India is dotted with glorious paintings and temples but erotica on the walls of arouses curiosity and even puzzles us today. There are various theories about the reason for such vivid depiction of erotica- mass sex education, warding off natural calamities and the devdasi system. With presence of 64 Yogini temples in India, scholars attribute the erotic art to Tantric practices, which revolve around the ultimate union of the male and the female energy. Whatever the reasons are the brazenness or ethereal beauty of erotica in Indian art and architecture will never cease to amaze us.
All important religious sects of the country have presented erotic motifs in their art. The erotic’s sculptures in India are to be found fairly widely distributed but confined to a limited period. We find them on the temples, at Khajuraho, Konark, Puri, Mehsana, Modhera, Koilkuntole, Kurnool, Badami, Shimoga and Halebid. Erotica was not only uninhibited but was cultivated as an art, the knowledge which brought prestige among the cultured citizens and aristocrats. Vatsyayana advocates the study of his Kamasutra to princesses, daughters of ministers, courtesans and to married women with the permission of their husbands.
By 10th century, the depiction of sex in art entered a qualitatively new phase. Erotic motifs were no longer confined to less prominent spaces in temples. All forms of sexual depiction, ranging from the sexual and erotic attitudes of men and women, including gods and goddesses, members of the aristocracy, and ascetics to group sexuality and bestiality were displayed ostentatiously on the exteriors and in the interiors of the temples. Temples became larger and grander with ample space for artistic expression.
Paintings and carvings challenged western ideas of the relationship between spirituality and sexuality. There are many reasons why temples depict erotic art. Most locals however say that the underlying thought is to leave your lust behind before entering the temple, which is probably why these sculptures do not show the Gods and goddesses in intimate moments. On the other hand these sculptures are odes to perfect forms of passion.
Ajanta and Ellora Caves are a wonder in itself; they are the advanced style of Indian rock-cut cave architecture. These elements of sensuality and love indicate the rational thoughts of ancient India. They were not ashamed of portraying the natural process; instead, they gave a new meaning through art. It is definitely mind-blowing to witness such elaborate and grand art at these temples.
Moralities on Indian art began after the Islamic Invasions where the Purdah system was introduced. For the colonial British, Indian art’s obsession with the sensual body always provided a block to the appreciation of Indian art. Indian sculpture was deemed dishonest and contact with it was believed to infect the moral feeling.
But to pre-colonial Indians there was no union of women with temptation but instead with fertility, abundance and prosperity, and there is an open embrace of sexuality as one route to the divine.
For this reason throughout history, the arts of India- visual and literary have over and over again celebrated the beauty of the human body that which is not tainted accessory to be whipped into compliance, but potentially the vehicle of spirituality. The gods were always depicted as superhumanly beautiful, for if the image was not beautiful then the deities could not be convinced to reside in the statue.
The fascination with the beauty of the human body survived waves of invasions, till Islam arrived. In 18th Century, there were clear images of the Emperor Muhammad Shah Rangila, making love with his mistress, it was not the Islamic period that brought the striking break with India’s sensual traditions, instead, that break happened during the colonial period, with the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 19th Century. A movement grew influencing Hindu women to cover themselves up and chastity and modesty were important as the perfect attributes of Hindu womanhood.
Today, there is much embarrassment about the role of erotica in our Indian history. We assume Buddhist monks would disapprove of and avoid sensual images, but the obvious sensuality of the art of Buddhism in Ajanta and other sites across India, is overwhelming. If history and art history have any value beyond entertainment and offering us lessons and examples from the past, it is perhaps, like travel, to free us from the tyranny of our own cultural values and make us aware of how contingent and bound by time, culture and geography so many of our preconceptions actually are.
Sexual depiction in religious art and architecture first served a magico-religious function. The profuse depiction of sex in temple art from A.D. 900 onwards suggests the permeation of Tantric elements into Puranic Hinduism and its influence on all major religions. No one has summed up the beauty of erotica in art and architecture better than Tagore ‘The language of man here is defeated by the language of stone.’