• Email
  • Print

India: The Place of Sex

There is nothing new about India being perceived as a place of great and growing wealth: for much of the pre-colonial period, the West was the eager consumer of the spices, silks, and luxuries of the subcontinent, while India was the prosperous supplier. As early as the reign of Nero, there was such a dramatic drain of Western gold to India that Strabo, the Greek geographer and historian, anxiously asks in a letter what can be done to solve the crisis. One South Indian dynasty even sent an embassy to Rome to discuss the problem of the balance of payments.

You can still get a flavor of the intoxicatingly rich and sophisticated classical India that supplied these luxuries at the once-great port of Mamallapuram on the Coromandal coast. Here massive relief sculptures faced onto the port where, according to a seventh-century poet, “ships rode at anchor, bent to the point of breaking, laden as they were with wealth, with big-trunked elephants, and with mountains of gems of nine varieties.” The reliefs cover one side of a hill: at the right are two huge elephants, trunks swinging; nearby, warrior heroes and meditating sages stand below flights of gods and goddesses, godlings, nymphs, and tree spirits. There is a breezy lightness of touch at work: a flute is playing, there is dancing, and the heavenly apsara fertility spirits and goddesses are whispering fondly to their consorts.

The man who commissioned the sculptures was King Mahendra, a ruler of the Pallava dynasty who reigned from 590 to 630 AD. (The dynasty itself held power between the sixth and the eighth centuries.) Taking the titles Vicitracitta (The Curious Minded) and Mattavilasa (Drunk with Pleasure), Mahendra was an eclectic poet and playwright and an innovative aesthete and sensualist. He wrote two lost treatises on South Indian painting and music, and several plays—one of which, a cynical and sophisticated satirical farce called The Drunken Courtesan, tells the story of an alcoholic worshiper of Shiva and his courtesan-lover who get into an argument with a tipsy Buddhist monk over a drinking bowl left lying in front of a bar. The farce is still regularly performed in the south today.

The same playful mind that can be sensed in Mahendra’s plays can be seen in the dynastic sculptures commissioned a little inland from Mamallapuram, at the Pallava capital of Kanchipuram: here we see the ladies of the court riding on elephants under crimson parasols; messengers arrive breathless at halls packed with courtiers; ambassadors from China sue for peace. Wizened ascetics examine the omens; beaten monarchs flee into exile to escape the arrows of the Pallava chariot-archers; the courtiers feast and the dancing girls celebrate.

This was a world where the frontier between the divine and the human remained porous. Vishnu, Brahma, and especially Shiva turn up intermittently to give advice at the Pallava court and intervene in its battles. Images of the holy family of Lord Shiva echo those of the Pallava dynasty: only the number of arms and heads distinguishes one from the other. Queens, courtesans, and goddesses alike are shown carefree and sensual: bare-breasted, they tease their menfolk, standing on tiptoe to kiss them, hands resting provocatively on their hips.

It is this characteristic mix of courtly sensuality and intense spirituality that is arguably the most striking aspect of South Indian sculpture, as could be seen from last year’s major exhibition of South Indian bronzes at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The art of casting such bronzes seems to have begun in the eighth century in the court of the Pallavas, but it was their nemeses, the imperial Chola kings of Tanjore, who patronized the sculptors that brought the art to perfection. On the completion of their great dynastic temple in Tanjore in 1010, the Cholas donated to their new structure no fewer than sixty bronze images of deities.1

The exhibition, named simply “Chola,” was one of the most sensual shows that the Royal Academy has ever mounted. Exquisitely poised and supple, these abstracted and ritualized bronze deities stand quite silent on their plinths yet with their hands they speak gently to their devotees through the noiseless lingua franca of the gestures—mudras—of South Indian dance: promising blessings and protection and, above all, marriage, fertility, and fecundity. In Western art, few sculptors—except perhaps Donatello or Rodin—have achieved this essence of sensuality so spectacularly evoked by the Pallava and Chola bronze sculptures, or have conveyed such a sense of celebration of the divine beauty of the human body. The near-naked bodies of the gods and saints are sculpted with a startling clarity and purity; yet by the simplest and most modest of devices the sculptors highlight their joys and pleasures, and their appreciation of each other’s beauty.

