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KS Cover no. 77 2006 Ocober

OCT 2006 :: 077

Oasis of tranquility among rugby scrums

Khajuraho & Orchha, India

KHAJURAHO, India - I was searching for serenity. I had earned it by spending a rough-and-tumble few weeks in India's rugby scrums. Mumbai, Calcutta, Varanasi, and Allahabad in particular, had left me with torn trousers, bashed shins, sleep deprivation, sensory overload, and fractured nerves. Now, I required an oasis of tranquility.

My poorly condition heightened my sense of expectancy for Khajuraho and Orchha, two pearls strung out on a bumpy road between neither here nor there in India's Madhya Pradesh state.

With a pop, I squeezed out of a crowded public bus in Bamitha, 15 kms south of Khajuraho. I was grinning not only because I felt I had attained Nirvana, but because I had boarded the conveyance without, for once, having to haggle over the price first. It all seemed too good to be true. An hour later, I was dining on pasta above the town center on a rooftop on Jain Temples Road. I had my first beer in a month. My $3 hotel room had crisp sheets and a Western-style toilet. Things weren't good. They were consummate.

Khajuraho's magnetism lies in carnal desire. Its primary attraction is the erotically adorned Western Group of temples, sort of Kama Sutra in stone. Erected during the powerful Chandela Period a millennium ago, these Hindu temples are dedicated to such deities as Vishnu, Parvati, Kali, and Surya. Their sensual appeal has long been luring archaeologists and tourists, some of whom find the images titillating, others offensive. The remarkable relief work, however, depicts more than mithunas, or erotic figures, and apsaras, or celestial nymphs, in voluptuous pin-up posture. The art is a veritable window into the life and times of a bygone era: the love of gods and goddesses, battles between warriors, the songs of musicians, the stealth of hunters, the importance of both real and mythical animals.

The next morning, I rose with the sun, and walked to the Western Group in the hopes of unraveling a few secrets entwined in dawn's golden ribbons. I also knew I would have the neatly groomed park to myself, at least for a short while. Expressions changed with the brightening sky, spotlighting dance troupes and amorous figures. I could just about hear the music to which they moved and the melodies of love between the passionate embraces.

I was enthralled by the detail and grace of Lakshmana Temple, dedicated to Vishnu. But I was most enchanted by the 31-metre high reach of Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, dedicated to Shiva. The spire is richly ornamented with overly curvaceous dancers clad in lacy silks and strings of pearls.

Khajuraho's distance from modernity no doubt contributes to its preservation, though just how and why this dry, remote region was selected for these monuments is not clearly documented. The answer to the bigger question of 'why all the erotic sculptures' is more evident, though fraught with debate. One theory suggests that a man and woman in erotic embrace typify the ultimate union with the Divine. Another view propounds that the figures protect the temples from lightning since Indra, god of rain and thunder, is himself a connoisseur of love positions. A further theory suggests the scenes illustrate sex as ritual symbolism in Tantrism, or the worship of female goddesses.

he next day, I peddled my 'Jet Hero' bicycle around to the Eastern and Southern Groups of temple. I followed the well-marked roads and tracks for six hours, bounding leisurely from one temple to the next. The highlight of the adventure was the Jain en-closure containing the Parsvanatha, Adinatha, and Santinatha Temples. The curvilinear tower of the Parsvanatha Temple beckoned me in. The precision of the moments is plainly evident, depicted in a woman tying ankle bells and another removing a thorn from her foot. Erotic images are prominent too. At the adjacent Jain Museum, I mingled with statues of the 24 tirthankars, the great Jain teachers. From there I headed a km north to the old Khajuraho village. Although welcome to wander the narrow lanes, I hesitated. I felt as if I might be trespassing into one giant homestead.

Four days in Khajuraho passed almost too easily. Still, I was ready for Orchha's own hoary promises. They were waiting for me at the end of a five-hour bus and auto-rickshaw journey. This rural spot on the Betwa River keeps one of India's quaintest, most sense-appealing rewards for the visitor who makes the effort to get here. Though long abandoned and somewhat neglected, the hand of time has rested gently on the palaces and temples erected by the Bundela rulers of the 16th and 17th centuries.

After settling, I wandered in search of Orchha's relics. Within minutes I set my eyes upon the Royal Chhatris, awash in afternoon's liquid orange glow. These fourteen cenotaphs stand silently at the river's edge midst unkempt vegetation, but the nooks and crannies of their inner passageways whisper volumes from the past.

Orchha's center piece, set high on a rocky promontory in the middle of the river, is the fort palace. This fortification is actually an extensive compound of three palaces: the rambling Jehangir Mahal, the elegant Raj Mahal, and the lesser Rai Praveen Mahal. I let my imagination run free in the courtyard of Jehangir Mahal, then ferreted through corridors and hidden stairwells. The heavy architectural lines were tempered by delicate trelliswork. I then explored the adjacent Raj Mahal. The palace's plain exterior yields to a remarkably preserved interior exquisitely decorated with murals depicting the life of Lord Rama. Later, at Lakshmi Narayan Temple, I was again treated to episodes from the past in vivid paintings depicting spiritual and secular legends.

From Lakshmi's perch on a low hill, I stro-lled through the main portion of the village. I became the target of curiosity, a diversion for disheveled though lovely children who happily posed for my camera. With every click, their mothers and aunts and grandmothers, huddled in the doorways of their homes, wobbled with laughter.

I giggled my way to the Ram Raja palace-turned-temple up ahead. Its pink and cream turrets conjured a world's largest Baskin Robbins ice cream shop. More interesting than Rama's image on the inside, was the market on the outside. I dawdled over handicrafts and piles of fruits for a while, then took in the whole scene from atop the neighboring cathedral-like Chaturbhuj Temple, built to enshrine the image of Rama.

By the evening of my second night, thoughts of India's modern madness had been completely supplanted by Orchha and Khajuraho's charms. I had found the serenity I was looking for, albeit a little frayed around the edges.

As I dined alfresco with some fellow travelers, I gazed upon the silhouetted summit of the fort palace. Then, as if by magic, the whole of the town disappeared into the black vacuum of a power outage. Perhaps the last week had all been a dream, a wonderful dream.

Text & photos: Jono David

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Ways & Means

Visa: Virtually all visitors to India require a visa prior to arrival. The most common tourist visa is a six month multiple-entry visa (valid from the date of issue). Prices vary to nationality, but expect to pay around US$50.

When to go: Overall, November to March.
The coolest months are generally during this time, 27C, while the warmest months run March to May, 33c.

Getting there:
By air: TO ORCHHA: The closest domestic airports are at Khajuraho and Gwalior, both roughly 100 kms and four-hour road journeys away.
TO KHAJURAHO: The airport, just 5 kms from town, is modern and quite busy. Daily flights are available from Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, and Mumbai.
By train: Neither Orchha nor Khajuraho is on a train route, so road links are necessary. Orchha is only 18 kms southeast from Jhansi Train Station. For Khajuraho, the closest and most convenient railhead is in Satna, 75 kms to the east.