Khajuraho is a small town home to a collection of magnificent Hindu and Jain temples dating back to 950-1050 AD.
The temples are spread around the town, but the main group, the Western group, is right in the centre. The temples are large, raised structures covered in ornate carvings depicting everyday life, the gods and goddesses, and some erotic sculptures. Some of the erotic scenes are very imaginative for the time and for such a conservative culture.
The temples are set in beautiful landscaped gardens, and are peaceful places to sit when Indian tourists aren’t asking you for a selfie.
The town itself just has a few shops and places to eat. Perhaps because it is such a small place, I found the shopkeepers and touts especially persistent, even for India. They really wouldn’t leave me alone.
Getting out into the smaller and older villages outside the main town is calmer. There, children ask for chocolate and friendly locals invited me in for chai and stories of their days as a temple guide.
The village we were staying in was soon to be no more, though. There are plans to join up the Eastern group of temples like the Western group, but this would mean destroying the village which winds around them. The price of protecting historical monuments…
My stay in Khajuraho was made particularly special by the Friends in Khajuraho home stay. The accommodation was comfortable, the home cooked food delicious, and the brothers (Ravi and Vijay) who run it went out of their way to talk to us about their lives, Indian politics, and show us more of their home. The brothers also help support a poor Dalit (untouchable caste) family and run an improvised school for the family’s children and any other children from that village who are willing. I visited this lovely family and saw how far they had come. We – myself and Keara, the girl I was travelling with at the time – also taught a few English classes to the kids. They were all bright and eager to learn.
A few hours’ train journey from Khajuraho, through rural and agricultural northern India, is Orchha, a small town famous for its palaces and temples.
The Jahangir Mahal is a beautiful, sprawling Mughal fort where you can get lost in its maze of corridors and look out over the town and beyond to the woods.
Along the Betwa River are the Chhatris, a collection of decorated Bundela Rajput royal tombs. This is a peaceful spot to stop for a while. People bathe in the river and vultures and parrots swoop between the turrets.
Then there is the Chaturbhuj Temple and the Laxminarayan Temple, both massive structures.
All of the monuments in Orchha are crumbling slightly from age and wear, but this is fitting to the already rustic setting.
Orchha is a lot smaller than Khajuraho and I found the local people to be a lot more friendly, perhaps because there are a fewer shops directed solely at tourists.
We stayed at Orchha Home Stay, an organisation which offers home stays with a variety of poor families in a village just outside Orchha. The family we stayed with lived in a very simple home consisting of a small room for sleeping, a kitchen, an area for their goats and cows, and a courtyard where they spent most of their time. They had a cat for catching rats and a dog for guarding their land. The women cooked us incredible food on their fire stove. There was also a special curved stove for cooking chapatti, which everyone in the household, human and animal, consumed. The whole family were so welcoming and friendly. The youngest of the daughters, Khushi, was full of curiosity, wanting to know what we were up to all the time. The older daughter, Nidhi did henna on us. And then there was the baby boy, who never cried, even when he fell over.
This wonderful project is helping poor families have a higher quality of life and is educating them on the outside world, while also letting tourists get a taste of rural India. It is a brilliant set up of which I am fully supportive.
Staying in such a rural area, we could walk out to one of the hills and sit under an ancient tree to watch the sunrise and sunset. It was incredibly peaceful. The big polluted cities felt like another world.
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In the rural villages, people wash in the road, the women still in their saris. It seems like quite the skill, the way they wrap the sari in different ways so they can wash their body.
Open defecation still happens here. In the mornings, you can see people lined up in their designated field, doing their morning business.
Each day, the women or children head to the water pump to get water. The children’s eyes are outlined with kohl, making their eyes big and bright.
The houses are sometimes made of dried manure, sometimes muddy brick. Some are painted bright colours – blue, pink, and yellow. Rubbish is everywhere – clogging the drains, in the lakes, strewn beside the road.
You hear of how a village has been split in two because of a caste conflict. You hear of a stadium being built rather than providing better schools or easier access to drinking water. You watch the man of the house eat before any of the women. You see people coughing, and know its probably because they cook inside on open fires, inhaling smoke constantly. But then I also met progressive families who believed in supporting their daughters to be independent and who didn’t believe in the caste system. India really is a melting pot.
It was important for me on my India trip to see how the rural, the poor, and the lower castes in India live. So much of India’s population live in dire poverty, so may suffer discrimination for their caste, religion, or class, and so much of India is sprawling fields and agriculture. To just see the tourist attractions and cities would be an injustice.