Khajuraho: The Kama Sutra Temples

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We arrived in Khajuraho with a false sense of freedom; no more being told what to do and when to do it. Sadly, this wasn’t the case. Within minutes of arriving we had a man at the hotel trying to organize a tour for the following morning.
“What time would you like the Tuk Tuk to pick you up at?” He said, as if we had already decided this is what was going to happen. “First we will see the eastern temples, then we will drive up to the waterfalls and then you can rest for a little while before we go to a traditional dancing show, then you see the Western Temples the next morning. Ok? 10:00 okay?”
No. No. No. We are sleeping in, we are doing whatever we want, when we want to, and we are NOT paying hotel booking prices! We thanked him for his offer and politely declined any kind of tour.
“We can book it in the morning, no problem” he said. *sigh* We’ll never escape it!
The next morning as we walked out the door there were already men waiting to take photos of us. Just what you want first thing in the morning when you’ve got a cold.
We walked up to the rooftop to have breakfast alone, but multitudes of people kept finding excuses to come up and look at us before walking back downstairs.
Even our friend was back. “We go on Tuk Tuk now to temples?”
“No thanks, we’re going to check out the markets instead” we said, through mouthfuls of breakfast.
“Ok, later then!” And then he just hung around watching us eat some more. It was awkward.
Outside the hotel was worse. We hadn’t gone five feet from the front door and we had four or five guys walking and talking with us.
“Where from?”
“Auto Rickshaw?”
“Please, see my shop!”
“What is your name beautiful lady”
It was too much.
“We need a Tuk Tuk!” We exclaimed. Within seconds we had 4 Tuk tuks in front of us. We jumped in one with a shy, young driver with a great smile. His name was Ali.
“200 rupees for a half day tour, starting with the Eastern Temples” we told him.
“Okay” he said, and drove off, away from the madness.
As we were driving away, one of the young guys who was chatting with me, jumped in the Tuk Tuk.
“Hello! My name is Baia. I am a guide here, I can tell you all about the temples!” he grinned at us.
Kelsi turned to me and rolled her eyes. “You would pick us up a guide!” She said to me.
“Not me!” I said, “He jumped in here all on his own.”
Well, we really had no choice in the matter. The four of us cruised along in the Tuk Tuk until we reached the first temple. We figured that if we ignored what Baia was saying, maybe he’d go away without having to pay him. But strangely enough, he stayed in the Tuk Tuk and let us explore the first temple alone.
Khajuraho’s temples are some of the most unique and best preserved temples in India. Also named the “Kama Sutra” temples, these massive sandstone structures have erotic and sexual carvings of people, animals and nymphs. To Kelsi and I , this seemed strange in a culture that is so conservative with its sexuality. The eastern temples are much smaller than the western ones (which cost money) but they are equally as detailed in their sculpting. We walked through a couple of them fairly quickly, avoiding any kind of information from Baia. But he seemed to get the hint and just let us walk around on our own.
As we moved through the temples heading south we passed by the Old Village.
“Can we drive through the village?” We asked the boys.
“No. No. Not drive. Let’s walk! It’s much nicer to walk through the village” said Baia. He had Ali meet us on the other side of town while we got out to explore.
“Khajuraho is very caste conscious” explained Baia. “It is the one thing I don’t really like about the Indian culture, but that’s life! In the old village we have strict lines defining each of the castes. They each have their own temple, own watering well, own drinking water, own hospital and own barber shop.”
Wow, I knew there were caste systems in India, but I didn’t realize how separate they all are. From the Brahman priests to the street cleaning Untouchables, smaller towns like Khajuraho are very particular about the different expectations from each caste. They each have their own everything, and it seems like their worlds hardly mix.
“You can always tell which caste area you are in by the colours of the homes. Also the colour of people’s skin: the darker the skin the lower the caste”
In metropolitan cities like Delhi and Mumbai the caste system is slowly being forgotten. But Khajuraho is traditional, and despite their liberalism with the Kama Sutra sexuality, they are still very defined in their old ways.
We wandered through the little village for a while. We’d given up on avoiding Baia and just gave in to his charismatic personality. He was a young guy, only 18, but he spoke 4 languages fluently and seemed to just enjoy his job as a self proclaimed tour guide. Every few minutes or so he would break out with some silly rhyme or expression.
“You know what they say, travel is knowledge without college!” Then he’d grin at us.
“You know why they call it India?” He asked us.
“Why?”
“INDIA: I. Never. Do. It. Again” Then he’d break into laughter. “It’s a joke! Just a joke!”
