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Taking in the temples of Khajuraho


‘My name is Rajput,’ says the sharply-dressed leader of the two man Khajuraho reception committee. Mahtani’s local agent isn’t just a member of the princely warrior caste. Rajput is actually the man’s name and I can only assume that it was the burden of living up to this that drove him to cultivate his unashamedly preposterous moustache.

‘Afternoon at leisure,’ he notes, as he checks his dogeared paperwork. ‘Tomorrow and after tomorrow also at leisure,’ he continues in tones of puzzled disapproval. ‘Mostly guests staying two nights maximum, visiting temples only, but leave all to me, sir. I arrange.’

‘There’s really no need. I was thinking of a day in the countryside.’

‘Exactly. I arrange jeep excursion.’

‘Why would I hire a jeep? I’ll have my own car.’

‘Road is not good, sir.’

‘The driver will have to manage. I can’t afford both.’

At the mention of ‘driver’, Mr Rajput’s acolyte springs forward. With a half-apologetic smile, as if excusing the lack of introduction, he starts bundling my luggage into a white Ambassador. I assume this is Opie but Rajput is too busy justifying the jeep to confirm or deny.

Book coverThe driver says nothing until we have dropped his superior at his office. Then he says a lot. He talks virtually non-stop and his single subject is my immense good fortune in securing his companionship for the coming months. As Mahtani said, there is only one Opie.

‘You and me have very good time,’ he promises, with a pat on the head for the plastic, elephant-headed figure, looking pleased with itself on his dashboard. According to Mr Sharma, this will be Ganesh, the God of prosperity, which probably tells me all I need to know about Opie’s idea of a ‘good time’. He’s less immediately engaging than Krishan, but speaks better English and looks very professional in his light grey trousers and matching shirt with button-down epaulettes. He’s very affable too. In fact, behind his curly beard, he grins and laughs a great deal. I just wish he wouldn’t swing all the way round to look at me when he does so; or if he must take his eyes off the road, at least drive a little less aggressively.

Also, there’s something about the smile that faintly bothers me. Perhaps it’s merely bad dentistry that gives it the occasional cruel twist.

‘First to temples?’ he asks cheerfully and I hesitate. The temples are, after all, why I’m here. They’re the reason why this small, unremarkable town has its airport. Tonight, however, a crowded market sparks a better idea and Opie obligingly performs an emergency stop, laughing loudly at the tooting of a lorry stuck behind us, while I find what I need in the boot.

I wave apologetically to the impatient truck driver and set about filming the market. It was the colours that attracted me: the oranges and yellows of the marigolds piled in baskets, waiting to be threaded onto temple garlands; the ochres, reds and browns of the bulging spice sacks. Soon, however, people take priority. Chirpy children, clamouring for stardom, push their way forward. ‘One photo, one photo,’ they chorus, unaware that this is a movie shoot.

No doubt, one day these digital cameras will be commonplace but, for the moment, they are state of the art. Certainly, no one in the Khajuraho market has ever seen one. ‘What is your name?’ I ask each child, as they solemnly recite their answers. Flipping the monitor screen, I press the play-back button and they explode with uncontrollable delight. Then Opie shoos them roughly aside.

*

I waved aside the would-be escorts at the western group of temples. It’s the profusion of figure carvings for which these are famous, the erotic ten per cent the most famous of all, and I learn from the book that we owe these to Tantrism, a minority Hindu cult that sees the gratification of sensual desire as a step towards spiritual enlightenment. I also learn that Hinduism isn’t so much the worship of many gods of bewildering variety, rather a belief that the Divine can be manifested in countless different forms, pervading the whole of the universe, the whole of life. Which is why it’s such a way of life. Also why the sacred and the profane – to the West, so separate – are here so intertwined, or more accurately one.

Book coverOblivious to such insights, my driver is waiting in the car. That is to say, he is sleeping in the car, snoring heavily, with his knobbly stockinged feet poking out through one of the windows. There are yellow sweat stains on the soles of his pale grey socks but at least they are outside the window.

