Safe Sex in Khajuraho

Lessons in erotica from the 10th-century temples in Madhya Pradesh.

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Khajuraho’s walls are covered in giggling elephants, playful people, and general joie de vivre. Photos: Kai Friese (women); Ed Johnson/Flickr/Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1jxQJMa) (carvings)

“Sex orgy!” the man says, and I nod dutifully. Shading my eyes with my palm I stare up at the scene. Sure enough, a multitude of supple brown bodies are entwined in diverse acts of congress, both horizontal and vertical.

To be honest, I’m really not in the mood for orgies. It’s 7 a.m. and not half an hour since I stumbled off the train. But I want to be professional and so does the man. After all we’ve just met and struck a deal for ₹600. “I will show you everything,” he promised.

And so it goes. “See, oral!” “Look! Masturbation.” Man and horse. Woman and dog… He points out subtler details too. “See, his hand on her back is in gyana mudra (gesture denoting knowledge). He is experiencing shunyata (emptiness) because of orgasm.”

A group of Korean tourists catches up with us, a bristle of index fingers extended in the universal mudra of lookatthat.

Khajuraho on any given morning. It’s one of those places no one can visit without a sense of déjà vu. We’ve all seen the pictures, long shots of the towering shikharas and close-ups of the romping maithunas (sexual union). But I can feel the pool of my own memories rippling because I have actually been here before, decades ago as a young boy and Khajuraho left a strong impression on me. No, it’s not what you think. What I always remembered was an enormous nandi that I wanted to climb on top of.

But now there is little time for reverie as my guide rattles on. “India is a land of contrasts,” he proclaims. “As you know, these erotic sculptures are not really part of our culture”… He must have seen my eyebrows rise but he knows what he’s doing. “Back in those days too many people were retreating from the grihastha (matrimonial) life, so the Chandela kings ordered these sculptures to remind their subjects of their duty to procreate.” He has a punchline ready: “Of course it’s a different matter that now we have a population of more than a billion.”

Seen from a distance or from the intimacy of the garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum) the temples are intimidatingly serious structures and I feel an occasional pang of regret that my experience is slathered in the philistinism of tourism. You can, of course, come armed with scholarly Kindle apps, or the GPS-enabled AudioCompass app or return at dusk to experience the son et lumiére and hear Amitabh Bachchan’s gravelly inanities. I’d still settle for the cheerful ribaldry of my real live guide. Frankly, I can’t imagine that the creators of these temples didn’t anticipate or participate in some high hilarity or low humour themselves. There are just too many giggling elephants, playful people, and general joie de vivre etched on their walls. The guide points out the repeated motifs of apsaras with mangoes and salabhanjikas or “women sporting with trees” and elaborates that “woman should be slim like a sal tree and juicy like mango.”

Circling the Kandariya Mahadev Temple we fall in with a cluster of portly old Gujarati ladies who spend some time examining the more acrobatic erotic acts portrayed on the celebrated facade of the antarala (vestibule). And as we complete our parikrama (circumambulation) and they lumber and lurch up the stairs into the temple interior, they break into a bhajan. It’s tuneless but utterly natural and I’m a little touched.

Two days later I’m in the capital of Madhya Pradesh, Bhopal, reading a newspaper report about the cancellation of a planned “Kiss of Love” protest in the city. The organisers had called it off after threats from the Sanskriti Bachao Manch, whose leader had declared public kissing obscene. “India is a culturally and traditionally rich country,” he said, “and we can’t allow any obscene activities at public places which would indirectly affect our culture.” Walking through the old city later that day I’m caught up in the public revelry of raucous hijras of the Akhil Bhartiya Kinnar Samaj Sammelan, some 2,000 of whom have gathered for their “Guru ki Rasoi” festival in the Mangalwara quarter of the city. There are friendly policemen and local dignitaries and plenty of dancers moving lasciviously to the deafening dholaks. It reminds me of a panel from the Kandariya Mahadev Temple. India is a land of contradictions, my inner guide intones. But then it contains multitudes. 1.2 billion to be exact. Thank the Gods for Khajuraho.

Appeared in the January 2015 issue as “Safe Sex In Khajuraho”.

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

  • Kai Friese is a writer, editor, and translator who likes to travel but not on holiday.

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