Erotic Sculpture of India: Sex and Religion

Erotic Sculpture of India

What is erotic art?

Erotic art is expressive of sexual love and includes heterosexual, homosexual, auto-erotic, group, bestial and non-human expressions. In India, erotic art is especially significant because of its association with religious art, specifically, temple art. The three major religions of India - Hindu, Buddhism and Jaina - all incorporated erotic art into their temple designs. No matter the sect, religion or region, amorous couples were ubiquitous.

How erotic is it?

Consider the spice meter for temple art A.D. 500-1400:

  1. Subdued or moderate eroticism, non-orgiastic.
  2. Highly erotic activity or copulation.
  3. Copulating or love-making couple with assistance from others.
  4. Group sex.
  5. Group orgy.
  6. Many monogamous couples having sex simultaneously.

Same old, same old

Erotic temple art was very much intertwined with social behaviors and, later, the popular arts. Sadly, during this time period, women and men were treated differently socially for the same sexual acts. Women who participated in sex with multiple men were considered promiscuous, whereas men sexually engaged with multiple women were seen as "natural" and "courteous" lovers.

In the beginning, there was menses

"[...] the Earth was believed to menstruate and [during that time] the digging and ploughing of soil was forbidden" (pg 104). Menstrual blood "of different types of women is classified" and named and is considered the "blood of life," symbolizing "rejuvenation and human activity." Vermilion is painted on field stones for "productive energy" (pg 119).

Sex is good magic

Women could gain in fertility by mating with a god symbolically manifested in the form of a dildo, a statue's dildo, a human (in a temple), or an animal ascribed to a god (pg 92). Virgins in particular were often required to mate with a symbolic god in various cultures throughout history. One Vedic agricultural sexual rite included a new king's chief queen having sex with a horse, and the king himself having to lie between the legs of his favorite wife without having sex with her (pg 100). So sex could be procreative magic, and abstaining from sex could be powerful too, since conserving sexual energy gave one a large store of it that could be released through thought alone (pg 102).

Female sex organs exhibited through nudity could be invitational - calling in rain and fertility - and the male phallus was often defensive and protective. Ironically, in many places and times, sex was seen as a way of warding off evil and sin, whereas today, sex is often considered sinful. At many festivals, it was required that the people sing "songs about the sex organs, sexual intercourse and erotic mimicry" or risk the "wrath of the goddess," "ghosts and goblins" (pg 104).

"The peasants in Holland and Germany copulate with their wives in the fields after they have been sown." Planting and harvesting, "in every region of the world and in every age," permits "the most conspicuous examples of general sexual licence [sic]" (pg 90).

Although the author doesn't specifically state it, based on my reading of the material, as we industrialized food and defense, we correspondingly suppressed sexual freedom.

Art is good magic

Erotic temple art across India started as medieval fertility symbols, with sexual depictions being a magico-religious motif, reflecting the "primal connection between sex and religion" (pg 87). No matter the era, all of it appears ritualistic. Over time, as in many other primitive societies, the religious aspect of the motifs in urbanized areas secularized and sensualized into art and sport.

The ancient Indus civilization had fertility cults with phallic stones and rings, figures of Mother Goddess and vegetation goddesses, but sexual acts were not depicted during this time. The first depiction of a sexual act is stylized and appears to be cultic but not sensual.

The use of jewelry and clothes as a prescription "for general well being and appeasement of evil" (pg 110) continued throughout civilization and the decoration of bodies and buildings is ubiquitous in India.

Pick your goddess

One early cult goddess theme is the "opulent" goddess, with large hips exposing her sexual triangle. She is later shown with her male priest, who hands her a cup, probably of wine, and the priest mates with the goddess annually. He may also try to appease her by playing music for her to dance to, and he may have a jar nearby.

Another early cult goddess is the "personified yoni", "nude goddess", or "shameless woman" (pg 12), and she is associated with a bull. She is early Christian era and influenced by the Roman-Egyptian crowd. Her head is usually missing or replaced with a lotus (this could be the subject of a whole interpretive PEdotcom article in itself). She is a fertility symbol to this day, and women rub butter on her yoni for begetting children.

Then there was the goddess of three or five head-ornaments of weaponry. She has transparent apparel, and she represents prosperity and abundance and rich vegetation. She is often coupled with human sacrifice. In some parts of India she has a male consort next to her.

