Erotic Sculpture of IndiaA Socio Cultural Study

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Item Code: IAB80
Author: Devangana Desai
Language: English
Edition: 1986
ISBN: 8121500184
Pages: 287 (157 bw ills., and 26 line drawings. Sec. Revised edition.)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.5" x 11.0"
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Book Description
About the Book

Erotic sculpture around places of worship of any society would require an explanation. Its unignorable presence outside Hindu temples when the religion itself has been known for its other-worldly ideals and spiritual aspirations has both astonished and puzzled visitors. The Brahmin panda (guide) accompanying the inquisitive tourist sites like Bhubaneswar or Konarak as well as the scholar. Hindu steeped in a less free later day morality find the anomaly embarrassing and proffer idealistic explanations in which sexual expression is interpreted either as the symbolic representation of Eternal Bliss or as the overt manifestation of Kama, the third purusartha. Such explanations fail to account for themes like orgies and bestiality and the vast upsurge in sexual depiction in sculpture between AD 900 and 1400.

What is the rationale of erotic depictions in religious art? What is their thematic content? Is erotic sculpture confined to temples or particular religious cults? Could esoteric Tantrikas display their own secret practices? This inquiry is concerned as much with the question of religious sanction as with the sociological factors generating the permissive atmosphere and mood for the depiction of sexual motifs. The proliferation of feudal chiefs and rulers, their interest in temple- building, the feudalization of temple institution and its growing wealth and power, the degeneration of the devadasi (sacred, prostitution) system are found to be some of the medieval developments responsible for the profuse display of eroticism. Eroticism in sculpture is compared with the dominant themes in the other modes of art prevalent during the period. The present study examines practically the entire corpus of the empirical material on erotic motives and action over the period from the third century BC to the fifteenth century AD. In the course of the examination the author brings to light a wide variety of themes in the erotic sculpture of India.

The illustrations represent prominently the lesser known sites like Bavka, Modhera, Bagali, etc., along with familiar sites like Khajuraho, Konarak and Bhubaneswar and are not merely illustrative: they throw up questions for examination to begin with, an serve also as supporting evidence for the argument advanced. In the present edition the bibliography is upto dated and new illustrations added with notes.


About the Author

Dr. Devangana Desai was born in 1937 in Bombay. An academic training both in Philosophy and Sociology roused in her a keen interest in the Sociology of Art and Religion. Her Ph.D. dissertation submitted in 1970 to the University of Bombay forms the basis of the present book. She has to her credit a large number of papers on Ancient Indian Terracottas, Temple Art and Architecture, and Ramayana scenes in Indian sculpture. Dr. Desai was awarded the Silver Medal of the Asiatic Society of Bombay (1977) for her contribution to oriental research. She received the Homi Bhabha Fellowship in 1978-1980 and worked on "Narration in Indian Sculpture (upto AD 1300)". She has participated in several national and international seminars of Art History including the "Discourses on Siva" Symposium convened by the University of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia in 1981, and the "Destiny of Man" Seminar held during the Festival of India in Britain in 1982.

She was awarded the prestigious Dadabhai Naoroji Memorial Prize in 1983 for her research in Indian Art. Dr. Desai is the Editor of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bombay and Chairman of the Museum Society of Bombay.



In its original version this book came to me in the form of a dissertation for adjudication for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of the University of Bombay. I could see at a casual first reading of the voluminous typescript and a scrutiny of the supporting evidence of hundreds of photographs, that here was a solid piece of research which for the first time attempted to present a balanced and analytical, historical and sociological perspective on a much publicized, discussed and debated but, nevertheless, much misunderstood theme. Later, as I read it through more carefully I felt increasingly convinced that a better, more critical, objective and exhaustive treatment and presentation of the subject had not yet been made; at any rate it had not yet come to .my notice. Without hesitation, therefore, I recommended the dissertation for acceptance for the award of the doctoral degree and for its publication after a certain amount of pruning and editing.

Dr. Devangana Desai, the author, has done this pruning and editing as competently as she had done the original writing, and the book is now ready for release from press. She wanted me to write a Foreword by way of introducing the book to its readers. I agreed with pleasure, not so much to introduce the book or its author since the book itself carried, I was sure, the best introduction to both, as to record my deep appreciation of the study she had made.

The book purport to be a study of practically the entire corpus of the empirical material of erotic motive and action and their significance as provided by the art and archaeology of what is usually called ancient India. This material has been studied, first descriptively and then critically and analytically, along the arrow line of time, the emphasis being on the period between A.D. 500 and 1400. The analysis has involved classification and sub-classification of erotic situations as actually manifested in art: explanation of each situation and its classification with the help of references to literary texts and their correlation with the social and religious milieu which sustained the various types, forms and situations; their geographical and chronological distribution; and significantly, their cult affiliations, among other things. Evidently a great deal of field and library work, critical and analytical study of the material itself, as much as of the sociology of religion and art, of psychology in general, and sex-psychology and practices in particular, and an amazing vitality and alertness of intellectual effort have gone into the making of this book. But all this has given the author good dividends. She has been able to formulate a set of interesting hypotheses which should provide, for the first time, a clear and comprehensive guide-line for any serious study of this fascinating and intriguing aspect of Indian art, life and general culture. It should be, to my mind, the best reference book on the subject for years to come. I could not commend the book in stronger terms.

This certainly does not mean that the treatise has answered all the questions which may yet disturb a serious student of the subject. For such questions further analytical study and investigation would, of course, be called for. But I have no hesitation in saying that this book has laid the basis for all future studies in this regard, and that the method of inquiry adopted in this book should be valid for further investigation on the subjects.



