Most erotic Indian sculpture features bare breasts and torsos, but not full nudes, and copulation. Harvard’s Sackler Museum hosted an exhibition on sexual art called “The Sensuous and the Sublime: Representations of Love in the Arts of the Middle East and Southern Asia.” Among the works that were featured were The Working of Kama, the God Love, which shows an orgy inspired by Kama’s arrows with the figures having sex in a number of creative positions; and Crime Passionale: An Outraged Husband Murders His Unfaithful Wife and Her Lover, depicting the bleeding and naked lover and the wife being dragged from her bed by her husband.

The curator of the exhibit, Rochelle Kesser told AP that many of the works have an underlying spiritual meaning. He said: “Someone might walk in and say, ‘Wow, this is quite wild. What’s going on here? But then they will hopefully look at the label and see how this work of art can also be a tool of contemplation...Love can elevate you to the heights of spiritual endeavors and acts of self-sacrifice, it can totally go awry and turn jealous and obsessive.”

Love Temples of Khajuraho

The great “love temples” of northern India, including Khajuraho, were built in the eleventh century by the Chandella dynasty. Khajuraho (260 miles from Agra) is remote city famed for its erotic temples. The origin of the temples and the history of the Chandela dynasty that built them is not completely understood. But it is known that at least 850 temples were built between A.D 950 and 1050 over a wide area, of which 22 are still in fairly good shape. The city was built in such a remote location so that it could escape the ravages of invaders.

The Chandela or Chandel were a rajputs (a powerful military caste). The Chandela Dynasty ruled much of the Bundelkhand region of central India for long periods between the A.D. 10th and the 13th centuries. The Chandel dynasty is famous in Indian history for Maharaja Rao Vidyadhara, who repulsed the attacks of Mahmud of Ghazni and was behind much of the erotic sculptures at Khajuraho. The word Chandela is said to have evolved from of Chandratreya, combination of two words indicating the lineage Chandra vamsa and Atreya gotra.

What makes Khajuraho so interesting are the sculptures of people—and perhaps gods and goddesses—in various love-making positions on the sandstone walls of the temples. In one extraordinary bas-relief a man doing a headstand is shown getting it on with a woman—held off the ground by a pair of large-breasted assistants—doings the splits. The sculptures are considered to be some of the best examples of erotic Hindu art in India. Most of the temples have two or three bands of these sculptures.

Recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Khajuraho’s 22 temples are grouped into three areas: the western, eastern, and southern groups. Kandariya, the largest, most profane and most typical of the Khajuraho temples, is dedicated to Shiva. The main shrine is exquisitely carved and features delicate details. Among the other temples worth visiting are Chaunsat Yogini (the oldest surviving shrine), Devi Jagada (temple dedicated to Kali), Chitragupta, Vishwanath, Lakshmana, Varaha and Matangeswara temple. The eastern group contains the Parsvanath temple, a large Jain structure noted for the detailed sculptures on the northern outer wall. Other notable temples in this group are the Ghantai and Adinath temples and the three Hindu temples of Brahma, Javari and Vamana, the last of which is adorned with a variety of sensuous sculptures. the southern group includes the two temples of Duladeo and Chaturbhuj.

Erotic Sculptures at Khajuraho

The Khajuraho temples feature a variety of art work, of which 10 percent is sexual or erotic art outside and inside the temples. Some of the temples that have two layers of walls have small erotic carvings on the outside of the inner wall. Some scholars suggest these to be tantric sexual practices. Other scholars state that the erotic arts are part of Hindu tradition of treating kama as an essential and proper part of human life, and its symbolic or explicit display is common in Hindu temples. Over 90 percent of the art work at the temple is about daily life and symbolic values in ancient Indian culture. The Khajuraho temples represent one expression of many forms of arts that flourished in Rajput kingdoms of India from the A.D. 8th through 10th century.[Source: Wikipedia +]

James McConnachie, in his history of the Kamasutra, describes the sexual-themed Khajuraho sculptures as "the apogee of erotic art": "Twisting, broad-hipped and high breasted nymphs display their generously contoured and bejewelled bodies on exquisitely worked exterior wall panels. These fleshy apsaras run riot across the surface of the stone, putting on make-up, washing their hair, playing games, dancing, and endlessly knotting and unknotting their girdles....Beside the heavenly nymphs are serried ranks of griffins, guardian deities and, most notoriously, extravagantly interlocked maithunas, or lovemaking couples."

