevitable question arises, though, if coming from and leaving to such afar places: is it worth it, worth the effort?
For me, it’s a yes, despite arriving early Monday morning and leaving late the next night, meaning two out of three nights ‘sleeping’ on a train.
(My only thoughts, in retrospect, would be that it’s worth staying longer. Not because there’s a whole lot to do, because there isn’t really, although I was told by fellow travellers that exploring the surrounding countryside by bike was a nice way to while away a day. But moreso, just to give yourself a chance to chill out and relax, and the village was certainly quaint. Unfortunately, for us, the limitations of train timetables and availability, as well as the encroaching end of our time in India, dictated a rather mad in-and-out style visit.)
As for the temples, despite the fact that, by now, we’ve seen quite a lot of Hindu and Jain temples, these were indeed something extraordinary. They are said to represent some of the finest temple art in the world. For me, it is the style of their carvings that makes them stand apart.
Hindu temple art, indeed all temple art, has stylistic similarities; you start to recognise them, even if you can’t name them. The scenes of everyday life and religious devotion that adorn the freezes here are of a similar type, but are remarkably different at the same time.
I would describe the style as more fluid, indeed more sensual, although by that I do not necessarily mean sexual. Yes, there are the scenes of various kinds of copulation, featuring a variety of actors, but actually, these are only ittimitantly spread across a few of the temples. The vast majority of the art is nothing sexual at all.
What I really loved were the more realistic representations of people complemented with some slightly fantastical elements. Elsewhere, figures are taut, lean and have overly Parton-esque chests; here, there are curves and doughy little bellies, and the rhythm of movements depicted feel less constrained and controlled. The scenes of everyday life feel more varied and detailed, and a lot more joy and festivity appears present. Maybe these people had pretty carefree lives?!
Alongside this, you might see, for example, a row of elephants and humans depicted more or less to scale, but then right alongside that will be humans the size of elephants. And then there are the figures that are part human-part animal. It looks and feels a little playful, a little fantastical. It may not be this at all, but that was certainly my interpretation.
Probably most memorable, though, simply because it’s something I’ve never seen elsewhere, was the elaborate rendering of the God Vishnu represented as his boar avatar. Over a thousand years old, it’s covered in a veritable pantheon of carved deities in breathtaking (and probably painstaking) detail, and was truly a sight to behold.
Overall, Khajuraho was another tick off the lengthy experience India must-see list.
As for Varanasi, this was something of a forced stop on our way to Darjeeling. There was no way to get there direct and Varanasi was the most logical choice, from a logistical/transportation point of view; as I mentioned above, options out of Khajuraho are fairly limited.
But it was not a stop of forced labour. Indeed, I had wanted to return to Varanasi, time permitting. It was a chance to banish the demons that tarnished our first visit, in 2013. This was somewhat achieved.
Our first visit was marred not by the Ganges itself, but by a couple of bad experiences in and around the sacred waters, and by our experience of the old city overall: truly chaotic, incessantly noisy and gridlocked, and just scammy and unpleasant. It’s hands-down my least favourite urban space in India.
We’d been told about and made contact with a local, unofficial guide, who was lovely, but we made the mistake of leaving the itinerary in his hands and not being clear about what we wanted from our visit. We learnt from that.
We ended up staying smack bang in the middle of the seemingly endless and endlessly confusing tangle of lanes that sit between the old city and the ghats that line the river; we’d wanted the quieter southern end of the river.
We found ourselves being raced through a hugely sacred temple, at a truly frenetic pace, treated like VIPs and whizzed passed Hindus who would have been lining up and continued to wait for God knows how long to make their pilgrimage (a situation that always makes me unconformable and that I always try to avoid).
And we then found ourselves caught in the burning ghat scam, where, before you realise it’s happening, you’re being shown around, having its function and how it operates explained to you (a legitimately fascinating experience), but then taken away to a place where no one else is around and the process of an intimidating shakedown begins. I’d read about, was ready for it, but even I was initially caught unaware, realising too late what was happening.
It all added up to a profoundly unpleasant aftertaste.
But to experience the Ganges is also something quite profound; there is nowhere else of Earth I can think of like it. To be able to spend time simply walking up and down, sitting, watching and witnessing the variety of activities that take place in and around these most sacred of waters is a real privilege. You then take an early morning boat ride, and see the whole operation from a completely different angle.
This time, we wanted more of the latter, less of the former; by-and-large that is what we got. Because we’d been before, there was no rushing around trying to tick off experiences this time; it was more just a process of ‘being in space’ and enjoying that.
And this time, apart from a couple of trips for admin purposes, and of course getting to and from the river via the tuk-tuk mafia, we stayed well clear of the old city, spending our 36 hours around the ghats and the quieter and more spacious southern end (also more gentrified, but Lord knows, sometimes you just need that!).
Quite by chance, we did have another burning ghat experience. In spite of the scam the first time around, I did find the process of observing those final rites and seeing bodies wrapped in white being cremated not at all morbid or squeamish, but rather peaceful. In spite of the chaotic nature of ghats during busy times, the attention so focused on seeing a loved one sent into the next stage of life lent a calmness to the proceedings.
This time, we got a much more up close and personal view, as we just happened to be walking through a ghat when a body was being prepared to be placed onto the pyre. It was literally metres away from us, but no one at all tried to move us on, or any of the others who inevitable started rubbernecking (which I swear is an India-wide pastime!).
That’s probably one of the best things about experiencing the Ganges: so much happens, from funerals to daily puja (prayer) ceremonies to the Goddess Ganga, people coming to pray, bathe, wash clothes, spread ashes or otherwise just splash around, to all the sadhus/sadvis (Hindu monks) camping along the ghats, getting on the ganga, and offering all manner of spiritual enlightenment.
The possibilities are magically varied and endlessly fascinating, and what you see simply comes down to being in the right place and the right time.
One other place worth visiting, if in town, is to take a day trip out to Sarnath, which is the place where Buddha gave his first sermon. Razed multiple times over the centuries, it’s one of the four key Buddhist pilgrimage sites and attracts visitors from all over the world. A stupa marks the spot where the famous sermon happened, and other Buddhist nations have also constructed temples and gardens that you can visit, providing an interesting overview of different styles in one spot. It’s yet one more spiritually significant element in a visit to this most holy part of a rather holy country.