Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Sex and the Gods

I had heard about the temples of Khujaraho and Konark, where eroticism is mixed with prayers, but I hadn't had an opportunity to visit them so far. So when Dr Mani proposed that we make an early morning trip to Konark temple, I was very happy.

The entrance and the first glimpse of the ruins of the sun temple built around 1250 AD under king Narsimha with a tinge of morning mist was breath-taking.

Pilgrims of all sizes and shapes, were every where reaching there in buses, perhaps stopping at Konark on their way to the more famous Jaggannath temple in Puri.

While the beautiful statues at the initial part of the Konark temple are innocous enough, the main temple building does not leave much doubts about its sexual component with huge erotic sculptures built high up from the ground, around what was the main entrance to the temple. Only if you look carefully you will see a number of smaller erotic sculptures around the big ones.

The sidewalls of the temple has smaller statues at eye level, organised in three panels. Most of the lower panels and middle panels do not have erotic sculptures and have more innocous gods, mythical animals and other figures. Erotic sculptures are mainly in the third level of panels. Dr Mani says that this was done in a way so that children coming to the temple will mainly see non erotic sculptures.

The sculptures are very explicit, depicting graphically the different ways of sexual enjoyment. There is oral sex including "69", there are old looking men and women, there are younger looking men and women, mostly couples but sometimes three figures (one man and two women) are also there together looking for orgasm. Thus almost whatever is described in Kamasutra, is expressed here visually in statues. The statues are very life like with expressions of joy and pleasure. At the same time, I think that the artists were asked to make sure that the sexual nature of the statues must be made very explicit and that can explain the unrealistically large penis in most of the statues, that are likely to give a sense of inadequacy to most of the faithful coming to the temple.

Konark is not just erotic art but is an incredibly beautiful structure. I really liked the three sun god statues, like this one below sitting on a horse.

The whole temple is made like a chariot with twelve wheels, symbolising the twelve months of the year, pulled by seven horses, representing perhaps the seven days of the week (? I am not sure if ancient Indian calendar had weeks). The wheels, the statues, the carvings, everything is exquisite.

Thinking about the sense of shame usually associated with anything to do with sex, I was wondering about the impact of these erotic statues on the common pilgrims and school students. However, my impression was that barring a few men, who did look towards these panels from a distance, most of the pilgrims kept their heads down and took only fleeting glimpses of the erotic sculptures.

Why did those thirteenth century persons make these erotic sculptures in their temples? Was it a period in history when human beings in India had been able to shed off the prude taboos about sex to take a more direct look at life, sex and pleasures? Indian poetry in shringar ras can indeed be very explicit. People worshipping Shiv and Parvati in the form of Shivlings, were they initially more reverential towards the sexual act? Was it something linked to the tantrik marg to realization of God? I don't know the answers to these questions.

While visiting Konark, I had wondered if the statues had also depicted gay or lesbian sex, in terms of understanding the public perception towards these aspects of sexuality in the thirteenth century. Though there was no time to look and analyse each statue (and to be honest, looking at erotic sculptures, after an initial sense of novelty, is a bit monotonous and boring), my conclusion had been that Konark statues are about heterosexual love.

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