By the time I made it to Khajuraho, the cows were returning home. Every few kilometres, they would be lording over the road, sometimes in dozens and sometimes in hundreds, marching like weary battalions. Their commander would invariably be a sun-beaten old man carrying a twig for a weapon. On a normal day, I would have stepped down from the car to savour this most magical hour of a North Indian village: it is called the cow-dust hour, or godhuli, when the dust raised by the returning cows mingles against the setting sun, with the smoke rising from freshly-kindled mud ovens. But right now, the setting sun was bad news for me.
Throughout the five-hour journey from Jhansi, I had been visualising myself admiring the erotic sculptures and taking pictures. But once in the town, I found myself looking for toothpaste, a toothbrush and shampoo. The hotel gave me Medimix soap and a towel, and wearing that towel I settled down for a drink. I wasn’t carrying a book, so I killed time by going through the menu card in the room again and again. The card was bilingual: English and Korean, and there was a separate category of Korean dishes, one of them being the ‘Korean veg. paratha.’ I did not realise when I fell asleep but when I woke up, I remembered the ancient saying: Whatever happens, happens for the good.
I was the sole visitor when the first rays of the sun lit up the world-famous temples of Khajuraho. The place could have belonged to me: not a soul in sight. All the temples stand within a radius of about half a kilometre, separated by lush green lawns. My first stop was the Laxman Temple. I climbed up the stone steps and walked around. In the early-morning silence, the countless figures on its walls almost spoke. And in the middle of them, an image of an orgy — the central figures being a man and a woman who are standing and have their legs entwined. One leg of the man, however, has been cut by the sword of time. I clicked away. As a memento, I wanted a picture of myself standing below the erotic panel. I caught hold of a passing gardener — an old man who was unlikely to have held a camera before. Each time he was ready to shoot, the camera would go on stand-by mode, and I had to run to him to put it on. He managed to take some pictures, but in each of them, the orgy was left out. When I showed him in which angle he should hold the camera, he said with a frown: “Oh, you want to include those statues! You should have said so.”
Another gardener, this time a friendly young man, happened to be passing by and he took over from the old man. Perhaps he could see through my interest, and he became my guide. “Come, I will show you something. Come down.” He took me to the side panel of the podium and with the flourish of an artist unveiling his most precious work, waved his hand, “Look here! Kama Sutra!” For a moment I was stunned, and the next moment I felt a little embarrassed, and then I decided to look at the sculptures as a work of art. But it was impossible not to think of the sex. The acts were taking place in every conceivable manner, and it was not always between a man and a woman. “Look, horse,” the man said. Oh my god!
He took more pictures for me and excused himself with a namaste. I went over to the other temples — the Kandariya, Jagadambi, Chitragupta and the Vishwanatha. The designs are similar: each is erected on a high podium, and has a porch, a vestibule, a mandapa and the sanctum. If time has a smell, you could smell it inside these temples. When you stand alone in the sanctum, it almost feels as if the Chandela kings, who built the temples a thousand years ago, had performed an elaborate ritual just the evening before.
I sat for a while on the steps of the Vishwanatha temple and watched a squirrel enjoy its breakfast. Suddenly, a whisper from behind. “Soovar waala dekhna hai?” (You want to see the one with the boar?) It was the young gardener. I followed him inside the temple and on the inner wall above the entrance, I saw a boar mounting a woman. He pointed to another sculpture right on the entrance to the sanctum! A man and a woman in what they call the doggy pose.
He did a namaste and disappeared again. By now the sun had risen high and I walked across the lawns. A group of Westerners had gathered around a smartly-dressed guide and were listening to him. The guide spoke fluent English and from a distance I could catch the words “bestiality”, “homosexuality”, “vices,” “illusion and delusion.”
When I got closer, I realised he was explaining the presence of erotic carvings in a temples. He told the foreigners that when you enter the home of God, you should get rid of all worldly distractions — that’s the message of the Khajuraho temples. And then, like a chemistry teacher, he summed up: “Lust converts to love, love converts to devotion, devotion converts to spirituality, spirituality converts to super-consciousness.” I got the point.
I came back to the Laxman Temple, to take one last proper look at the carvings on its podium — the most scandalous ones. Two foreigners — a man and a woman — came up and I could see they wanted to burst out laughing on seeing the orgies. But they wore dignified smiles and moved on. An Indian family arrived — two men and three women. The women, who looked like housewives, broke into giggles. The men discussed dynamics of the complex postures and that made the women giggle even more. One of them mock-admonished the men: “Don’t look at them in a dirty way.” Another woman arrived — Indian and alone. As soon as she saw the images, she pulled out her camera, but the moment she saw me watching her, she put the camera back. I decided to leave.
Outside, a hawker accosted me. He was selling postcards of the erotic images and pocket-sized Kama Sutra books. For memory’s sake, I bought one book, titled — what else — Kama Sutra. Back in the hotel, I turned its pages. My eyes fell on the instruction:
If a man mixes rice with the eggs of the sparrow and having boiled this in milk adds to it ghee and honey and drinks as much of it as necessary, he will be able to enjoy innumerable women.
I wondered if I should have been born a thousand years ago.