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By Stuart Powell

Hot, hard, old fashioned, sex – in India. Sounds interesting doesn’t it? Nestled away in Madhya Pradesh, North India, is the small town of Khajuraho. It is here, 385 miles east of New Delhi, that the cultured traveller and sex-mad backpacker can both be simultaneously satisfied. The sex on display was certainly hot (it was 38 degrees), quite literally rock hard, and over 1000 years old. Here was the educational field trip of my dreams.
       The erotic temples of Khajuraho have come to be seen as a celebration of love making like no other. Discovered by Western eyes in 1838 by British officer TS Burt who, upon emerging out of the jungle and meeting a giant stone penis, remarked it was all “a little warmer than was absolutely necessary”. Indeed, there are some eyebrow raising carvings here. Not only for the depiction of every conceivable sexual position from 1 to 69 and beyond, but also the incredible artistry which is at once bold and intricate. The temples themselves, spread across the whole town, but with two main groupings in the west and east, look strange and otherworldly. Lacking the iconic quality and clean lines of the Taj Mahal perhaps, but more striking, and a lot more fun.   
       Wobbling around on an ancient bus for five hours to reach Khajuraho from Jhansi (it is not on the train network) explains its relatively quiet atmosphere, especially from April to September. More tourists appear each year as the small airport becomes more popular but rise very early and you can still wander around the temples virtually alone. The main concentration contains eleven temples of varying sizes with subsidiary shrines, a stunning array as each one really is a sight in itself. Matangesvara temple is still in use and it’s well worth witnessing a colourful ceremony in full flow.
       The real surprises though are the less visited temples. A short walk away from the hotels and restaurants (a limited but well-priced choice of both) leads you to the old village. Here solitary temples stand starkly against a vast rural backdrop, and sometimes require quite a trek to reach. It’s worth the effort though as they provide a chance for the quiet contemplation such sublime architecture deserves. In the village, simple homes, a school, and small shops sit quietly – with the odd carving of a woman with unbelievably large breasts thrown in.
       The locals don’t blink an eye at the temples, but they are interested in you. Within one afternoon I had been invited into three homes, given refreshments and had enjoyed a musical performance. There is genuine warmth and friendliness here that contrasts with the mercenary tactics of some in more touristy Delhi or Varanasi. It is pride too – these are their temples and they love that you are seeing them.
     Local enthusiasm for their region can quickly lead to the unexpected. Villagers will helpfully arrange transport (even if it is on the back of a motorbike) to the majesty of the Raneh waterfalls 12 miles into the rural north. Here is perhaps one of the most under-rated sights of the sub-continent; a series of dramatic falls spread across a 5km long canyon surrounded by jungle that is largely off the tourist radar. A mazy array of walkways frequented by more monkeys than visitors provides dazzling up close views, at least until the furry residents run off with your sun glasses. I hadn’t even known such a place existed, proving that as soon as you start touching the fringes of the raw, unpolished India, you can get swept up in the bewildering unpredictability that characterizes the country.
       Of course, a few days around Khajuraho and its environs does deprive you of what you can get in the big Indian cities. There is authenticity in bucket loads, notably with regard to the delicious vegetarian food, but there is a corresponding absence of life’s little luxuries. The nightlife is non-existent, shops are inconsequential and Internet access is present, but patchy. This really is part of the town’s charm though. The illuminated temples, erect and imposing over the small dwellings, seem to have been designed from the start to spark the imagination when there isn’t that much else going on.  
       The villagers will always be happy to keep you company in the evenings too. Walks around the old village and chats with the (remarkably multi-lingual) locals had led to two invitations to dinner to celebrate the birthday of the elephant god Ganesh. The hospitality offered is both startling and deeply humbling. Propose a small gift in thanks, but certainly not money. The consensus in Khajuraho seems to be that talking, eating and watching the stars in the evening is almost certainly the second best way to pass the time till daybreak. They’re probably right too.  
       Travelling in India can feel as if you are skirting around the edge of a great secret. You want to experience the sub-continent to the full, but the assault on the senses, pestering sellers, and fear of being led astray or ripped off can throw up a defensive barrier. Khajuraho offers a key to the secret of India – it helps you put a toe in the water before really making the plunge. The men, women (and animals!) in stone may draw the eye, but it’s the real people that leave you grinning. As the rickety bus carried me away, and the giant phalluses faded into the distance, I was left feeling surprised that it wasn’t actually sex on my mind.