India is – on the surface at least – a staid, conservative country, not really known for its passion or sexual liberalism. Conservatism is deeply rooted in its values, cultures and traditions, and not least of which its many religions, but look beneath the surface and you reveal a deeply sensual and passionate culture with a long history of values completely opposite to what many travellers see today.
As modern Indian society begins to slowly explore a more open and unguarded attitude to sexuality, the clues to its deeply rooted sensuality are everywhere. The Kama Sutra is perhaps the most famous example of the inconsistent contradictions between conformist tradition and unbridled sexuality that emerges from Indian culture, but that is far from the only example, nor is it even the most blatant.
Khajuraho is a small town in Madhya Pradesh, just a relatively short distance south west of Delhi, but it is the UNESCO world heritage protected temple complex that is famous, not for its age or architectural prowess – both of which are impressive – but for the intricate carvings that adorn every inch of each of the twenty two temples.
The complex is truly impressive and not at all what you would expect. Walking through the surprisingly informal entrance way you are greeted by an expanse of manicured gardens being tended to by the occassional gardener. The whole complex is serenely tranquil and relaxing. Even the few touts at the entrance smile and let you on your way after you decline their services only once. The placid, laid back atmosphere a cool mask that disguises the deeply passionate nature of the temples and at the same time shows how comfortable and at one with the act that the complex venerates and celebrates.
These temples embrace one of the most basic and often taboo of human needs. Sex.
As you walk around each temple, you see carvings that depict individuals locked in passionate embraces, couples making love in a wide variety of ways and even enjoying their own company. A closer inspection reveals people having sex in every position you could possibly imagine and then some! Even the most broad minded and adventurous travellers will find it an educational experience as they hurriedly take notes to try that at a later date! Further inspection reveals more and more people joining in the same act, with entire groups having sex with one person and even each other, pulling off gravity defying positions and even carvings depicting bestiality! This is why the remaining temples within the complex are often nicknamed the Kama Sutra Temples.
Yet this is in the midst of a society that still has segregated transport for men and women, where sexual references are still often taboo and even a kiss in a 2014 Bollywood film can still make national headlines and cause outrage.
It is pretty confusing, and not an aspect of Indian culture for any traveller to wrap their heads around easily.
The temple complex of Khajuraho was built between 950 to 1050 ACE (After Common Era, or AD), during the Chandela dynasty, where many academics have argued that sexual attitudes were vastly different to later periods in Indian history. Yet to simply label Khajuraho the Kama Sutra Temples, or assume that it is just about erotica does it a huge disservice.
These temples are – in my opinion – a remnant of a society that did not just enjoy sex, but considered it a completely natural and instinctive part of everyday life. Both male and female desire was considered not only normal and innate, but something to celebrate and explore without judgement. Sex was not a taboo subject, it was not something that any man or woman should be ashamed of or hide away. Love, passion, desire, was seen as something to be looked up to, revered in the same way as the Hindu and Jain deities that are represented throughout the temples too.
Indian culture has always been vivid and diverse, but as Khajuraho shows it has a far, far richer tapestry hidden beneath many layers that no traveller can ever hope to uncover in just one visit.
To many outsiders, India still isn’t exactly a paragon of open sexuality or intimacy – at least in public – but as the sexual revolution continues to unfurl in India and a point where eroticism no longer becomes a dirty word is not only possible, but probable in the near future, India can still reveal some secrets to travellers that tells them they need not look too far into India’s past to realise that the chains of conservatism are holding back a deeply passionate and open culture.
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