certifired_img

Books and Documents

Islam and Pluralism (09 Aug 2008 NewAgeIslam.Com)



Sex and the country: Islamic rule did not disturb the long Indian tradition of erotic writing

By William Dalrymple

There is nothing new about India being perceived as a place of great and growing wealth: for much of the pre-colonial period, the west was the eager consumer of the spices, silks, and luxuries of the subcontinent, while India was the prosperous supplier. You can still get a flavour of the intoxicatingly rich and sophisticated classical India that supplied these luxuries at the once-great port of Mamallapuram on the Coromandal coast. Here massive relief sculptures faced onto the port where, according to a seventh-century poet, "ships rode at anchor, bent to the point of breaking, laden as they were with wealth, with big-trunked elephants, and with mountains of gems of nine varieties". The reliefs cover one side of a hill: at the right are two huge elephants, trunks swinging; nearby, warrior heroes and meditating sages stand below flights of gods and goddesses, godlings, nymphs, and tree spirits. There is a breezy lightness of touch at work: a flute is playing, there is dancing, and the heavenly apsara fertility spirits and goddesses are whispering fondly to their consorts.

The man who commissioned the sculptures was King Mahendra, a ruler of the Pallava dynasty who reigned from 590 to 630 AD. He wrote two lost treatises on south Indian painting and music, and several plays-one of which, a cynical and sophisticated satirical farce called The Drunken Courtesan, tells the story of an alcoholic worshiper of Shiva and his courtesan-lover who get into an argument with a tipsy Buddhist monk over a drinking bowl left lying in front of a bar.

The same playful mind that can be sensed in Mahendra's plays can be seen in the dynastic sculptures commissioned a little inland from Mamallapuram, at the Pallava capital of Kanchipuram: here we see the ladies of the court riding on elephants under crimson parasols; messengers arrive breathless at halls packed with courtiers; ambassadors from China sue for peace.

It is this characteristic mix of courtly sensuality and intense spirituality that is arguably the most striking aspect of south Indian sculpture, as could be seen from last year's major exhibition of south Indian bronzes at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The exhibition, named simply, 'Chola', was one of the most sensual shows that the Royal Academy has ever mounted. Exquisitely poised and supple, these abstracted and ritualised bronze deities stand quite silent on their plinths yet with their hands they speak gently to their devotees through the noiseless lingua franca of the gestures-mudras of south Indian dance: promising blessings and protection and, above all, marriage, fertility, and fecundity.

There is something wonderfully frank and direct about these gods who embody human desire. Lord Shiva reaches out and fondly touches the breast of his consort, Uma-Parvati, a characteristically restrained Chola way of hinting at the immense erotic powers of a god who embodies male fertility. Elsewhere, Hindu sculpture can often be explicitly and unembarrassedly erotic, as can much classical Hindu poetry: Kalidasa's poem The Birth of Kumara has an entire canto of 91 verses titled 'The Description of Uma's Pleasure', which describes in graphic detail the lovemaking of the divine couple.

Sexuality in India has traditionally been regarded as a subject of legitimate and sophisticated inquiry. The explicitly erotic sculptures at temples such as Khajuraho and Konark in central and eastern India, as well as the long Indian literary tradition of erotic devotional poetry, may be read at one level as metaphors for the longing of the soul for the divine, and of the devotee for God. Yet such poems and sculptures are also clearly a frank expression of pleasure in life and love and sex.

Daud Ali's recent Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Mediaeval India maintains that the erotic was a central element in plays and books of manners as well. Erotic love, he writes, was also indisputably the key theme of the vast literary corpus that has come down to us in Sanskrit. It formed the central topic of every single court drama, save one, that has survived from the fourth to the ?seventh centuries.

Classical India developed a refined and tutored sophistication about the finer points of sexuality, famously so in the Kamasutra. The first scholarly edition of the Kamasutra appeared only in 2002. This was the work of the great American Sanskritist ?Wendy Doniger.

Doniger's Kamasutra proved to be a revelation, showing that the text was central to understanding classical Indian society. The Kamasutra was not just about acrobatic sexual positions as many had assumed; it was instead a sophisticated guide for the courtly paramour to the maze of ancient Indian social relationships and, as Doniger put it, the art of living-about finding a partner, maintaining power in a marriage, committing adultery, living as or with a courtesan and using drugs.

The Kamasutra was aimed at an urbane and cosmopolitan courtly class, and was intended as a guide to the life, sensibility, moods, and experience of pleasure, "not merely sexual", writes Doniger, "but more broadly sensual-music, good food, perfume, and so forth". Recently, the Kamasutra has been the subject of an elegant and stylish non-academic study by James McConnachie. His Book of Love not only tells the story of how and where the book came to be compiled, but paints an enticing picture of the society in which it was written, and follows the fate of the book from classical India through its translation by the Victorian explorer Richard Burton to the present.

As McConnachie makes clear, the Kamasutra was in many ways an act of resistance against the growing tide of Hindu and Buddhist ascetic puritanism that was beginning to question the libertine lifestyle of the third-century nagarikas-or young men about town-at whom the text was aimed.

If the Kamasutra has traditionally been India's most famous erotic export, then in recent years Tantric sex has not been far behind it. Yet according to David Gordon White, author of Kiss of the Yogini: Tantric Sex in Its South Asian Contexts, what passes for Tantric sexuality in the west has almost no connection with its original inspiration in ?medieval India.

