Thursday, 13 January 2011

Temple Watching - Khajuraho

Running the Gauntlet: Gurus, Gods, Goods and Italian Food

We arrived at the Hotel Zen in Khajuraho after dark following the drive from Orchha and although it didn't match the flowers at the Bundelkhand Riverside, Hotel Zen made a good first impression. Unfortunately it was downhill fairly quickly from there... To start with we had booked two different room types and the hotel staff did not seem able to tell us which was which, so after some swapping around we finally decided on our rooms. Both were flawed, but at least there was a nice outside area to sit and plan where to go for dinner which despite being a little dusty was comfortable enough. The rooms themselves were basic, which by now we had learnt to mean poorly maintained/finished with bad plumbing, rock hard beds and the chance of insects. Hotel Zen ticked all the above boxes, however for the price and location it was fine as we were close to the restaurants and to the main western temple complex.

After consulting our guide book we decided to try Mediterraneo, an Italian restaurant, for a bit of a break from the rich curries at the Bundelkhand in Orchha. Despite having a good write up in the guide the place was almost empty. We all had some lovely fresh pasta and I washed it down with a cold beer. The restaurant is on a roof top terrace overlooking the high street and we had a nice peaceful meal as good as any of the UK high street chains we were used to, though of course with an Indian style and price! Anyway we liked it enough to go back a few more times. After dinner we enjoyed the short walk back to the hotel to be greeted by a man who we thought may have been the hotel's owner/manager who offered us a night cap of rum which we politely postponed till later in our stay - more on this at the end for he was truly everywhere.

As we were here for three nights, which was at least one if not two night too many, we plotted out our next few days whilst watching TV. This was the first hotel with a TV in the room during the trip so we made the most of it, flicking through local news, movies and settling on a US sitcom that I can't recall and Quantum of Solace the following night. Around 11-12 it was time for bed and inevitably another sleepless night to enjoy in the tangle of nets, liners and bug spray. Those temples better be worth it!

The following morning after breakfast at Mediterraneo (with a very interesting interpretation of a croissant and decent jug of coffee) we were off to the western group of temples that make up the main attraction of Khajuraho. Now we began to see a little more of how things worked in town. We read in our guide book that Khajuraho was known for its touts and we felt well prepared after Agra. However as we found out Khajuraho is much smaller and many of the tourists are bussed in and out with all activities planned, tables booked and hotels arranged as well as the opportunities to buy all the souvenirs they could ever want. The result is that for the few people not part of a group you never have a moment' of peace. From the second you leave the hotel until you return you can guarantee you will be offered a rickshaw to cross the road, numerous shopping opportunities, a place to eat, sleep, a trip to the "waterfall" or to go and see a “local dance”. Unfortunately the persistence of the various people out trying to make a living by ripping off tourists makes you want to do absolutely nothing at all. It is the one thing that spoils Khajuraho and like many other tourist spots, hopefully other things can be done so people do not feel 100% reliant on tourist money to live.

Rant over! We arrived with our entourage at the temple gate, picked up our tickets and a guide and had a fantastic morning viewing the temples. Our guide was very knowledgeable and helped point out the more interesting statues that make up the temple walls, which to the untrained eye are very easy to miss. For example: a lady having a thorn removed from her foot, a lady with a scorpion on her thigh as well as the many depictions from the Kama Sutra that the Khajuraho temples are famous for. Apparently there is a number of reasons for the unusual sexual depictions on the temple. The one that remained with me was that the population at the time were spending too much time in the forest praying and meditating and needed help to fulfil their social duties. The King was afraid that he would not have a people to rule, so he built temples with sex scenes to entice them back to town. The main element of the temples is that everything works in fours: the temples are built in four sections, the main area in each temple is square and the four different parts of life are represented on the temple walls from top to bottom: Dharma (ethic), Artha (livehood, wealth = economic life), Kam (sensual pleasure = sexuality and physicality) and Moksa (liberation, spiritual freedom). As we talked to our guide we also found out the massive amount of study someone goes through to be an official government guide including the necessary exams covering all of India, not just one particular site. Our guide was a local and decided to return home to Khajuraho to work once completing his studies and exams in Mumbai.