He was pretty entertaining, I must admit.
Soon we came to the old village school. It was founded by some Europeans who gathered funds to create a school for the children.
“This school is the only place where the castes mix. All levels of children come to learn together! It is very nice!” Explained Baia
The school, grounds and all, was maybe the size of my house, and it held 300 children in two sessions: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. There are six small class rooms: 3 old and 3 new ones. The children get all their uniforms, books, pens and pencils free from the school. We walked around the classrooms on our own, the school children giggling in excitement that we were there. There were no chairs or desks, just some bamboo mats on the floor and a small chalk board. The rest was just concrete walls painted white.
“Desks and chairs are not important. Learning is important.” Said the principal as he walked up behind us. He showed us around the place a little more, explaining some of the rules and practices along the way. It was all pretty amazing.
When we’d left the school, Ali was waiting outside with the Tuk Tuk.
“Okay, next temple!”
But the Tuk Tuk wouldn’t start. We tried pushing it to start it in first gear (this happens to us nearly every time we get into a Tuk Tuk) but it still wouldn’t work. Ali apologized and we agreed to walk with Baia to the next temple and meet him there.
The last temple we went to was the largest of the eastern temples. But much like the others, we just did a quick walk around. We instead found a starving little puppy dog and had more fun playing with it (Yup, refusing rabies shots may have been a mistake. We’re still suckers for puppies).
On our way back to the hotel Baia turned around to face us.
“Have you girls ever driven a Tuk Tuk before?”
“Nope. But we want to!”
He had Ali pull over and Kelsi jumped into the front seat. Baia hopped in the back along with some random local that wanted a ride into town. Ali gave Kelsi the low down and then handed her the reins.
I’m pretty sure I screamed in excitement and fear as we flew down the pothole ridden streets of backcountry Khajuraho. It was a quiet road, but only really big enough for one lane. Every time a car came towards us I closed my eyes. Please don’t run straight into it! A car came up from behind and was honking at us to pull over so it could pass. We could hardly hear it over our shrieks of laughter and excitement. Kelsi pulled over at the edge of town to let Ali take control again, a massive grin on her face. We had just written out a list of random missions to complete while in India: this was one of them. Drive a Tuk Tuk… Check!
Baia and Ali wanted to hang out with us longer.
“How about the waterfalls next? Or we can go into the mountains!”
“No thanks. We are doing our own thing this evening. Probably heading to the Western Temples”
“But the Western Temples are so much better in the morning.” He explained. We were just being stubborn now; we didn’t want anyone deciding our itinerary.
“Nope. We are going tonight. We can see the waterfalls with you tomorrow morning”
They finally agreed and we planned to meet at 9:30 the next morning to go out for the day. They were the nicest locals we’d met since we’d been in India. We figured it’d be fun to hang out with them at the waterfalls than try our luck with a new driver in the morning.
That evening we did go to the Western Temples just like we’d said. And guess what? They’d be so much better in the morning!
The sun sets behind them, which makes for some great silhouette shots, but you can’t see any detailing in the buildings. It didn’t matter, we’d been told what to do for three weeks: It was our turn to make decisions now.
The western temples were significantly larger and much better preserved than the Eastern ones (that’s probably why this group of temples costs 250 rupees while the others are free). They were incredible to wander around. Thousands upon thousands of detailed carvings of naked women, nymphs, gods, and Kama sutra poses were on each temple. It was crazy. At first it seemed like all the carvings were the same, but as you look closer, they are all unique. Some women are wearing clothing, others are coupled together or standing naked and alone. A few of them have scorpions, the symbol of sex, climbing up their thighs. They were beautiful, and erotic and some of the stranger temples we’d seen to date. Kelsi and I wandered around, avoiding the myriad guides that wandered the place looking for a couple bucks. We were on a mission to find the strangest kama sutra carving we could find on all the temples! We had a great time just climbing around all the temples laughing at or contemplating each sculpture as the sun went down.
As we neared the end of the group we came to a temple with a bunch of young Indian guys hanging around. They took one look at us and couldn’t stop staring. We rolled our eyes and tried to ignore them. They were sneakily trying to get a photo of us on their camera phones. They held them up and waited for us to walk past before taking the shot. We decided to play with them; we’d get super close to walking through their shot then we’d abruptly turn around and go the other direction around the temple. As soon as we rounded a corner we could hear them running around the other side to catch us. We laughed and went back the other direction. We stumbled upon them all huddled around the corner of the temple watching for us to come by. We snuck up behind them unawares and just as we passed them said “I wander what they’re looking for” then walked off down the stairs away from them. They all got startled and confused at how we’d eluded them. We just giggled at how funny we thought we were and walked to our final temple.