White's thesis is that the ideas behind common western conceptions of Tantric sex-that sexual passion can be harnessed for cultivating a state of ecstatic consciousness similar to the bliss experienced in orgasm-have some connection with late Kashmiri writings on the subject; but they have very little connection with the central Tantric corpus of writings, which date from the seventh century, and which are quite different and much more darkly ?cultic in tone.

At the root of Tantra lies the idea of reaching God through opposition to the polite and fashionable conventions of the sort embraced by Vatsyayana's nagarikas. Whereas caste Hindus believed that purity and good living were safeguarded by avoiding meat and alcohol, by keeping away from unclean places like cremation grounds and avoiding polluting substances such as bodily fluids, Tantrics believed that one path to salvation lies in inverting these strictures. In this way they sexualised religious ritual through the oral ingestion of sexual fluids that were believed to give the devotee access to the goddess's supernatural and occult powers, so giving the initiate victory over all worldly enemies. The elaborate scenes of group and oral sex displayed on the walls of the temples erected by the Chandela Rajputs at Khajuraho may well illustrate such rituals.

Tantric devotees took their lead in these matters from the great Tantric goddesses Kali, Tara, and Bhairavi. These are fierce and wilfully heterodox goddesses who cut off their own heads, who are offered blood sacrifices by their devotees, and who have sex with corpses while pulling the tongue of a demon or straddling the dead as they sit on a burning cremation pyre. Esoteric Tantric rituals and practices-or sadhana-were always the closely guarded secrets of a small group of initiates. But certainly in their modern form among the Bauls of Bengal who still practise similar rites-they involve elaborate, ritualised sex, sometimes with menstruating women, combined with the ingestion of a drink compounded of semen, blood, and bodily fluids, so flouting and subverting a whole range of established orthodoxies ?and taboos.

The earliest Tantric rites apparently involved blood sacrifice on cremation grounds as a means of feeding a series of terrifying Tantric deities. Later there was a change of emphasis "towards a type of erotico-mystical practice" involving congress with the Yoginis, a group of powerful and predatory female divinities "located at a shifting threshold between the divine and the demonic". According to White, what he calls the "hard core" medieval Tantric tradition nearly died in India around the 13th century, probably as a result of the Islamic invasions that broke up many of the traditional guru-disciple relationships through which Tantric secrets were passed.

Islam brought with it to India a very different attitude toward sexuality, which was much closer to eastern Christian notions. Yet, remarkably, Islamic rule did not disturb the long Indian tradition of erotic writing. Between the 15th and the 18th centuries many of the classics of Hindu writing on the erotic were translated into Persian for the use of the princes and princesses of Indian Muslim courts. At the same time there was an explosion of unrestrainedly sensual art and literary experimentation. This was the age of the great poet-courtesans: in Delhi, during the late 18th century, the courtesan Ad Begum would turn up stark naked at parties, but so cleverly painted that no one would notice.

At this period, too, a new specialist vocabulary of Urdu words and metaphors developed to express the poets' desires: the beloved's arms were likened to lotus stalks, her thighs to banana stems, her plaited hair to the Ganges, and her rumauli-a word that was coined to describe the faint line of down that runs down the centre of a woman's stomach, just below her navel-to the River Godavari.

Similar concerns inspired the ateliers of the miniaturists. In 18th century Delhi one of the later Mughal emperors, Muhammad Shah II, commissioned miniatures of himself making love to his mistress, while further south in Hyderabad the artists were producing miniatures that tapped into the old erotic pulse of pre-Islamic Indian art, and that were concerned above all with the Arcadia of the scented pleasure garden. Here courtesans as voluptuous as the nude apsaras attend bejewelled princes. Such images would be unthinkable anywhere else in the Islamic world.

Significantly, it was also in the less comprehensively Islamicised courts of the Deccan sultanates in south-central India that much of the work of translation took place. Here also Indian Muslim authors added new studies to the erotic shelves of the palace libraries, such as the Lazat al-Nissa (Delights of Women) and the Tadhkirat al-Shahawat (Book of Aphrodisiacs), both of which were much read and copied.

It was not, therefore, during the Islamic period that the dramatic break with India's erotic traditions occurred; instead that change took place during the colonial period with the arrival of evangelical Christian missionaries in the mid-19th century. Today, there is much embarrassment and denial about both the role of the erotic in pre-modern Hinduism and India's history of sexual sophistication.

However, there are signs of change. If surveys of sexual attitudes in Indian magazines are anything to go by, sexual mores are beginning to free up in modern India, and not just in the big cities: everywhere, it seems, the sari is beginning to slip. And what did the Indian marketing men come up with when asked to launch an Indian brand of condoms aimed at servicing this growing sexual revolution? The answer, perhaps inevitably, was Kama Sutra.

Dalrymple is an acclaimed author.

Courtesy: The Week http://week.manoramaonline.com

URL of this page: http://www.newageislam.com/islam-and-pluralism/sex-and-the-country--islamic-rule-did-not-disturb-the-long-indian-tradition-of-erotic-writing--/d/486





TOTAL COMMENTS:-    


Compose Your Comments here:
Name
Email (Not to be published)
Comments
Fill the text
 
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the articles and comments are the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect that of NewAgeIslam.com.

Content