Temple art in India: Masterpieces of art turn into taboos

Evolution over centuries runs into modern orthodoxy


August 3, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Temple art in India: Masterpieces of art turn into taboos

Most of the erotic sculpture sites have become icons of Indian heritage and are amongst the biggest attractions for tourists from world over

For thousands of years, most Indian temples have been embellished with beautiful carvings and sculptures, especially those showcasing intricately sculpted human figures. Although considered an art for centuries, these timeless masterpieces of creativity are running into controversy as a wave of orthodoxy sweeps modern India.

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If taboo in modern Indian society were to be defined in one word, then there is no better candidate than sex, a hush-hush topic discussed only behind closed doors. As parts of the world push the envelope of liberalism, India is turning increasingly conservative. Traditional Indian temple art is a clear example of this process.

‘Erotic sculptures’ as they are called today, adorn many ancient temples around the country, a small glimpse into what the society was like, back in the day. Historians are at pains to explain that it is art, not erotica, even if they display the beauty of human body, especially the female body, in great detail, as many masterpieces of art do.

“It is a retrospective look at these art pieces. These were iconographies, which when the Mughals arrived, they did not recognise it because they had no body of knowledge about it,” says Madhabi Katoch, an art historian from Kangra in Himachal Pradesh. “Hence, they went about destroying the iconography.”

“It was catalogued as ‘erotic sculptures’ by the British,” adds Katoch, “in an attempt to understand the country through their understanding of art history. It is from a Victorian point of view that these are erotic, after being repackaged in their image.”

Focus on fitness, not sex

Ancient Indians had a very different understanding of sex then we do now, says the historian. “These sculptures were created with a different understanding. So, when you use the word erotic sculpture, they have a connotation of titillation. But in reality, they have a connotation of fitness,” Katoch tells Media India Group.

“Their creation was actually reflective of a body of knowledge, which evolved in the Indian subcontinent , which took a lot from philosophy and spirituality,” says Katoch, adding, “these sculptures were a visual representation of that knowledge.”

One of the most productive periods of such temple sculptures can be traced back to the Gupta Empire in the 6th century. There we find the first material that indicates to a thorough process and visual culture supporting our present knowledge of these sculptures being iconographies, informs Katoch.

“The Gupta period had a lot of these visual cultures, in the form of terracotta sculptures and in the written form of palm leaf manuscripts,” says Katoch.

She tells Media India Group, interestingly enough this same era has also been credited with the development of Kama Sutra, written by many different authors but mostly credited to Vatsyayana. It is equivalent of an anthropological text, about social behaviour of different sectors.

In the Victorian era, when the British colonial rulers rediscovered these in various parts like the Khajuraho temples or caves of Ajanta and Ellora, they also found many other religious sculptures with it, which confounded the modern historians because they saw it from the prism of Christianity and Islam.

“The biggest shock to them was how could these ‘erotic’ sculptures, and religious sculptures co-exist. Because by then religious structures of philosophy and thinking had become very narrow and demarcated,” says Katoch, “and specially seen with an ascetic philosophy that was also a very strong tradition in India at this point, which demanded renouncing of all worldly pleasures.”

It had left huge question marks on these ‘erotic’ sculptures and the era that produced them. And yet these were one of the most evocative, and well-defined pieces of visual culture that our ancestors had produced in forms of paintings and in forms of statues that are part of the larger architecture edifices.

In today’s world, most religions see sexual intercourse before marriage, as a sin towards God, including the majority of Indian society.

“If you were to study Ajanta and Ellora, the Virupaksha temple, of the entire Dravidian culture, you will find God being represented, whether Shiva, Vishnu, or any of their various forms as the main perpetuator of the divine love. And those have been represented in very graphic details. It’s like a manual,” adds Katoch.

“Bodily pleasures were seen as way to be one with divinity,” informs Katoch, “and you must understand that these temples were not only for worship. The entire structure was created as a communal space. It was equivalent to today’s malls and plazas, where huge congregations took place. There were marriages, trade and all other types of social events would take place. And after all that, the final pinnacle, the Garbhgriha or the sanctum sanctorum where the idol of the presiding deity is installed, was where the spirituality or your religious rituals would happen.”

The main philosophy behind the sculptures were, that it was a journey, says Katoch. The idea was to show every aspect of human life on the walls of the temples. From the beginning, which started with entering the complex where all the ‘erotic’ iconography was built, to the end, where the Garbhgriha was.

“It was a more honest time,” adds Katoch, “I’m not sure if I can call them liberal, because that would be taking a retrospective look at their values.”

The biggest shock to some though, might not just be the iconographic sculptures, but rather the existence of same sex ‘erotic’ sculptures. “There are many conjoined same sex sculptures, so the question is what kind of social message was being forwarded,” the expert tells Media India Group. “Now it is difficult to say that if same sex couples were legal because legality had a totally different connotation at that time. But definitely there was an understanding, and a recognition of various permutations and combinations in human relations.’’

“So now you can see that there was this widespread acceptance that you can be a prime sexual being and still realise God,” says Katoch, “the sculptures should not be taken as literal representation of basic sexual act but rather a beautifully constructed art, representing the pinnacle of the act of spirituality.”

During the colonial era, the British mounted several expeditions that led to ‘discovery’ of these temples. “At first most of these discoveries were accidental. They were just going on their merry way tearing down old and building new structures is when they stumbled upon these remains,” says the expert.

Misunderstood they may be in today’s India, but most of these sites have become icons of Indian heritage and are amongst the biggest attractions for tourists from across the world, and of course across India to admire the craftsmanship of the yesteryears.



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