Travels in India 2001: (5) Khajuraho

The temples of Khajuraho where the physical is explicit and the spiritual implied.

Khajuraho is famous for its temples. Only about 20 out of the original 80 remain, but they are something special. Given that most of them were built between 950 and 1050, before, during and after some of the most brutally destructive invasions known to man (by the Afghani Muslim, Mahmud of Ghazni), it’s a miracle so many are still standing. The biggest and the most stunning is the Kandariya Mahadeva temple. Conjure up the silhouette of a mountain range against a clear blue sky, one point leading upwards asymmetrically to another, until finally, last in the line, the summit. Now imagine, around each of the major tops, a myriad of smaller ones like steps and, flecking the peaks, what was once a coating of white plaster. This is the snow-covered Himalayas or, to the Hindu perhaps, a representation of the quest after truth: one spiritual rock face followed by another, until finally the pilgrim ascends to the very top, and inhales the rarefied air of understanding.  Whatever it is, it stirred the blood and I found a perch on an adjacent building and sat staring at it, until an alarming ache in my lower back told me it was time to climb down before someone had to call the fire brigade.

Now when I said that Khajuraho was famous for its temples, I was being a touch economical with the truth. What it’s really famous for are the erotic sandstone carvings that coil gracefully around the temple walls, some of which would, even today, have the censor reaching for his red pencil. So, to make sure I didn’t miss any, I secured the services of a guide.

My induction course in erotica was presented by Raj Kashoor. He started me off gently: a young woman languidly twisting to remove a thorn from her upturned foot; another applying make-up to her lashes; one playing the flute; one feeding a bird; one using a mirror to inspect the underside of her breast. Here was a dancing elephant man (Ganesha) with an African drummer. There a beguiling girl was throwing a ball, an event which prompted Raj to cast doubt on the fanciful notion that the English had invented cricket. ‘Cricket English? Khajuraho say no’, was how he put it and, having thus undermined the one unshakeable verity in my life, he eased me towards the hard core stuff.

Raj was a young man, who expressed his enjoyment, and indeed his various other social observations, in an enunciation that I couldn’t help feeling would have been improved by opening his mouth whilst speaking, and by lingering a little longer on each syllable. It took me a while to get to grips with this but, in the end, I managed to compile a short Raj English to English English dictionary. Here is a selected vocabulary. To Raj, earth was ‘ert’; eyes was ‘ice’; air, ‘er’; tortoise, ‘turtwise’; lion, ‘line’; face (or fish, depending on context), ‘fis’; moon, ‘mun’; eyebrow, ‘ibro’; and so on in like manner.

‘What (are) five delights of beautiful womans’?, he asked, and fortunately decided to provide the answer himself. ‘Werst like line, ice like fis, fis like mun, ibro like rinbo, wok like dir on ert’, which translates, I believe, as a beautiful woman has a ‘waist like a lion, eyes like a fish, a face like the moon, eyebrows like the rainbow, and she walks like a deer on the earth.’

Raj paused by an intricate carving showing a woman playing with a man, a servant playing with himself and another woman with her mouth close to the nether regions of a third man. Something was very clearly passing between them.

‘Woman drink coke,’ said Raj pointing. This surprised me. It certainly didn’t look like coke to me, and I remarked as such:

‘You know, Raj, are you sure that’s a bottle of coke?’ I enquired.

‘Not coke, COKE,’ he said with emphasis, but without obvious increase in clarification. Since nothing more enlightening was forthcoming, I was forced to conclude, gentle readers, that he meant to imply that the ‘o’ was short, as in rock.

Raj commented on something that had not altogether escaped my notice: that these girls were remarkably well endowed. ‘Big breast good, small breast not good’ was his considered opinion and, I must say, I was with him on that one. All the girls were very comely because, he said, ‘they have pleasure. They are cross only when their boyfriend has left them.’ So said Raj anyway. But he was picky. ‘This one bit fatty,’ he opined, and told me he didn’t like fatty women. Actually the girl in question didn’t look that fat to me. Cuddly perhaps, but Raj was still a callow youth.

Raj, I quickly discovered, had spent much of his young life amassing an encyclopaedic knowledge of those little details in the carvings that could so easily have escaped less rigorous students. And he was delighted to share. He showed me an elephant laughing at a man and a woman in the ‘69’ position. Not far away, a man was approaching a girl from the rear with his finger pressing on the pleasure point in her back, while an elephant, looking on, was doing his best, with the somewhat blunter digit at his disposal, to follow suit. A young woman was playing with a monkey or, as Raj said proudly, ‘a leetle monkey bisnis.’ I was starting to worry about him. A lifetime spent showing people round these temples was a bit like permanent employment as a porno-cinema usherette. I wasn’t sure it was healthy, and I did my tactful best to suggest that foreign travel might be instructive. Raj had lived in England, he told me, which frankly, given the way he tortured the language, I found hard to credit. I dread to think what would have happened had he lent across the bar of the Dog and Duck and ordered a coke.

Nobody seems quite sure why the Khajuraho temples (and others elsewhere) came to be adorned by languid young women in compromising positions. It’s not the sort of thing you normally associate with places of worship, even in the land that gave the world the Kama Sutra. It’s an interesting fact – well I think so anyway – that, inside their temples, Hindus, more than any of the western religions, venerate female energy. It is the force that both creates and destroys the world. What is more, female sexual organs are explicitly symbolised, and revered equally with the male. Yet, outside, in the country at large, the bare breasts and figure-hugging pants of Khajuraho are no longer in vogue. Prurience has taken over. Women these days are swathed in cloth from the tops of their heads to the tips of their toes. Nothing whatsoever is exposed. I blame the Muslims. It was their icy stare that made them cover up. In fact, I can forgive the Muslims just about anything except this. If the carvings of Khajuraho are any guide as to what lurks beneath the sari of today’s Indiennes, it makes you weep to think of them stashed away.

Nothing much, let me reassure you, is kept under wraps at Khajuraho. I shall spare you some of the scenes that Raj encouraged me to witness and bring you, as I was brought, to three adjacent carvings. Each showed a man standing and supporting a woman who had wrapped herself around him. Each represented a different stage in the same sexual act, and Raj suggested that, to see the detail as the sculptor intended, I press my face against the wall and look upwards. This I did, and was just beginning to appreciate the finer points, when Raj indicated to me to keep my mouth shut, or, as he put it, ‘drops fall in.’ Heavens, I thought, was I really standing there with my mouth wide open, gawping like a schoolboy. I was. I shut it quickly, but what flashed before me was that newsagent in Trinity Square, Nottingham, where we used to go after school and furtively leaf through health and energy magazines, which are what passed for porn when I was growing up. Ah, happy days.

… to be continued

 © Michael Tobert