There is something wonderfully frank and direct about these gods who embody human desire. Lord Shiva reaches out and fondly touches the breast of his consort, Uma-Parvati, a characteristically restrained Chola way of hinting at the immense erotic powers of a god who embodies male fertility. Elsewhere, Hindu sculpture can often be explicitly and unembarrassedly erotic, as can much classical Hindu poetry: Kalidasa’s poem The Birth of Kumara has an entire canto of ninety-one verses entitled “The Description of Uma’s Pleasure,” which describes in graphic detail the lovemaking of the divine couple. The same is true of much of the secular poetry of the period:

Her arms have the beauty

Of a gently moving bamboo.

Her eyes are full of peace.

She is faraway,

Her place not easy to reach.

My heart is frantic

With haste

A ploughman with a single ox

On land all wet

And ready for seed.2

But with the art of the Cholas the sexual nature of the gods is strongly implied rather than directly stated— in the extraordinary swinging, dancing rhythm of these eternally still figures with their curving torsos and slender arms. This is not just a modern reading: contemporary devotees from the Chola period who viewed images of the gods enraptured by their consorts’ beauty have left graffiti asking the deities to transfer the sensual ecstasy they experience to their followers.

There is reason to believe that some of the images of goddesses were modeled on actual Chola queens, and physical grace and sexual prowess seem to have been regarded among the Cholas not as private matters but as vital and admired attributes in a ruler. When the dynasty was first established in Tanjore in 862 AD, the official declaration compared the conquest of the town to the Chola monarch’s love-sport:

He, the light of the Solar race, took possession [of the town]… just as he would seize by the hand his own wife who had beautiful eyes, graceful curls, a cloth covering her body, in order to sport with her.

As this inscription indicates, sexuality in India has traditionally been regarded as a subject of legitimate and sophisticated inquiry. It was looked upon as an essential part of the study of aesthetics: srngararasa—the erotic rasa, or flavor—being one of the nine rasas comprising the Hindu aesthetic system. If the Judeo-Christian tradition begins its myth of origin with the creation of light, the oldest scriptures of the Hindu tradition, collected in the Rig Veda, begins with the creation of kama—sexual desire: in the beginning was desire, and desire was with God, and desire was God. In the Hindu scheme of things, the gratification of kama remains one of the three fundamental goals of human existence, along with dharma—duty or religion —and artha, the creation of wealth.

The explicitly erotic sculptures that fill the walls of temples such as Khajuraho and Konarak in central and eastern India, as well as the long Indian literary tradition of erotic devotional poetry, may be read at one level as metaphors for the longing of the soul for the divine, and of the devotee for God. Yet such poems and sculptures are also clearly a frank expression of pleasure in life and love and sex. In pre-colonial India the devotional, the metaphysical, and the sexual were not seen as being in any way opposed; on the contrary the three were closely linked. As the twentieth-century poet and translator A.K. Ramanujan put it:

South Indian devotional poetry was permeated by erotic themes and images…. God appears frequently as a lover… [representing the] literary linkage between mystical devotion and erotic discourse…. Devotees… sing to [their god] with all the emotional and sensual intensity that so clearly characterizes the inner world of medieval South Indian Hinduism.3

Daud Ali’s recent Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Mediaeval India maintains, moreover, that the erotic was a central element in plays and books of manners as well. Erotic love, he writes,

was also indisputably the key theme of the vast literary corpus that has come down to us in Sanskrit. It formed the central topic of every single court drama, save one, that has survived from the fourth to the seventh centuries.4

