Khajuraho dance festival among ancient temples

Khajuraho, a small, remote village in the northern state of Madhya Pradesh, is worth a detour if you’re travelling between Delhi/Agra and Varanasi. Khajuraho is the largest complex of medieval Hindu and Jain temples in India. Those beautifully carved temples listed as the UNESCO World Heritage Sites draw plenty of tourists due to their erotic-themed sculptures. If you happen to visit in February, you can also enjoy world-class performances of Indian classical dance at the backdrop of the ancient temples. The village has its own slightly weird vibe but overall, it is a welcoming place.

Bas relief with a scene of couple having said, asisted by two female servants by their sides at the walls of one of the ancient Hindu temples in Khajuraho
Khajuraho temples are famous for the erotic sculptures

Getting to Khajuraho from Kolkata

Travelling to Khajuraho from Kolkata (unlike Delhi or Varanasi) is far from straightforward. After taking the overnight train from Howrah station, we got off at Satna Junction. Satna turned out to be a rather depressing place. For one, the train station’s toilets were half-destroyed and extremely filthy. We took a shared auto-rickshaw to the Satna bus stand. There was no official ticket counter at the station and no public, state buses operated. Instead, the place was swarming with scammers who tried to sell bus tickets for double the official price. Eventually, we paid directly on the bus. The journey was very scenic as the route led right through Panna National Park. It took us 4 hours. We arrived late in the evening at the deserted bus stand in a very empty and dark neighbourhood.

A view of a dry jungle from the road between Satna and Khajuraho
Views of Panna National Park on the Satna – Khajuraho bus route

Khajuraho on a budget

Khajuraho is certainly a budget-friendly place. It is easy to find affordable accommodation further away from the Western group of temples. We settled for a room at a small guesthouse near the Jain complex. It was about a 25-minute walk to the Western Group and 15 minutes walk to the bus stand. The biggest drawback was the absolute lack of restaurants nearby. We could only have a simple breakfast and chai at one street stall.

an aluminium foil bowl filled with poha: yellow flattened rice, onion and coriander
Poha – typical breakfast in Madhya Pradesh

At a big junction, just before the turn to the temples, we found a small place with cheap south-Indian food. We couldn’t resist having the regional speciality, poha (rice flakes with spices) for breakfast.
Khajuraho is small enough to walk everywhere or, at most, rent a bicycle. One day is enough to see all groups of monuments, even on foot.

A man in a shirt drives an auto-rickshaw  on a narrow road in the fields, a herd of buffaloes in front of him
Auto-rickshaw is a less adventurous option of getting to the Ken Gharial Sanctuary

If you want to visit Ken Gharial Sanctuary and the Raneh Waterfall, you’d need to pay for private transport. Auto-rickshaws are quite affordable. The first quote we got was also the highest, so it’s worth asking a few different rickshaw-wallahs about price. Using the services of one of the young ‘friendly guys’ on a motorbike will be cheaper, but also less comfortable and possibly, riskier.

A small stage where a group of Indian women in ethnic, shiny clothes signs and plays folk instruments at the Khajuraho Dance Festival
Folk band performing at the Khajuraho Dance Festival

If you’re not Indian, the biggest expense could be the entrance fee to the Western Group (combined with the Archeological Museum entrance). The remaining groups of monuments are free to visit. Incredibly, the Khajuraho Dance Festival held in February is a free event. You can attend all the evening dance shows at the Western group of monuments for the entire week absolutely free of cost. Outside the festival, a paid Light and Sound show is on every evening.

Khajuraho Dance Festival

Watch out for the dates of the Khajuraho Dance Festival organised for free by Madhya Pradesh Tourism in February each year. This week-long event features performances of all Indian classical dance styles (Kathak, Bharatanatyam, kathakali and more). The main stage is set at the backdrop of the temples within the main complex of monuments. You can also visit extensive grounds with artisans’ stalls, a food court, a smaller stage for folk music artists, a cinema and an art exhibition centre. If you’re not a classical dance enthusiast, two evenings might be enough as some of those art forms tend to be rather monotonous.

A tall, ancient temple in Khajuraho is lit behind a group of colourfully dressed performers at the Khajuraho Dance Festival
Illuminated temples behind the performers at the Khajuraho Dance Festival

When I came to pick up a free ticket for the night show, I received a pass to a special ‘Foreign Guest’ section, with comfortable seats right in front of the stage. The downside of those seats was that groups of people moving to the VIP section kept on passing by in front of the stage, obscuring the view.