The temples have several thousand statues and art works, with Kandarya Mahadeva temple alone decorated with over 870. Some 10 percent of these iconographic carvings contain sexual themes and various sexual poses. A common misconception is that, since the old structures with carvings in Khajuraho are temples, the carvings depict sex between deities; however the kama arts represent diverse sexual expressions of different human beings. Core Hindu values are expressed in multitude of ways. Even the Kama scenes, when seen in combination of sculptures that precede and follow, depict the spiritual themes such as moksha. In the words of Stella Kramrisch, This state which is “like a man and woman in close embrace” is a symbol of moksa, final release or reunion of two principles, the essence (Purusha) and the nature (Prakriti). +

Dance and Art in India

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “ Besides the early literature, the visual arts, such as early sculptures, reliefs, and later paintings, also give extremely valuable information about theatre and dance. In India the whole phenomenon of the interrelation of dance and the visual arts, and indeed of other art forms as well, is a most crucial one. The question is not merely of borrowing and exchanging materials and ideas from one art form to another. In Indian thought, dance, and all art, is basically a religious sacrifice (yajna). Art is also regarded as a form of yoga and a discipline (sadhana). Through the creation of a work of art the artist/craftsman strives to evoke a state of pure joy or bliss (ananda). [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“The human body was seen as a vehicle of worship and thus performances become acts of invoking the divine. By 200 AD at the latest, as stated above, the complicated techniques of dance-like acting, as well as the rasa system, were codified in the Natyashastra. It is significant that in the Indian tradition it is dance, a temporal and corporal form of art, which is regarded as the ascendant art form. It set the measure for other forms of art, since they adopted the theory rasa from the tradition of the Natyashastra. /=/

“Dance has been so predominant in its position that some textual sources stress that sculptors and painters cannot succeed in their work without a basic knowledge of it. The Natyashastra sets the physical and dramatic tools for evoking the rasa or the emotional state appropriate to worship. On the other hand, the Silpashastras, manuals of iconography and sculpture, were intended to help in producing the corresponding figurative representations. /=/

“Consequently, the principles of movement, however complicated they may be, are the same for both a dancer and a sculptor. The final goal of this intricate science of movements, measurements, poses, gestures etc. is to create the rasa, the actual object of presentation and, finally, to reach even further in evoking the state in which transcendental bliss can be experienced. /=/

Indian Sculpture

Indian artist produced wonderful sculptures in stone and metal. Vidya Dehejia, a Smithsonian curator and professor at Columbia University wrote: “In India, the sculpted representation of the body, human and divine, was of paramount importance. Such imagery never aimed to imitate nature or to create an effect of illusionistic realism. Sculptors did not model their images on living beings, but produced an idealized form, sensuous and youthful, for both gods and humans.” [Source: Vidya Dehejia, Smithsonian curator and professor at Columbia University ^|^]

“For instance, the model laid down in ancient texts for the female torso was either the double-headed divine thunderbolt ( vajra) or the waisted drum ( damaru). Following this pattern sculptors invariable produced a female form with a narrow waist, broad hips and high, rounded breasts. Arms resembled the slender, plant bamboo shoot and eyes the lotus or the fish.” ^|^

Nataraja (a depiction of Shiva) is the divine, cosmic dancer and a classic image in Indian art. He is often depicted in old bronze statues with four arms and one legged raised and the other crushing Apasmara, a dwarf-demon associated with confusion and ignorance. One hand assumes the gesture of protection, one points to a raised foot, one hold the drum that keeps the beat of the rhythm of creation. The forth holds the fire of dissolution.