Classical India developed a refined and tutored sophistication about the finer points of sexuality, famously so in the Kamasutra, the principal work on love in Sanskrit literature. It has never been equaled; yet there has always been a strong tension in Hinduism between the ascetic and the sensual. The poet Bhartrihari, who probably lived in the third century AD, around the time of the composition of the Kamasutra, oscillated no less than seven times between the rigors of the monastic life and the abandon of the sensualist. “There are two paths,” he wrote. “The sages’ religious-devotion, which is lovely because it overflows with the nectarous waters of the knowledge of truth,” and “the lusty undertaking of touching with one’s palm that hidden part in the firm laps of lovely-limbed women, loving women with great expanses of breasts and thighs.”

Tell us decisively which we ought to attend upon,” he asks in the Shringarashataka. “The sloping sides of wilderness mountains? Or the buttocks of women abounding in passion?”

If poets have long been engaging with the erotic in Ancient India, historians of South Asia have until recently tended to avoid confronting this elephant in the classical Indian living room. The first scholarly edition of the Kamasutra appeared only in 2002. This was the work of the great American Sanskritist Wendy Doniger, and it brought into print a serious study of a book that had for a long time been found only on top shelves, in dubious and grubby illustrated editions.

Doniger’s Kamasutra proved to be a revelation, showing that the text was central to understanding classical Indian society. The Kamasutra was not just about acrobatic sexual positions as many had assumed; it was instead a sophisticated guide for the courtly paramour to the maze of ancient Indian social relationships and, as Doniger put it,

the art of living—about finding a partner, maintaining power in a marriage, committing adultery, living as or with a courtesan, using drugs—and also about the positions in sexual intercourse.

Indeed, on the subject of sexual technique the book recognizes the limitations of textbooks: “slapping and moaning are no matter for lists or tables of contents,” we are told. “For when the wheel of sexual ecstasy is in full motion, there is no textbook at all, and no order.”

Compiled from a variety of previous manuals by an old roué named Vatsyayana, around the third century AD, and probably in Pataliputra, the great city on the Ganges near modern Patna, the Kamasutra was aimed at an urbane and cosmopolitan courtly class, and was intended as a guide to the life, sensibility, moods, and experience of pleasure, “not merely sexual,” writes Doniger, “but more broadly sensual—music, good food, perfume, and so forth.”

Recently, the Kamasutra has been the subject of an elegant and stylish nonacademic study by James McConnachie. His Book of Love not only tells the story of how and where the book came to be compiled, but paints an enticing picture of the society in which it was written, and follows the fate of the book from classical India through its translation by the Victorian explorer Richard Burton to the present.

As McConnachie makes clear, the Kamasutra was in many ways an act of resistance against the growing tide of Hindu and Buddhist ascetic puritanism that was beginning to question the libertine lifestyle of the third-century nagarikas—or young men about town—at whom the text was aimed. These polygamous and hedonistic nagarikas sound a little like characters from a classical Indian version of Sex and the City. They “incline to the ways of the world and regard playing as their only concern,” writes Vatsyayana. Such a man, he writes, chooses to live in a city “where there are smart people” or “wherever he has to stay to make a living.” He sets up the perfect home, “in a house near water, with an orchard, separate servants quarters, and two bedrooms.” One is for sleeping. The other is devoted entirely to sex. Inside he keeps his vina to strum, implements for drawing, a book, garlands of flowers, a board for dice, and cages of pet birds. His bed should be “low in the middle and very soft, with pillows on both sides and a white top sheet.” His orchard should have a sturdy swing.

In the early evening the nagarika should attend a courtesan’s salon, to discuss art, poetry, and women. Later he should visit a musical soiree before returning home to await his lover. If she arrives wet from the monsoon rain he should courteously help her change, before retiring to the frescoed bedchamber which has been festooned with flowers and made fragrant with incense. Dancers and singers will amuse the lovers as they chat and flirt. Only then are the musicians sent away—and the lovemaking begins.