Medieval Hindu Temple all over India are replete with sexual motifs. Not only renowned temples like those of Khajuraho, Konarak and Bhubaneswar, but also temples of lesser known sites have portrayals of erotic figures. Sexual representation is not limited to two or three places but is seen all over India in the period A.D. 900-1400. It is so profuse andjon some temples, so blatant and obtrusive, that it could have hardly escaped the eyes of devotees and pilgrims. It seems to present a glaring contrast to the goals and ideals of Hindu culture which is generally characterized as spiritual, otherworldly, rationalizing and extravagant in its ethos. The phenomenon appears, at first sight, to be a paradox, a contradiction between avowed cultural goals and the content of art. A pertinent question asked by all interested in the subject is that if sex were considered a distraction and hindrance to self-realization in the highest thought and wisdom of our culture, why was it so flagrantly depicted on its religious buildings? Why it is that temple-sculpture does not reflect the religious ideology expounded in the Upanisads and the Gita?

Sex in the religious art of Indian culture presents an interesting problem to students of society and culture. Such widespread and riotous sexual depiction throughout India could not obviously be the creation of the whims and caprices of a few individuals but must be the reflection of the social reality of the period. Its spread and variety could not have been fortuitous, bearing no relevance to the socio-cultural background. A sociological study of sexual representation in Indian religious art is undertaken here to understand and explain the socio-cultural forces behind the seemingly anomalous situation.

What strikes us as a contradiction probably did not appear so to Medieval Indians. The Silpasastras, Vastusastras and other authoritative texts embodying rules of sculpture and architecture, written after the Gupta period, refer to the portrayal of erotic figures on doors and other architectural parts of religious monuments, but none of them saw in this a contradiction with cultural values. None of the Sanskrit writers, theoreticians, philosophers and thinkers have even bothered to mention the issue. Writers like Krisna Misra, Ksemendra, Bilhana, Kalhana, etc., who have shed light on the social reality of their times, are totally silent about erotic display on temples. Ksemendra in the 11th century could find fault with Kalidasa's erotic descriptions in the Kumdrasambhava on grounds of auchitya (propriety). But his critical judgement did not encompass erotic art on temples. The same can be said of Krisna Misra, the court poet of the Chandellas in the 11th century, who has written an anti-sex play, which was staged at Mahoba, about 50 miles away from Khajuraho. Bilhana, who was a widely travelled11 the century "intellectual" must have seen the temples of Kashmir, Dahala (Central India), Gujarat and the Deccan. But he too does not refer to their erotic figures. Of course, he proudly describes in his Vikramdnkadeoacharita (XVIII, 11, 23) the voluptuous devadasis of the temples of Kashmir. What does this indifferent attitude to erotic sculptures by the critical and astute observers of the period indicate? Does it not suggest that the depiction of sex was so widely accepted in the socio-cultural setting of the period that it did not appear to them as a contradiction? It is therefore necessary to probe into this socio-cultural background and look for factors which not only permitted sexual representation but even glorified it.

Sexual representation was not an isolated occurrence confined merely to few places. Social conditions giving rise to it were common and instead of studying them piecemeal and atomistically as social conditions, for instance, of Khajuraho and Konarak, the study of the total socio-cultural structure of the medieval period is necessary. The root of the problem lies not in the social conditions of particular temple sites or regions which express sex largely or loudly, but in the social conditions common to all-India culture. It is for this reason that this work studies sexual representation at an all-India level.

Explanations for this cultural phenomenon have so far been sought mainly at idealistic levels Sexual expression has been interpreted as the symbolic representation of the Eternal Bliss or the overt manifestation of Kama, the third purusartha but the problem is not solved by such a priori speculations. They fail to take into account, as we will see in Chapter V, the actual representation of sex with themes involving orgies and bestialities. These idealistic hypotheses also do not explain why, in this particular period of history, there is such a vast outburst of sexual depiction.

There is also a tendency to explain these sculptures as symptoms of degeneration and sexual indulgence. This factor does explain, to a certain extent, their historical development but leaves out one of the significant aspects of the situation, viz. the presence of sex in religious art. The bhogis (voluptuaries) would be satisfied with the decoration of palaces and the aphrodisiac function of sexual themes on their objects of daily use. It would not be necessary to have sexual representation on temples. Sexual depictions in secular art are common occurrences all over the civilized world. It is when sex is represented on religious monuments that it poses a problem to us.

Explanations based on cursory references to factors like Tantrism, beliefs in the evil eye, deuaddsi institution, etc. are only empty statements, if not explained as a part of a total configuration. We have to examine the role of different factors in their totality in the historical development of erotic motifs.

The emphasis in the book is on the study of empirical reality-the observation of actual sexual representation, its nature, extent, variety-in order to formulate a hypothesis or to offer an explanation for it. The study and analysis of the actual representations of sex seemed to be a fruitful method to put the problem in its proper perspective and to enable us to study its relevant social background, It is necessary to know, for instance, whether the motifs display sexo yogic poses, whether they 'are placed in the interior and on the garbhagriha walls, etc. The rejection or acceptance of views should be based on the observation of sculptures. Without knowing what is actually portrayed, it is no use delving into idealistic rationalizations and justifications.


Foreword by Dr. Niharranjan RayIX
Preface to the Second EditionXI
Preface to the First EditionXV
IISexual Representation in Early Art9-28
IIISexual Representation in Art of the Period A.D 500-90029-39
IVSexual Representation in Art of the Period A.D 900-140040-70
VSexual Representation in Art- An Analysis71-86
VISex in Religion: Magico-Religious Beliefs and Practices87-111
VIITantrism and Erotic Sculpture112-45
VIIIThe Hindu Temple in its Social Setting146-65
IXSex in Society166-82
XEroticism In Literary Art183-95
Supplement to Bibliography252-253
List of Drawings254
List of Photographs (With Notes)255-262
PhotographsAt the End
Sample Pages

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