After we had finally tired of temples, at least for the time being, we decided to have a bite to eat at the Raja Café. At this time of day the restaurant was fairly empty and made for a peaceful lunch. We did some reading and looked over our photos. By this time we felt too lazy to do much else so we put off seeing the rest of the temples till the following day. I had also decided that we would return to the Raja Café for dinner. Having been in India for over a week without having had some real tandoori food was unacceptable. I had no choice but to come back as Raja Café had a large tandoori oven that I saw being stoked for the evening ahead. We then had a slow walk back to the hotel window shopping as we went, which is easier said than done as you end up with quite a following by the time you get back to your hotel. Having no intention to shop, my "head down tone deaf" approach worked a little too well as I ended up at the hotel by myself for a while waiting for my companions to catch me up!

After a nice long rest it was time to see a "traditional" dance. The dance was at one of the shinier hotels just outside of the main town centre where they also have a big government run tourist emporium (which is basically the stuff you see elsewhere, just in a quiet, air-conditioned and hassle free environment but unfortunately at double the price). Anyway for all the artistry the dance was disappointing. It was not a local dance as such, but a touristy amalgamation of Indian dance and music. The equivalent would be an Indian tourist visiting Windsor Castle and witnessing a “British”dance show with morris dancing, the cancan, men in lederhosen slapping their thighs rounded off with the flamenco. Anyway... for dinner we returned to the Raja Café where I did indeed have some amazing tandoori chicken, again washed down with cold beer. I was also glad that some of the food I ordered did not turn up. I was full afterwards. It was a great meal and it thoroughly made up for the dancing. During this trip I did have some stand out meal time memories which I will share in my summary. After dinner it was a walk home in the cool night air followed by Bond and bed. The joys of another sleepless night...

Our second full day began with breakfast at the Raja Café, the fact they had real coffee was the big draw here. We then met up with our guide from the previous day, grabbed an auto rickshaw and off we went to see the rest of the temples of Khajuraho. Our guide was a Jain Buddhist, though not the kind who walks around naked, but the kind who doesn't hurt living things. He gave us a great deal of information at the eastern (mainly Jain) group of temples and explained why Khajuraho was such an important Jain site as well as a Hindu one. The Jain temples are a lot plainer than those of the Western group and some are still active. Around the temple complex there was basic accommodation for pilgrims.

After that we enjoyed a ride through the old village where you could see people going about their lives farming and making pots. At the final small southern group of temples we had a small group of beggars waiting for us but we quickly sidestepped them for the end of our tour. The temple here was in the same style as the western group. We were then offered the chance to see the “famous” Khajuraho waterfall by our rickshaw driver. Our guide told us that it was probably best not to visit the waterfall as it was more of a trickle outside the rainy season and there was little else to see there. He did offer us the opportunity to visit a shop that made jewellery and replicas of the statues from the temples. Although knowing it was probably one that paid a commission should we buy anything we thought we'd take a look at it anyway. Seeing the work on the statues only added to the awe of the temples we had just seen. The girls were more interested in the jewellery and the owner was just as eager for them to try it all on. We did nearly spend some money on a star ruby ring/pendant but decided against it in the end. Before parting ways he showed us the active temple at Khajuraho by the western complex. Now back in town we visited our guide's family shop to sign his book. Interestingly he did not try to sell us anything at all which was a nice change. The girls then went and brought some clothes and we had another nice Italian lunch at Bella Italia (nothing to do with the UK chain of restaurants, all the less likely as the food was actually nice).

Little did we know at the time but it was World Heritage Day so we could visit the Western Temples for free again. That afternoon we went back to the complex to take pictures of the temples as the sun set. This was a really great way to spend the late afternoon. It was then back to the hotel for a rest before dinner. Where else to spend our final night in Khajuraho but up on the roof at Mediterraneo for pizza. Nice relaxing times. The following day was my birthday and we were due to fly to Varanasi. However I do have one last story to tell...

Our hotel manager was an interesting character. With it being our last night we finally took him up on his offer of some industrial strength rum. The rum was served up with fresh guava and gulab jamun (a tasty Indian dessert!). After some negotiation on the bill due to a mix up with the rooms resulting in our friend being unwittingly overcharged for a better room than she requested, it was time for bed. The rum certainly helped me sleep that night! So after packing up and a final bite to eat the following morning at Mediterraneo (where else) it was off in the waiting taxi (much to the disgust of the waiting touts) and back to the airport. On arrival we were greeted, we had our bags taken and were guided through all the security with our personal attendants (oh the joy of Kingfisher, even in economy!). Anyway, to round off we thought we'd seen our hotel manager on a few occasions outside the hotel: when not busy being a guru or giving a guided tour he also seemed to run the air side snack shop at Khajuraho airport! Truly a special character we could not forget, much like Khajuraho itself.

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