Jumping back to life, he says he remembers me from my second visit to Rajasthan. We overlapped, it seems, in the small town of Deogarh, when he was there with some other Mahtani customers. I’m surprised I don’t remember. I usually have a good memory for faces. But perhaps he didn’t have his beard. Wisely probably. From certain angles, it makes him look sinister.

The eastern and southern groups of temples seem less impressive; or is it just that I’m distracted by a pair of village lads that refuses to be shaken off? ‘Not for guiding,’ they insist, trailing me from bas relief to bas relief. ‘Only company keeping. English practising…’

They do, however, confess to a shop, wondering whether I might, if time permits, and if nothing more pressing has a prior claim on my attention, possibly visit the same.

‘Maybe later,’ I prevaricate, as they shadow me to the next façade.

‘Sir, you promise,’ they beseech me, at the end of a long afternoon. ‘Very good lucky,’ they add, as they hustle me into a small stone shed to view a tawdry collection of metal Ganeshes.

‘How many you like?’

Unfortunately, I saw some antique (well, oldish) pieces in another shop on the way to the PCO, so I tell the boys ‘none’ and immediately they demand to be rewarded for their guiding services. Having no small notes, I give to one of them considerably more than they deserve for division between them; but I can see that he has no more intention of sharing than I have of duplicating the largesse.

‘You look now in this my friend’s shop,’ says Opie, steering me towards a second shed. The ‘friend’ looks oddly like an older version of Opie – complete with curly beard and crooked teeth – yet I suspect they’ve only known each other for about as long as I spent in the first establishment. Not that this inhibits Opie from joining in the sales effort. I insist on returning to my earlier discovery, where I try to negotiate a discount; however, the vendor is firm: no discounts, no drivers’ commissions, hence keen prices.

‘No problem,’ says Opie, but there is something falsely bright about his enquiry after my plans for tomorrow.

‘Rajgarh,’ I tell him.

‘I know,’ says Opie, yet somehow I sense that he doesn’t. Rajgarh is a relatively minor Rajput palace, in a poor state of repair and likely to be little visited. I know this from a book by a Cambridge don, covering most of the palaces in Northern India. Opie runs an index finger slowly along the title: The… Rajput… Palaces… The… Develop…ment… of… an… Architect… ural… Style… 1450-… 1750… by… G… H…R… Tillot… son. He glances quickly at Mr Tillotson’s Rajgarh section, all grainy black and white photographs and dense, academic text. He is unenthused. ‘You make more movie?’ he asks, uncomprehending.

Book cover‘I might make a painting,’ I tell him to add to his bafflement.

*

Opie latches on cheerfully to the concept of driving me out to dinner. ‘If you are happy, I am happy,’ he says: a philosophy at which I can hardly complain. ‘I know all the places,’ he assures me and we look at three or four of his favourites, a sample large enough to demonstrate the man’s almost unswerving passion for plastic – in the furniture, in the tablecloths, even the curtains. Only the last, with its tables made of concrete, breaks the pattern.

‘You like beer?’ asks Opie. ‘First we buy beer, sir. Then you take to restaurant.’ We stop at a heavily barred liquor store and I offer him one for himself, which he graciously accepts, but the ‘guards’, seeing my western face, propose a price that he considers outrageous, so we leave again, beerless. Then, halfway to the concrete tables, he spots a pedestrian who works for Mr Rajput and we all drive back again, securing three bottles at a price that they both find acceptable.

At the restaurant door, Opie hides the bottle for me in his deep trouser pocket. ‘No beer permit,’ he explains and, after much negotiation with the manager, my beer is discreetly decanted into a teapot and served in a cup and a saucer. ‘How you like your special tea?’ ask the waiters, in fits of giggles, apparently determined to draw maximum attention to my cunningly disguised refreshment.

Opie returns periodically to check that I’m happy. He seems pleased that I’m amused by the subterfuge and our ‘secret’ binds us together. Then, at the end of the evening, he insists on negotiating a discount on my bill and I’m not sure whether this is funny or embarrassing. I like the feeling that he’s on my side but, while he disappears (I suspect) to claim his commission, I leave the discount on the plate as a tip. That is my secret.

Extracted from Patrick Moon’s book ‘What else is there for a boy like me?‘ 

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