Life & Style - Travel
A passage to India
Allan Radcliffe attends a Hindu wedding and explores the erotic temples of Khajuraho - India’s gift of love to the world
I’m sitting enjoying the shade of the imposing Lakshmana temple on a hot and dry day in Khajuraho when a party of Japanese tourists interrupts my peace. The small group stands bunched around one corner of the intricately adorned building, giggling into their dust masks. Once they’ve moved on, I wander over to investigate the source of their amusement and find myself faced with an exquisitely-crafted sculpture of a man having sex in the missionary position with a delighted-looking horse.
The initial impact of the detailed erotic carvings that cover the Khajuraho temples - from sensuous maidens with hugely exaggerated breasts and hips in various poses, through entangled group orgies to an elephant laughing with a woman entwined around his erect penis - has much to do with their geographical context. Despite sharing a birthplace with that definitive guide to human sexual behaviour, Kama Sutra, modern Indians inhabit a 20th century version of the Victorian Age, and tend to be either censorious or coy and prurient about ‘you know what’. Rural India is the last place you’d expect to see such graphic scenes displayed so publicly.
Twenty-two of these tall, honey-coloured, pointed domes stand scattered around the village of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh (India’s ‘Middle State’), survivors of a millennium of rough weather conditions. The 100ft tall Lakshmana is the largest of the Western Group, set in a tranquil landscaped park of neat, mown lawns and rose-beds. I’m more than happy to part with the entrance fee of 300 Rupees (£3) as the temple tour is a welcome haven from the bustling tourist strip, the endless sales pitches from merchants and tour guides.
Paying a small supplement for the audio tour I wander between the temples and learn some of the theories behind the sculptures. Sexual art is never found inside the temple or near images of the deity. Gods such as Vishnu and Shiva reside at the upper reaches of the building and are always modestly clad. While the carvings do depict physical changes to the human body and every configuration of sexual behaviour, only ten per cent of them are erotic. Other scenes are of mundane everyday life: tradesmen going about their business, women applying kohl to their eyes and putting on jewellery or playing with their children. Inquisitive westerners could certainly be forgiven, however, for overlooking these sober scenes in favour of the riskier images.
As it happens I’m (forgive the pun) premature in visiting the temples at the beginning of my stay. My reason for travelling to Madhya Pradesh is to attend the wedding of friends. It’s customary for newly weds in this part of the world to tour the temples (which have been called India’s gift of love to the world) with their close friends and family in the days following the marriage ceremony. My friends semi-jokingly refer to the carvings as a kind of stone-hewn sex manual for inexperienced lovers.
Marriage in India is a big deal, traditionally the culmination of parents’ aspirations for their children, and still symbolising the transition from dependency to adult responsibility. The mixed-culture wedding I’m attending - the groom is Scottish, the bride is a native of Khajuraho - is somewhat different from the norm. Indeed, so rare is it for an Indian woman to marry a westerner at a Hindu ceremony, that villagers and the local media accord the couple and their guests a kind of celebrity status. In the space of a week the groom is interviewed by at least three newspapers and appears on television.
Rather than hiding from the glare of local curiosity, my friends have opted to embrace the full ritual. While modern Hindu weddings are not as convoluted as they once were, they can last several days and comprise numerous ‘puja’ (ceremonies), often involving long passages of Sanskri understood only by the ‘pujari’ (priest). Friends and relatives have travelled from all over the state to Khajuraho to witness these nuptials and now occupy every floor and corner of the family house, cooking and eating, chatting in small groups or sleeping.
No member of the wedding can escape the formalities. Prior to the main ceremony male friends of the groom have their heads bound in multicoloured turbans, while the women apply henna to their hands and arms. Suitably adorned we then take up our places in the ‘barat’, a procession of the groom’s party to the wedding venue. As my friend’s guestlist is comparatively modest, the uncles, brothers and cousins of the bride have swelled our ranks. And it’s just as well. We reserved Scots have just discovered that we are required to dance all the way from the hotel to the venue behind a brass band and a truck carrying a huge sound system. The groom, suited and turbaned, brings up the rear on decorated horseback.
As we dance slowly up the street, arms waving like windmill sails, I’m vaguely aware of being filmed from the sidelines. The following day this embarrassing footage will be screened on local television, the Indian equivalent of the funny story at the end of the news.
As the barati arrives at the venue, the bride’s family garlands us. I’m touched to see the bride in her red and white sari, festooned in gold wedding necklace, assorted rings and numerous bangles, when in Scotland she is more likely to be wrapped up in jeans and jumpers. Once we are all shoeless and seated beneath a canopy known as a ‘mendap’ the bride and groom exchange garlands while the pujari begins the prayers and an endless stream of family members queue up to convey their blessings. Gifts take the form of money, the amount usually an ‘auspicious’ number ending in one.
The marriage is a colourful and joyous, if lengthy, event. Luckily we guests are free to stretch our legs, wander off and enjoy the enormous spread of food, drinks and sweets. After more than two hours of cramped sitting, the couple are finally pronounced man and wife. But there are no displays of affection, no stolen kisses. In restrained India that would be a step too far. The evening ends with the happy couple seated, Beckham-style, on red velvet thrones while the guests queue in groups to be photographed in their company.
Once officially betrothed, the remaining rituals are less formal. In the middle of one of these later ceremonies the pujari’s mobile rings to which I can’t help muttering ‘That’s god calling’. My stage whisper is overheard, translated and repeated all over the community, much to my blushing shame.
In the aftermath of the wedding my friends are looking forward to a well-earned rest. There are a number of activities for us to enjoy, many of them arising out of the state’s exquisite natural landscape. Panna National Park, an hour’s drive away from Khajuraho, is home to wildcats, leopards, wolves, herds of blue bulls and the rare gharial crocodile. The park is also stalked by tigers, though sightings are few and far between; on the day of our visit, we were led to tiger prints and shown tiger teeth marks in the bark of a tree. Those desperate to spot tigers are advised to take a few days excursion to the larger Bandhavgarh nature reserve, which lies in the south of the state.
While poor rains have affected Madhya Pradesh in recent years, the Monsoon season can transform the area into a lush green place with impressive waterfalls.
The Raneh Falls, about 19km away, are worth a visit for their unusual rock formations and multicoloured, 100ft-deep granite canyon, set in jungle surrounds. Lovers of exotic wildlife are directed to the Ken Gharial Sanctuary where the rare long-snouted, sharp-teethed crocodiles can be glimpsed in their natural habitat.
As I prepare to depart India, my friends are excitedly planning various excursions, including a visit to another family wedding in the north of the state. First, though, there’s the small matter of that traditional trip around the temples to get out of the way.
Getting there and away Khajuraho is slightly off the beaten tourist trail, which starts with the Golden Triangle of Delhi-Agra-Jaipur before heading down the east coast through Mumbai, Goa and Kerala. Budget travellers should catch the Shatabdi Express from Delhi to Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh (five hours) before taking a bus transfer to Khajuraho (four hours). Indian Airlines and Jet Airways also offer direct flights, Delhi-Khajuraho for around £150.
Accommodation The village boasts a good range of hotels, from budget rooms (200-400 rupees per night) to middle range government-run hotels (400-1000 rupees) and chains such as the Holiday Inn and Ashok, which start from $50-80 per night.