The ancient treatise on sculpture, the Silpashastra, offers a telling story about sculpture and art. In the old days a devout king from Vajra asked a the sage Markandeya to teach him the art of sculpture. The sage handed the king a lump of metal and asked him, “Do you know how to paint? The king said he didn’t but he was ready to learn. The sage then said, “Do you know how to dance?” The king said he didn’t but he had a basic knowledge of instrumental music. The sage then told him to learn more about music and use that to understand dance better and with that knowledge advance up the scale to painting and the sculpture. It is no wonder also that dancers and gods associated with dancing are the subjects of some of India’s greatest works, the Chola sculptures.

Video: Mirror of Gesture, 1974, 21 minutes, color. Produced by Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Intercuts views of Indian sculpture with sequences of Indian dance to demonstrate the relationships and correspondences between the two arts. Distributor: University of California Extension Center for Media and Independent Learning, 2000 Center Street, 4th floor, Berkeley, CA 94704, (510) 642–0460

Temple Sculptures

Vidya Dehejiam of Columbia University writes: “Architecture and sculpture are inextricably linked in India. Thus, if one speaks of Indian architecture without taking note of the lavish sculptured decoration with which monuments are covered, a partial and distorted picture is presented. In the Hindu temple, large niches in the three exterior walls of the sanctum house sculpted images that portray various aspects of the deity enshrined within. The sanctum image expresses the essence of the deity. [Source: Vidya Dehejiam Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University. Metropolitan Museum of Art]

For instance, the niches of a temple dedicated to a Vishnu may portray his incarnations; those of a temple to Shiva, his various combative feats; and those of a temple to the Great Goddess, her battles with various demons. Regional variations exist, too; in the eastern state of Orissa, for example, the niches of a temple to Shiva customarily contain images of his family-his consort, Parvati, and their sons, Ganesha, the god of overcoming obstacles, and warlike Skanda.

The exterior of the halls and porch are also covered with figural sculpture. A series of niches highlight events from the mythology of the enshrined deity, and frequently a place is set aside for a variety of other gods. In addition, temple walls feature repeated banks of scroll-like foliage, images of women, and loving couples known as mithunas. Signifying growth, abundance, and prosperity, they were considered auspicious motifs.

Chola Sculpture

The golden age of Indian sculpture was during the Chola Dynasty (10th to 13th century). Works from this period included beautiful carved granite Indian goddesses and multi-armed bronze gods. The Chola rulers came to power at a time during the Hindu Restoration, when Hinduism was reasserting itself after a long period when Buddhism and Jainism were strong. Part of the revival was the production of images of Hindu deities. During the early years of the Chola dynasty granite was the favored material but it was heavy and difficult to transport. Bronze then became the material of choice because it could be be crafted into smaller, lighter objects and metal was one of the five elements of nature.

Favored images were the gods Shiva, his consort Parvati, Durga, Ganesha and Lord Rama. Describing a late 10th century bronze Shiva statue called “Lord Crowned with the Moon,”Souren Melikian wrote in International Herald Tribune: it “has a smile of ineffable contentment on its closed lips. It invites and at the same time defies scrutiny.” A Vishnu bronze he wrote, stands “with one arm steadying his club while another peacefully salutes and the other two arms hold up symbols. Here, the deity, smiles with irrepressible glee.” On a Durga made in 970 he wrote it “must have been inspired by a young woman in her teens. She stares with a soft almost timid expression at odds with the character of a goddess that tramples demons. Yet the longer you look at the masterpiece, the more you suspect something in eludes the profane.” [Source: Souren Melikian wrote in International Herald Tribune, February 22, 2003]

