Why I Came Back to Khajuraho

Here’s a link to an article I wrote after returning from the trip chronicled in the entries from India in 2018.




Khajuraho is a frequently visited tourist town, chiefly because of a dozen so magnificent temples built about 1000 years ago.

Lakshmana Temple
Carvings on exterior wall of one of the temples

If you’ve seen pictures of ancient erotic sculptures from India—I mean really erotic, sexually acrobatic even—they are likely from the Khajuraho temples. The duos and trios carved on the exteriors of the temple walls represent specific divinities in some cases, but also forces and concepts—the eradication of duality.

Some of the carvings are uniquely erotic

Khajuraho has many cheap hotels (I stayed in one of them in 2010) along with a few resorts and now the new Hotel Isabel Palace that I talked about in an earlier post. There are a lot of restaurants and tourist shops and auto-rickshaw drivers trying to get you to ride with them. Typical tourist town in many ways.

The temples and dance were part of why I first came in 2010, but the area figures importantly in the engineering fantasy and environmentalist nightmare known as the Interlinking of Rivers or ILR, about which I wrote quite a lot in Dirty, Sacred Rivers.

From Chapter 13.

The “Garland Canal,” connoting something natural woven by the hand of man into a lovely artifact, was the name given to one of the early schemes for linking India’s rivers. The first such concept cropped up in the mid–nineteenth century as the British Raj sought to extend its control over India’s productivity. Later the “Garland Canal” sketched a sweeping series of channels uniting major rivers from Nepal to South India, moving water from one region to another over the vast subcontinent. That approach was discarded some decades ago as not feasible, but in its place eventually emerged a similar idea with a less elegant name: Interlinking of Rivers, or “ILR.” This also embraced the concept of moving water from wet areas of the country to dry ones by linking the subcontinent’s rivers through a grid of dams and concrete canals. Proponents even likened it to an electricity grid.

The theory behind the proposal is that some river basins in India have more water than they need and are thus “surplus basins.” These basins, likely prone to floods, are located mostly in the north and east. Other basins are called “deficit basins.” If engineers just link them up and move extra monsoon waters from the surplus basins to the deficit ones, India would have the right amount of water everywhere and would no longer suffer from drought and flood. A lot of concrete canals would be needed for the thirty proposed links, in addition to the many dams and reservoirs required to consolidate water in a “wet” river basin before moving it into a “dry” one. The estimated cost in 2002 dollars was 120 billion.

As Ashok Khosla—a scientist who founded India’s first environment department some years ago and was also with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)—said to me some years ago:

“It’s a cycle. Every thirty years somebody comes along and says there’s a lot of drought in this area and a lot of water in that area, why don’t we join them up? Pretty logical,” says Ashok. “It has come up over the past 150 years on a regular basis. In my lifetime it’s come up three times. It will be a bubble and then they’ll find out it doesn’t make any sense—that the cost is greater than the benefits. It slows down and then nothing is done and it becomes dormant. Like a virus, it just stays there in the system and then blows up again.”

Right now it’s blowing up under Narendra Modi’s BJP party and there even could be some sort of ground breaking ceremony this month on the Ken-Betwa link.

The plan to place a dam on the Ken River in the upper reaches of the Panna Tiger Reserve and take the water via concrete canal to the Betwa River in the west has long been at the top of the list of proposals to link so-called “surplus basins” to “deficit basins.” This is not an actual concept in hydrology—it was dreamt up in Delhi. It’s true that some rivers in the eastern part of the subcontinent have more water in them than those in the west and south, but not the two I just mentioned. Either both of them are full of water, or they are both running low, depending on the monsoon.

Map of Bundelkhand region, created by Kanchan Burathoki for Dirty, Sacred Rivers

This region, known as Bundelkhand, is a drought-prone area that in some years gets loads of monsoon rain. The old way of managing was to capture that water in thousands of ponds whose water would last through dry years and would also help recharge shallow groundwater, which would then be accessible from various types of wells.

I wrote a lot about “stepwells” in my book. Many types of stepwells in Nepal and throughout India were beautiful (still are) as well as functional (some still are) structures which allowed access to groundwater as its level dropped lower and lower during the dry season.

These traditional methods were abandoned over time, most unfortunately. The loss of traditional land and water management has left farmers here increasingly desperate. Some people have been trying to reverse the “Green Revolution” trends—heavy use of chemicals, groundwater pumped from deep levels with electricity, foreign varieties of seed—by advocating a return to traditional agriculture. That has an added advantage of producing organic crops which are desirable to city dwellers who have money to spend. Hand in hand with the effort to reverse chemical-dependent trends in agriculture are efforts to return to traditional rainwater harvesting through ponds.

It’s an enormously uphill battle. Neither effort gets any support from the central government and not much from the state governments. So the ILR and Ken-Betwa link in particular keep “blowing up” in the news, in the minds of politicians, engineers, and contractors—and in the hopes of many poor farmers who would like to believe the government actually wants to help them.

Many people are keeping an eye on news about the long-proposed Ken-Betwa link.  Much is probably going on behind the scenes to push it forward.  Many of us don’t want to see it happen ever.  Even a few politicians don’t want it, but can’t say so.

I will write more about this issue in a future post.

Wheat field near Isabel Palace hotel, on outskirts of Khajuraho
Sunset, near Hotel Isabel Palace, Khajuraho



3 thoughts on “Why I Came Back to Khajuraho

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