It's difficult to pin goddesses down, so at some point a human surrogate gets involved, so that the priest has someone to mate with at the shrine. When the goddess appears alone, she is often accompanied by the moon and wild beasts.

The art (history) of (temple) sex

In the beginning, the god or goddess had sex with a human surrogate, which led to a regular human having sex with a consecrated human, which eventually led to a regular couple who engaged in public sex on consecrated occasions for fertility rites, and then finally, the entire live act was substituted by the picture.

There were many crude and basic terracotta depictions of amorous couples, sometimes touching each other, or just holding each other, sometimes joined in sexual union. Over time, ritual significance is no longer evident, and some depictions become sensual and secular and are more sophisticated and urban in their artistic approach.

Early Buddhist monuments utilized and incorporated pop art, including couples. The goddess Sri was completely accepted and her image is common on Buddhist buildings along with a human couple. Eventually, these couples start gettin' busy. At first they do little stuff, like touch each other's private areas over their clothes, or tug on each other's clothes, caress their lover's chin, that sort of thing. The basic literary themes and stages for erotic love were embracing, kissing, making nail and teeth marks on each other (seems mostly to be the males leaving marks on the females, there are no citations offered of females marking the males), sex, and exhaustion (pg 192). There is very little temple art that shows the making of nail and teeth marks, but it is described in detail by poets and writers. Couples are usually shown happy and often are holding each other in the "creeper" pose (from the poetic image of the creeper vine clasping a tree) or dancing.

Although sex was represented in literature early on, it took much longer for it to actually appear in temple art. Sculptural art eventually extends beyond simple foreplay and attendants are standing near, holding a partner in place for sex, or holding a mirror for them. The sexual approach, and the idea of sexy, begins to develop, where for instance, a woman is lying stretched out on a bed invitingly as the man regards her with an erection. The feminine ideal is institutionalized as "full bodied, thin waisted;" and detailed to the point of having large thighs, large ass, wide hips, three folds in the thin waist, large breasts and "eyes like those of a frightened fawn" (pg 191). The female in the art depictions is no longer divine, and women of culture and fashion replace the goddess. The motifs turn from ritual and religion to art, and they are found in aristocratic homes. The art also moves from statues and walls to items of daily use like mirror handles and decoration.

Sacred prostitution

Although most fertility rites originally involved a goddess with a male priest and offering, eventually and over time the goddess became a woman, and the woman served the priest, king and men of the community.

"Ritual prostitution [...] served the purpose of removing calamities, epidemics, etc" (pg 90) and was common worldwide. But by the 8th Century, Hindu temples became a place "for men to gratify their sexual urges" (pg 163). The role of the wife/goddess had been a consecrated one, a woman was "dedicated to the temple." In some cultures within India it was fulfilled by young virgins before their marriage (pg 107). Their copulation was with a temple priest or with strangers from the community.

It's hard to know what the experience of this role was like for the women - when a woman is "dedicated" to the temple, who dedicates her? Sometimes she is "purchased" for the temple (pg 161) and kings "imported" foreign women (pg 171). In some cultures every woman in the community was required to have sex at the shrine at least once in her life. Which makes it logical that many instances of ritual prostitution would be coerced and were sacrificial rape.

It is true though that later on, in some temples, the prostitutes were accorded a level of respect on par with royalty that would be quite desirable and rewarding. Sometimes the difference between a temple prostitute and a courtesan were slim, and wealthy priests had regular "relations" with them and built them palaces (pg 160). Temples received "grants" to maintain "courtesans" (pg 161). One poetic temple inscription refers to "beautiful damsels like the fairies of heaven, in whose eyes was Cupid, in whose mouth and waist and other parts were [...] charms" (pg 162). Occasionally, their charms were intentionally used to "lure" princes to the temple or city, let alone the "pilgrims" from out of town (pg 162, 163) who stayed in the temple inns (pg 164). In some areas, the "dancing girls" even acquired their own land ownership, and some became "concubines" to the king (pg 163). In literature, courtesans could be cast as heroines (pg 188).

On the other hand, in some places prostitutes were "looked on as ritually impure and as bearers of unknown power" (pg 101). In general though, the idea is that "man absorbs virtue and youth from woman," and a king wanting "longevity, strength and beauty" would have sex with "slave-girls whom he considered as goddesses" in order to get it (125).

