Khajuraho: Temples in a Garden

For years, we’ve passed by Khajuraho but never stopped. Too many tourists and touts. Uschi, a friend of ours in Varanasi, who organizes tours to the major sites including Khajuraho, strongly encouraged us to visit. She recommended us seeing the temples in their beautiful setting. We booked an expensive, by our standards, hotel for the occasion.

We took a sleeper train and arrived early in the morning. The hotel was two km. outside town, sitting in quiet countryside, the rooms white, clean and spacious (especially after our shoebox-sized room in Varanasi) and all with balconies overlooking a garden of palm and banana trees. After resting in luxury, we walked into town. A complex of six temples sits peacefully among manicured gardens, in an area cordoned off from traffic. The best time to visit is late afternoon when the sandstone temples look their best in the soft sunlight.

While waiting, we ate in a rooftop restaurant beneath a gigantic tree adorned with flowering vines. The cafe looked straight out on the temple complex and its lush manicured gardens. Sitting in such idyllic surroundings, leaves gently blowing in the breeze, we agreed that we’ve never been in a place quite like this in India.

Khajuraho’s Hindu and Jain temples were built around 1100 AD commissioned by the Rajput rulers of Chandela Dynasty. After the downfall of the Chandelas in the 13th century, the abandoned temples suffered some desecration by the Mogul conquerors but were protected by their remote location in dense forests. In 19th Century, a British surveyor rediscovered and excavated the site. We spent an absorbing two hours in the main temple complex.

Khajuraho is well known for the erotic sculptures that adorn the temple exteriors. However, only a few of the thousands of the exquisitely carved figures are erotic. Hardly worth a trip if that was your focus! Most depict idealized femininity and the men pale in comparison.

Various legends try to explain the sculptures. The most appealing to me was the story of beautiful Hemvati who was seduced by the Moon God while bathing in the moonlight in a pool in Benares. After conceiving a child, she cursed the God and ran into the forest to raise her illegitimate son alone. However, the Moon God promised her their son would grow up to become a great king. His word came true: the child was the first king in the Chandela dynasty. After Hemvati passed away, she appeared to her son in a dream, asking him to construct temples that would depict human passions.

The next day, we hired a rickshaw driver, hungry for our business with the obvious dearth of tourists to take us out of town.

We passed through a village to find another seven temples which we would never have found on our own. Driving down country lanes, it was money well spent.

An isolated temple amongst the lush wheat fields had a miraculous statue of Lord Shiva.

Our third day, we returned to our favorite restaurant under the tree and spent the afternoon sipping tea and looking again at the beautiful temples.

The guide books say you only need one day in Khajuraho but we’re glad we decided to spend longer in this picture perfect setting. Even the temperature cooperated: cool nights and warm clear days. We’re so glad we took Uschi’s advice!

Gokarna: Shiva Worshippers and the Beach

india-2016-59

After nine years of spending at least a month in Agonda we decided to split our time between Gokarna, Gulijbagh and Agonda. We still have friends there that we want to visit. For those who remember, we made a day trip from Goa last year to see if Gokarna, just over the border into Karnataka, could be a possible alternative. Unlike most beach towns on the west coast of India, Gokarna’s major draw is not the sunbathing crowd from the west. It’s primarily a place of pilgrimage for Shiva worshippers. As the legend goes, Shiva was passing by on his way from Sri Lanka to the Himalayas when overwhelmed by the beauty of the area, he shed a tear. Where the teardrop landed, it created an abundant source of fresh water next to the sea.

dsc_0426

Meat and alcohol are not served and there seems to be little incentive to develop infrastructure for the beachgoers. Unlike Agonda, Gokarna has not become so commercialized that the local life has all but disappeared behind beach huts, sun beds and souvenir shops. On the other hand, for years Gokarna’s been a strong pull for hippies of our vintage and the present version, with its dreadlocks, tattoos and body piercing. (Where are the hippies from the 80s and 90s? I guess it was all disco.)

p1030133

Accommodation is not plentiful. We booked one of the few guesthouses posted online. On arrival, we were not thrilled but too exhausted from the 36-hour train ride to venture further. After reviving ourselves with a thali, we looked around to see what else was available and realized we had a good deal.

dsc_0423

The town beach is certainly not as beautiful as Agonda but after walking 20 minutes away from the hubbub of the town, the beach became virtually empty and the water very clear. No sun beds cluttering the sand, and the few beach huts are hidden in the undergrowth bordering the beach. It’s appealing for us to be in India AND at the beach. Harder to find than one might think. Two or three restaurants serve good South Indian food at Indian prices. At most times of the day, they are packed with Indian tourists and pilgrims making such a din you can hardly hear yourself think.

p1030120I respond to the religious fervor even though I can’t personally identify with Shiva worship. Such conviction and dedication are refreshing in today’s world of lukewarm faith. Even though I’m here for the beach, I like the diversity. As I make my daily pilgrimage to the sea down the winding main street, I pass two temples. Around them, the local women wrapped in a sarong pinned over their breast to numerous beaded necklaces, sell flowers, coconuts and who knows what as offerings. Then I dip myself in the clear sea water, giving thanks.

india-2016-55

Beside the temple sits an old carved wooden chariot decorated with flags waiting for the next occasion to be hauled out; furrows in the street shows its path.

p1030154

We had hoped Republic Day would be one such an occasion. But instead, all the school children in the district paraded up and down in their uniforms carrying flags and beating drums.

p1030180

The beach wasn’t as convenient as in Agonda, but the town was far more appealing. We plan to pass by this way again.

On the Way to Bikaner

train st by night

On our five-hour journey from Kuchaman to Bikaner, we shared our compartment with several R.R. engineers. One struck up a conversation saying he was teaching himself English and wanted to practice it. He had served 3 years in the paramilitary and said that he found most of the soldiers to be honest and with good morals. He contributed that to the fact that the majority came from the countryside as he did. This branch of Indian government is not corrupt, he said.

He asked us if we were interested in spirituality and was that one of the reasons we came to India. He went on to say that he was doing a meditation that was associated with Osho but was emphatic in saying he was not a follower of Osho. He also liked Eckhart Tolle’s ‘Power of Now.’ But what we found the most interesting was what he had to say about his wife. It was an arranged marriage and even though he was interested in meditating they had never discussed it.

Three years into the marriage, she asked her husband to get permission from his mother, whose house she was now living in, for her to continue her meditation practice. This was the first he’d heard about it. She told him she had meditated on Shiva since she was five years old and he was very pleased to find this out and persuaded his mother to let her do her practice. It also encouraged him to take up mediation again. He said she would leave her body when she meditated and stay in this non-responsive state for four hours or more. After they had a child, the baby would cry for his mother when she meditated. In frustration, he once put the baby in her lap and told her, take care of your baby! But he was inspired by her ability to go within. He hastened to make the point that he was not at that stage himself but found his practice fulfilled something very important in his life.

The system of arranged marriage continues to amaze us. The unseen hand brought them together.