India 7: love and learning

February 12, 2010

John McCarthy:

Monday 8 February: Khajuraho
After the nightmare drive to Khajuraho it’s a surprise to wake up and find ourselves in a neat little tourist town. Low rise hotels line the roads into the centre, catering for every budget, everything from the basic-looking Hotel Gupta sitting a few yards from the road behind a dusty car park, to the Radisson, set back and shimmering white in green and shady grounds.

Nothing in the town rises above a second storey except its temples. They are the heart of this place, the reason that all the tourists come here down the long bumpy roads. Without these monuments to the vision, power and wealth of the Chandela dynasty at the end of the tenth century, Khajuraho would be a very sleepy little market town serving the farming communities around it.

The temples are situated in a perfectly manicured park in the town centre. Every way you look there’s another spire, or sikhara, rising above the trees. They have a very different look from the south Indian temple towers, the massive gopuras we saw in places like Madurai and Tanjavore.  The sikharas taper upward with gracefully sweeping lines, rather than ever-decreasing tiers as on a wedding cake. Less massive than their southern counterparts, these buildings have a wonderful delicacy about them.

Not so delicate are some of the images carved on the friezes and panels on the temple walls. Much of the Hindu temple sculpture we’ve seen reflects human experience, from mighty kings leading their armies to victory, to simple people toiling in the fields. And the temples themselves are intended not only as places of worship, but also as places that can bring the worlds of man and the many deities closer together. So the gods are shown manifesting very human attributes and emotions; anger, compassion, humour, generosity and love.

The relationship between Shiva and his consort Parvarti, for example, is renowned for its physical passion and dramatises the central importance of procreation in Hinduism. Kama, the pursuit of love and sexual fulfilment, is one of the basic paths which the faithful follow, alongside dharma, following a righteous path and artha, seeking prosperity, on the way to achieving moksha or spiritual liberation. Given all this it’s not surprising that many sculptures are sexy but nothing we’ve seen so far has been remotely hard core.

Khajuraho changes all that. I daren’t go into detail but suffice it to say that all human (and not only human) sexual activities are played out in carvings of the highest artistic level. Yet it is erroneous to read anything smutty, let alone downright pornographic into these images. This is what I’m told by our two contributors – the head of the site’s archaeological department and a guide who has lived all his life just across the road from the temples. They both insist that the sexual acts on display are merely metaphors for achieving spiritual balance. The archaeologist even goes so far as to suggest that because the figures aren’t smiling or moving they are clearly not engaged in real sex. Well really – since when don’t lovers smile at each other and since when has any stone carving actually moved?

The souvenir touts who swarm around us as we leave have a more realistic take on all this. Smiling wickedly they produce key rings whose spring-loaded recreations of the carvings leave no doubt as to their interpretation of what the tenth century stone masons were trying to convey. Yet, silly souvenirs apart, most people won’t leave Khajuraho thinking of its erotica – that only plays a small part in the bigger picture. There are more than 20 temples still standing out of over 80 that were built here. Today there is an atmosphere of fantasy; a thousand years ago, as the Chandela kings wandered among their creations, the setting must have been entirely magical.

Across the road from the temple park and behind a row of stalls selling clothes, snacks and mementoes, is a monument to one of those kings. A large building within a courtyard, it is topped with grey onion domes and has a shabby white-painted facade. The monument is now home to the Rajah Balwant Singh High School and our driver, Assaram asks if I’d like to have a look round. His seven-year-old boy is one of 300 students between the ages of four and 14. It is the lunch break and one of the 15 teachers gives me a quick tour.

As we walk past the kids sitting outside eating their packed lunches, he tells me that this is a fee paying school and much better than the state schools. Some of the classes are held in the ground floor rooms of the main building, others in the smaller rooms around the outside of the courtyard. They are mostly cramped and poorly lit. There is a blackboard but nothing else; the kids sit on plastic mats on the floor. The state schools must be dire.

Countless crocodiles of schoolchildren in smart uniforms like the children here, have filed past us grinning widely or nodding shyly as we say hello. It had never occurred to me that their classrooms could be so simple. Perhaps that is just me being foolish or blind, yet India – and I’ve been here a number of times now – remains utterly surprising and confusing. While the contrasts between rich and poor are so stark and there are many situations where you find yourself staring across a cultural divide, in many ways India is just a more colourful and noisy version of life back in the UK, with people working, making homes and having families. After all, even though we may not be familiar with words like artha and moksha, aren’t most of us essentially aiming to follow a Hindu-style line and do right by our fellows, earn a decent living, have a little love and tenderness and reach some sort of spiritual or emotional understanding and peace?

Many thanks to John too for these images.

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