A man in traditional green kathakali mask and a large skirt freezes with his leg lifted right next to equally frozen female bharatanatyam dancer in loose trousers
A kathakali – bharatanatyam fusion performance at 2022 Khajuraho Dance Festival

‘Friendly’ locals, village tours and free rides

Please beware that many local people, mostly young men, would be making an effort to chat with you. Most would eventually want to sell one kind of service or another. It could be a village tour, a ride to the waterfalls or selling some souvenirs.

When we were at the Eastern group of temples, a young man on a motorbike approached Sayak. He told us he wanted to practice his English and show us around, no strings attached. He convinced us to follow him on foot to Khajuraho village. As we walked past the narrow lane, he explained that everyone knows the caste of each inhabitant. Even more surprisingly, the village has a separate well for each caste. He was about to tell us more when a drunk man joined our company. Despite the younger man’s efforts, the drunkard kept on trailing behind us, trying to convince us to show us around.

Admittedly, it was hard to focus on enjoying the beauty of the Jain temples with the drunkard following us everywhere, constantly moaning about not having money for proper shoes. Interestingly, the young boy assured us he not only can afford shoes but even a motorcycle. In the end, our new friend collected his motorbike and ushered us to mount it. We escaped from the drunk man who shouted ‘F** off!’ as we left.

Our saviour dropped us at the guesthouse and tried to convince to show us the waterfalls tomorrow. We suspected he would charge us something for that. We said we’d be leaving the following day as that was indeed our intention that time and he didn’t insist. Unlike many other men in Khajuraho, he didn’t want my husband’s phone number. As it turned out, we did stay a day longer to see the falls and bumped into the same guy at the festival later on. He dropped us off with his motorbike at the guesthouse and again wished us all the best.

Khajuraho temples

The Western Group

We started the sightseeing with the most famous Western Complex. It took us roughly 1-2 hours to see all of them. Sadly, the audioguides were not available due to COVID restrictions. We were relying on Wikipedia descriptions and didn’t regret it. From the snippets we eavesdropped from the local guides, we gathered they focused on pointing out the erotic sculptures rather than sharing much on the history.

A giant stone statue of a wild bore, with hunderds of seated figures carved all over it at the Varaha temple in Khajuraho
Wild boar statue at the Varaha temple

First on the left when you enter is Varaha temple with a giant statue of Varaha, the incarnation of Vishnu as a wild boar. Directly in front of it stands the three-tiered Lakshmana temple, the peak achievement of the Chandela dynasty. The temple is dedicated to the god Vishnu whose sculpture you can find in the Santo Sanctorum.

Stairs lead to a platform shared by a small temple with a tower and balconies and two other towers in Khajuraho
Lakshmana Temple – the peak of Chandela art

This temple contains some of the most graphic erotic sculptures, including group sex and a man raping a horse (to be found on the lowest external wall). Don’t miss the battle and court scenes also found at the base platform.

A  bas relief showing scene of oral sex and petting at the external walls of Lakshamana Temple in Khajuraho
Orgy scene a the Lakshmana Temple

The three temples sharing the same platform are probably the most spectacular: Mahadeva, Kandariya and the Devi Jagdamba temples. Kandariya temple is easily recognisable thanks to its slender form and a tall tower. The altar is taken by a phallic Siva lingam. The middle Devi Jadamba temple catches attention with a lion statue and a woman squatting in front of it. The black female idol is Siva’s consort, Parvati, here in the form of Kali.

A large statue of lion with a woman kneeling in front of it stands at the elaborately carved entrance to a temple in Khajuraho
Devi Jagadamba Temple

The next temple to the right is unusual insofar as it’s dedicated to Surya, the Sun god. Another temple raised on the platform, Vishvanath Temple, is easily distinguishable thanks to a small shrine housing a giant Nandi bull (Shiva’s mount). The exterior walls of the main temple are filled with statues of women during their daily life activities.

A giant stone statue of a bull stands in a small temple within Khajuraho complex
Nandi, Siva’s bull, at the Vishvanath Temple

Archeological Museum and Folk Museum

After we finished, we walked a short distance to a completely deserted Archeological Museum (entry on the same ticket). The museum was rather old-fashioned and the exhibitions were poorly designed. Nevertheless, it allowed us to see the sculptures from a closer distance and understand the common themes among the statues.

