Sometimes destinations lose themselves in the legends created around them. There's much more to Khajuraho than the erotic sculptures we normally associate with it.

We were in the devil's own backyard — misshapen basalt and granite rocks shimmered in eerie shades of grey, green, pink and red under a wan sun and a soft mist that rose like a song. As we trekked deeper, the full scale of things dawned on us … the Raneh Falls, 19 km from Khajuraho, were dry but we were gazing at one of the most incredible expanses of water erosion on the planet.

Our original mission was to attend the Shiv Vivah on Maha Shivratri in Khajuraho, an eye-engorging re-creation of the divine duo's nuptials but we had been persuaded to undertake the trip to the Raneh Falls which, we were told, resembled a mini Grand Canyon. As we gaped at the ultimate wide open space, we derived a kind of spiritual nourishment from the sight. We walked up to the protective railing, and below us, un-ravelled a five-km gorge, 100 ft deep of pure crystalline granite, in shades of red, pink and grey which our forest guide told us was created by a volcanic eruption millions of years ago. Jade-green waters shone in the depths of the gorge which might well have been inhabited by mythical fire-breathing dragons eons ago, we mused.

The still waters reflected the cliffs that soared above and we revelled in the whisper of the wind and the song of flitting birds. Our forest guide told us that some years ago, a family who had trekked down close to the gorge had been swept away when the waters of a dam on the Ken river had been released. Since then it has been mandatory for a forest guide to accompany tourists. One initially drives through the 45 sq km Ken Gharial Sanctuary carved out of Panna National Park, adjacent to the falls. If you are lucky, you may spot a burly neelgai, spotted deer and langurand the occasional gharialsun-bathing in the river. You can then carry on to the falls.

Magical transformation

Formed by the Ken river gushing over the oldest rocks in the world — the Vindhya basalt — Raneh Falls in the monsoons become innumerable misty curtains of water, casting a diamond-spangled spray for miles around. One hears the roar before coming upon the masterstroke of nature which is breathtaking in its foam-flecked, elemental power with multiple arms outstretched like an avenging angel. When we were there in February, the falls were a mere trickle but we felt dwarfed by the sight of the gorge and the rocks that polka-dot the land, imparting the feel of an untamed wilderness.

Walking was an irresistible exercise, soaking up the landscape, gazing at the jade-green snaking river, for, the scene scrolling past us was largely arid and sometimes luxuriant. It prompted an outburst of clean-edged adjectives such as “remote, austere, pure and verdant”. We were clearly in nature's domain amidst a death-defying gorge and cruel precipices created by the seemingly endless surge of the falls in the monsoons. Occasionally, a startlingly blue bird would loop in a sky, the colour of faded denim.

We left behind nature's flamboyant canvas rather reluctantly, for, time was short. We had to skip a visit to the Pandav Falls (32 km from Khajuraho) where the Pandavas, legend has it, spent one-and-a-half months in their last year in exile. But the point had been driven home — there's more to Khajuraho than its erotic sculptures which have held the collective imagination of tourists (especially foreign tourists) in thrall for the last few decades.

Shifting focus

Yes, sometimes, a destination is overtaken by its own legend. However, local authorities like the Nagar Panchayat, Khajuraho and enlightened hoteliers like Jyotsna Suri, chairperson and managing director of the Lalit Suri Hospitality Group, are trying to move the focus away from erotica and promote a more holistic view of the destination. The recent Shiv Vivah celebrations held on Maha Shivaratri in the temple town (See box) served to highlight the fact that the celestial temples of Khajuraho were built to commemorate the divine union of Lord Shiva and Parvati and that there is more to this World Heritage Site than its voluptuous sculptures. The entire town was invited and the spotlight was trained not on the cavorting couples on the temple walls but the colourful baraatand the evocative wedding.

Whatever the arguments for visiting the many alluring attractions around Khajuraho like the Raneh Falls and Panna National Park and Tiger Reserve, the cluster of temples nestling amidst stately trees in Khajuraho cannot be missed. They inspire emotions of awe and wonder, for, this is the pinnacle of Hindu art and sculpture, throbbing with the celebration of life. On the facades of the temples (only 22 remain of the original 85), sinuous, twisting, voluptuous forms, human and divine, hunt, feast, dance and love, unashamedly and without false modesty. The temples are monumental and were built with rudimentary tools, sculpted and ornamented on every surface. Yet the amorous erotica forms just five percent of the sculptures and various theories have been advanced to explain their existence. The idea, scholars say, was to show the emptiness of human desire; that the robust Chandelas who built and carved the temples in a spurt of creativity between 950 AD and 1050 AD were Tantrics. Or that having reached the peak of their power, the Chandelas raised the temples to venerate their gods with all the fervour of a virile people.

But the Chandela kingdom was snuffed out like a candle in the year 1100AD. By 1200 AD, the Sultans of Delhi were ruling over the kingdom where the Chandelas had lived, loved, fought and triumphed and built their extravagances in stone. Why were the temples built, why the profusion and what impelled those long-ago kings to create such beauty in stone? The stones jealously guard their secret. They refuse to speak.

Fact File

Khajuraho is connected by air with Delhi and Varanasi.

Jhansi (175km) is a far more convenient railhead for those travelling from Delhi and Chennai. Passengers travelling on the Mumbai-Kolkata line via Allahabad should disembark at Satna (117km).

State transport and private buses as well as private taxis ply between Khajuraho and Jhansi/ Satna. Luxury hotels can provide cars to visit local attractions.

There are a few five-star hotels in Khajuraho. However, most of the events of the Shiv Vivah are held at the luxury 47-room Lalit Temple View (Tel: +91 11 4444 7777, Web: http://www.thelalit.com) which organises the show in conjunction with the Nagar Panchayat, Khajuraho.

Keywords: Khajurahosculptures

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012