Indian Stone Sculpture

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Early stone architecture such as stupa railings also follows wooden construction techniques. However, wood is perishable in tropical climates and few examples of this early tradition survive. A similar assumption can be made about the early stone sculpture of Southeast Asia, where fragments of early wood sculpture have been found. The tools and techniques used in carving stone and wood are the same as those of today: massive hammers and chisels are used to rough out the basic sculptural forms, then smaller ones to refine the work. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Because of its durability, stone became the preferred material for temples and temple sculpture. Probably all stone and wood sculpture (and architecture) was originally painted, although the available pigments, derived from natural sources, would not have been as strident as the artificially manufactured ones so popular in India today. Some figures were further embellished with gold and silver leaf. <*>

“During the period of Muslim rule in India, stoneworkers did not produce figural sculpture because of the traditional Islamic aversion to the depiction of the human form. Instead, they excelled in creating architectural embellishments such as openwork screens, windows, inlaid stone, and brickwork. The Central Asian origins of the Mughals are reflected in a fondness for carved jade objects that could be handled and admired. Jade is such a hard stone that shaping it requires immense skill. It cannot be carved with traditional tools. Rather, the jade worker covers the surface with pastes of ground stone and then gradually shapes the object by abrading it with stone and metal tools. Once the desired form has been created, the artist brings the surface to a high polish with further abrasion. <*>

Indian Metal Sculpture

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Metal sculpture was cast in the lost-wax technique and was made of bronze or brass alloyed with various mixtures of zinc, tin, and lead. Except for small figures, most Buddhist and almost all Southeast Asian metal sculptures were hollow cast in the lost-wax technique and had clay cores. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“A simplified explanation of the lost-wax hollow-casting technique is as follows. The form of the work was modeled in clay. The surface was covered entirely with melted wax. After the wax was hardened, the details were created in the wax and the surfaces were then covered with several layers of fine clay and a coarser clay coating. When fired, the clay mold and core were transformed into terracotta and the wax melted out. Molten metal was poured into this mold. After it cooled, the terracotta mold was broken away to reveal the image. For that reason, only one statue could be cast from a mold. The metal figure was then burnished and a few details may have been intensified with chasing tools. <*>

“Small metal figures and most South Asian Hindu sculpture were solid cast with no clay core. In this casting method, the sculp- ture with all its precise detail was first created in wax stiffened with the addition of resin. The wax model was then covered with layers of fine and then coarser clay. When fired, the wax melted, leaving a clay negative mold of terracotta. The molten metal was then poured into the mold. As in the lost-wax technique, the terracotta mold had to be broken to free the metal figure, allowing for only a single statue to be cast. <*>

“Metal sculptures were often gilded, inlaid with copper and silver, and adorned with semiprecious stones or glass paste. The metal was incised or hollowed out to accommodate these inlays, which mimicked actual jewelry or emphasized eyes, mouths, and other features. Some small sculptures were cast directly out of gold and silver. <*>

“Metalworkers in Muslim and Hindu courts channeled their skills into making elaborately decorated armor, weapons, and containers for personal effects. They enriched the metal surfaces with inlays of gold, silver, and sometimes gemstones. In the inlaying process, gold and silver were worked into designs cut into the surface. If desired, gems could be set into gold-lined cavities; the soft gold edges were then turned over the edges of the jewels to secure them. <*>

Shiva, Religion and Dancing Gods in India

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “All the three Indian religions, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, share the same theoretical basis for dance and the visual arts. And so most of the margi or “classical” dance techniques, in spite of their local stylistic variations, bear strong similarities in all of these three traditions. Consequently, their imagery shares common aesthetic norms and iconographic features. As early as from the Vedic period (1600–550 B.C.) onwards, Indian literature and mythological narrative created characters which were depicted in the visual arts as dancing or in easily recognisable dance-derived poses, reflecting the prevalent dance techniques. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“During the classical Gupta age from the fourth to the sixth century AD the repertoire of the dance images expanded further, while the Puranas or mythological stories of the early centuries AD provided more dance-related imagery. Along with dancing human beings and semi-gods of older periods appeared dancing gods, the first of them being the dancing Shiva. /=/