As we walked out of the last one there were two men about to enter.
“Can I get photo?” He said to me. I hesitated then finally got in the photo with him as his friend stood ready to take the shot. I’m limiting photos taken of me per day; this guy was nice enough to ask and I was in a good mood, so why not.
As his friend was about to take the photo about ten more men came around the corner, cameras out towards us.
“I’m out!” Said Kelsi as she ran off to the exit gate. Thanks buddy.
I got stuck having twenty photos taken of me all at once. I politely declined having a photo taken of me individually with each person. This country is crazy!
I took off running after Kelsi as she stood by the gate laughing at me. Time to go home.

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Mandawa

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We’d only had about 5 hours of sleep when the alarm went off. Time to explore Rajasthan! We packed our bags and checked out before anyone else in the hotel (staff included) had woken up. Then we climbed into our waiting car.
We had a new driver, Raju was his name, and he seemed to be very nice. We slept on and off for most of the trip, but Raju kept turning around every hour or so to see if we were still okay.
When we pulled up to our hotel in Mandawa we were surprised at how beautiful the place was. Mandawa is just a tiny town. It has dusty streets, a small food market with rickety wooden stalls, and dilapidated looking homes built in a maze around the city. But when we pulled into the lot where we were staying, we were faced with a beautiful white building, painted intricately with Indian designs. The lobby was gorgeous. It had lovely seating areas scattered around, and an open courtyard through a doorway next to it. The place had a rooftop restaurant that looked out over the tiny town and towards the setting sun. If this was the budget tour, I can’t imagine what the mid-range and luxury people were experiencing!
We rested for a couple hours in the heat of the day, then had a local man walk us around the city and show us the sites. There really isn’t much to do in Mandawa. It’s very untouristy, there aren’t any major temples to explore, and the place is very small. But, it is a beautiful town to see if you want to get a feel for a real Rajasthani town. Mandawa used to be the major hub for the exporting of textiles and opium. Hard to imagine given its size, but it’s true.
The town was influenced by both traditional Indian art, and British business culture, leaving it uniquely beautiful. The town sports wall paintings that are over 150 years old. They are found on so many buildings as you wander around town. They depict stories and tableaus of Indian gods and animals, and also of British colonialism.
On many buildings, the paintings are faded or ruined from years of sun damage or structural collapse. But Mandawa still has many homes that have paintings inside as well. We were lucky enough to explore a few of them.
One building we went into was a home that must have belonged to a fairly wealthy family. Our guide said that it was probably home to a family of about 25 people (children, parents, grandparents etc). When you come ducking through the main door, you stumble into an open courtyard. Stairs lead off in three directions: left, right and straight ahead. We walked to the right and up into a little room.
“This is the business room” our guide said. This would be the room where the family would entertain its guests, or talk business with partners. It had a large square cushion on the floor where men would sit together, discussing the world and smoking opium. A small area in front was for dancing and entertaining, then a raised section in the back was for musicians to play. Right around the room, close to the ceiling were small wooden doors.
“That is the ladies section” he explained. The women were not allowed to join the men in business discussions. So instead they sat in the ladies quarters and could stick their heads through the little doors to watch the entertainment below. Prime viewing seats if you ask me!
The entire room was ornately decorated with carvings and paintings. Hardly a spot on the wall was bare. It was exquisite! I can just imagine how amazing it would be to sit in one of those smokey rooms, watching the dancers and listening to the musicians play over 150 years ago.
The rest of the home was slightly less ornate, but equally as unique. Brightly painted doors, a slave’s quarters, stalls for the livestock and a stunning rooftop with views across the city. This place was magical.
We continued our walk around the town, exploring homes here and admiring paintings there. At one point we went into a place called “The Golden Room” it was a beautifully crafted business room much like the others we had seen. This one however had paintings embossed with real gold detailing. The room sparkled in the light and was wonderful to see. It wasn’t a fully golden room, as we had sort of hoped from the name of it, but it was gorgeous nonetheless!
The paintings and old homes were absolute gems within an otherwise dusty old town. It gave spirit and culture to the area, and a look into what Mandawa used to be like.
My initial reaction of Delhi left me missing South Africa, but seeing Mandawa gave me a glimmer of hope that India is more than just chaos and bribes. I was glad we had stopped in this nothing town, and I was looking forward to exploring deeper into the rich history of India over the next two months.

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