How Now

Sandstone drawn into honeycomb patterns that rise into the skies. Elephants that race along interspersed with giant horses. Musicians with flutes and drums. Gods and goddesses. Consorts and mascots. Dragons and demons. Swans and monkeys. And everywhere like a thread that link the sandstone to the extent of the sculptor's imagination are the voluptuous women whose very stance is a self conscious regard of themselves and their bodies: My breasts, my thighs, my lips, my sex, this is as much for me as it is for you and for Maithuna where I will cease to be me and you, him…..They who look at us see what they want to see. What does it matter for I know nothing but the power of this thrust and heave…? So then in how many ways do I offer my body to you? And in how many different ways will you pleasure me? Do I come to you or will you come to you with maids and attendants? Do you see this? You are the mark on my breast. the thorn in my foot. You are the sweat that trails my desire and you are the wave in my hair and the splash of colour I fill the parting of my hair with…all so I never forget that it is you who fill my every want…..

This then is Khajuraho. World Heritage site and Tourist kumbh. Home to an extraordinary burst of temples with some of the finest architecture conceived by a human mind and carvings wrought by a mortal hand. And a modern day lesson in the economics of tourism and what it can do to corrupt rather than the much speculated eroticism of some of the carvings.

More than a thousand years ago, the Chandela dynasty built these temples as a commemoration of victory, as an offer of thanks and as even perhaps an interpretation of the extent of desire to leave a mark in a way never done before….The temples lost their place when the Chandela dynasty weakened and slowly forests devoured what was a holy site. Then in the 19th century, it was accidentally discovered by T.S. Burt, a British Engineer who was as much amazed as appalled and since then the destiny of the temples changed its course. From total obscurity to a much sought after tourist destination.

My friends, an English couple and I arrive in Jhansi after an insipid train ride of 35 hours punctuated only by the pantry car attendants hawking 'chai, chai, dip-chai' and coffee and assorted eats. Much as I love trains, this one left me feeling as I was going nowhere. The landscape barely changed and day and night was registered by only the increase and decrease of the air conditioning. In Jhansi then I feel the first frisson of delight. The cold. Biting cold that left fingers numb and turned ear tips into ice cubes. Three hours later we are in Khajuraho.

As we drive in, the driver says "This is the international airport. It will be ready in three years time!" In a little village of about 9000 people, where 70% live by agriculture and the balance 30 eke a livelihood out of tourism, an international airport promises to be figurative manna, food descending from the heavens in the garb of seeing eyes nad curious minds.

The next few days, we will hear this repeated again and again, except that after the first time, I feel a shudder pass through me every time I hear it. The consequences are already everywhere…..from Hungarian Goulash in a restaurant menu to to the phoren 'twang' in the English spoken by guides, vendors, cycle rickshaw drivers to signboards advertising genuine Italian food to the chorus children break into: hello-pen-chocolate-shampoo-saboon-tenrupees please to kitsch laden shops to the murmured tip-off at the temple site by the security guards to preying guides: there's one for you to that blatant cunningness that is derived from the thought that here are a few gullible 'bakras' and shall we lead them to slaughter…..Disillusionment is quick and consistent. I cringe each time my friends are hounded and feel the need to apologize. Until we enter the Western Group of temples [ Indians pay Rupees ten, Foreigners Rupees two hundred and fifty].

The grounds are lush and speckled with copses of trees under which are benches and a stray love seat or two. Sprinklers keep the green intact and provide an almost perfect backdrop for these monumental ruins. On a guided tour of the temples, the guides begin with the Lakshmana temple so named for the king who had it built rather than deity within who is Mahavishnu. This is the most majestic of the temples and it is here like an addendum I see a little temple for Varaha, the third avatar of Vishnu. The Varaha is one of the lesser known avatars and I have never seen a temple for this incarnation before.

The wild boar is covered with figurines instead of bristles. Even the earlobes, the hooves and the snout are carved. These help define and delineate. For the first time, Khajuraho with all its splendour speaks to me…. And when the countless questions arise I seat myself on a platform and eavesdrop as guides draw word pictures. From one, I hear this is the oldest of the temples. From another about the 674 gods and goddesses that encrust the wild boar. And from yet another about the figure of Bhoodevi of whom only the feet remain. There are the coils of a snake that languish beneath the boar's legs. All of this is carved from one piece of stone and has a sheen that rivals bronze.

The patter of the guides vary. In Hindi, the tone is respectful and even laden with awe. Erotic elements are dealt with swiftly and in a matter of fact voice that drops to a hush. My friends have to bear the brunt of the English guide's lewd circumlocutions. There are smirks and cocked eyebrows and several rhetorical questions with spirited lashings of formulaic expressions: tantra, sixty-nine, satisfaction….

Slowly I circumambulate the temples and then retreat to ponder. At the only living temple, outside the World Heritage Site, someone's playing a dholak. A honeymooning couple, the henna on her hands still vigorously red, walks past trapping memories and lessons.

In a love seat are two old Marathi women. And on another a lone woman. I sit down next to her. Haripaat drips from their mouth. The heaving and thrust of life contained, they are content to sit under the triad shade of the trees while sons and daughters in law seek the temples and the carvings. "Don't you want to see the temples?" I ask one of them.
One by one, they tell me of their knees, swollen and aching. In Prayag, where their journey will cease, they will bathe their knees and weary souls, they add. Khajuraho is a detour.

A group of women and children and their men folk walk by. They are migrant workers from Chattarpur seeking work. This is their day off and they have chosen to come to the temples. The erotica escapes them as do most of the carvings. "Are you alone?" A woman asks me. I smile.

They tell me of their lives. Between here and their next destination, they seek respite under the trees and aim their eyes to the skies where a plane wings its way in. A man asks me about planes, "Tell me, how does it feel to be so high up in the sky?"

In Khajuraho, I had thought I would be faced with no surprises. That ennui which has taken over my life would stay. But as I search for an answer, a metaphor appropriate for the man to relate to, I feel my mind escaping the confines of the everyday. What next erases itself out and it is How Now that reigns…Freeze the moment with no questions asked...

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