“The sculpture-type called Shiva Nataraja can be regarded as one of the trademarks of Indian art. The iconography of the Shiva Nataraja, literally meaning the King of Dance, developed over the centuries and reached its crystallised form in Tamil Nadu during the Chola period in approximately the 10th–12th centuries AD. It was the very period when the art of bronze casting reached its apogee. The Chola sculptors were able to reproduce, in metal, the exact proportions laid down by the Silpashastras and even the tiniest details of the gestures and movements dictated by the Natyashastra. /=/

“The Shiva Nataraja represents Shiva as the destroyer/creator as described by devotional poetry dedicated to him. In the Hindu cyclical view of time Shiva’s role is to destroy one era in order to create the next one, and this is what Shiva Nataraja statues portray. When he executes his cosmic tandava dance of destruction and creation he is surrounded by an arch of glory fringed by flames. /=/

“The flame that he is holding in his upper left hand hints at the aspect of destruction, while the drum, symbol of the pulse of life, which Shiva holds in his upper right hand, refers to the aspect of creation. The lower left hand points to his lifted foot, while the lower right hand is shown in pataka mudra. Multi-handedness, a feature typical of many nrttamurtis, is a practical way to manifest the deity’s different aspects simultaneously. It also enables the sculptor to capture several frozen moments of a movement sequence in a static sculpture. /=/

“The main characteristic of Shiva’s dance in the Chola iconography is the uplifted leg. His right leg is firmly planted on a dwarfish creature, which personifies one of the six enemies of enlightenment. The sculpture is full of symbolism. Shiva’s braided hair is often decorated with his attributes: a laughing skull, a crescent moon and a cobra, and also often Ganga, the personification of the Ganges. The rasa, which Shiva’s dance always evokes, is raudra, the Furious. /=/

Dance Images in Indian Temples

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “ Many of the early Buddhist reliefs with their dance-related images and the early dance images of Hindu cave temples are still in their original architectural contexts. The earliest surviving free-standing stone temples were built in the Gupta period. Gradually their plain outer walls were decorated with narrative panels as well as dancing divinities. This was the beginning of a development that was to lead to the flourishing of dance images in Hindu temple architecture during the so-called “medieval” period, approximately from the 7th to the 16th century. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“The most abundant representations of dance images can be seen in the Hindu temples of South India, in the Bhubaneshwar temples in East India, and in the temples of Khajuraho in Central India. The West Indian Jain temples of Mt. Abu are also famous for their dance imagery. The styles of sculpture differ and local schools can easily be recognised, but the fundamental portrayal of the movement is mostly rooted in the tradition of the Natyashastra. /=/

“Series of dance reliefs directly related to the Natyashastra can be found in some medieval temple complexes in South India. The most famous of them are those carved on the towering 9th century gateways of the Shiva temple in Chidambaram. They include ninety-three of the 108 karanas described in the Natyashastra. These small relief panels, together with other similar series and contemporaneous murals depicting dancers, constitute an important source material when one is trying to reconstruct the karana movement cadences of the Natyashastra. What makes these Chidambaram karana reliefs so particular is that they are accompanied by inscriptions of Sanskrit verses from the Natyashastra. Thus they form a kind of an illustrated dance manual carved in stone. /=/

“Since the karanas have practically disappeared from the present Indian dance styles it is understandable that the academic study focusing on these reliefs has already had a long tradition. By means of these reliefs and their inscriptions scholars and dancers have tried to reconstruct the ancient karanas since the early 20th century. Each panel shows one dancer in one frozen moment of a movement pattern. This led the early scholars to believe that karanas were actually static poses, an assumption which later research has renounced. The debate focusing on these panels has been very lively and has led to several attempts to reconstruct the karanas.” /=/

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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