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



Isabel Palace and the Dance


In Khajuraho I stayed for ten days at the Hotel Isabel Palace, a very pleasant small hotel run by an extended family. Surendra, the young manager, is the son of the eldest of seven brothers, some still in Khajuraho and involved in this or other local businesses; others have gone to Europe or Japan.

I stayed here last year and came back because it’s an attractive and reasonably priced hotel, but chiefly because Surendra is a gem. Calm, friendly, attentive, young and cute. When I was here last year the hotel was already in its off season. The temperature had risen to 108 some weeks earlier than usual, and I arrived sick with a strangely persistent respiratory ailment that began in Bihar during last year’s unsuccessful attempt to follow up on eco-san toilets there.

Last year Surendra was solicitous when I was not feeling well and fun when I was feeling better. This year we have gone on a couple of excursions together, even though he’s had a hotel full of guests most of the time. A handful of cousins handle various duties here, along with an uncle or two (Surendra is the son of the eldest of seven brothers—grandfather and grandmother are in residence on the ground floor of the hotel) but Surendra seems to be the linchpin. He’s only 27. He reminds me of Nepalis I know—the strong family connections, the attentiveness to guests’ needs.

Surendra and I above Ken River gorge in Panna Reserve

Most visitors come for a couple of days and are gone, but Surendra’s way of tending to guests leads to good word-of-mouth business. Good Trip Advisor ratings also help. There was a group of Thai monks here to see the temples, a small group of Russians with a Russian woman tour leader who comes several times a year, and a large group of Argentines brought by another group leader who comes frequently. That group is vegan and got a special menu prepared for them. I horned in on it one lunchtime with Surendra’s blessing. I get little perks like that for being here for a second extended stay. Papaya for breakfast. Salads from the garden. He put me in a larger room this year for the same price as last year’s even though I’m here during the peak season. I have a whole extra space for doing yoga—if I would venture onto my mat. But it’s already hot and I’m curiously lazy.

Breakfast on the roof, hills of Panna Tiger reserve in the distance


Thai monks being served by Ravindra, the very nice waiter who brought me fresh papaya

In addition there was a young couple from the Netherlands with whom I went on a little morning “safari” to the nearby Panna tiger reserve, along with various Americans, Europeans and Indians who have come and gone.

Sunset in Khajuraho

One of the uncles—now a resident of Belgium—owns the hotel. Surendra gets a salary. I have just discovered it’s far too low for the quality of his work. “Indian system,” he says.

I am retracing my steps from last year to some extent, talking again to some of the same people, along with some new ones, about the river and water and agricultural issues here, because I was too sick and overwhelmed by the heat to be able to absorb much information last April. This year it’s heading further into the high 90s each day, so it’s getting difficult once again to function past early morning. But at least so far I’m not sick!

One of the famous temples of Khajuraho

One reason I came directly here after a few days in Delhi was that the yearly classical dance festival, which I had attended back in 2010, was starting soon after my arrival. I found it magical the first time, and attended all seven nights from beginning to end, even though I didn’t always understand the aesthetic or the lengthy mimed stories from the Mahabharata. I enjoyed much of the dancing this time too, and found several performers rivetingly good. But some of the magic was gone—both because some performances seemed mediocre and because the audience was so nonchalant, coming and going, incessantly walking or standing in front of me, yelling into phones or talking to each other.

Trio of Kathak dancers.  One of the Khajuraho temples in the background, behind the phony stage arches

Surendra found the little he saw boring, he said, and left after a few minutes. Classical dance has an aesthetic that is not readily accessible to foreigners, nor to many Indians apparently. It is static to some degree, and you have to pay attention to precise movements of hands, arms, feet and face. I wondered if some of the performances I felt were mediocre this year were watered down classical dance in an effort to appeal to a broader audience. If so, the choreographers and dancers may have lost out on both counts—offering bad classical, but without broader appeal. I sensed a bit of Bollywood-ization in some of the acts. Of course, you can also see elements from classical dance in the big performance numbers in Bollywood musicals, so it works both ways.

Memory is not a good judge. But my recollection of the magical and expert performances of 2010—along with the delightfully chilly late February weather—will remain.

I am unable to post my badly recorded snippets from this year’s Kathak and Bharatnatyam performances because my level of blog doesn’t allow me to post my video content and it’s not worth upgrading for my poor little movies.