The book goes on to list the sixty-four kama-kalas, or methods of lovemaking, for which the book has become famous. Mastery of these techniques was regarded as an essential accomplishment for a nagarika, and if a man lacks them “he is not very well respected in conversations in the assembly of learned men.” As McConnachie points out, in Vatsyayana’s world, “the kama-kalas are not just tools for successful love making, then; they lie at the heart of what constitutes an educated man.”

Vatsyayana opens the book by acknowledging that many believe “people should not indulge in pleasures, for they are an obstacle to both religion and power…. Many fall into the thrall of desire and are destroyed.” But then he adds that sexuality is something which cannot easily be legislated:

For people joined in sexual ecstasy,

Passion is what make things happen…

For just as a horse in full gallop,

Blinded by the energy of his own speed,

Pays no attention to any post

Or hole or ditch in his path,

So two lovers blinded by sexual passion

In the friction of sexual battle,

Are caught up in their fierce energy

And pay no attention to danger.

If the Kamasutra has traditionally been India’s most famous erotic export, then in recent years “Tantric sex” has not been far behind it. Yet according David Gordon White, author of Kiss of the Yogini: “Tantric Sex” in Its South Asian Contexts, what passes for Tantric sexuality in the West has almost no connection with its original inspiration in medieval India.

According to White, by “presenting the entire history of Tantra as a unified, monolithic ‘cult of ecstasy’ and assuming that all that has smacked of eroticism in Indian culture is by definition Tantric,” Western peddlers of New Age Tantra are guilty of distorting and appropriating the original rituals by bringing together “erotic art, techniques of massage, Ayurveda, and yoga into a single invented tradition…. New Age Tantra is to medieval Tantra what finger painting is to fine art.”

White’s thesis is that the ideas behind common Western conceptions of Tantric sex—that sexual passion can be harnessed for cultivating a state of ecstatic consciousness similar to the bliss experienced in orgasm—have some connection with late Kashmiri writings on the subject; but they have very little connection with the central Tantric corpus of writings, which date from the seventh century, and which are quite different and much more darkly cultic in tone.

At the root of Tantra lies the idea of reaching God through opposition to the polite and fashionable conventions of the sort embraced by Vatsyayana’s nagarikas. Whereas caste Hindus believed that purity and good living were safeguarded by avoiding meat and alcohol, by keeping away from unclean places like cremation grounds and avoiding polluting substances such as bodily fluids, Tantrics believed that one path to salvation lies in inverting these strictures. In this way they sexualized religious ritual through the oral ingestion of sexual fluids that were believed to give the devotee access to the goddess’s supernatural and occult powers, so giving the initiate victory over all worldly enemies. The elaborate scenes of group and oral sex displayed on the walls of the temples erected by the Chandela Rajputs at Khajaraho may well illustrate such rituals.

Tantric devotees took their lead in these matters from the great Tantric goddesses Kali, Tara, and Bhairavi, dark-skinned, untamable, and hag-like divinities who are adorned with garlands of human skulls and attended by jackals, furies, and ghosts. These are fierce and willfully heterodox goddesses who cut off their own heads, who are offered blood sacrifices by their devotees, and who have sex with corpses while pulling the tongue of a demon or straddling the dead as they sit on a burning cremation pyre. Such goddesses—embodying all that would normally be considered outrageous or even repulsive—are anti-models that challenge ideas about how the world should be ordered and violate approved social values and customs— “going up the down-current,” as one modern Bengali Tantric once explained it to me.

Esoteric Tantric rituals and practices —or sadhana—were always the closely guarded secrets of a small group of initiates. But—certainly in their modern form among the Bauls of Bengal who still practice similar rites—they involve elaborate, ritualized sex, sometimes with menstruating women, combined with the ingestion of a drink compounded of semen, blood, and bodily fluids, so flouting and subverting a whole range of established orthodoxies and taboos.

