India: Wild life & wildlife

By Liz Light

Erotic carving and brilliant birding lure Liz Light to Khajuraho.

Many temple walls tell stories of love and sex. Photo by Liz Light
Many temple walls tell stories of love and sex. Photo by Liz Light

Oh, my goodness, there are twosomes in all sorts of limbs-intertwined positions, threesomes, foursomes and even a man demonstrating that his best friend is his horse. The erotic stone carvings on Khajuraho's temple walls show that lascivious decadence thrived 1000 years ago in the Chandela Kingdom.

Khajuraho, smack in the middle of Northern India, is not much more than an overgrown village weaving between ancient stone temples. Nine of them are close together and a fence and entry fee keep out postcard and jewellery-sellers so the walk between temples, on paths bordered with flowers and lawn, is tranquil.

Mathematically precise in construction and proportion, the stone temples are ornately pieced together in an age that predates concrete. It is a credit to Chandela architectural skills that they are still standing.

The carving, and only 10 per cent is of a sexual nature, has fineness and subtlety. Diaphanous drapery falls softly over perfectly curved bodies, smiles are ecstatic, eyes are beautiful and gestures elegant. There is movement and vitality in depictions of everyday life - a women paints her eyes with kohl, another twists to pull a thorn from her foot and Vishnu and his lover, Laxmi, gaze at each other, deeply in love.

Kandariya Mahadeva, the largest of the temples, has the most-provocative erotica; rows and rows of it. I note that the depictions of group sex are male-biased - one man optimistically getting it on with four women, a couple of whom, on the periphery, look extremely bored.

Some carvings are too obscenely frank for me and, like TS Burt a young British officer in the Bengal Engineers, who rediscovered the site in 1838, I turn away in disgust.

Burt saw the temples when he deviated from his planned itinerary after lewd talk by his bearers caught his interest. He wrote, "The sculptor had, at times, allowed his subjects to grow a little warmer than there was any absolute necessity for his doing; indeed, some were extremely indecent and offensive".

Why all the sex? No one seems to know. One possibility is that they are Tantric images relating to the theory that one transcends this world and attains enlightenment by gratifying baser instincts. Another theory is that the carvings imply virility and symbolise the power of the kings.

There were 80 temples and, although 22 remain, I only visit 10 of them. That's enough insight into the wild life of the long-ago Chandela Kingdom and, although this ancient porn is bizarrely fascinating, the real wildlife in nearby Panna National Park is just as alluring.

At dawn the rising sun is a dull orb in mist. Sri, our guide, describes the 543sq km national park as a phoenix rising. It is on the mend after years of poaching and poor management.

A decade ago it was home to 37 tigers but now there are only three and, unfortunately, they are all male. Until early 2008 around 40 bandits lived in the park - steep gorges and hidden valleys make it perfect bandit territory - and tiger-poaching gave them a lucrative income.

Now the bandits who weren't shot in a highly organised raid are in jail and two female tigers will soon be introduced. It's cold, dewy and misty and, initially, as we drive in our open safari vehicle, hugging hot water bottles and wrapped in blankets, we don't see much of the wildlife we know is here. A few families of langur monkeys and a group of black-faced lemurs huddle in trees and a pair of blue bulls, large ungulates in the deer family, slink off into the undergrowth.

We are well into the morning, quietly watching the hesitant progress of a spotted gazelle through scrub, when, in the space of 10 minutes, the mist dissipates and the sun breaks through. It's as if some great God has turned on the life-light. All sorts of birds appear. They sit in trees and sing, they dart about hunting insects, they chase each other courting, they fly around in flocks and large ones, raptors, soar high in the sky.

There are two keen birders from Bangalore in our little group, and between their sharp bird-spotting eyes and those of Sri, we see 30 different species within half an hour. Three species of kingfisher, shrikes of many kinds, doves, drongos, tree pies, two different chats, flycatchers, bulbuls, a white-eyed buzzard, cuckoos, woodpeckers and, in the grass, grouse and quail.

What previously looked like dull dry grass becomes honey-coloured and bright in the sun, leaves on trees take on colour and insects warm up and start to sing, hum, hop and fly.

Animals, too, come out and we spot sambal, chikana, spotted deer and more blue bulls. Monkeys begin enjoying their day, swinging from tree to tree looking for fruit and shrieking at each other before gambolling away in a group.

Sri drags us away from the grassland saying there are more treats, different ones, down by the river. Before we reach it birds tell us it's nearby; a flock of great cormorants fly along in formation and kingfishers become plentiful. Dry grass changes to lush greenery and peacocks, numerous species of duck, cormorant, darter and heron are added to the seen-species list.

In an open boat we chug up river, binoculars scanning rocks for crocs. We soon see an armour-plated beast, big enough to fit three of me in his belly, sunning himself on the bank. He slides quickly and smoothly, for such a monster, into the river.

The sun is warm, the river glassy, ducks paddle in the shallows, eagles fly high, peacocks strut along the banks, deer come to the water's edge to drink and monkeys swing in the trees.

This is a picture of paradise, a different kind of paradise to that depicted on the temple walls. That just 32km separate two such extraordinary - and extraordinarily different- experiences is the magic of India.

TRAVELLERS' TIPS

Where to stay: Hotel Chandela, a Taj Hotel, is situated in a large, beautifully landscaped garden on the edge of Khajuraho. Try the terrific Chandela taste platter. From $68 a night.

Pashan Garh, a group of luxury villas bordering Panna National Park, is owned by &BEYOND, a safari tourism specialist. Stunning accommodation and perfect safari adventures. From $530 a night, fully inclusive of all food, beverages, park fees, guides and park transport.

Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies from Auckland and Christchurch to Singapore daily and on to Kolkata four times a week. A Singapore Stopover Holiday can be arranged.

* The best time to visit is between October and February, before the hot season.

- Herald on Sunday

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