The practice of temple prostitution over time grew to the level of creating whole new buildings and structures and suburbs - a "residence of public women" (pg 161). The prostitutes would dance for the gods, and the temples were covered in sculptural dancing women. Still, it was all part of the system, and the "king used the income derived from temple prostitution for maintaining the army" (pg 155).

Religion imitating art and culture

As India civilized and prospered, leisure created opportunities for pleasure not seen before. Love became an art, and sex became a subject of study. Gatherings were held for discussion. The "rendering of erotic pictures in" poetic verse was extremely popular (pg 185). "Some of the verses are so obscene that a twentieth century translator had to leave them untranslated" (pg 186). Poetry and theatre and love and sex. Court poets often wrote temple inscriptions and praised the royal donor as one "who delighted the eyes of women as a new god of love" (pg 164). Expanding on the king's power and might, the poet continued:

When young women for their usual bath plunged into the water of the Reva, which was clear, but bitter, being mixed with the rutting juice which flowed into it at the bathing of his huge and excellent elephants, they innocently became perfumed with the strong fragrance of copulation as the multitude of waves, dashing against their thighs and hips, surged up and down. (pg 164)

Indeed.

As trade routes increased and India became a hotbed of commerce joining Rome, Iran and China, Buddhist shrines were erected by the merchants and royal patrons, and the donors' names were inscribed. With trade came the influence of Hellenism, and pop art couples started kissing each other and having parties. These scenes transformed when inscribed on temples, substituting wine cups with the sacred lotus, but the corollary between pop art and temple art are undeniable. The word used over and over again is "auspicious", and hopes were all high.

Tales of Buddha's life were invented to explain the motifs on the temple, rather than the other way around (pg 22). In other stupas, the art was representative of the Buddha's life, but was all pre-enlightenment, and focused on his courtly life of luxuries and harems. Eventually, having amorous couples on door jambs and entrances became so normal that even monks could be surrounded by erotic 'good-luck' symbols.

As societies urbanized and become fortified cities with trade and commerce, courtesans emerged, as did written guides like the Kamasutra, the first "systematic work on erotics" written towards the 4th century A.D. (pg 168). "Knowledge" of sex "brought prestige" and the standard canon was the "sixty-four arts of the science of love" (pg 166).

The cultured elite began to engage in sport and entertainment, and the courtesans were versed in all the fine arts. "Even Jainas, whose religious tenets prohibited sex, accepted knowledge of Kamasastra as essential learning" (pg 167). Meanwhile, the more basic and unartistic cultic and ritualistic terracotta remained as part of the lower class, and fine art and royalty continued to reference them.

In addition to courtesans, royalty and court life introduced polygamy, servants and attendants to the temple scenes, both in the railings and pillars, and also on temple paraphernalia. Shortly thereafter, the couples started having sex in both sitting and standing positions.

The "period when the Tantras came to be accepted by the literate class coincides more or less with the period when the representation of the sexual act began to appear on temples" (pg 137). Many Tantrikas were shunned and participated in rites with low caste people. Some of their rites were designed for ignominy, almost as self-effacement. Some extreme sects practiced eating out of human skulls and sacrificing beautiful women to the goddess Chamunda, and were generally shunned and disparaged by society as a whole. Still, popular fascination and the aristocratic embrace brought Tantric principles into sculpture and display. Normally oral sex was forbidden to upper class people, with only lower class people engaging in it. When oral sex is shown on temples it is possible that cunnilingus represents the Tantric rite of "drinking" the "female discharge" and examples of fellatio could be Tantrikas engaging in Tantric rites with lower class women (pg 142).

The original, co-opted magico-religious fertility couples became more and more secularized and erotic, and were shown side by side without abashment next to Buddhist temple art that represented the renunciation of worldly pleasures and preaching the word. The layperson lost authority as a cultural figure, and as feudalism gained power and control, Brahmanical religion and Pauranic Hinduism was favored over Buddhism. Temples became landlords and institutionalized, and also functioned as banks (pg 155). They were often immune from taxes and regulation, while receiving toll and transit dues and other taxes, along with rent; and they gained power financially and politically (pg 158, 159). Temples, therefore, became feudal entities.

