India is dotted with many glorious temples, but erotica on the walls of some arouses curiosity and even puzzles tourists. There are various theories about the reason for such vivid depiction of erotica--mass sex education, warding off natural calamities and the devdasi system. Due to the presence of 64 Yogini temples near Khajuraho, Padawali, Konarak/Lingaraj etc., scholars also attribute the erotic art to Tantric practices, which revolve around the ultimate union of the male and the female energy and forms referred to as Maithuna. Whatever the reason be, the brazenness or ethereal beauty of temple erotica will never cease to amaze us.
Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh
Built by the Chandela Kings who were greatly influenced by Tantric traditions, this temple is said to represent the ultimate seductress.
While the fine sandstone statues built earlier have a well rounded finish, the ones made later are more angular. In his history of the Kamasutra, Mc Connachie describes the amorous sculptures as "the apogee of erotic art", where the twisting, broad hipped and high breasted nymphs, fleshy apsaras and extravagantly interlocked maithunas run riot along the surface of stone.
The various scenes of passionate love making, in acrobatic postures that sometimes border on the physically impossible, strike viewers. Look out for the bold panels of multiple partners engaged with each other. For an interesting perspective on Khajuraho, watch the Sound and Light show. The best time to visit is during the Khajuraho Dance Festival in the first week of February.
Markandeshwar Temple, Maharashtra
Near the naxal district of Gadchiroli, the Markandeshwar temple complex, by the River Wainganga, showcases a sprinkling of erotic art. A couple performing ‘fellacio’ will raise eyebrows. Know to be built by danavas (evil forces) in one night, the temple is made from stone, and follows Hemadpanth architecture. The annual fair during Mahashivratri attracts devotees from far and wide every year. Hiring a car from Nagpur is recommended, unless you fancy hitch-hiking with villagers past moonlit fields or changing several buses and autos. If you're stranded, look for the dharamshala near the temple.
Padawali Temple, Madhya Pradesh
In Morena district near the Chambal Valley, once notorious for dacoits, lies the fortress of Padawali. Two stalwart lion statues greet you at its entrance. The temple inside has earned the reputation being a 'Mini Khajuraho' due to the prevalence of erotic art. The difference between big brother Khajuraho and Padawali Temple, is that the erotic art here seems less acrobatic and more ‘real life' and 'doable’. The carvings of maithunas in various positions, ranging from simple to difficult almost brings the Kamasutra to life.
Ranakpur Jain Temples, Rajasthan
This marble temple of superlative beauty is a ‘vision in white’ with its domes, shikharas and turrets. Over 1,444 intricately carved marble pillars hold up the temple and a monolithic marble rock depicting over 100 snakes catches the eye. Look out for a panel depicting several experimental love making scenes, in a line with a central queen-like figure seated on a throne, with an amorous midget on her lap. It's interesting to note that not only Hindus, but even Jains decorated temples with erotic art. It hints at how nudity had a religious connect due to the 'Digambara’ ideology or the Tantric cult.
Sun Temple, Orissa
When I first visited the Sun Temple at Konarak in Orissa, as a giggly 16-year-old , I was taken aback by how the panels revealed way more about the ‘birds and bees’ than our biology classes had taught us. My second visit recently, helped me appreciate the beautiful erotic art better. The brazenness of the sculptures here gives Khajuraho stiff competition; one of the most scandalous panels is of a dog licking a woman’s genital area. I overheard a guide say, "this was considered a cure for sex related infections, as the dog’s saliva has antibiotic properties." Scenes of polygamy, polyandry and lesbian love are blissfully abundant.
An architectural genius, this temple shows the Sun God on a colossal chariot drawn by seven horses. The word Konarak is a combination of Kona (corner) and Arka (Sun). The temple was previously located closer to the sea, but the magnetic properties of its stone caused shipwrecks. This, along with the dark colour of its stones, earned it the tile of 'The Black Pagoda'. An interesting study in contrast is the famous Jagannath Temple at Puri, also referred to as ‘The White Pagoda' due to its whitewashed walls. If you are an art enthusiast you must visit the Konarak Archaeological Museum nearby that contains fallen sculptures from the temple.
Sun Temple, Gujarat
It is believed to be the place where Lord Rama conducted a yagna here to purify himself of the sin of killing a Brahmana-Ravana. Like Konarak, its architecture is such that the temple catches the first rays of the rising sun. The most striking feature of the temple is a perfectly designed Kama Kunda (water tank) meant for ablutions and for a reflection of the temple in the water. It has lateral stone steps leading down to the tank, allowing both direct and diagonal descent from all sides. Carvings of men and women in various acts of sex with small midget like creatures are prominent. However, due to erosion the detailing of the stone carvings is blurred in places.
Amidst the sand dunes of Thar, Osian has a cluster of Hindu and Jain temples dating back to the 11 century AD. The Sachiya Mata temple dedicated to the resident Goddess has a gorgeous carved archway leading up to the shrine and has some beautiful depiction of erotic love locked couples, complete with details like the bed on which the couples lie.
Virupaksha Temple, Karnataka
On the banks of the Tungabhadra River, this temple with beautiful pillars and towered gateways dedicated to Lord Shiva in his avatar as Virupaksha. It is one of the oldest functioning temples since the 7th century AD. A panel that catches the eyes depicts a nude woman being 'admired' by men and women around her. It is best to visit the temple, during the Hampi festival in November. While in the area, also check out the erotic art on the pillars of the Achyutaraya temple.
Several other temples in South India like Belur, Halebidu, Somanathapura and Nugguhalli, the Badami and Banashankari temples of the Chalukya times and the Vijayanagar temples of Bhatkal and Lepakshi also have a profusion of erotic art. The Meenakshi temple of Madurai and Veeraranarayan temple of Gadag have erotic sculptures on their Gopuram. (Information about other temples with erotic art in South India taken from www.kamat.com)
No one has summed up the beauty of erotica on temple walls better than Tagore while he was referring to Konarak, 'The language of man here is defeated by the language of stone.’
Images by Piya Bose and Aadil Desai