Love carved on stone

Thinking back, my one memory of Khajuraho is that of a pain in the neck. After spending hours spent looking up at the temple walls packed thick with the most exquisite sculptures of men and women in every conceivable posture, doing every imaginable thing, erotic and otherwise — is it any wonder that I came away with a massive crick in the neck? Not to speak of an ache in the calves from going up and down all those stone steps; and a stinging sensation from overexposure to the sun.

Khajuraho had an entirely physical reaction on me — only it wasn’t a physical reaction of the sort that most people expect to have there.

“My boyfriend said I was to send him pictures of, you know, all the ‘impossible postures’ every night,” I heard a youngish girl giggle to her friend behind me, as she trained the camera of her mobile phone on a depiction of mithuna (love-making) on Lakshmana temple, among the best-preserved of the 22 temples of the original 85. “It’s like the Kama Sutra come alive,” her companion agreed. Next to them stood a pair, newly marrieds they looked to me, the man’s arm nesting comfortably around the neck of his partner.

The erotic sculptures seem to be all that visitors look for, even though they constitute less than 10 per cent of all the masonry. And who can blame them? After all, here is evidence — set in stone — that they were hard at it a thousand years ago, not just men and women, but also man and many women, woman and many men, boys and men, man and horse, and with such panache that we still can’t seem to stop looking.

But there’s so much more to the Khajuraho temples, the earliest of which go back to the 10th century. The exquisiteness of the sculptures, for one. Also, it’s still a mystery why and how did the Chandella kings build these magnificent temples in this rocky area, where stones had to be carted from far away. And what, really, is the significance of the erotic sculptures?

Erotica is Khajuraho’s calling card, but it hasn’t got this little town in Madhya Pradesh very far.

“It’s very much a day destination,” rues Jyotsna Suri of The Lalit chain of hotels, which runs the homely boutique hotel, The Lalit Temple View, a five-minute leisurely walk down the road. “But there’s so much you can see around here — Pandav and Raneh Falls, the Kalinjar and Ajaygarh forts.”

To supplement Khajuraha’s attractions, and underline the sculptures’ connections with the performing arts, Suri’s hotel has recently started a bi-annual classical dance festival, even throwing in a journey in a refurbished train as part of the experience.

One of the best-known tourist destinations in India, Khajuraho is largely a one-street affair, with very few food-joints and souvenir-shops and just a smattering of boys selling knick-knacks, who are so little schooled in the art of persistent salesmanship that I could shake them off with a wave of the hand and a “nahi chahiye (Don’t want).”

One boy caught my attention. Looking closer at his wares, I discovered it was a brass key chain with a crudely devised couple which actually moved, in simulation of… you know what! “Madam! Madam! Twenty rupees only. Three for 50 rupees,” his eyes pleaded innocently, even as his fingers moved furiously, seemingly unaware of how indecent it was.

I bought ten, one for each of my colleagues. They loved it.

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