Anyone who’s been following this blog recently could be forgiven for thinking that I’ve become obsessed with sexy statuary. I’ve certainly been talking about it a lot. Each time I’ve mentioned it, it’s been in the context of making a point about religious hypocrisy, or a joke, but taken as a whole, it does look a little repetitive. But I’m only writing about what I’m seeing. The temples of India, and especially the major sights of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, are really quite pornographic. And we haven’t even got to the best stuff yet. Ellora and Ajanta were just foreplay; Khajuraho is the money shot.
The 20 or so temples clustered in and around Khajuraho were built between the 10th and 12th centuries CE, by the Chandelas, the rulers of central India at that time. They’re famous for the explicit and graphic sexual sculptures adorning them. Since Khajuraho is within striking distance of Delhi and Varanasi, it’s become a very popular tourist destination. The village itself is tiny, and driven entirely by tourist money. Which brings me to my first subject.
Before I’d even set off for India, and was just starting to post a few messages on couchsurfing, looking for hosts in my early destinations, I received an unsolicited message from Yogi in Khajuraho, telling me I must visit and stay with him. If I’d received that message now, knowing what I know about the subtle ways CS is exploited for profit by people working in the Indian tourist industry, I’d have ignored it. Instead, I responded, saying that I did intend to visit Khajuraho later in the trip, and would love to stay with him. Yogi remained in contact ever since, occasionally messaging me to ask how it was going, where I was, and when I would be coming to see him.
By the time I was approaching Khajuraho, I’d gone through several cycles of optimism and pessimism about India, its people and their treatment of visitors. I had just been in the trough of a pessimism phase, writing about Chat Harassment and spending quite a bit of time in the company of other Western travellers, comparing notes on our irritating experiences. However, I was now on the upcurve out of it, having received wonderful hospitality from Ashish in Aurangabad, and feeling a bit guilty for putting so much effort into slagging the whole place off.
I was 50% certain that Yogi was on the make somehow, but I decided that, out of fairness, I should give him a chance. I felt pretty confident of being able to spot a scam by now if he tried anything, and even if I did get scammed, it was likely to only be a small amount of money, and I’d treat it as the cost of a lesson in the workings of the Khajuraho economy – and the price of retaining the moral high ground.
The first sign that my suspicions about Yogi were correct was that, a couple of days before I reached Khajuraho, he texted to say that I wasn’t able to stay with him after all, but he could help me find a hotel. From his CS references (all positive) this seemed to be a common experience. Why was he sending out so many invitations to stay with him if he could never fulfill any of them? I booked my own hotel and arranged to meet him for coffee.
The second sign was that he didn’t turn up to coffee alone, but with a friend, Shamu (yes, I’m now hanging out with Yogi and Shamu, in some bizarre bear/whale fanfic crossover), who didn’t speak much English, and was an autorickshaw driver by trade but seemed happy not to work that day, and drive the three of us about on his motorbike instead.
The third sign that Yogi was in the business of parting tourists with cash was that, soon after meeting him, I was parting with cash. Yogi suggested we visit Raneh Falls, a beautiful natural spot about 20km away. We could go by autorickshaw, or Shamu could take us on the bike, but in that case, I would need to contribute money for the petrol. It was a reasonable request and a fairly common one among CS hosts who take their guests to places. However, it was spoiled by two facts: firstly, that although I paid the petrol station directly, Rs300 was definitely more than was needed (Goldie and I had done a longer trip around Chandigarh and to Pinjore and back on Rs200); secondly, Yogi informed me that he always asked the same of his CS guests, “except the girls, because I want to make the sex with them.”
Sex would be the main theme of conversation for the rest of the time I was with Yogi. While he purported to talk from experience, it was with the same single-mindedness, and absurd, over-the-top claims of unlikely exploits (having sex in a graveyard to benefit from “night energy” was my favourite), you’d expect from a desperately and cluelessly horny teenage boy. Yogi was 25.
At Raneh Falls, I paid the entrance fee to the park for myself (Rs250) and Yogi (Rs20) – again, reasonable for me to pay for Yogi, if he was only going there to show me around, and the Indian price is negligible compared to my foreigner ticket. But Shamu also walked in, with no ticket, and nodded or exchanged familiar words with the guards and ticket inspectors.
Raneh Falls are a bit rubbish. The problem is, the waterfall has either water but no fall, or fall but no water. When it’s the monsoon, the river is in spate but the lower gorge is filled so there’s not far for it to fall from the upper. At this time of year, when it’s dry, there’s a long drop into the canyon but only a trickle of water to do it. Still, it was a mildly diverting sight, and I took some photos for my mum, who loves to see interesting rock formations.
