Of breasts, horses and temples

April 19th, 20114:29 pm @

Does this really need further explanation?

It’s not every day you see a man shagging a horse. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that outside some of the darker circles of humanity, it’s not something anyone sees. Unless, that is, you happen to be visiting the World Heritage-listed temples of Khajuraho. Okay, it’s only a carving in stone, and no horses – as far as I know – were harmed in its creation, but the image of a horse being administered to by not one but two men is something that does rather stick in one’s mind.

After the Taj Mahal, the Golden Temple, Varanasi and being ripped off by a taxi driver at the airport, visiting the “erotic” temples of Khajuraho and gawping at the racy statues is a rite of passage for most Indian visitors. To be fair, the X-rated statues represent only a small fraction, about 10 per cent, of the total carvings. The rest are a mix of workers, soldiers, elephants and semi-clad women – lots and lots of semi-clad women – with what can best be described as gravity-defying breasts. I don’t know what was going through the minds of the temples’ creators, but “boobs” is probably a safe bet.

The 10 per cent of carvings representing activities that should only be shown on late-night TV are mostly restricted to panels high up on the outside of the temples. The trouble is that they don’t often reveal their full details immediately, which means that you stand there, your jaw hanging down as you squint into the bright light trying to work out what’s going on. Suddenly, a detail of the picture that you hadn’t noticed – like the woman who appears to be acting as a “fluffer” – comes into view and you end up pointing and saying “oh my, look at that” to whoever is next to you. It’s like staring at one of those 3D posters that’s just a bunch of purple and black triangles, but then becomes a unicorn next to a waterfall, or whatever.

Ask 10 people why the explicit carvings were made and you’ll get 12 different answers. The fact is, nobody knows. The more chaste suggestions centre around leaving all such thoughts outside the temple before entering or appeasing malevolent gods. Others suggest they are depictions of daily life or were meant for the instruction of boys. These two do make one wonder what the feck was going on in the jungles of Khajuraho.

The orgy of ample cleavage and explicit depictions of sexual congress left me feeling a little sympathetic to the views of T.S. Burt, the British officer who “rediscovered” the temples and who – in a wonderful burst of Victorian propriety – described them as “a little warmer than there was any absolute necessity for”.


A temple couple.

A temple couple.

Our first view of the temples came at the nightly “Sound And Light Show”, four words that will usually have me heading for the hotel bar rather than heading out. (“Ethnic Dancing”, “Cultural Experiences” and anything spelt “Shoppe” usually have the same effect.)

The show, narrated by Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, wasn’t as bad as I expected and gave a good grounding of the temples’ history, even if it was a little on the cheesy side; and at least the depiction of the aforementioned Burt had the British tourists next to me falling over themselves laughing. I’m not sure if the actor in question was channelling John Inman and trying to camp it up a bit, but I did half expect him to mention Mrs Slocombe’s pussy at some point.

At my wife’s suggestion, we started the next day with the Eastern group of temples, a smaller collection that still contains a vast array of detailed carving. Her logic was that since these temples weren’t as grand as their more famous cousins in the Western group, we might be disappointed in them if we visited the other way around. While they are smaller than the others, that in a way makes them a nice place to visit as there’s fewer people about – at the outer temples it was just us and the occasional caretaker.

The main gig, however, is definitely the Western group’s impressive collection of temples set in beautifully maintained gardens. With their sandstone carvings and tiered roofs, the whole scene reminded me of Angkor Wat, although on a more modest scale. Built by the Chandela Rajputs between 950 and 1150, the whole city was a flourishing cultural capital protected not by walls, but thick jungle that deterred, or probably lost, potential attackers. It was perhaps that isolation that let the carvers work their exquisite craft on the sandstone. For all the puerile giggling at the lascivious statues – coming from me, mostly – the craftsmanship on display is astounding. From the fine detail of a woman holding back her hair to put on make-up, to a wet skirt showing through details from underneath.

Not all the laughing, however, was coming from the foreigner with the camera. Late in the afternoon, with the low sun turning the façade of the temple in front of me a beautiful honey gold, a group of women in their 40s or 50s and dressed in saris came wandering around the building. They stood looking at one of the carvings high on the wall and one by one, as they realised what they were looking at, covered their mouths, bust out laughing and started slapping each other on the back before turning away – and turning back for another look.

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