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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.

  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.

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