The hour or so we spent there chatting gave me an opportunity to find out Yogi’s views on rape. He repeated the fallacy that India was crime-free in its Golden Age up to 30-40 years ago, and the increase in rape was due to women wearing revealing Western-style clothes, going out late when it’s dangerous and hanging around with men who are drinking, when they should know better. Why then, are rape rates lower in Western countries where such dress and behaviour is the norm? Because, he answered, in India uneducated men migrate from villages where they’re only used to seeing women fully covered, to metropolitan cities where standards are more liberal, and they think the revealing outfits are an invitation – or they just can’t help themselves, because “when the dick is too powerful, you cannot control it.” To be fair to Yogi, despite his all-too-common chauvinist, victim-blaming ideas, his suggested solution was more reasonable: better education (for the men).
Next, Yogi asked if I wanted to see a show of traditional Bundeli folk dances. Seeing Indian music and dances had been one of my aims for the trip, and the show in Udaipur had been great, so I said yes. They dropped me off at the Madhya Pradesh Tourism centre where the show was about to start. I bought my ticket and went in – Yogi and Shamu once again following but without tickets, and with familiar greetings to the officials, and to the other young Indian men leading in groups of tourists. The show was mediocre. Some of the dancers’ moves were skillful and practised, but (like the drill at the Wagah border ceremony) the overall discipline and choreography which should hold it all together was lacking. I suppose it’s what you should expect at a tourist event where the novelty, rather than the expertise, is what impresses the audience. Also, it was several times more expensive than the Udaipur performance, for basically the same thing.
But here’s the interesting question. At Rs400, the ticket was expensive in Indian terms, but it was a fixed price set by the official MP Tourism organisation. If I’d found the show myself, without being led there by touts, I wouldn’t have paid any different. The same is true of Raneh Falls and the National Park authorities which administer it. So, if Yogi and Shamu were getting paid commissions for taking me to these places, then the racket is so deeply entrenched in Khajuraho that even the official organisations are complicit and have factored the likelihood of having to pay a commission into their standard prices.
Yogi invited me to breakfast at his house the next day, which turned out to be Super Noodles and bananas, after which I broke contact with him, saying that I preferred to explore the temples on my own (despite his earlier warning that it wasn’t a good idea to visit Khajuraho alone, because after seeing the temples you’d be extremely horny with no way to satisfy yourself), having concluded to 99% certainty that he, as well as every single other person in Khajuraho, was making money from tourists, either openly or covertly.
LAUREN, EMILY, BOUKE AND THE SOUTH-WESTERN TEMPLES
In Pushkar, after I’d checked out of the hostel, I’d realised my phone was low on battery, so I’d ordered a chai and plugged it in for 20 minutes before I left for Ajmer. I could easily have sat on my own, reading a book for those 20 minutes, but instead I’d forced myself to be sociable, and chatted to another hostel guest, Lauren. It was lucky I did, because in Khajuraho, shortly after ditching Yogi, I bumped into Lauren again – this time with her fellow travellers Emily and Bouke. After I related the Yogi saga they must have felt sorry for me, so they took me under their wing. They’d already seen the Western Group of Temples, the walled-off, paid-entry primary attraction, so we decided to visit two ruined temples to their south: Chausath Yogini and Lalguan Mahadev.
To find them, we followed a track along the south side of the lake until we came across the ruins of Chausath Yogini Temple, dedicated to the 64 (“chausath”) Yoginis, female yoga teachers. Easy peasy. Since it was ruined and there weren’t many people around, it wasn’t obvious whether we’d have to take our shoes off or not. An Indian man with another group (whom he was presumably pretending to be friends with) said it was up to us: “as you like, your karma.” I took my shoes off and quickly regretted it when my feet were covered in prickly dry grass and burrs. Karma had nothing to do with it: it was mechanistic cause and effect. That’ll teach me to pay any respect to religious sentiment.
Finding Lalguan Mahadev Temple was a little more tricky. We followed the path past Chausath Yogini and reached a small farming village. I asked a few people for directions but we still reached a dead end, when two small boys (Ankit, 14, and Ashish, 6, though I’d swear they were more like 11 and 4) came running out of the village to lead us there. They took us on an exciting agricultural obstacle course – jumping over irrigation ditches, tramping through plowed fields – until we found it: a small uninteresting ruin, but a good example of the journey being more important than the destination.
