The delta of kāma
In 1294 the crown princess of Banepa donated a shiva linga to the nearby principality of Panauti. A temple was built to enshrine the sacred stone phallus, and in later years a third tier was added to the Indreswar Mahadev temple.
Until then the struts supporting the temple roofs in Nepal largely featured Salabhanjika motifs: standing full breasted slender figures, with wide hips and crossed legs, holding a tree branch with one hand.
However, on the Indreshwar Mahadev in Panauti, craftsmen nearly 1,000 years ago broke from tradition and besides carving the figures of various deities, including characters from the Mahabharat and Ramayan along 16 of the lower-level struts, added at their bases men and women joined in amorous positions.
Himalayan art scholar Mary Slusser called these revolutionary inclusions ‘blatant erotica’. The erotic art on temple struts (maithuna) flourished in the 16th Century, depicting couples interlocked and entwined in bold acrobatic positions that are immediately arresting to witness. Many struts had groups, sometimes with even animals participating.
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The Char Narayan Temple at the Patan Darbar Square was built in 1566 by a local nobleman, and the two-storey temple beside Krishna Mandir houses within its red brick walls the four principal forms of Vishnu: Vasudev, Pradyumna, Aniruddha and Sankarshan.
But on the struts that support its roof is a rich assortment of erotic art (pictured above). One shows two people in bed as a third figure holds to the hair of the woman. Another has a woman penetrated from behind by a horse. In one bracket, two leonine figures are frozen in missionary position (pictured below).
Just around the corner from the temple, through a narrow alleyway, is the Laxmi-Narayan Temple, whose original stolen deity was repatriated from the United States in December 2021. All eight struts of the temple show a diverse range of sexual acts involving couples. Animals are another favourite motif, just as it is on the struts of Patan’s South Taleju temple that almost exclusively depict copulating horses, cattle, deer and lions.
Scholars Wolfgang Korn and Shukra Sagar Shrestha in their 2019 book Erotic Carvings of the Kathmandu Valley Found on the Struts of Newar Temples list around 60 temples, falcha and secular buildings with erotic carvings in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, Lalitpur and the neighbouring towns of Lubhu, Chobhar, Banepa, Panauti or Thankot. But monuments in other places also have erotica.
Korn recalls that in 1968, when he first came to Nepal as a German volunteer, they were shown around the old Kathmandu and Hanuman Dhoka. When they got to the Jagannath Temple, the guide did not appear too interested in the carvings on the struts (pictured below), giving them only two minutes to look at the strange and intriguing erotic carvings. “But then I immediately returned to look at them alone the next afternoon,” he says.
On his second visit, he found four farmers looking up at the struts of the temple and talking about them. Above them, angled at 45º, men and women were engaged in all kinds of positions and combinations, sometimes joined by attendees and a third or fourth partner. He could not understand the conversation of the onlookers then but imagined they too were as curious and taken, if not stirred, by the acts depicted.
Later in 1975, while working on the restoration of the Hanuman Dhoka he pointed at a black and white photograph of a carving of a man with his tongue on a woman’s vulva that he kept in his residence, and jokingly asked a young worker if he had done something like that, too.
“The man was shocked and flustered, Korn recalls, “and immediately said, ‘Sir, with my mouth I eat rice!’”
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He found fascinating the way Nepali people interact with the erotic carvings found in temples daily frequented by devotees. Visitors from outside the valley thought the carvings depicted the sexual lives of the kings and the local residents of Kathmandu, not their own.
But this coyness may be a more recent influence, coerced by colonisation and changing attitudes in gender and sexuality. Birat Raj Bajracharya, translator of Tibetan texts, notes that the carvings give a unique window into Nepal’s past.
“Various forms of sexual and sensual arts were in practice then,” he explains. “At some point in time, we came to limit sexual relations only between a husband and a wife, but the carvings depict fluidity, more than just domestic relations, and in groups too.”
Shivaji Das in his book Sacred Love: Erotic art in the temples of Nepal also suggests a sexually liberal Kathmandu Valley prior to frequent Mughal invasions, and later influences of British India. This is echoed by Éric Chazot, author of Tantra: Théologie de l’Amour et de la Liberté, who remarks that the erotic temple art predate religious and Victorian morals in Nepal.
The imaginations of the wood carvers of the past have no limit. They are bold, unfettered and expansive, and nothing is profane or strange. One popular motif found in the carvings in the Valley is a bowl or a jug, often carried by an attendant or a monkey. These vessels are strategically placed under the sex organs as if to collect the fluids. Chazot explains that this could be to signify the importance of sexual fluids, which would be ritual offerings.
As for the many depictions of bestiality (pictured below), all women with an animal, Chazot remarks it could be another symbolism. "Sex organs in ancient texts are often described in animal terms, such as elephant, dog, horse," he says, "and these could be to make a comment on compatibility and harmony."
