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Published: April 19th 2011
Old Village Durga Festival
Wheat offerings to the goddess, Durga
Note: We are exploring other options for uploading photos as our attempts so far have not been successful. Hopefully, our text is vivid enough to give you a sense of our adventures...
On Tuesday, April 12, we bid our sad farewells to Mary and our new friends at Gobind Sadan and flew to Khajuraho via Varanasi, 2 brief flights of 55 sand 35 minutes. We didn't even need to disembark in Varanasi.
Buying the tickets for the flight was another story. As we often hear, "This is India!", meaning "it is what it is", and don't waste your time and energy complaining that it is not like the States. Mary gave us the number for the travel agent she uses and we found that we could not use a credit card but had to pay in cash rupees to the courier who would deliver the electronic tickets to the ashram. Another taxi trek into Delhi to the ATM and we thought we were set until the courier arrived with tickets that omitted the "R" on Rawson. So long telephone and email exchanges later, all happily facilitated by Mary, finally resulted in valid tickets so that we could pay the
Don't try this at home!
courier and be done. We had also planned ahead and booked our eventual Varanasi to Kathmandu tickets which we think was a very good thing with the frequency of unexpected snafus here.
As we waited in the Delhi airport for our flight, we discovered the most wonderful reclining chairs scattered regularly around the boarding areas. All airports should supply these! Our 2 hour wait to board was heavenly.
At Varanasi, a lot of Westerners and Chinese passengers boarded confirming the reputation of Khajuraho as a tourist town. It was interesting that even on these 2 short flights, actual food was served, even with metal flatware. It was also amusing to observe all the Westerners passing on anything that was not cooked and hot. We were no exception.
When we arrived in Khajuraho, we got a taxi to take us to our Hotel Siddarth, directly across from the western group of temples right in town. As we exited the airport, a second man jumped in with the driver and we soon realized that many locals collaborate in the tourist industry. Our driver and this second man, Yousuf, took us over in a Svengali-like way that we had to
Brian at Jain Wedding
Brian modeling "going with the flow"!
work very steadily to maintain boundaries. As it turned out, we really did need transportation around Khahuraho. Many of the temples are scattered outside of town along with other regional sites, so we were eventually able to communicate what we did not want to participate in, though we had to remain ever on our toes.
Our first evening, we had an amazing tour of the Old Village with Hari, a cohort of Yousuf's. It was the last night of the Durga festival and the streets were filled with crowds of people circulating ritualistically through the village, many of the women carrying baskets on their heads filled with green growing wheat to be offered at the temple. Khajuraho is a Hindu town and the Old Village continues to operate according to the caste system with different neighborhoods delineating each group. We walked the narrow alleys of whitewashed and colorful houses and felt utterly transported into medieval times. Life goes on in the Old Village as it has for centuries. We stopped in to visit a Hindu priest's home. After passing through a typically very low doorway, we entered into a small open-air courtyard. Surrounding the courtyard were areas, sometimes covered, that included a sleeping space, a kitchen area with the typical tiny dung-fueled fire for making chapatis, a small room with a chamber pot (many people go into the fields), and in this case, a special shrine room for the priest's daily prayers. Hanuman, among others, including Durga figured prominently. Large open and very deep wells or hand pumps were scattered about the Village. The wells were actually scarey, especially with all the children and array of animals (cows, goats, dogs, pigs, donkeys) running around.
Eventually, Hari took us into a shop where we were taken upstairs to the roof by the owner for a beautiful of the Old Village and environs. This was to prepare us, of course, for the "hard-sell" in the shop. Happily, he really did have something we've wanted for many years: just the right statue of Shiva and Shakti in Tantric union.
Shop owners and street vendors are extremely persistent here. "No" is steamrollered right over and it can be difficult extricating oneself from high pressure situations. Agra was relentless around the Taj Mahal, and we hear that Varanasi is even worse. By comparison, Khajuraho is a small country town of 10,00-15,000 local population which by Indian standards is quite spacious. Nonetheless, as a tourist town, it is very difficult to walk down the street without being aggressively approached by several people hawking souvenirs. Unquestionably, it is their way of making a living, so we do our best to have a positive attitude and not assume they are scam artists or some other derogatory brush-off. Rather, we are doing our best to use this as a growth opportunity to strengthen our own boundaries. If we can do it in India, we can do it anywhere!
