KHAJURAHO, Madhya Pradesh — Arriving at the Agra train station for our train ride to Jhansi, our tour group witnessed a bustling crowd: families, commuters, tourists, vendors, monkeys, and dogs. The station had all the amenities of a Western train or subway station as well as some unique features. For those that are on long journeys, open wash stations are available on the platforms. Despite the overarching walkways, most people simply walked across the tracks to get to different platforms.
After the ticketing agent booted the people that were sitting in our assigned seats, I read the newspaper for most of the two-hour journey. The countryside bore a striking similarity to western North Dakota.
Previously, train passengers were not permitted to use the train bathroom while the train was at the station because the toilets opened directly onto the train tracks. However, Indian Railways undertook a massive project that has added 125,000 bio-toilets to the trains. Nonetheless, we took the cue from the rest of the train crowd and waited to go to the bathroom while the train was moving.
After we arrived in Jhansi — at one time a bastion of the royal Chandela dynasty, our new driver and assistant picked us up and brought us to a local restaurant. Upon leaving, we saw a newly wedded bride and groom, and immediately, Som recognized that it was a love marriage. In arranged marriages, Som told us that this time after the marriage is extremely emotional as the bride is leaving the family “forever” and moving in with the husband’s family. This bride was just lazily scrolling on her phone.
We embarked on what was supposed to be a five-hour drive to Khajuraho. We arrived in four, an astounding feat on an under-construction Indian highway. Our driver was the most aggressive and risk-taking driver that I have ever seen. Our bus spent more time in the oncoming lane than it did in the proper lane. Watching oncoming traffic (cars, motorcycles, buses, scooters, tuk tuks) flying full speed at us made our heart rates skyrocket. When we finally arrived, we could hardly believe that we were in one piece.
The next morning, we took the short walk from our hotel to the temple site. According to our Overseas Adventure Travel handbook, “Although remote and very quiet today, in the tenth century Khajuraho was the center of the thriving civilization of the Chandelas.” The Chandela Dynasty built eighty-five temples between the ninth and tenth centuries, but Muslim invaders such as Sikander Lodi destroyed most of them. While Khajuraho is known for its erotic sculptures, they are just a small portion of the numerous sculptures that depict daily Chandela life. Our fellow travelers who had visited Angkor Wat in Cambodia said Khajuraho with its significant number of intricate carvings rivalled it.
After exploring several of the temples and returning to the hotel, Som suddenly appeared with three bikes. Two of the younger travelers and I took the bikes out for a thirty minute spin on the local roads and practiced ringing the bike bells incessantly to better fit in with the local traffic. The local Indians looked astounded as we passed by.
After our bicycle adventure, we departed to the airport. Our tour group and a couple other tours were the only people at the massive, contemporary airport. With only one flight a day, Som said that the deal for the airport was shady.
Rural India shatters Western preconceptions of India as solely containing overcrowded villages and cities. Expansive farm fields and tiny villages displayed a side of India completely different from Delhi’s organized chaos. India’s rich history remains an integral part of the conception of India, but contemporary aspects have been selectively added. For example, it is not surprising for a farmer plowing fields with oxen to take out a smart phone and send an instant message over WhatsApp.
We then departed for one of the holiest cities of Hinduism. Next stop: Varanasi.