History of Erotic Art

The Kamasutra and Temples of the Chandella Dynasty

India has a rich history of exotic erotic folk art. The Kamasutra is probably the most well known Indian erotica. It was written by Vatsyayana who lived in the Gupta Period (4th-5th Century). It was not meant to titillate, but to be used as a reference for everyday Indian life, which included various sexual practices. It has also been seen as part of religious teaching which could help ensure the practitioner mental happiness. However, it was meant as neither exclusively a sex manual or a religious document.

Kama means sensual or sexual pleasure and Sutra means thread or guidelines of yoga. It gives details of 64 types of sexual act but also gives advice on marriage, hygiene and physical attraction. Some of the illustrations for the many different positions shows people in unusual acrobatic sexual positions, which combine yoga with religious symbolism. It is thought that they are not literal positions, but allude to the symbolism of attaining enlightenment through pleasure and knowledge. It is also playful in its depictions, for example a couple are depicted having intercourse on top of an elephant while conducting a tiger hunt.

Prince and Lady on Terrace at night - 1790's The couples are often shown wearing clothes and jewellery, not completely naked, and this enhances the erotic nature of the paintings, highlighting the areas which are uncovered. It was deemed a beautiful thing, and pleasure could be found in all areas of Indian life. This is reflected in the wonderfully evocative names the positions were given such as 'Flower in Bloom', 'Jewel Case' and 'Crushing of Spices'. The Kamasutra was designed to show the give and take of pleasure between two people; there was no shame or guilt about sexual intercourse.

700 years after the Kamasutra was written, Kings of the Chandella dynasty in Madhya Pradesh, Central India, began work on a series of 84 temples spanning over 21 square kilometres. The building work took 200 years to complete from 950 – 1150. The outside of these shrines were covered with carvings depicting scenes from everyday life. A percentage of these include erotic scenes. Some refer to ancient Indian mythology, the activities of the gods they worshipped and their connections with mortals. There are no sexual references inside the shrines, which is thought to indicate to the worshipper that all everyday concerns should be left outside and to enter the shrine with a clear mind before taking part in religious ceremonies.

There are many interpretations of the carvings on the shrines. The Lakshmana Shrine in Khajuraho, perhaps one of the most well known, is deemed to demonstrate the Hindu belief in Kama or pleasure as a way to personal enlightenment.

Muslim invaders destroyed many of the temples, as did the Victorians when they came over to India. The carvings horrified Westerners who thought of them as depraved and akin to devil worship. They tried to destroy all trace of the shrines, and of the 84 original, only 22 survive today.