“Can I have 100 rupees?” asked the young boy. He appeared no more than 7 though he assured me he was 13. He and his friends had just finished playing cricket in the field behind our abode in Khajuraho, the Hotel Isabel Palace.

“No, I don’t think that would be OK,” I responded, taken aback by his very forward request.

Her and I had watched this small group of boys play cricket for the previous 10 minutes, but once we had been spotted we became the main attraction.  Giving in to our rockstar status, I handed out sweets I purchased from the small shop located behind our vantage point.  The boys, all primary school age, ran and laughed in the setting sun as they played cricket, and for the first time in a week, I felt more like a person and less like a human-sized ATM where the locals all make withdrawals.

The boy’s follow-up question knocked me back to reality.

“Hmmmm, how about 50 rupees?”

India is a place where nothing is free.  Even friendship would have its price, we would discover. But after spending a day wandering the streets and relative quiet of Khajuraho, we were beginning to relax from the frenetic pace of New Delhi and the in-your-face tourism of Agra.  In fact, this small-ish, rural town (we were later stunned to learn it is home to 1.8 million people) we accidentally stumbled into became one of the most authentic Indian experiences of our visit.  From mingling with the locals behind our hotel, to participating in a Hindu puja ceremony, to enjoying a dinner of Hawaiian pizza and beer while discussing the caste system with a hotel employee, it at least felt authentic.

I say we accidentally stumbled into Khajuraho because we arrived there by process of elimination.  While struggling to survive a stampede in the Agra train station, we hurriedly created request slips for several different cities we had heard about.  Our last choice, Khajuraho, was the one we had read the least about, but Her assured me it would be interesting because “it has erotic temples.”  Not really sure what an erotic temple was but eager to escape from the train station crowd, we paid the fare for 3/AC upper bunks on the 7-hour train ride and left the Agra ticketing office, swearing to never return.

When we arrived in Khajuraho, exhausted from a near-sleepless night on the train, we were greeted by Surendra, a very nice young man from the Hotel Isabel Palace.  We had booked this particular hotel through Agoda.com while researching Khajuraho.  Learning of the town’s small size and attractions, we decided to book a “nicer” place slightly out of town.  This kept the price a little lower and, we thought, would give us some quiet time to recuperate from the week-long crazy fest we had endured in Delhi and Agra.  The hotel, despite a location on the outskirts of town, was still very much within walking distance from the town center and the popular Western Temple Complex. Surendra, eager to please, pointed out sights on the tuk-tuk drive in from the train station.


Statue of a Hindu god

The Western Temple Complex (entrance 250 Rs. a person), by far the most developed and most popular in Khajuraho, is located in the center of town.  Comprised of more than half a dozen large sandstone temples built between 900 and 1150 A.D., the Western group is the most interesting to see if one has a limited amount of time.  There we rented decrepit audio guides and began a self-guided tour (my audio guide was literally falling apart and required me to hold the battery in place. Otherwise, the iPod-sized machine would reboot itself, and I would have to wait 2-3 minutes before I could continue on my journey through the complex).

The intricacy of the carvings on these temples was exquisite, but the subject matter was very different from what we had thus far seen in India – or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. Much of the temples were covered with statues of beautiful women posed very suggestively, with several very explicit carvings of men and women doing what men and women do in ways only the Indians could imagine.  The base of the temples was encompassed by relief carvings of day-to-day life including images of people going to market, men marching to battle and even a scene of a man performing unspeakable acts to a horse while another man peeks through his hands in obvious enjoyment.

“He has one eye of morality shut but can’t help looking with the other,” according to the audio guide narration.

According to the audio guide, there are several theories as to why the erotic carvings are there: as a “how-to guide” for locals, as a way for worshippers to indulge their “unclean” thoughts before entering the holy site or even as an appeasement to protect the temples from lightning caused by the rain god Indrah (quite the lecherous voyeur, apparently).  Now the statues serve mainly to amuse tourists and the langur monkeys who call the walls of the temples home.

When Captain T.S. Burt “rediscovered” the temples in 1838, his Victorian sensibility became rattled, according to the audio guide.