THE WESTERN GROUP AND JAIN TEMPLES
Early the next morning, I visited the Western Group – a dense cluster of temples which form the main attraction at Khajuraho – on my own. At 6.30 am, the enclosure was completely empty, except for the occasional guard or attendant. The sun was just above the treeline, and the soft dawn light made the sandstone temples glow orange, and picked out the sculpture in sharp relief. It was definitely worth the trauma of dragging myself out of bed so early.
The main temples of the Western Group are covered in a profusion of very detailed and beautiful sculpture. They’re described as “erotic” or “Kama Sutra” temples because a lot of the sculpture is supposed to be graphically sexual. But most of it isn’t. What people forget to mention is the 90% of the sculpture which shows battles and sports scenes, royal processions, animals, and humans engaged in various mundane activities. There are a lot of statues of gods and goddesses which are “erotic”, but only softcore: the same posing curvaceous beauties as at other places. A small minority of panels show more explicit sexual scenes, and then it’s mostly vanilla, with a few ambitiously acrobatic positions. The idea that the temples are covered entirely in depraved and exotic debauchery is a falsehood (and one which I’m choosing to perpetuate with my choice of illustrations). I think the ratio of subjects depicted represents the Chandela artists’ attempt to give an honest overview of everyday life in their society. What they’re saying is, “mostly we’re about war and wrestling and stuff. Obviously, people have sex too. And yes, occasionally someone shags a horse.”
I also visited the Jain Temples group at the other end of the village. There wasn’t much there that I hadn’t seen in the Western Group. I was more interested in a number of game boards which had been etched into the temple floor, one of which looked like Nine Men’s Morris. There are a number of other temples dotted around the area, but having seen the main ones, I didn’t think it was worth the effort to systematically hunt them all down. Besides, Emily had a better idea.
THE BEAUTIFUL LAKE
Emily’s grandmother had lived much of her life in Assam during the British Raj, and Emily was in India to scatter her ashes, partly in the Ganges at Varanasi, and partly in the Brahmaputra in Assam. She and Lauren had turned it into a bit of a quest by starting in Bombay and making their way east to their two destinations. It seemed that whenever she told this story to Indians, they would have so much respect for the sanctity of her mission that they’d stop trying to scam her and start offering genuine hospitality, even if they were normally in the business of tourist-scamming.
In Khajuraho, Emily had befriended a local called Raj, who had made arrangements with a friend of his in Varanasi for a free boat ride on the Ganges for the ash-scattering. He’d also offered to take Emily and her friends (which now included Bouke and me) for an afternoon out to a place of natural beauty where we could trek, swim and eat some campfire-cooked food. It sounded great.
Word must have got around Khajuraho that two English girls were potentially going to be swimming on the trip, as by the time we set off, the autorickshaw was crammed full. When the group seemed to consist of the four of us, plus Raj, the auto driver, and another Indian friend, Romeo, Emily had checked that there weren’t going to be any more. “No,” Raj assured, “only seven.” When we finally set off, it was with eight, young Karam having joined us as well.
I had no idea what was going to happen. I was pretty sure we weren’t going to be raped and murdered, but beyond that I was resigned to my fate, whatever it was. After an hour or so’s bumpy ride in the autorickshaw, we arrived at our destination. We’d imagined beautiful mountains and a sparkling crystal lake, fed by springs. Raj had taken us to the local reservoir. The funniest thing was that he proudly showed it to us, and talked about its beauty, as if it was the mountain lake.
If the murky, stagnant waters of the reservoir weren’t enough to put anyone off the suggestion of swimming, the gallery of spectators which spontaneously assembled on the bank certainly was for the girls. So while Raj and his friends prepared the food, we sat on the shoreside rocks, drank a few beers and had a laugh together, mainly at the fact that Lauren had gone to great efforts to find a hidden spot beneath some trees to do a wee, and then realised with horror that a goatherd was in the treetops, cutting down branches. Hanging out at the “resy”, despite its overtones of teenage delinquency, was actually a lot of fun. The food, when it came – basically a spicy aubergine-based mush with chapattis – was delicious. In the back of the autorickshaw, on the return journey, Romeo declared his undying love to Emily and suffered an embarrassing rejection, though I’m guessing from his nickname that this happens quite frequently.
TOO LONG; DIDN’T READ
I’m sorry this post is quite long. The photos of pornographic statuary were intended to keep you interested enough to reach the end. If you’ve skipped to here, this is the summary: in Khajuraho, I got mildly scammed and hung out by a reservoir. I also saw a lot of temples and sculpture, only some of it erotic. This was my favourite:
I like it because you can tell the standing girl, with her hands over her face, is thinking, “Oh my god. I am so drunk. How did I get into this situation?”