Yousuf was very helpful at times. He did turn us on to a wonderful Ayurvedic massage center which we enjoyed daily. Wow! There was a separate men's and women's side to the center. The treatment begins with a wonderful scalp massage and then warm oil is dripped across the forehead, followed by vigorous long-stroke full body massage (and no skipping the breasts in India like in the puritanical USA!). Holly had the extra delicious benefit of 2 women working on her simultaneously. By the time we were done, we were drenched in oil from head to toe and then put into a steam box to open all the pores. Finally, after being rubbed down with an exfoliating soap, we showered and used a lovely shampoo to remove the oil. Our skin feels wonderful, as do our bodies in general. Just what we needed to keep us balanced in this chaotic and intense country. One odd aspect of the experience was that our massage practitioners stood by and watched us as we disrobed and dressed afterward. If we had a little awkward time straightening our clothing, they rushed in to help. We imagined this must be what it's like to be a maharaj with attendants ever present to serve our every need! However, it is strange to be so unselfconsciously stared at when one is in a state of undress. Then again, as we've heard several times, "In today's India, everyone is a maharaj!"
Of course, the primary reason we came to Khajuraho was to see the famous temples here, and they are indeed, magnificent. Built over 1000 years ago, over a century of architectural and sculptural genius, these structures look like the most ornate French desserts with layers upon layers of intricately detailed sculpture rising as much as 30 or more meters high. The area has been designated as a World Heritage Site so research and restoration have already preserved most of the temples. They are most famous (or infamous!) for the erotic sculptures abounding the reliefs that surround the exterior walls in layers. Every manner of human sexual behavior is represented in exquisitely detailed relief. Given the era of these sculptures, it certainly supports the saying that there is nothing new under the sun! Of the original 85 temples, only 25 temples remain, all protected now. One is still actively used by the Hindu community. The temple honors Shiva Lingum, the phallic aspect of Shiva, with a 2.5 meter phallus as the center point of the temple that devotees (and tourists!) circumambulate while a reverberating collection of bells are rung by Hindus each time they enter the temple. During "services", a conch shell is blown, similarly to the Durga rituals we participated in at Gobind Sadan. It is all very atmospheric and mystical. In February, the Shiva Lingum is drenched with all things "cow": ghee (clarified butter), yogurt and milk. We had seen that ritual on film before our trip and it was quite impressive to watch, so we were especially delighted to be in the actual temple where it takes place.
Another very satisfying experience that Yousuf encouraged us to do was to visit the Panna Tiger Reserve. Our guidebook (from about 2009) had offered a cynical report that tigers had not been seen in Panna for 2 years, but recent reports indicated otherwise, so we decided to go "on safari" through Panna. Our guide was excellent and extremely knowledgeable about myriad wildlife. We saw spotted deer, monkeys, mongoose, wild boar and a whole array of birds. There are also leopards in Panna. We didn't see a leopard, but we did hear the death knell screeching of a boar who apparently was becoming breakfast for a leopard.
A good hour and a half drive through the reserve through beautiful mountain and river views where we spotted a crocodile lulling its way downstream, we eventually arrived at the head of a truly awesome, very deep gorge that meandered away from us toward the river. And lo and behold! We saw a tiger wending its ways through the bottom of the gorge coming toward us. We enjoyed a good, long and very exciting view and got some photos until the majestic fellow disappeared amongst some trees, presumably for his morning nap. We heard reports that a female with cubs had also been sighted. The Indian government has greatly stepped up its protection for the tigers from poachers, so there is great hope and excitement that the tigers are returning to Panna. What a special treat!
After more wildlife sightings on our return journey through the Reserve, we also visited Panday Falls in the same Reserve about 10kms away. There was not much water as we are in the dry season now, but the site was exquisite. At the bottom where the falls empty into a beautiful large pool, an ancient temple sits, continually dripped upon from the earth and rock face high above that is not fed by the falls. Even in the dry season, this water never stops and is believed to be part of the blessing of the goddess for whom the temple honors.
En route back to our hotel, we detoured to see an old palace of a maharaj which was used as the location for Mira Nair's sumptuously filmed, "Kama Sutra". (If you haven't seen it, be prepared for a tragic ending.)