“I found seven Hindu temples most beautifully and exquisitely carved as to workmanship, but the sculptor had, at times, allowed his subject to grow a little warmer than there was absolute necessity for his doing,” Burt wrote in his memoirs. “Indeed, some of the sculptures here were extremely indecent and offensive.”


“Twenty rupees?” asked the cricket-playing boy with obvious concern that I would again say no.

I did say no.  I don’t like giving money to beggars, and I particularly don’t like giving money to begging children as they are usually not the beneficiaries of monetary donations.  On this trip, we instead shared items like fruit and candy with begging children.  Such were things they could enjoy Asia,India,Khajuraho,temples,erotic,carvings,market,chilis,colorfulimmediately and not have to surrender to their pimp.

“How about pens for school?” I suggested.

“That would be good,” he said. “We don’t always have enough pens at school.”

This made me feel good.  I would be contributing to his education and wouldn’t have to give any cash directly.  I just didn’t know where to buy pens.


The following day, we asked Surendra if there was a store in town where we could buy pens to hand out to the children living near the hotel.  After (rightly) determining that we would get ripped off trying to purchase pens on our own, Surendra offered to take us on a tour of town himself. The tour would culminate in a stop at the local office supply store.

Although we were originally expecting to spend a quiet evening between the two of us, Surendra took us on a rather pricey rickshaw ride to the eastern and southern temple complexes, to the local slum and to a school inside the slum.  We saw the desperate poverty that the locals live in.  Because many pesticides are banned or are too expensive, locals take to rubbing dried cow dung around their doors and windows to keep out mosquitoes.  Malaria is still a major problem in these slums.  We also saw a school that, although there were plenty of rooms with chalkboards, these rooms didn’t contain any desks or chairs.

I’m not 100 percent certain what we saw was an actual school, and the high-pressure pitch for donations from the “headmaster,” complete with photos of previous donors, made me even more suspicious.  I gave about the equivalent of a dollar, and the headmaster could not disguise his disappointment.  Although we wanted to help the truly needy in this town, it was difficult to discern whether sure cash donations were going where they should.

After this impromptu tour of town, we ended up stopping at Surendra’s favorite pizza restaurant, Bella Italia, where we explained our trip and why we were traveling.  We were able to ask him questions about his life in India and what his plans for the future were.  He explained how the hotel was a family business run by he and his cousins.  He was attending business school to get a university degree but explained how difficult it was to afford the necessary books.

Eventually, our discussion led to the Indian caste system and how we weren’t able to wrap our heads around why it was still so accepted.  He agreed it was a very unfair way of life, but without experiencing anything different, it was difficult for him to imagine a life without it.

We stopped to get the pens, letting Surendra purchase them on our behalf for a fraction of what we would have paid. In the distance we heard loud bells ringing.

“That’s the puja ceremony at the Hindu temple.” Surendra said. “Would you like to go see it?”

We agreed and made our way to the Matangesvara Temple, the active Hindu temple adjacent to the Western Temple Complex. Here, twice a day, locals Asia,India,Khajuraho,temples,erotic,carvings,bindi,pujatake part in the puja, a ceremony meant to honor the Gods.

Inside, the temple was alive with sound, smoke and colors. Her and I circumambulated a large shiv linga (a phallic structure representing the Hindu god Shiva), and stood to the side to watch the ceremony unfold.  The priest gave his blessings to the chanting crowd, doused everyone with incense smoke and holy water from the Ganges and began to loudly blow through a conch shell horn.  Then the locals all approached the priest with an object to be blessed: money, sweets, flowers.  The priest would bless the object, keep a little for the gods and return the rest to the believer to share with his or her family.

The ceremony was noisy and smoky and we didn’t really have a clue what was being said, but it was fascinating for me to reflect how this daily ritual had played out in this very spot for hundreds of years.

Full from dinner and marked with bindis applied during the puja ceremony, we walked back to the hotel with Surendra.  The cricket-playing kids had gone home, and as we were leaving early by car to Bandhavghar National Park, we asked Surendra to deliver the pens to the children for us.

I hope the pens made it to the kids. I also hope they remember us not as human ATMs but as people who wanted to help them the best way they could.