All good things must end and I traded in my beach hut for a 50 hour train ride north (talk about being cast out of paradise and into the fiery dungeons of hell). I was headed for the Khajuraho monuments, a UNESCO world heritage site located in the state of Madhya Pradesh.
The monuments are a series of Hindu and Jain temples built by the Chandela dynasty about 1000 years ago (suggesting a tradition of acceptance and respect for different religious views) and are famous for their unabashed eroticism. Interspersed within the hundreds upon hundreds of intricate carvings, are frank representations of explicit sexual acts in varying forms. The reasons for these carvings have caused much speculation but is not known. Whatever their original purpose, by the 13th century, the temples had been abandoned and were swallowed by the jungle. It wasn’t until 1838 that T.S. Bert, a fine upstanding officer of Queen Victoria, stumbled upon them. I can imagine that the discovery was a bit of an eye popper for him. He reported back to queen and country that the panels were “beautifully and exquisitely carved, but indecent, offensive, and obscene”.
I wandered around the intriguing and unique temples, wondering about the society that built them and what life was like then. I was struck again, forcefully, about how civilizations rise and fall with the winds of time and how little we know about any of it. I sidled up to an English speaking Indian guide to eavesdrop.
Some say the carvings were inspired by the Kama Sutra and were intended to serve as a ‘how-to’ manual for Brahmin boys, others claim they symbolize the wedding party of Shiva and Parvati (an important Hindu God and his wife). The guide pointed out one particular panel to his clients depicting an entwined couple and described it as “happy hour”. Happy hour indeed! (I really need to think about moving on, ‘happy hour’ feels like a past life experience.) It has also been speculated that the carvings were related to Tantric cults that use sex as a pivotal part of worship. Yet another version is that the geometric qualities of certain images served as a yantra (a pictorial mantra) to be used in meditation. I left the sensuous temples none the wiser to their original purpose, but fascinated by the mystery surrounding them.
It was also the beginning of India’s Holi festival and the town of Khajuraho was in full celebration. Like India itself, Holi is a festival of color. It symbolizes the end of the dry winter and the beginning of spring and green and lushness. Everybody happily spreads neon coloured powders all over each other, plays loud Holi music and dances in the streets.
I had already checked out of my guest house when I was reluctantly initiated into the festivities. I was still pink and powdery when I walked 10 hot kilometres to the train station for my 12 hour ride to Varanasi. Everywhere I went, I was greeted with joyous shouts of “happy Holi” and offered chai tea. My first order of business on arrival will be to have a nice, cool shower and properly clean the powder out of my hair and ears.