The earliest Tantric rites apparently involved blood sacrifice on cremation grounds as a means of feeding a series of terrifying Tantric deities. Later there was a change of emphasis “toward a type of erotico-mystical practice” involving congress with the Yoginis, a group of powerful and predatory female divinities “located at a shifting threshold between the divine and the demonic.” Yoginis, we are told, demanded that they be worshiped and fed with offerings of sexual emissions, as well as human and animal sacrifice. Once summoned by appropriate mantras, the Yoginis would incarnate themselves within female devotees with whom male practitioners then sexually interacted.

Some scholars have accused White of an overliteral interpretation of his sources, but his work is at least a corrective to the tendency among prudish right-wing Hindu reformers to deny that Tantra has any connection with sexuality at all. What is certainly true, as White points out, is that the early Tantric texts make no reference to pleasure, bliss, or ecstasy: the sexual intercourse involved in the rites was not an end in itself so much as a means of generating the sexual fluids whose consumption lay at the heart of these wild Tantric rituals.

This original, demon-propitiating Tantric sex clearly stands at an unimaginable distance from the cozy modern world of Western Tantra fads, with their celebration of aromatherapy and coitus reservatus, described by the French writer Michel Houellebecq as “a combination of bumping and grinding, fuzzy spirituality, and extreme egotism.”

According to White, what he calls the “hard core” medieval Tantric tradition nearly died in India around the thirteenth century, probably as a result of the Islamic invasions that broke up many of the traditional guru–disciple relationships through which Tantric secrets were passed.

Islam brought with it to India a very different attitude toward sexuality, which was much closer to Eastern Christian notions—the environment in which so many early Islamic attitudes developed—and which divided the mind from the body, and the sensual from the metaphysical. Like much early Christian thought, Islam emphasized the sinfulness of the flesh, the dangers of sexuality, and, in extreme cases, the idealization of sexual renunciation and virginity. In Iranian literature, love is usually portrayed as a hazardous, painful, and dangerous condition: in the great Persian epic Layla and Majnun, Majnun is driven mad by his love for Layla, and ends up dying wasted, starving, and insane.

Yet, remarkably, Islamic rule did not disturb the long Indian tradition of erotic writing. The Kamasutra survived and in time even helped to convert to the life of pleasure India’s initially puritanical Muslim rulers. Between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries many of the classics of Hindu writing on the erotic were translated into Persian for the use of the princes and princesses of Indian Muslim courts. At the same time there was an explosion of unrestrainedly sensual art and literary experimentation. This was the age of the great poet-courtesans: in Delhi, during the late eighteenth century, the courtesan Ad Begum would turn up stark naked at parties, but so cleverly painted that no one would notice:

She decorates her legs with beautiful drawings in the style of pyjamas instead of actually wearing them; in place of the cuffs she draws flowers in ink exactly as is found in the finest cloth of Rum.

At this period, too, a new specialist vocabulary of Urdu words and metaphors developed to express the poets’ desires: the beloved’s arms were likened to lotus stalks, her thighs to banana stems, her plaited hair to the Ganges, and her rumauli—a word that was coined to describe the faint line of down that runs down the center of a woman’s stomach, just below her navel—to the River Godavari. In this spirit, the Lucknavi Muslim poet Shauq (1783–1871) wrote a series of masnawis—or rhymed couplets—on amorous subjects entitled Fareb-i-Ishq, or The Wiles of Love. At the same time Islamic weavers struggled to produce not the heavy burkhas now worn by their Wahhabi-influenced successors, but ever more transparent and revealing cholis, or blouses, with weaves of wondrous lightness named baft hawa (woven air), ab-e-rawan (running water), and shabnam (evening dew).

Similar concerns inspired the ateliers of the miniaturists. In eighteenth-century Delhi one of the later Mughal emperors, Muhammad Shah II, commissioned miniatures of himself making love to his mistress, while further south in Hyderabad the artists were producing miniatures that tapped into the old erotic pulse of pre-Islamic Indian art, and that were concerned above all with the Arcadia of the scented pleasure garden. Here courtesans as voluptuous as the nude apsarases—the beautiful, heavenly sprites of ancient Pallavan stone sculpture— attend bejeweled princes. Such images would be unthinkable anywhere else in the Islamic world.

