Khajuraho Diaries: Rare, Rarer, Rarest

From wildlife to eroticism, from bachelorhood to marriage, from volcanic rock formations to unused trails, the entire cosmos lives in this little town in the heart of India.

The Divine Indian Wedding
It was a grand night. After all, it was the wedding of the divine couple — Shiva and Parvati. It was Maha Shivratri, the night the powerful god married Parvati after resolving a zillion issues. Under the aegis of the Lalit Arts Festival (an initiative by The LaLit group) local flavours of the little town were coming to life. Not that the festival is local, it’s among the more popular ones in India. “Khajuraho is the land of Shiva,” said CMD Jyotsna Suri, “it’s natural to host the Shivratri here and this is the 12th year.”

A blue-bodied, leopard-skin clad Shiva emerged with his baraatis (guests) comprising ghosts, demons, animals. The short distance from the Lalit Temple View Khajuraho to the community centre took 30 minutes as the guests danced to some happy tunes and showered flowers. I was amused and excited, for this was a unique experience. For me, Maha Shivratri meant fasting, praying and visiting a temple to find a handsome, loving man. The wedding was related to tales from the scriptures and enacted on TV, a real life saga was surreal, like the gods descending on earth.

Shivaratri literally means the night of Shiva (ratri is night). It is celebrated every year in the Hindu month of (as per the lunar calendar) Phalguna around the 13th or 14th; this time it was on February 13. Legends say this was the night when Shiva drank the poison to protect the world. And it was the night he got married too. Saints and philosophers call it the marriage of the spiritual and the material for Shiva is the meditative energy that raises our awareness. And taking us through the entire saga of how Shiva got married was the dance drama, ‘Shiv Vivaha’, directed by India’s eminent Odissi dancer Sharon Lowen. This was based on the classical poem ‘Parvati Mangal’ written by saint Tulsidas. A mix of Sanskrit chants, powerful narration, enacted by an entourage of local and trained artistes from Delhi, the sacred marriage was a powerful amalgam of the mythical and the real. The entire town was invited to witness the divine wedding. And it ended with a lavish dinner at the hotel.

Temple Tour With Mamaji

The wedding was over, the guests went home. But we were gearing for a walk with the town’s most famous historian and tour guide — Mamaji — to see the famous temples constructed by the Chandela dynasty in the 9th and 10th centuries. Standing outside the western group, which is very near the hotel, we watched the crowd walk into the only temple open to the public. “When this area was not cordoned off, the villagers would come in bullock carts and stay here in their tents. Now, they can only visit the temple,” he elucidated.

With a lawyer father, Mamaji too wanted to follow the same career, but life has a way of turning things and he ended up as tourism professional. “I belong to village Ajaigarh (34km from here), and have toured Madhya Pradesh with many travel companies, sharing my knowledge about Indore, Sanchi, Ujjain and many more places. The journey is 48 years old now.” On becoming Mamaji (that’s how a mother’s brother is addressed), he laughed, “Someone from the native village came and addressed me as Mamaji and since then, the entire town calls me Mamaji.” His education was masters in Political Science but he learned about the arts, culture, history and other subjects on his own.

Standing under the shade of a temple, Mamaji shared the background. The Chandela dynasty was the last Hindu dynasty in Central India. They fought 85 battles and built 85 temples. So, perhaps each temple was a thanks to the deity they believed in for supporting their success. The Chandelas’ ruled between the 9–13th century but the temples were built in 300 years. Now, between the western, eastern and southern groups, only 22 of them survive.

The region was popular with Jains and Buddhists as the sages loved the jungles and retreated for their sadhana here. So, we saw ancient Jain temples, Buddhist influences and an amalgam of Shaivism and Vaishnavism in the temples. Certain sects in Hindus follow Shiva and others Vishnu.

On the famed erotic sculptures, Mamaji said that temples were education grounds for understanding the fabric of society and living an ideal life. “Sex is a primal instinct and it is an act of creation. The cosmos was formed when there was fusion and love brings that sublimity. The sculptures are carved in a manner that you can see the flow of life from the underwater to the celestial beings. Love in its purest form occurs during the teens, which is why gods are shown in a youthful demeanour,” he gives a deep explanation. Gazing at the amazing work done by human hands, it was like seeing the cosmos in its glory. There are scripts written in Devanagari and Prakrit scripts. Some sculptures also have the sculptor’s signature.

“The gardens that we are standing in, these were water bodies. People came here on boats. The stones were brought from mines 35km away. The sculptors carved them here and finally assembled the temple. They are based on a lock and socket system and nothing has been used to glue them,” he added. “There was a date or khajoor garden here. It was called khajoor vatika and sometime later it became Khajuraho.”

Before heading to the eastern and southern groups, which are a little at the edge of the city, we sat down for a cuppa at the well-known Raja Café. “These monuments need to be preserved. Noise pollution, illegal structures around them, fireworks are all damaging for the monuments. We need to preserve our heritage,” he said.

On cuisine and what the people liked, Mamaji said there was ‘farmer food’ which came from the harvests and there was ‘soldier food’ which came from game meats and wild rice. “The language spoken is Bundeli and the food is simple, nothing luxurious in this area.”

