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A weekend in Khajuraho

Khajuraho evoked memories of Discovery Channel documentaries on the land of the Kamasutra, famed for it's ancient temples adorned with erotic sculptures. 

 I found myself on the lone train to Khajuraho from Gwalior, the Udaipur - Khajuraho express, watching the beautiful ravines of the Chambal go by. The plan was to rendezvous with Janish at Mahoba, which is about 60 KM from Khajuraho, spend the night there and proceed next morning. I managed to snag last minute tickets in the 1st class compartment. I was pleasantly surprised to have the entire coupe to myself.

7 episodes of Agents of Shield and countless halts later, I got off at the dusty town of Mahoba. The only reason you might have heard of Mahoba is perhaps for its Paan (Betel) leaves. They dot the road to Khajuraho on either side, and at first appear to be small grape vines covered with tarpaulin. The Mahoba Paan, grown in shade has a characteristic flavor loved by paan lovers all over the world.

After a bumpy ride from the railway station we checked into Raghav Palace; there was nothing palatial about the Raghav Palace, but our room was huge with a queen size and a single bed,  complete with a large flat screen TV and I-kid-you-not, a revolving mini disco light on the ceiling!

Those were the only fun features. The cramped & lousy washroom, no restaurants and appalling service reminded me to not expect much in Mahoba. We ordered some Chicken curry and Roti from a nearby dhaba and a few bottles of Haywards 5000 to gulp it down. 

The drive to our destination took about 3 hours, thanks to the pothole-filled roads. Khajuraho is christened after the abundant Khajur (Date palm) trees that dot the region. Once the cultural hub of a mighty Chandela empire, it fell to ruin for nearly a millennium. Re-discovered by a British surveyor in the 19th Century, it remained a dusty town up until the 1980s.

Then thanks to some Discovery Channel shows over the past decades, Khajuraho now welcomes you with a shiny airport with 2 daily flights from Delhi and Mumbai. Gwalior, by comparison has 2 flights in the entire week! 

Welcome to Khajuraho
Flanking a beautiful lake, the town had cute little cafes and shops lining strikingly clean and well maintained roads. Khajuraho's economy is almost entirely funded by tourists, and town has really taken the phase Atithi Devo Bhavo  to heart! The locals speak fluent European languages and the shops even have billboards in Japanese! Expect to find curio stores, Camel Lights, Ramen and Wood-fired oven pizzas. 

Fortunately, unlike the chaotic tourist hubs in Goa or Paharganj, Khajuraho manages to retain it's old-temple-town charm. The main road has been converted into a silent and no-parking zone. You'll find tourists pedaling around on rented cycles and children cavorting atop colorful camels, all under the shadows of the ancient Chandela temples.

We checked into Hotel Siddhartha, which is bang opposite the western group of temples. It probably has the best view in all of Khajuraho. We got a twin bed A/C room at about Rs. 1500. The room was small and comfy with a clean toilet.

Famished from all the traveling, we went straight to the in-house restaurant - Temple View. You can dine on the ground floor restaurant or on the rooftop. It was pretty warm and sunny that afternoon, we chose the former. The waiter recommended Desi Mutton & Chicken curry with rotis. We also got ourselves some fresh lime soda.

Both the curries were great - hearty sans the spice and oil overload. The meat was beautifully cooked and literally fell off the bone. The best desi food I've had in a long time. However, the star of the show that afternoon was the Fresh Lime Soda. For such a simplistic drink, a nice fresh lime soda with the right balance of tang, sweetness and fizz is surprisingly hard to come by. The concoction at Temple View was so good, we ended up having half of dozen of them by the time we left, next afternoon. 

Lunch over, we wanted to grab some dessert. Temple View only had Gulab Jamuns on the menu. Raja Cafe, next door, was highly recommended on Tripadvisor. We perched ourselves in the lush courtyard and ordered some Lavazza cappuccinos. I spotted Lemon Tarts and Cinnamon rolls on the dessert display and asked for them too. 

