Weekend at Khajuraho and Ken River Sanctuary
The 1100 years old temples of Khajuraho are reason enough for a visit to Madhya Pradesh, India. I caught up with history and nature in all its sculpted glory here.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Khajuraho is an interesting destination for weekend hoppers. Though , it is easy to spot foreigners who may stay for months on end to help unravel the scores of mysteries that this temple town is built around. Researchers from India and abroad are always to be found here.
Hotel Payal was a comfortable stay over the weekend spent here. The guava trees in a well kept garden behind my room, and the scores of birds that called out from there were welcome company in the sunny afternoons. A garden swing in the front lawn and a view of the glorious sunrise added interest to my stay here.
Instead of the thick green jungle, I was now at the edge of the most beautiful rock-scape this side of the Himalayas
While here to pay my tribute to the millenium old temples, it was a bonus to visit places with scenic settings. The hotel was just a precursor.
Ken River Sanctuary
On cue from a local at Khajuraho, I visited the lesser known Ken sanctuary, some miles from the temple town itself. Accompanied by the morning sun and a nip in the air I enjoyed the quiet ride in a jeep to Ken River Sanctuary. The road barely had any traffic on it. There was a hedge of wild greens on both sides of the road. A check-post took its toll tax, and camera fee; Rs 30 was it?
The jungle was thick here. Tall Sal trees owned the place :-) A carpet of dry leaves and fruit of the Sal trees crunched under the feet. There were other kinds of trees too, but Sal predominated the scene, and it was the most recognisable to me. Walking down the jungle path, I could not have anticipated what just came up, or rather, down...
Ken River appeared out of nowhere from the distant rock-scape which was coloured by different layers of rocks, geological activity over the years, and trees hanging on to them to color them green in swatches. Right here, the river fell down a 100 feet below into the steep ravine.
The landscape had changed all too suddenly! Instead of a thick green jungle, I was now at the edge of the most beautiful rock-scape this side of the Himalayas. The rocks were all shades of red, brown, deep blues, black and grey, while the river which was till a moment ago a pristine white as it fell in torrents, now a placid green, idling in a huge crater-shaped path. The guide waited to let me absorb the scene before I volleyed him with the whats, whys and whens.
The crater shaped path of the river, was indeed an old crater from a volcano that had erupted ages ago. This was my first experience of a crater other than photographic evidence. It was awesome, even when softened by the flow of water over it.
The river was a torrent in the monsoons and rafting was a possibility, the guide told me. No thank you, I murmured, looking at the 100 feet between the Ken and me.
He sensed my fear and explained that the river came up much higher in the rainy season, and often flooded the area where we were standing. When I didn't quite believe him, he showed me signs of water erosion right around our feet. The edge of the ravine had concrete and iron bars hanging at the edge; some of them twisted. It was the Ken's current that had washed off the iron railing he said.
Meanwhile young boys came up to us to show me beautiful water-eroded quartz pieces. They said that they found them when the river receded after the rains. I bought two of these rounded pebbles - translucent orange, brilliant paperweights. The start price was Rs 50 each, but the deal was signed at Rs 10 each. Really, these are invaluable gifts from nature, carved over centuries by natural forces. Priceless!
By afternoon I was back for lunch at the hotel. A couple of hours in the private lawn with birds for company, and I was back in Khajuraho to explore the Western group of temples.
The mystique behind Khajuraho's temples
A step on to the grassy precincts here opens one to the aura of the place. This one, pretty touristy -- guides give lectures to enlighten the hundreds of visitors about the history and significance of Khajuraho. The questions: Why were over 80 temples built in the wilderness, and abandoned to the mercy of time, a millenium ago? What significance does erotica have on temple exteriors here? Light, sound and history
The guide had answers ready, of course, but it was the light and sound show here in the evening, Son et Lumiere: Khajuraho, that answered these questions best. Amitabh Bacchan's was the voice that answered the questions! He was the narrator for the recorded show.
Laser lights flitted from Jagdamba temple to Khandriya Mahadev and surrounding areas. The rockery in the manicured lawns around these temples had been a different sight by sunlight. Now it stood transformed in the moonlight and ultraviolet lights.
It was a full moon night, and fireflies on the lawns added to the already amazing light and sound show. Unfortunately, visitors' cameras and cell-phone cameras added some jarring flashes of light to the otherwise most wonderful light and sound show that I had ever seen.
Of romance and history
The story was all about Hemwati, a Brahmin girl, and the moon's love for her, their son the founder of Chandela kings, and finally the building of Khajuraho temples before the king's victory over Kalinjar fort a little North from here. The temples lay hidden by the surrounding jungles until British India rediscovered them, one at a time.
Before the show, I had been around the Western group of temples. Varaha temple with a huge statue of Vishnu as a boar in Varaha avatar, embellished with tiny figures and designs, signifying the whole of creation,made from a single block of sandstone, was simply amazing.
Laxmana, Khandriya Mahadeva, Jagdamba, Vishwanath and Chitragupta temples were equally grand. The finest of details brought the wall sculptures to life. The hint of a smile, fear, anger, valour, content...were expressions marked in stone, yet very real. The temple interiors were without exception, minus the exotic artwork that decorates the exteriors.
At Khandriya Mahadeva I noticed offerings of flowers at the door of its sanctum sanctorum. None of the temples in the Western group have daily worship, otherwise.
This came as a surprise. Why are the temples not in use for worship? I didn't find the answers to this one.
Temple with a difference
By evening I learnt that Matangeshwar temple alongside Laxmana temple, was accessible for worship! But it was different too. It had no affinity with the Khajuraho school of sculpture. A barbed wire fence separated it from the Western group of temples. Its colourful flags blowing in the wind and constant call of bells adding to the happy mileu.
I walked up a flight of steps, to the temple. A giant Shivlinga greeted me. It filled up the entire single roomed-temple! An image of Parvati that had turned red with offerings of vermillion sindoor was the deity chosen by women worshippers in particular. The pujari claimed that this temple, dedicated to Shiva, was the oldest in Khajuraho.
An array of colourful shops opposite the Western temples, had reasonably priced Khajuraho regalia of erotic art, keyrings and books. Gem jewellery, ethnic Indian clothes, and handicraft items from Orissa were in abundance.
Khajuraho's eastern group of temples: Jain heritage
The eastern group of temples including the Jain temples were used not only for daily worship, but as monastries as well. Adinath temple had offerings of rice and coins. No footwear, or leather was allowed here. These were the living temples of Khajuraho, in the same league as Matangeshwar.
Southern group of temples at Khajuraho: Dulhadev
I visited Dulhadev temple in the southern group of temples by the light of the setting sun. It was tucked down a dusty path, where I met some tourists peddling along on their bicycles. This Shiva temple though somewhat smaller than the better known Khandriya Mahadev, had a very special Shivlinga. It had a thousand Shivalingas sculpted on it!
Meeting point: Raja Cafe
Raja Cafe opposite the Western temples serves as a meeting point over coffee, cakes, and continental food. It doubles up as an internet cafe too.