Besides the many sensuous and erotic apsaras and women, there were sculptures of Shiva’s wedding, a fusion of Shiva and Vishnu known as Hariharan and a mythical griffin-like animal which is known as Shardul in northern India and Yali in the southern parts. These are a reminder that the passage of evolution takes one from the human towards the divine until it becomes the sublime energy.

Seeing The First Tiger Ever In The Wild
The darkness added to the excitement and hope of seeing the cats — the big cats. It was much before sunrise and we were en route Panna Tiger Reserve where 41 tigers lived! Inside the dry deciduous forest, our guide was telling us about T1 and her two cubs who had been sighted in the parts we were in. Flames of hope rose higher as the sun’s rays fell on the ground. We were not going back without meeting the lady and her cubs. We didn’t take her consent into consideration — but that’s human.

A row of Gypsys turned inside the curvy mud road, crossing a river bed and came to halt near an old broken room. This was the place where the tigers were monitored. They had been tagged, as part of the check for the census. A man came out with a metal detector and rotated it a few times. We waited, taking a hesitant bite of chips. The drivers were eating their breakfast. The forest guards were cooking food in a big utensil for the elephants — tame ones.

Suddenly, one car moved, a tiger was there. The deer was screaming. The tiger was hunting. Craning our necks, standing on the highest possible place in the Gypsy, we wanted to go running between the bushes. But the tiger didn’t come out. A peacock emerged, calm, indicating the tiger had gone. Turning the eyes, we saw an antelope and a wild boar. There were some ruins in the distance. A village had been relocated when the area was declared a tiger reserve, the guide told us.

Disappointed, we moved. But the driver observed the others and stood near the river. The tiger was coming, the tiger was coming, ‘get your cameras ready’, ‘shoot maam’ and the tiger was in the camera, a tiny piece in the distance because I didn’t have the telephoto lens. From between the dry shrub, the majestic being emerged. “This cub is three years old. He is now hunting on his own and will soon mark its territory,” the guide hushed. We watched as he drank water from the river and then slowly, magnificently, walked back into the shrubs. Should we follow him? It has been an hour and a half already.

We moved for the jungle had more splendors to reveal. And then another Gyspy came racing by, the even rarer hyena emerged from the shrubs. He waited, we watched wide-eyed, he shrugged and walked away, we sighed.

The drive continued with peacocks, deers and birds as our companions. We hoped to see more scary beasts but I guess the rare ones were done with. Suddenly, the driver halted the Gypsy near an emerald water body; matching the name of the place it was located in (panna means emerald). A crocodile lived here, we could disembark. The jungle, us and a croc — nothing happened for we were not allowed to go anywhere near the water body. It didn’t even come out. Goodbye tiger. Goodbye hyena. It was time to meet the gharials.

Ken Gharial Sanctuary is a 30-minute drive from Panna. And the Raneh Falls are also located inside. I thought it would a close up call with the wild, but this was a close-up call with a breathtaking volcanic site. It exploded with its canyon-like feel. Think trees, langurs, deers and nilgais and an amazing rocky terrain — this was mindblowing. The area had five kinds of rocks, including graphites. Mining is strictly forbidden in this no man’s land. A not-so used trail led us to the edge of the cliffs. Right now the falls were dry, but the water falling over the rocks during the monsoon was another dreamy sight. The heart was smitten with this natural wonder. A little ahead was the high point from where the alligators could be spotted bathing. And we did find them in their habitat. The wild, wild day was over, but the euphoria was not.

How To Reach Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India

  • Most international flights land at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi at T3. There are international flights to
  • There are flights to Khajuraho from Delhi, Mumbai, Bhopal, Varanasi and Allahabad.
  • Alternatively, one can take an overnight train from Delhi, which is a better option. One can travel 2nd AC sleeper in UP Sampark Kranti Express and MBA Kurj Express which are quite comfortable, if you don’t get the first AC sleeper.

More To See

  • Archaeological Survey Museum and Advart: Tribal and Folk Art Museum are right next to the hotel.
  • A day trip can be done to Ajaigarh and Kalinjar forts (100km from Khajuraho). Another day can be spent in exploring Orchha (170km).
  • One can enjoy a picnic at Benisagar Lake.

For information on Panna Tiger Reserve, click

For information on Ken Gharial Sanctuary, go to http://www.khajuraho.ind.in/ken-raneh-waterfalls.html

Things To Keep In Mind

1. Preferably wear cotton clothes and cover yourself. India is a tourist-friendly but a little conservative country, so there can be unwanted attention.

2. Carry a water bottle, some places are not clean.

3. Carry some sunscreen, medicines and first-aid kit.

4. Keep your passport under lock and key. Do carry some photocopies with you.

5. Bargaining is a good idea in the market. Keeping some cash handy works well.

6. There are many beggars but it is not a good idea to encourage them.

7. Locals ask for money if you want to take their photographs, so change is handy. It’s better than begging.

8. When trying street food, make sure you have a strong stomach.

9. Everyone pretends to be a guide, but is not. You can ask for credentials.

10. Temples are sacred spots and keeping them that way helps. Donations are an individual choice.

11. Tips are also an individual choice. But if you want to give, then a 10% is an ideal amount.

What Would Help

A travel freak, Ambica Gulati’s first love is storytelling. Read more articles on atravellerswishlist.com

India-based journalist, photographer and videographer, worked with Outlook Traveller, Swagat and written for patriot.in. Mail: ambicagulati@gmail.com