Hippie shit

When temples became employers, they began hiring people to work as garland makers, musicians, drummers, goldsmiths and dancing girls "on day and night duties" (pg 155, 159); and they also had free-food programs for scholars and holy men. The temple became a social centre in town, and hosted plays and debates, and the motifs went hand in hand with the popular poets.

The first instances of orgiastic group sex, oral sex, and sex from behind arrived in the art, but this was still the rarity. Otherwise, attendants "excite" one of the partners. If the attendants are dwarfs or women, it is an indicator of a harem, whereas a male attendant indicates a religious ritual (pg 141). Many couples are shown together having sex, and due to architectural precedent, couples are usually shown having sex standing up or in the sleeping pose. And of course, there is lots of smiling, music and dancing.

Family friendly

One repeated scene of 'family life' shows a "child sucking the breast of a woman who is bending forward, and a man is having relations with her from behind" (pg 36).

No Holds Barred: A.D. 900-1400

As the wealthy built more and more temples, and built them bigger and bigger, and the space for the artwork extended, the orgies came full blossom.

Oral sex gets diversified a bit, showing 69 and other poses. Men with erections, stroking themselves, or stroking the breast of a woman while she strokes him, stand together. Human sex chain orgies are shown where "one man excites a woman who mates with another man and he, in turn, excites another woman, and so on" (pg 73). A man comes in to a woman from behind as another man strokes her clit from in front. A man has a huge penis that curls up and over his head and touches against his own ass as he licks it from the front and another man kneeling behind him licks the head. A woman wraps her legs around the neck of a standing man, hanging from his shoulders while he provides cunnilingus, and she gives upside-down fellatio to another man standing in front of her. In one long frieze an extended orgy is shown that includes some people making what is thought to be an elixir or aphrodisiac for sexual activity. Yogic poses are introduced, and couples are copulating while standing on their heads, often helped by attendants, who are themselves sexually excited. On one major temple (Konarak), there are more erotic couples shown than there are deities (pg 45).

There are some bestiality scenes such as a person helping an animal come into a woman from behind as she bends over, a horse entering a man from behind as he bends over, and a woman with one foot on the hind end of a dog-like animal as it licks her from underneath.

Even ascetics are shown sexually, either with other men, with women or in self-fellation (pg 62). Both men and women are shown standing provocatively over phalluses, and women are shown on top (pg 68). The people shown are happy and they are embedded on lotus pedestals "amidst luxuriant foliage" (pg 46).

Interestingly, orgies, bestiality and oral sex are rarely described in erotic literature despite their proliferation in sculptural art.

The hill is crested

A period of regionalism, conservatism and traditionalism eventually institutionalized the culture of India. A competitive air arose in the public and temple art, and it became ossified. "The art of the temple, which is a sacred place, became an exhibition of the charity of the donor and the skill of the artist" (pg 154). Eroticism got canonized. "The participants are not lovers, but partners in some ritual" (pg 57). Eventually artisans and builders included orgies "in allegiance to a convention rather than out of any sensuous or lustful motive" (pg 60). Art and artists became a codified requirement, with even a royal decree that "dancing girls [...] must attend with their best clothes and ornaments and participate in music and dancing [...] even if objections are raised against it by ascetics, old men and learned scholars [...] with a curse on those princes who will not maintain this practice" (pg 155).

The divinities increasingly focus on male gods with female consorts, as opposed to the earlier goddesses with male consorts. The temple in Ambernath inscribed in A.D. 1060 shows Ganesa, Siva and Brahma with "consorts on their laps" (pg 61). Images of warriors with women also begin to arrive en masse. After around 900 A.D., "War and love were the two main themes on which the emotions of the Medieval high society were concentrated" (pg 153). In the 16th century, one king took "twenty thousand courtesans" to war with him (pg 172).

Shame

One recorded instance of nude ceremony involved the temple architect and his sister, who each climbed to the top, and when they saw each other naked, they "through shame jumped down into the tanks close to the temples" (pg 110).

Popular myths concerning sexual temple art

The diversity of the sexual displays is contraindicative of the idealistic theory that the art was meant to show the "divine bliss" and "Non-dual state of the Highest Reality" of "human sexual union" (pg 84). Not only due to the auto-erotic, bestial and other non-male/female unions, but occasionally there are rape scenes as well.

