Khajuraho – offbeat and mesmerising

When one has travelled as much as I have, it becomes quite commonplace to plan for new travel destinations and one may get a sense of, “been there, done that”. Khajuraho was quite different though as it was something both Lipi and I wanted to do for a long time. Now that we are done with the trip, I can only say that it met our expectations in full measure. For those interested in going there this post will be helpful.

Coming to the actual travel, we started on 20th February morning from our home in Hyderabad. The short ride to the airport is always exhilarating in the morning on the ORR expressway. Hyderabad airport is now crowded at most times but, as regular travellers, we have now learnt to take these in our stride. Once we were through the Security check, we headed towards our oasis in the airport – the Plaza Premium lounge. this provides relative serenity in the hustle and bustle of the airport as well as great food options at most times of the day. Fortified by the breakfast, we boarded the flight and did what we normally do – Lipi catching up with her sleep and me with my reading. We made a short stopover at Noida at my mother-in-law’s place and had a great lunch there. She also insisted on packing some dinner for us which came in rather handy later on.

Our train journey by the UP Sampark Kranti Express was uneventful but we were privy to some rather interesting conversation on Khajuraho, courtesy some local people who were travelling with us. When I woke up it was rather dark and the feeling I had of closing in on our destination was quite thrilling. The train reached Khajuraho station fairly early in the morning and just as we came outside we were accosted by a person named Jainam who wanted us to get into his car to reach our hotel. Though I did not have much faith in the sheet of paper that he proffered, 200 Rs seemed a reasonable fare and we set off. The journey by car was short and we saw the two airports, national and international, on our way. The road leading to our hotel Isabel Palace was a dusty one and I started wondering as to whether we had made a good choice of the hotel. However, the interiors were quite good and we were given a room immediately even though it wasn’t 8 in the morning yet.

The hotel had a fixed menu breakfast on the terrace. You could view the Vindhya hills at a distance and paddy fields up close. The 360 degree view along with the tasty Indian breakfast of stuffed parathas and pooris started our day on the right note. We had worked out a deal with our guide cum driver Jainam and soon set out to see the star attraction of the trip, namely the temples of the Western group first. It was only a short drive from the hotel, in Khajuraho most distances are short. The immediate road stretch in front of the temple complex has been cordoned off for vehicular traffic and this is a good step. Tickets were cheap but the official Guides really expensive. We still got one as it is always good to hear from them and it proved to be a good decision. Apart from giving up the details of temples and the sculptures he also doubled up as our official photographer for the day and snapped quite a few pictures of Lipi and me. This was nice as we normally end every travel nowadays with very few pics of us together.

The Western temple complex has most of the temples standing today and is really the UNESCO world heritage site. The temples are all in pretty good shape and have been restored well where needed, the landscaped gardens look beautiful and due to the lack of massive crowds you can set your own pace. We started with the Lakshmana Temple which is dedicated to Vishnu and has a few smaller temples in front of it. The Varaha Temple, dedicated to the third incarnation of Vishnu as a wild Boar is small but has a huge statue of a Boar which is rather impressive. The carvings along the Lakshmana temple contain a lot of erotic sculpture for which Khajuraho is widely known. While these are rather explicitly depicted, the overall numbers would probably be less than 10 %. Also, the sculptures are really about everyday life and it seems that sex was dealt with and spoken of quite openly during the times the temples were built.

About 200 metres from the Lakshmana temple is the most famous temple of Khajuraho and easily the most majestic one in structure and stature. My memories of it stretched long back to my school days when I read about it in my Cultural history classes and was quite impressed by it. In real life it was even more impressive than what my imagination had allowed for. The Jagdambika temple next to it is on the same raised platform and the duo clearly dominate the Western complex. Just going around the temples and staring up at the rising Shikaras will inspire you with awe. Add to it the richly carved panels with the intricate sculptures and you realise the extent of the artistic and human endeavour that went into creating these masterpieces. Muslim invasion had desecrated the shines but even those callous souls probably could not bring themselves to destroy such beauty.