Even though buzzing with tourists, Raja cafe has a very relaxed vibe to it; and makes for a perfect place to while away an afternoon over a book and some coffee. The staff told me that it has been here for 30 years and was the first cafe to come up in Khajuraho. Set up by a couple of Swiss sisters, the menu is mainstream cafe fare and they do serve beer. I was a little disappointed not to see Fondue on the menu, it would have made for the perfect Swiss winter brunch.

The Cinnamon roll was dry and tough. The tart's dense lemon curd, bursting with citrus deserved better abode a better than the soggy pastry shell, but was delish enough on its own to enough to call for seconds. 

A short siesta later, we made our way to the temple lawn for the light and sound show. Our recent experience at the Gwalior Fort show had been pretty boring, compensated only by the stunning vistas the towering fort offered. Khajuraho too, sadly continued the trend  - even Amitabh Bachchan's baritone could not liven up the excessively detailed history of Khajuraho, replete with tacky lighting and music. 

Show ever, we decided to take a walk around town. The main market spans only about a kilometre and is filled with beautiful terrace cafes. We settled on Meditarreano, which proudly proclaimed its chef's roman heritage on the front wall. 

After perching ourselves on a rooftop table overlooking the street below, we got ourselves a couple of cold beers and some Pepperoni Pizza. We also asked for a Ham and Bacon Lasagna. 

I spotted our pizza being thrust into the oven and saw it being into transformed in a matter of minutes. I knew then, this was going to be a great pizza. And it was! Paper thin crust, stretchy cheese and perfect tomato sauce.

The Lasagna was nice too, perhaps a little short on the protein. Then again ham and bacon might be hard to come by in Khajuraho. We ended our meal with an Apple Pie and Custard. The apple pie definitely tasted better than it looked with juicy raisins and crunchy walnuts studded in the cinnamony stewed apples. The custard tasted exactly like one of the Polson custard mixes , and the we didn't tarnish the pie with it much. 

Some more strolling around and we chanced upon a wine shop stocking some local wines. I went in looking for wines made from the Mahua tree, which is indigenous to this region, but found Port and Shiraz made from grapes grown in Madhya Pradesh. We picked up one each along with a Sauvignon, out of curiosity. 

Back at the hotel, we climbed up to the rooftop and popped open our catch. The Shiraz and the Sauvignon were surprisingly good. I'm not a wine connoisseur, but I would rate these reds as good as some of the well known Indian brands and low-end imported ones. Feeling a little peckish, we ordered a Chilli Chicken and Mutton Seekh Kebabs; and Temple View restaurant did not disappoint. 

I was pleasantly surprised to find moist and meaty Seekh kebabs, which are hard to come by outside Muslim neighborhoods. These ones were studded with chillis and accompanied by a really fresh green chutney,  dotted with anardana seeds which added a delicious tang and crunch. The only low point of our evening was the Port. It tasted more like cough syrup and we couldn't even force a single gulp down our throats.

We woke up lazily next morning and ambled out for a tour of the temples. The sculptures and engravings are mostly intact and offer a peek into the life of their builders. The temple architecture is pretty typical, but carved on nearly every inch are scenes from the age in which they were built. Nestled between the gods and demons are Khajuraho's claim to fame - depiction of thousand year old foursomes! The most interesting sight was of excited guides explaining the intricacies of chakras and orgasms to squirming Indian families, as they tried to distract their grinning teenage children.

We headed back to our hotel rooftop for lunch. Cold beer provided much needed respite from the hot sun; this time we went for Temple View's continental fare - Mutton Roast and Mutton steak. Neither of them looked like what we expected. The roast was more akin to mutton stew and the steak was just plain mutton cutlet. The buttered veggies that accompanied them were deliciously, but then again isn't buttered-anything always delicious. So my advise is to stick to the Indian food at Temple View restaurant in Hotel Siddhartha, it is delicious.

And so we bid goodbye to Khajuraho. A weekend of ancient temples, cozy cafes and good food - a weekend well spent!


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