On the opposite spectrum, some people idealistically assert that the art is meant to be on the exterior so that people leave behind such base pleasures and desires when they enter the temple. Although it is true that most of the sexual art is on the exterior of the temples, there are multiple examples of sexual art within temples.

Tantra don't tattle

In "truly Tantric shrines sexual motifs could be depicted, but Tantric sexual rites could not be represented as they were considered esoteric" (pg 37). Tantra is an esoteric religion in that their texts are considered only for the "initiated" (pg 112). Still, because of aristocratic interest, there were popular incorporations of Tantra that did not strictly adhere to the "ideal" or "genuine" Tantra. All three of the major religions of India have been affected by Tantra, though Hinduism provided the most resistance, and additionally Tantra traveled from India to China and apparently affected Taoism. Tantra originated from very old practices, but enters written texts around the 5th Century, became popularized by the 7th Century, and culminated in the 9th Century A.D.

In Tantra, the male and female represent manifested spiritual dichotomies, and the sexual act between a man and woman who think of themselves as god and goddess is a sacred ritual meant to attain "Bliss" (pg 114). What separates the male from your average libertine during sex is the withholding of his semen. Thus enters yoga. The whole point of the yogic ritualized sex is to prevent the man from coming and help his semen to ascend to the "highest centre of the body." The ultimate idea behind Tantric practices is to achieve the "simultaneous immobility of breath, thought and semen." When a Tantrika does come, his semen is considered an offering.

"Very rarely do erotic temple sculptures represent sexo-yogic poses" (pg 115), and in fact, the rites were to be kept private and secret. Punishments were in store for practitioners who indulged in sex for pleasure as opposed to ritual. Still, there were some "mass sexual rituals," practiced at night in "lonely" places, where an equal number of men and women would come together in a circle, the women cast their "bodices" into the center, and the man who received a bodice received the woman who went with it. After much ritual, they had sex (pg 118).

Ritual orgies were held by the Tantric sects of Kaula, Kapalika and Ganapatya.

These rites seem geared towards the male, with the woman being an accessory to his enlightenment. "The Kapalikas' ideal of salvation was to become like Siva and enjoy the pleasures of love with a consort as beautiful as Parvati" (pg 121). Ideas of female beauty are standardized as "youthful, full-breasted, and heavy-hipped" (pg 116). The "female partner" is listed among other makaras such as wine, fish, meat, fried rice, sexual positions and hand-gestures (pg 117). So although the male and female are meant to incorporate the masculine and feminine within their own spirit, and the joining of the male and female creates a complementary divine union, there is still the underlying feeling that it is the female who joins the male in order to make him whole. Perhaps if more women were authoring the historical Tantra texts of research and repute we would see a different presentation, although the lack of female authorities on the subject might very well substantiate my impression anyway.

However, other rites such as Vamachara include the "worship of a living beautiful woman and the practice of secret forms of intercourse where there is no distinction of caste" (pg 121). It doesn't mention if the men doing the worshipping also need to be beautiful.

On the other hand, the Saiva Siddhantins practiced avoiding "the company of women" (pg 121) altogether, along with other austerities.

Mostly though, over time, the sects who practiced restraint or self-abuse declined and the sects who practiced attainment of wine and women expanded, to the point of declaring that there is "no food not to be taken, no woman not to be enjoyed" and "do not be jealous when mendicants desire to have your wives." Buddhist monks who practiced Tantric-Yoga were criticized for the philosophy that their practice permitted them "to inhabit elegant houses and to enjoy wives of merchants obedient to our wills; [...] it allows us to recline on soft beds, and to pass the shining moon-light nights in amorous play with young girls who have sprinkled themselves with powders and who serve us with faith" (pg 123).

"Medieval erotica" describe "Tantric magic" such as achieving "mastery over women," "making oneself attractive" and knowledge of aphrodisiacs ("pills for increasing sexual desire"). "In fact, the spread of religious movements among the Medieval aristocracy often rested on factors which helped them in their polygynous and womanizing activities" (pg 125). The feudal system in general revered the accumulation of women, and the number of "female servants and queens" (pg 148) that each feudal chief held was noted by the King as to his importance in the system.

Erotic Sculpture of India: A socio-cultural study by Devangana Desai

I am very impressed with the documentation this book provides. It began as a Doctoral thesis at University of Bombay, and eventually became a book with reprintings.

Required Tags: 
Community Tags: 
License: 
Standard Progressive