A STUDY ON EROTIC IMAGES IN HINDU TEMPLES IN KATHMANDU VALLEY
This study tries to understand the erotic images carved on the struts of Hindu temples in Kathmandu valley in the light of theories on sex and sexualities. People living in the valley take sex strictly confidential but there are numerous temples in Kathmandu where erotic images are publicly displayed which is otherwise against the moral values of the people.
This study claims that the motive of this public display of sexual images is based on the ideas about sex as a means of transformation. Foucault is of the opinion that repression of sex in society brings back sex into public discourse where exploration of the truth is possible; moreover, the power produced by the discourses on sexuality regulates, administers and transforms the society. This power is symbolized in temples, normally known as the power places, and people try to maintain their endeavors as per the standard demanded by the power. Freud suggests sex as basic human drive which the society tries to discipline with suppression, but sex does precipitate in different forms. These sexual images on the temple can serve as a means to yield cathartic feelings to the visitor who may feel better by releasing suppressed feelings about sex and sexuality when observing sexual images on the temples. From Tantrik perspectives, such sexual images serve as a stimulant messenger to convey the idea of creation, transformation, unity and harmony to the viewers. Moreover, these images teach the visitor to transcend the barrier of physical world by mastering sex and attain the blissful moment in the spiritual world through enlightenment.
The Erotic Images: an Introduction
Kathmandu, the "City of Temples," is dotted with numerous temples and power places. Hindu and Buddhist devotees offer their prayers everyday to these power places where erotic carvings particularly on the struts of the temples, display different sexual postures publicly. At first sight it seems somehow difficult to accept such scenes because people, both Hindus and Buddhists, living in the valley take sex as strictly confidential—almost a taboo, and so the public display of such sexual images has some important purpose which needs to be studied.
Significance of the Study
It has been generally acknowledged that without knowing the arts and culture of remote past, it is impossible to know the people today. There is a popular saying in English: Tell me from where you are, and then I will tell you what you are. This is one reason why we are tempted to explore the unexplored part of our history, and this could be easy with a cue from the arts, because the art of a particular time not only reflects the dexterity of the artists, but it will also tell a history of power, love, hatred, oppression, revolution and thus it is an authentic document surpassing history. This historical document is best understood when it is expressed from the margin, for the center is a tempting thing for the rulers and it changes with the change in the power structure. But the margin remains stable and also accepts the displaced culture of the past from the center. So knowing the margin can help understand the history of the center. As we witness today the goddess culture has been marginalized and the female sexuality has also been interpreted with the lens of the male authority, and women movements are emerging in different forms to claim their lost heritage and honor in the society. The goddess culture is the oldest culture on earth, and human understanding of the self will remain incomplete until the lost culture is restored and mainstreamed. Though there are several explanations about the demise of the goddess in the past, and her role in a culture like Hinduism, but one thing is common to all studies that once upon a time the goddess culture was supreme which gradually vanished with the rise of monotheism, as Gadon opines:
The death blow to goddess culture was delivered by monotheism in which one male, all powerful and absolute, ruled both the heaven and earth. Monotheistic faiths were implacable foes of the Goddess. As we know, the Bible records the continuous battle waged by the ancient Hebrews against the worship of the Goddess. (xiii)
Representing womb in a well defined human body in the arts goes back to 30,000-25,000 B.C.E. in the history of human civilization, and visual symbols in The Earth Mother of Willendorf , a stone sculpture of a female headless body carved on soft lime stone, suggests the notions of the artists or that of the people of that era about female sexuality. Other archeological findings in different parts of the world suggest that female body and the motherly aspect of the feminine construction were the major themes of the artistic creation for the people of that particular time. The Cypriot Goddess in Cyprus, The Earth Mother of Laussel, The Fish Mother, the asthamatrikas in India, the Crowned Snake Goddess of Crete, suggest the personification of nature in the female body and their representations constitute the artistic tradition of the civilization.