The rest of the temples were nice too, the Chitragupta temple and the Vishvanath temple being noteworthy. The Dance festival has the Chitragupta temple as it’s fantastic background and we witnessed that in the evening. After the Western group we went to the Southern temples and the Eastern Jain ones. While these were quite impressive too and the Chaturvuja temple was unique in the statue of Vishnu with 4 heads. The Jain temple complex was really serene and nice though architecturally not so striking maybe. The temples done we proceeded to have lunch at Agarwal’s which was a great vegetarian restaurant and had a variety of Thali’s and other fares to choose from. The simple thali we chose turned out to be quite sumptuous and rounded off the morning experience.

After some rest at the hotel we were back to the temple complex in the evening. We first went to the only temple in Khajuraho where worship is prevalent and saw the 9 feet Shiva lingam made of sandstone, glistening due to all the polish it has got over the years. The evening Arathi was just starting as we came down the steps and the music with the chanting along with all the devotees clapping to it was a heady mix. Next stop was the Khajuraho Dance festival which was really more of a Fair. There were stalls put up from different states with all kinds of textiles and handicrafts, there were food stalls ans an Art Mart featuring work of many artistes. The Dance stage was impressive and had the Chitragupta temple as it’s beautiful backdrop. We saw three performances of Bharat Natyam, Kathak and Manipuri dances and each one held our attention completely. The entire experience was a surreal one and exceeded all expectations that I had of it. If you are a lover of art and culture, you must visit Khajuraho dance festival at least once.

Dinner was at well known Rajah Cafe run by a Swiss. We had some chicken Brochette which was quite good along with another chicken dish with Rotis. After a restful night we were off the next day on nature trail. First stop was Ken Ghariyal Sanctuary which has some wild life and apparently a lot of crocodiles. Even though we did not see any crocodiles there, the views of the Ken river and the different small lakes that it forms within the sanctuary were hugely worth it. Lipi did not want to climb the watch tower but I decided to test my fitness by doing so and was rewarded by some great views. The Raneh falls did not have any waterfall as the monsoons last year had been almost absent. However, this allowed us to see the Canyon properly and the sheer scale, variety, colour and arrangement of the rocks were truly remarkable. Quite possibly the only place in India where you would get to see this. After lunch we were at the Panna Tiger reserve in a Gypsy and with a very knowledgeable Guide. Panna is uniquely beautiful due to the Ken river that runs through it. This also has several alligators and crocodiles along with a host of water birds. We saw Herons, Kingfishers, Storks, Cormorants and Peacocks just to name a few. Deer of different types were in abundance starting with Nilgai, Sambar, Barking deer, spotted dear, Barasinghas etc. It was a great sight to see a couple of young deer in full flight with both feet off the air. Though we heard some people seeing the tigress and two cubs and waited patiently on a long vigil by the Ken river, the tiger eluded us. The whole park experience was rather nice though and catching the sunset as we were exiting the park was really the icing on the cake. The long drive back and the exhausting day necessitated an early dinner and we were off to sleep quickly.

The final day was reserved for Museums but unfortunately two of these were closed for the day. We did get to see the Tribal museum which had some really nice stuff in terms of paintings and handicrafts along with implements of day to day use of the tribal’s. Lipi went off to buy some souvenirs from the market while I took another look at the Western group of Temples in order to look at some sculptures closely. Another sumptuous vegetarian lunch followed and we were back to Khajuraho station soon. The station facade is in the shape of a temple and is apt for the place.

The train journey back was good as we met an old couple who have been coming to Khajuraho for several years and it was nice of them to share some of their dinner with us. Next day we stopped by Lipi’s place once more and made it to Hyderabad in the evening. It has been a great trip that had everything – culture, heritage, nature, wild life all rolled into one.

We are looking forward to the next trip in a few days time – complete change of setting as we will go to Goa now.

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