We also wanted to visit a Folk Museum, but it was unfortunately closed due to restoration works.

Eastern Group of temples

It was a longish walk of 30 min in the heat with little shade to get to the Eastern group of temples from the Archeological Museum. We walked past herds of cows and buffaloes and saw the first building belonging to the Eastern group.

Cows and buffaloes graze on a grassy field in front of a small ancient Javari temple in Khajuraho
Javari temple with cattle and buffaloes in the foreground

The small Vamana temple has a statue of a dwarf incarnation of Vishnu at the main altar. Just a short walk further, there are two other modest temples: Brahma Temple (one of the oldest and actually dedicated to Siva, not Brahma) and Javari Temple. From behind them rises a small mountain range with lime rocks resembling a set of teeth.

A view of external wall of Vamana Temple, filled with hundreds of statues, and lime rock mountain range in the background
Lime rocks rising on the horizon behind Vamana Temple

The last of the group, Gantai Temple is located on the edges of the village, near the lake. It looks different from all the other temples as it is more of a four-pillar open pavilion with no walls. I loved the carvings of bells on the pillars.

A close-up of a carved pillar with mythincal creatures in Khajuraho's Gantai temple
Wonderfully carved pillar at the Gantai temple

The Jain group and the Southern Group

After crossing the village, we reached a closed and still active complex of Jain temples. No meat or leather is allowed at those temples as Jains are strict adherent to ahimsa, no violence. Repainted Shantinath temple has been changed so much that it doesn’t give an ancient feel anymore.

A large standing statue of the naked Mahariva at Shantinath Jain temple in Khajuraho
Statue of Mahavira at the Shantinath temple

However, smaller temples behind it are like miniatures of the Western and Eastern groups. The main difference is that the altars are adorned with the statues of naked Tirthankaras – incarnations of Mahavir, the Jain equivalent of Buddha. Yet, the same external decorations, including the erotic scenes, can be found elsewhere in Khajuraho.

A small statue of a tirthankara, Jain spiritual teacher, in a lotus pose surrounded with miniature sculpures of animals and sculptures of beautiful full breasted women
Jain sculpture at one of the temples at the Jain group

The last temple within walking distance is Dulhadev temple. This slightly more sturdy temple is one of the oldest in Khajuraho. There is one more temple, Chhaturbhuj, 2 km down south. It didn’t seem worth travelling that far just to see one more temple, though.

A stone, simple 9th century Hindu temple with antechamber, balcony and tower
Dulhadev Temple

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Khajuraho?

By air
A tiny airport located just 5km from Khajuraho serves domestic Air India connections from Delhi, Varanasi and Mumbai.

By train
Khajuraho railway station is frequented by trains from Delhi (10h overnight) and Agra, as well as Varanasi (9h) and even Udaipur. You can get there also from the nearby Jhansi (3h). If you’re travelling from somewhere else, Mahoba and Satna (see above) are your only options unless you can go to Jhansi and travel on from there.
The railway station is located 8km from the city. You could get there by a shared toto, hire the whole vehicle for yourself or get a bus.

By bus
If you’re coming from Satna (4h) you’d need to take a (direct) bus. If you travel from Jhansi, you’d need to change bus in Chhatarpur. The train would be more convenient.

Prices [in Indian rupees as of February 2022]:

600 INR hired autorickshaw from Khajuraho to Ken Gharial Sanctuary (and back)
515 INR sleeper train Kolkata- Satna
400 INR good quality double ensuite room at a guesthouse 20 min walk from Western group
200 INR auto-rickshaw fee to enter Ken Gharial Sanctuary
170 INR private bus Satna- Khajuraho (120 km)
125 INR guide at Ken Gharial Sanctuary per group (you could also leave a tip)
100-120 INR cheapest veg thali at the cheap eatery
103 INR Khajuraho-Jhansi sleeper train
50 INR small juice on the street
50 INR uttapam/ masala dosa at a cheap eatery near the Western group
35 INR Indian national entrance to Khajuraho Western group of temples (+museum)
30 INR big portion poha at the street stall
20 INR shared toto Satna train station- Satna bus stand
20 INR potato pancake with chickpea street snack
20 INR shared toto from Khajuraho bus stand to Khajuraho train station
10 INR small portion of boiled chickpea with spices on the train

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