Early October brought a pleasant nip in the air, and hubby and I decided to herald the autumn with a pleasure trip. We excitedly contacted our friends from itraveller and chalked out a long weekend trip to Khajuraho and Orccha, in the heart of Incredible India, i.e. Madhya Pradesh. Luckily, we got the last few tickets on the to and fro trains, since we had planned a trip on the festive weekend of Dusshera. Our trip started on Oct 8th, when we boarded the Dakshin Express from Nizamuddin Rly Station (New Delhi) to Jhansi. We reached early morning at Jhansi and took a Tata Indica cab to our next stop – Khajuraho. The car-ride was pleasant with a panoramic view of fields and the Vindhya range of mountains, and the occasional streams and rivulets.
The road is bumpy, and a three hour drive can take upto 4-5 hrs. One interesting aspect of this car-ride was the need to change taxis – because Jhansi is in Uttar Pradesh and a UP taxi would have had to pay additional toll tax. So, clever taxi drivers have mutual agreements to save cross-state toll tax, and at a tea-stopover near Chattarpur, we were hauled into an MP-license plate bearing taxi, that had transported a tourist from Khajuraho, who in turn was shifted into the UP cab, to be shuttled back to Jhansi.
We reached Khajuraho at around 10:00 am and were welcomed into the little sleepy village, by a beautiful granite statue, dedicated to the unknown sculptor of Khajuraho. The words carrying a tone of awed mystery increased our enthusiasm of having entered the land of the erotic and exotic one-of-their-kind temple art. The initial enthusiasm was slightly chastised when out of the blue our taxi stopped in front of Hotel Zen in a not-so-picturesque area in Khajuraho.
My initial reaction was that this is not a Hotel, but a Lodge, with no view. Inside the Hotel, where we had booked rooms online, we were greeted by overgrown vegetation, a strange waterfall on a dirty homegrown lotus pond with Buddha statues, untended plants in the name of a vegetable garden, a big beehive, lots of insects, huge lizards and an over-priced tourist menu. The rooms were bare, and the linen had holes, and the service was even worse. One of the caretakers had the audacity to wear a t-shirt to work that read, “I am not paid enough to be good to you!” The message was crystal clear and so was their attitude – you had to beg for tissue-paper, make do with one single-bed blanket in a room for two, and have your meals in restaurants, other than the Hotel’s because cornflakes and milk was served at Rs 170.
The only good thing about Hotel Zen was that it was close to the Western Group of temples, and to the wonderful Raja Café, that became our favorite haunt. While we enjoyed vegetarian lunch at the Agarwal restaurant, our breakfast, tea, and dinner were in the wonderful ambience of Raja Café where we had some amazing coffee, pancakes and Continental fare. I highly recommended Raja Café to all visitors to Khajuraho – it’s one of the best places to relax specially in the evenings, and is very reasonable on the pocket. Its situated opposite the Western group temple complex.
When we had planned the trip to Khajuraho, we had hoped for some good weather, however, the sun was harsh and hot during our visit. The heat hampered some of our sight-seeing program, however, we took this time to rest our work-weary bodies and minds (though Hotel Zen is the last place where you can hope to achieve Zen-like relaxation – the Tantra is truant here, and the Zen is a fallacy!). Our sight-seeing typically included a visit to the evening Sound and Light show at the Khajuraho temple premises, with an insight into the legend and the history of the temples. The lighting of the temples comes out well, and is enjoyable, and the tickets are reasonably priced at Rs 75 per head. We visited the Western Group of temples early next morning and were able to capture the beautiful imagery of the temples in the golden glaze of the morning sun.
The temples are open from sunrise to sunset, but considering that it becomes quite hot by noon, its best to visit these temples early in the morning. We also discovered a small lake with steps leading down, close to the temples. The lake looks its best when visited after sundown, with the reflection of the Eucalyptus trees that line the side, the pale yellow of the moon, and a silhouette of one of the temples in the background that lend an illusion that is best seen in the dark. Like most illusions, the lake becomes just another water body in the daytime.
There is a well-maintained Museum managed by the Archaeological Survey of India, and is definitely a must-visit, as it has some of the excavated broken sculptures and pillars from the temples. We, unfortunately couldn’t visit the Museum, because of it’s weekly closure on Friday, and previously on Thursday, it was closed for the festival of Dusshera. One event that one must be wary of is the over-publicized dance of the Kandariyas, for which Hotels sell tickets at Rs 300 per head. We discovered that this is only a marketing gimmick, and is actually a folk-dance show put up by a local cultural body, and is not unique or associated in any way with the legend of Khajuraho. I mean, why somebody would want to watch a Bhangra performance by a local troupe in Madhya Pradesh!
Similar, marketing gimmicks and tourist-based touts flourish in the areas around the temples. You will find shops selling Persian trousseau, to Jaipuri art, imitation jewelry at exorbitant prices – every pink stone is a ruby, and blue is sapphire – brass wear, and Chanderi cottons, and balloon pajamas that are definitely hands down from tourists who want to shed some extra weight from their luggage. The tourist culture is so prominent, and the “dollar-rates” so common, that when I asked a fruit-seller about the price of some ornamental fruits, he quoted a price of Rs 450 for 6-7 plastic fruits. Even Nik-Nish in Shipra Mall, in Noida, is selling plastic ornamental fruits at a lower cost!
I guess the only reasonable souvenir that you can bring home from Khajuraho is a hard-bound Kamasutra book that is more highly priced in book stores in other cities. And even if you don’t plan to buy one of these, you may be actually harassed into buying it through touts running after you with arm-loads of the Kamasutra in all languages. And you even get miniature versions costing as less as Rs 50.
And if you are not coaxed into buying souvenirs and books, you may be tempted to visit the waterfalls and forts that are mentioned in travel books. Well, our local research wasn’t very encouraging – the waterfall is a misnomer as the water just falls from jutting rocks (we didn’t visit but saw the Pandav falls in a local video on Khajuraho that I picked up from a book shop). Similarly, the Ramgarh Palace is now an Oberoi group property and not open for public. Ajaygarh Fort is open to tourists but involves a 1.5 km trek uphill and we were once again defeated by the glare of the sun and didn’t undertake this excursion. Regarding Panna National Park once again the local feedback was that except for some varieties of deer and birds, this publicized place doesn’t offer much wildlife gazing for enthusiasts.
All in all Khajuraho is a place to visit in good weather – after Diwali and atleast 15 days before Holi. There is more to see in this small hamlet, than we could cover in our short stay, primarily because of the hot afternoons. But I hope that next time we will be able to visit the Museum, and the Eastern and Southern group of temples. However, our trip didnt end at Khajuraho. We were in for a surprise, as we took a cab back to Orccha.