Significantly, it was also in the less comprehensively Islamicized courts of the Deccan sultanates in south-central India that much of the work of translation took place. Here also Indian Muslim authors added new studies to the erotic shelves of the palace libraries, such as the Lazat al-Nissa (Delights of Women) and the Tadhkirat al-Shahawat (Book of Aphrodisiacs), both of which were much read and copied.

A wonderful book on the Muslim court culture of the Deccan—Ali Akbar Husain’s Scent in the Islamic Garden5—describes how the Deccani Islamic courts produced texts that advised on how to plant a pleasure garden with erotically stimulating plants, as an aid to seduction, or even how to “charge” a palace bedroom with scents appropriate to prolonging and heightening sexual pleasure. As well as placing bouquets of tuberoses and other strongly scented flowers at varying heights in the room, the writer suggests burning varieties of citron-and- jasmine-derived incense, placing bouquets in glass bowls beside the bed, and lifting the bedspread so that the sheets can absorb the fragrance, which will be “enticing, invigorating, and pleasure giving.” The massage oils and scented candles of the Body Shop seem decidedly clumsy in comparison.

It was not, therefore, during the Islamic period that the dramatic break with India’s erotic traditions occurred; instead that change took place during the colonial period with the arrival of evangelical Christian missionaries in the mid-nineteenth century. Responding to the evangelical diatribes about “Hindoo immorality,” a new generation of British-educated Hindu reformers began critically to reexamine their own traditions. A movement arose advocating the banning of courtesans, and chastity and modesty were elevated as the ideal attributes of Hindu womanhood.

Today, there is much embarrassment and denial about both the role of the erotic in pre-modern Hinduism and India’s history of sexual sophistication. When asked to come up with a response to the growing Indian AIDS crisis a few years ago, the health minister of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party proclaimed that “India’s native traditions of chastity and fidelity were more effective than the use of condoms.”

Now, however, there are signs of change. If surveys of sexual attitudes in Indian magazines are anything to go by, sexual mores are beginning to free up in modern India, and not just in the big cities: everywhere, it seems, the sari is beginning to slip. And what did the Indian marketing men come up with when asked to launch an Indian brand of condoms aimed at servicing this growing sexual revolution? The answer, perhaps inevitably, was Kama Sutra.

  1. 1

    Vidya Dehejia’s catalog is beautifully illustrated, and she contributes an important essay on the bronzes, “Beauty and the Body of God.

  2. 2

    Much of the erotic poetry of the period is extremely beautiful, and has become available in a variety of excellent translations. The first to be published, and in many ways still the best, are the various translations from classical Tamil poetry produced by the late A.K. Ramanujan in the Sixties and Seventies. A modern poet of distinction, Ramanujan translated several volumes of classical Indian love poetry that read beautifully in English while preserving the structural integrity of the Sanskrit or Tamil originals. His Poems of Love and War (Columbia University Press, 1985) and The Interior Landscape (Indiana University Press, 1967) bring together his finest translations. Two recent collections are Martha Ann Selby’s Grow Long, Blessed Night: Love Poems from Classical India (Oxford University Press, 2000) and Andrew Schelling’s The Cane Groves of the Narmada River: Erotic Poems from Old India (City Lights Books, 1998). (I briefly draw here and elsewhere on my commentary in the London Times of October 19, 2007.)

  3. 3

    From the introduction to a wonderful set of medieval courtesan poems translated by A.K. Ramanujan, Velcheru Narayana Rao, and David Shulman, When God Is a Customer: Telugu Courtesan Songs by Ksetrayya and Others (University of California Press, 1994), p. 9.

  4. 4

    Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 209.

  5. 5

    Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2000.

  • Email
  • Print