Some of the carvings could also be taken as warnings, especially for women: for example a common image of a man penetrating from behind a woman who has gone to collect water. In a few carvings, a third figure, learned by the way he looks and holds a book in his hands, lurking in the shadows, engages in voyeurism, with a particularly sinister look on his face.
Scholars conjecture that this could also be a metaphor, of women as receiving semen from men, mirrored in the water pouring into the pot right beside them. Nevertheless, noteworthy is the fact that women appear in more carvings than men. Tantrism, which positioned men in the role of actors, was also historically reserved for males, utilising the female image as the receiver, or a vessel. As such, this calls into question the role of male gaze in depictions of pleasure.
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Sociologist Dinesh Saru in Das’s Sacred Love draws attention to the systemic oppression of women in society, in line with the idea of zoologist Desmond Morris that the heterosexual act is by nature invasive, and a male tool of dominance.
Queer representation is negligible, with only one carving of two women found in Patan’s Char Narayan Temple (pictured above). But this could also be attributed to the difficulty in definitively assessing the features of the figures, many of which are weathered or damaged in earthquakes.
Bajracharya cautions, however, that calling these figures simply male and female by the binary definition of gender is restrictive. There could be more queer figures in the carvings, he suggests, but it is hard to tell without more research.
“We can’t say that the figures are not male or female,” Bajracharya adds. “However, the symbolism of gender in this context is manifold. The depictions also relate to the masculine and feminine energies, and point to another level of spiritual meaning.”
Mimesis of the woven: why the temple erotica?
Despite their ubiquity, there is no consensus as to why the carvings are there at all. One popular belief is that since lightning is a virgin goddess, she shies away from striking temples with erotic carvings. Another is that gods inside would not be inclined to leave temples, as they would feel embarrassed to see the explicit carvings on their way out.
Among the more plausible explanations are that the carvings are meant to encourage procreation, repopulation after wars and plagues, sex education, and Tantric influences. Almost all erotic temple art are from the Malla-period when Tantric practices from India were incorporated into the already vibrant Hinduism and Buddhism of the Valley, where it took a distinct cultural root and flourished in the middle-ages.
Tantra (from Sanskrit ‘to weave’) expounded the mystic philosophy and principles of action leading to enlightenment and total independence from material bonds. Ancient in origin, it opposed the orthodox Hindu-Buddhist rituals without rejecting them, setting out that everything in life should be employed to achieving nirvana, including sex.
But to call the Tantric element of erotic art as just depicting ‘sex’ may be limiting, as it does not immediately indicate the innate, cosmic urge for symbiosis, divine energy, towards philosophical and spiritual fulfilment that is essential to Tantrism. It is not just a crude carnal desire for copulation, but symbolises the unity of mind and body, akin to the concept of kāma, or Plato’s eros.
"It is a science of expansion, and there is no good or evil," explains Éric Chazot. "And it can be done for many purposes: knowledge, power … there is no limit."
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But Tantra, by definition is esoteric, incomprehensible to the public, with only a handful of individuals initiated into its practices. If the erotic carvings are products of these practices, then perhaps it is fitting that they should be as elusive in their meaning.
Some of the best examples of the symbolism and the many layers of meanings can be found in the Nautale Darbar in Kathmandu. Take, for instance, the figure of a nobleman distinguishable by his tall headdress and ornaments around his neck (pictured above). He is surrounded by five smaller female figures, who look like the muses, who hold in their hands several objects, including what is clearly a musical instrument.
His hands and feet fondle at the sexual organs of the four apsara while another sits on his face. According to Chazot, one reading of this particular carving is the union of man with shakti. This could stand for poetic speech, music and even dance, all of which combined denote the cosmically significant force of creation.
Interestingly, a strut can be divided into three parts: the main deity at the top and the erotic scene at the bottom, divided by lotus. Bajracharya notes that this could mean the rise of a self from ignorance, transforming into an eternal, divine form.
Elsewhere in the darbar, in shocking details, the carvings depict people melting around each other in impossible forms and expressions. Concentrating on the figures, the bodies taken together soon begin to make other shapes: an elephant in one case (pictured above), a horse in another. Next bracket looks like a monkey, a tortoise.
Bajracharya suggests that the animal shapes could be like a pun: “Sort of like a depiction of riding as a position during intercourse.”
There are indoor scenes as well as out in nature, where the figures seem to imitate the shapes of the trees around them: such as in the case of a woman washing her hair and joined by a man from behind, or a man and a woman flanked by branches blowing in the wind. There is comedy too, and a striking flight of fancy, with a nightmarish sequence that shows a ginormous penis riding a chariot. It looks like a procession, as a the chariot rides over two figures lying on top of each other.
"It’s all very symbolic. What we see is not what is said, there is a secret language behind these carvings and only an initiate gets their meaning," says Chazot. "They could also be used to make fun of those who do not understand them, like private jokes among those who do."
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