Sunday, February 15, 2009

No sex please, we're British

It's almost sunset when we arrive in Khajuraho and a cricket match is just finishing on the village maidan. Weary after a bumpy bus ride we shower and change and wander out. It's not a big place. In fact it's lovely and quiet with hardly any traffic. There's the usual evening scene on the main street of chai stalls and peanut vendors with kerosene lamps and not many tourists about. All the restaurants are empty, which makes it hard to choose. There doesn't seem to be a locals' place. In the morning things look a little different and there's a constant flow of small tour groups coming and going.

We have come here to see some of the remaining temples from an earlier day when a flurry of construction and carving over a period of about one hundred years created 85 wonderful temples. Only 25 survive but after 1000 years and a long period of Mughal rule, this is quite impressive. The temples are mainly sandstone and feature some fantastic detailed carving of gods, goddesses, kings and their consorts, armies and hunters, celestial nymphs, animals and pot-bellied dwarves. This alone would be enough to make them a tourist attraction, but some also feature what is described as 'erotic carvings'. For a country that still does not allow kissing to be screened in Bollywood movies it's quite amusing to find complicated sexual manouvres carved out in one metre-high detail on a holy temple wall. And not all of it could be described as erotic either, unless you consider sexual congress with a horse as such. Goodness knows what the groups of schoolkids going around made of it.......

For the benefit of us tourists the main street has pavements. There are even roundabouts - not the usual stuff of India. We wander away from the main site and down the dirt roads. The village is quite large, with a small market. We pass families at water pumps beside the road having a wash and they don't blink an eye. Neither do we. Only afterwards do we think how public lives many Indians lead - so much occurs outside the home. A young boy on a bike politely asks if he can practice his English. We ask him why he wants to learn. He wants to be a guide. There is a small airport outside the village which brings in tour groups. He tells us that in 4 years time it will be upgraded to receive international flights and then there'll be many more. The village has just been connected to the railway network too. Later on we spot Tony, an older Englishman we met in Gujarat back in November. Whilst we've travelled quite far he has slowly worked his way eastwards. We also bump into Trisha and Abel, young Americans last spotted in Mysore. We know we're back on the Tourist Trail after a few weeks in middle India.

Happily adjusted to the pace of village life we head to Orchha, another small place which is now on the Tourist Trail, being roughly halfway between Agra and Khajuraho. We see the familiar smart little white buses ferrying groups to the posh hotels. Guides shepherd them from hotel to fort. They stick close together and look nervous if a gap appears to separate the group. The village is little more than a crossroads, still surrounded by outer city walls. At its heart sits a palace complex from the 1600s looking a bit worse for wear, on an 'island' with fortress walls. The island is formed by a wide fast flowing river on one side and a moat on the other. All around is forest. Dotted around the village is a collection of other large buildings, some described as temples, although these look like palaces too, and mausoleums. Everything is a bit scruffy and untended but makes for good meanderings. On the island there are people growing wheat on the spare land and living/squatting in fragile shacks. It's possibly the most peaceful place we've found in India outside of Ladakh. Looking over fields of green we can see small shrines, gatehouses, towers and walls poking out, leftovers from another age when the local head honcho was a favourite of the Mughal Emperor and probably coining it. But easy come, easy go and Orchha's monuments were abandoned. Now we are able to wander through the undergrowth and onto the hilltops and try to imagine how this mini-kingdom once looked.
Back on the main road there are the familiar sights of paan sellers sat inside their little wooden shacks, only just big enough to sit in. Further along a tailor sits out in the sunshine working his machine with a foot pedal. There's a knife-sharpener who has put his bike up on its stand as he sits and pedals away to turn the whetstone fixed to the handlebars. Cows lumber past sniffing their way through the litter. Potato snacks are being fried in wide shallow pans. Women sit on the road with a small collection of vegetables for sale, displayed on a cloth. Meanwhile rusting buses pass through, horns blaring, faces peering out of windows, a man hanging out of the backdoor spitting a gob of red paan juice. In the evenings there are a series of wedding crowds gathered around one of the temples. It's wedding season. Families huddle around and the groom and bride are easily spotted as the most miserable-looking members. Sometimes there are drummers and one night a small procession with a band and a cart with an electric keyboard and arcs of lightbulbs. The groom sits looking rather embarrassed on a white horse at the centre and at the back a noisy generator is wheeled along.
Later there are fireworks.

We're taking our 6th night train in India from Jhansi Junction. It's our second time at this station and thankfully there is no repeat of the episode when we first passed through. Distracted by a rickshaw driver, Gayle had tripped over a blind man's stick and found herself headbutting the platform paving stones. Eye-watering stuff. Tonight there are delayed trains and a lot of people gathering on the platforms, although invariably less than half of these will actually be travelling anywhere. The rest are here to see them onto the train, see that packages and luggage are properly stowed, that the traveller has a seat, and to say fond farewells. The trick is for them to get off at the last moment as the train starts to move off. The journey is uneventful except for one point in the night when Gayle shouts out at the man lying in the berth below me and across from her "Stop that right now!" Everyone wakes up and looks at the man. Turns out he was engaged in a little 'self-exploration'. Not exactly realigning his chakras. Perhaps he'd been inspired by the carvings at Khajuraho.........

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