Regarding the marginalization of the Goddess culture in Europe, Gadon tries to explain that the culture at the margin tells more about the purity of the culture displaced from the center. As she writes:
Old European civilization was savagely destroyed by patriarchal Indo-European invaders, but the mythology, imagery, and practices of their goddess religion survived as a fertile substratum underlying later European cultural development that continued to enrich the European psyche well into the renaissance. Long after Christianity had dealt a deathblow to the goddess religion; remnants were still alive among agricultural peoples. (40)
According to the same author, with the coming of the patriarchal social order the tradition of goddess worship shadowed. Later, in Europe, the images of the Goddess transformed from "Mother Goddess" to ''social goddess," as can be seen in the Gorgon in the Temple at Syracuse. It is a terrifying image of the goddess and her dark side represents death and destruction. This image closely resembles to that of Kali or Bhairavi, but she does not have armors as such. Her face is clear and her body is well built. She looks socially conscious and is capable of executing norms and values of the society. Though there is another very popular image of snake goddess (1600 B.C.E.) found in Crete, but this image (Gorgon) is very fierce and very authoritative. Such representations of the goddess in art are different in different cultures. As in Europe, after the rise of Christianity, the female divinity was represented as an idealized mother, while the same pattern is not true in India, for Tantrism was in practice in various part of the civilization which encourages sex as a tool to eternity. Motherhood comes later.
It is very interesting to learn that sex has been of primary importance in all cultures of the remote past as well as today. Female sexual organs have been depicted in arts of all civilizations. Be it the sculpture of the Phallic Goddess: the Self Fertilizing Virgin Mother of Thessaly or Lajja-Gauri of Indian origin, they all have one thing in common—the expression of sexuality through the body parts. Though female sexuality is found to be defined on male’s terms during that period, but it is also found to be a craft to transport the human sentiments to divinity. The Cult of Black Virgin, Tantrism in India, the mysteries of Demeter, directly or indirectly try to restore natural sex in the society for the happiness of the humanity in different forms and themes.
These sacred icons in sexual forms have posited a serious question to humanity. They differentiate virginity and chastity, and as we find in the goddess of our time that they are more inclined to the natural aspect of sex than cultural aspect of gender. It has attracted enough attention because the emerging scholars of our time are also suggesting the significance of sex in the construction of the personality. This study will try to explore the motive behind the display of sexual images in the religious sites in Nepal which will help us understand ourselves better.
Scope of the Study
This study will record the architectural components of the temples and iconography of the arts in general. Focus will be given to the components that describe or express the sexual message to the viewers and particularly on the images on the struts of the temple. The recorded statistics and information will be viewed from a religious and psychological framework, and will be compared and concluded at the end.
Limitations of the Study
The story on Nepalese art is full of complexities. Due to the lack of a dependable chronology it has been interpreted to a great extent subjectively, and therefore has lost its original taste and flavor with time. In the same way, its association with the religions and social system has sufficiently influenced the interpretation in the past which has now become the tradition, and this has made art inseparable from other social components. Though recent scholarship has tried to explore the depth of the art with the aid of technology and contemporary art histories, but it is still posing difficulties in framing its originality because of the fact that recent explorations, one the one hand, have questioned the legitimacy of established beliefs and norms, and on the other hand, the frequency of finding new art sites and new art objects is in increasing order. Above all, it has been accepted now that Nepal, and particularly Kathmandu valley, is an ancient art site where the emotion and ambition of the people found its way into the carved stone sculptures and indigenous architecture. Therefore it would not be just to conclude on the basis of a few statistics and information alone.
Bernier writes about his difficulties in understanding the history of Nepalese arts in The Temple of Nepal:
The student of history of art who hopes to find the dependable chronology which is available for certain other parts of Asia will be greatly disappointed, for in Nepal legend is accepted as fact and fact most often traces back to legend. The serious scholar must look to accounts written by a Chinese traveler beginning in the 7 th century A.D., to scattered stone inscriptions called silapatras placed around the valley by various monarchs, and to rare written histories, known as vamsavalis, which have survived to this day in Nepal. (2)
Such difficulties have been encountered frequently, and some scholars like Bangdel go even to the extent to say in an interview with Spinybabler that:
Any research in Nepal is a very hard work mainly because there is not much support from the government and there aren't good sources. One has to work with one's own links at one's own expenses. I was kind of lucky in my work for I had many personal contacts and my background made it easy for me to build other links. I was given special permission to study many sculptures in India and Nepal which weren't on public display. With my contacts, I was also able to track down sculptures which had been sold anonymously to foreign countries. For example, the sculpture of Jayavarma found at Maligaon is exactly the same to a sculpture of Boddhisattva, which is now in America. I was able to go there, and, with the help of my daughter who is studying there, I went around studying Nepali sculptures in America.
Similarly, Gibbon and Pratchard experience the difficulties in exploring the ideas behind the sexual images in the sacred places in Nepal, as they write, "The interwoven aspect of religious beliefs and practices in Nepal make our question concerning the erotic displays of the valley much more complex" (29). This complexity will also affect my research.
In the following paragraphs I will survey more and will try to explore their content and context with the help of legends, myths and other related documents.