In lieu of that I’ll add some links below for more information about the dance.


There is a lot more on the web if you get interested in searching.

The Drama of Boori

The story this year will begin with Boori the dog. Five days after I arrived in Delhi I took a flight to Khajuraho, in the state of Madhya Pradesh, a place I have visited twice before—chiefly in pursuit of understanding India’s river-linking scheme, but twice now to enjoy the Indian classical dance festival held in the shadow of Khajuraho’s famous temples.

A couple of days after I arrived, still working my way through jet lag, I shook myself out of torpor and asked Surendra, the young manager here, to show me the hotel’s small organic garden. (I have been eating salads from it for a week at this point—Cheryl the incorrigible salad eater.) On the way back inside we stopped to see a dog and her five puppies, still nearly blind and piled atop each other except when burrowing into Boori’s slack nipples.

Boori was pretty much nothing more than nipple and bone. She must have been very sick with some kind of dog malady. She acted normal for the most part—not rabid or anything—but was very weak and slow. After she got to know me as a friend she would wag her tail weakly. Surendra claimed she had been okay before the puppies, and was about four years old. But she was so extremely emaciated I couldn’t believe that just nursing the puppies had done that much damage to her. Of course, she was not being fed well. Only dogs that belong to foreigners and rich people are fed well. Still, plenty of dogs wander around here and look relatively healthy, including a Boori lookalike that is apparently her daughter from an earlier litter. They manage pretty well on scraps from kitchens and maybe a little hunting.

Surendra says boori means brown, and that dogs are named based on their color. So maybe boori is a generic name for a brown dog in Bundelkhandi—the local language, a variant of Hindi. Surendra’s cousin, however, calls both her and her daughter by a different name which sounds more like “cherry.” In any case, my friend Chrissie in Kathmandu calls her dog Kaire, which also means brown. And of course some of you may remember the famous Kaalo: that astounding little cat’s name means black in Nepali. So it’s not just South Asians who give animals generic names, which can still indicate fondness.

I began to agitate for a doctor soon after I saw Boori, for which I said I would pay. Boori disappeared one evening and was not back the next morning. I said she probably had gone somewhere to die, as she would not otherwise leave her puppies. Then she showed up again and nursed them as attentively as a healthy dog would.

Surendra asked me what to feed her, after she showed no interest in biscuits and only lapped some of the milk from a stew of bread and milk. I suggested some chicken sautéed in butter. He sent for that and she ate.

We got her into a car that evening with difficulty and took her to a veterinarian’s place but he had already left. The next morning a driver who has taken me several places during my stay went to get him. The vet, who may or may not have been competent, took a quick look at Boori and said she needed calcium, an antibiotic and some other medicines. He gave her four injections, which she tolerated. They must have hurt; she had hardly any muscle left, her hip bones and ribs clearly visible under her tawny brown skin. She was a sweet dog, like all the South Asian street dogs I have known. The next morning the “vet” came on his motorbike and administered four more injections, including one to stimulate her appetite, he said.

Vet gives Boori injections while Surendra holds her and Russian guide looks on

I worried that in her weak state, and after his cursory examination, the injections might do her no good—might even push her over the edge—because it was too late.

This morning I went to look for her after breakfast. I went first to the puppies, who could sense my quiet presence and began to tumble out of their pile of puppydom, squealing and searching for mom with their tiny noses. I am sure they are still blind. I walked back toward the entrance and saw her lying on the balcony outside the door of the grandfather’s room. I thought I saw her ribs lift, because I wanted to believe she was breathing.

She was not. I have been sad all day, but in some ways relieved for her. Even if those injections had been beneficial and the chicken kept coming to fatten her—as it did for a couple of days—what was in store for her? More hunger, more puppies she would be too weak to feed? I thought of leaving money to have her spayed but never got that far. And who would want to put such a weak dog through surgery? I wish her peace.

Now they say they will feed the puppies milk from a big round pan, flat like a pie pan. A couple of them lapped at the milk, others kind of waded around in it. They seem far too young to survive without their mother; they need a wet nurse. I am leaving and can’t do much else, aside from the sentimental foreigner’s fond wish that I could take one of them home with me.

Boori’s five puppies

I wonder if I made things worse for that sweet dog by poking my foreigner’s values and will into a situation—a kind of ecosystem—that operates according to its own rules.


Postscript:  One of the five puppies made it.  Her name is Bella.