As we traveled to these various sites, we were forever driving through tiny county villages where life seems as it must have been since the beginning of human agricultural practice. People live on the ground. They sit and hang out, they accomplish an assortment of tasks, even sleep on the ground. Sometimes, we see rope beds (people sleep outside where it is cooler at night), and in the little commercial villages there will be some chairs. In one such village along the road between Khajuraho and Varanasi (almost a 15 hour drive along narrow roads- no interstates here!), there was the equivalent of as truck stop. Likely a dozen big trucks, all artfully painted and decorated, were parked along both sides of the already narrow road. The chai wallah was doing a booming business which we patronized as well.
Another word about driving in India: the road to Agra was a relative highway. Here, around Khajuraho, roads are anywhere from 1 to 1 and a half lanes. Again, cows, goats, pigs, dogs and children are roaming freely, and the cows, in particular, seem to enjoy standing in the road. Luckily, they are extremely laid back animals and do not spook, so drivers can reasonably predict that the cow won't move and therefore, maintain speed around them. The horn is a standard tool when driving in India, so everywhere we go, drivers are honking at people, animals and each other constantly. On these rural narrow roads, it feels like a constant game of "chicken" as to which driver will yield toward the shoulder first, as each one prefers driving right down the middle, even in the rare cases where there is a center line (always "broken"). Generally, size does count with the big trucks and buses forcing us in the car to yield, but our driver pushes right though the motorcycles, bikes, carts, people and animals. We continue in awe as to the success of this system.
On our final night in Khajuraho, Yousuf invited us to his home in the newer part of town where our hotel is located. Though not as ancient as the Old Village which is still an intact community and does not cater to tourists' needs, the atmposphere of the local old maharaj palace is still present in the newer section. This is the commercial area with shops, internet cafes, restaurants and hotels. Yousuf lives in what is probably a 2 to 3 room home (we only saw the front room) with his widowed mentally ill mother, younger brother, 3 sisters and 2 nieces who were apparently abandoned by Yousuf's older brother. As a Muslim, Yousuf takes his patriarchal duty very seriously in providing for all of his family. He works 7 days a week as a tour guide, as does his younger brother. The oldest sister works at the local Ramada Inn (yes! and there is a Radisson's too, both outside of town). The younger sisters also make money making clothing and doing henna designs of which Holly received some on both her forearms. The nieces are still in school. It was clear that Yousuf is looking for all the help he can get. When we asked about the feasibility of mailing some things home that we don't want in our bags, he made it clear that he was interested in anything we were no longer planning to use. We did end up giving him a few clothing items and a couple of pairs of sandals. This interchange brought up, yet again, the tendencies we Westerners have to suspect a scam. How do we ever know the truth of someone's circumstances? In this case, being in Yousuf's home and meeting his family, we decided to trust the portrait that was being presented. The "hard sell" tactics used in his line of work certainly can confuse the issue. We did witness, and 1 time experienced, what we wouldf call scamming, so it really can be a difficult call in this neck of the woods.
While visiting with his family on the last night, a Jain wedding procession passed by the house. We all went out to watch the parade that included 2 dozen boys holding festival lighting on their heads and shoulders connected by electrical wiring, lining each side of the street. The end of each line of boys was followed by a generator powering the lights. A truck led the group carting enormous speakers playing deafening music. Behind the truck were 3 drummers adding to the intensive rhythms. Then the wedding celebrants followed between the 2 rows of lights, dancing up a storm. Men and women did not dance together. The groom was surrounded by his own group of men and the bride by her bevy of women. A horse drawn carriage followed at the end. We never did figure out who got to ride in the carriage. Before we knew it, we were swept into the throng, Brian kicking up his heels with the men and Holly with the women. We were honored to be so utterly included by the celebrants. It was clearly a "more the merrier" atmosphere and a unique experience for us. By the way, except for the main cities which are adopting more Western attitudes, all marriages in India are arranged whether Hindu, Muslim, Jain and so on. We even saw in a Hindi newspaper a few ads in English amongst extensive columns of ads, all looking for a bride or groom. Hard for us to imagine that this is still the prevalent mode for marriage in India.
We finally made our departure from Khajuraho on the 11pm train last night, tratning ourselves to a first class compartment which cost about $60 for the 2 of us! There were only 3 such compartments and we felt lucky to get one. The rest of the train included non-compartment 3-tier bunks with no a/c and coach cars, all of which were filled. The temperatures have beem continuing to rise to over 100 degrees, so we were delighted to complete our Khajuraho experience, which was quite intense on a number of levels, and retreat into our a/c compartment with sheets and everything for the 13 hour ride back to Varanasi. We enjoyed the journey by rail very much and arrived in Varanasi yesterday morning. More to come...
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