Narendra Modi has done a George Bush again. This time, it’s about the historic Sun Temple at Konark.

Even as academics are hard at work trying to figure out the inspiration behind the many sculptures on the walls of the temple, India’s prime minister seems to have figured it all out.

At a ceremony in Washington on Monday, Modi said that 2,000 years ago, artists at the Konark Sun Temple made sculptures that are similar to the modern fashionable girls wearing skirts and carrying purses.

Modi made a similar remark in 2004 at the inauguration of the new campus of the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Gandhinagar. On that occasion, he used this example to show how well-developed fashion technology was in India’s past.

The three mistakes

As many pointed out, Modi’s first gaffe was that he got the date of the Sun Temple’s construction wrong. The temple was built in the 13th century, its patronage generally attributed to the kings of the Ganga dynasty. Therefore, it is not as old as the prime minister thinks it is.

However, given that this is not the first time such a statement was made by him, getting the date wrong doesn't seem to be a mistake. Just like the Hindu right wing often tries to peg the date of the Vedas to much earlier than thought, this also looks like a concerted attempt to push back the glorious Hindu history of India.

Then, there’s the skirt bit. That, too, may not entirely be wrong, as many women in the sculptures are depicted wearing girdles. No purses, however, have been so far been reported in their hands.

The biggest slight, however, was to declare that holding a purse and wearing a skirt makes the Indian woman “modern”.

The many women in stone adorning the walls of the Sun Temple are, indeed, a great allegory for the modern Indian woman – not in terms of what they wear, but in terms of the unbridled sexuality they depict.

Much like the Hindu right wing always has, the Prime Minster also skirted the subject of the numerous erotic sculptures decorating not just the Konark temple, but a host of medieval temples in India.

Liberation carved in stone

No matter what Modi or anyone else may say, the erotic sculptures on temple walls are perhaps the greatest defiance to the regressive Hindu right-wing ideology.

These erotic sculptures represent a society where artists had the freedom to sculpt a buxom woman happily embracing her lover and a time where seeing maithuna (couples engaged in coitus) on temples did not evoke disgust in public perception.

Erotic sculptures are also found adorning the walls of the temples of Khajuraho, Somnathapura, Halebid and Modhera, among others, and depict coitus and its many variations in all their glory. The subjects of these sculptures were mostly women. Initial sculptures showed them holding hands or embracing their lovers, but with the passage of time, the imagery grew bolder. The comely women, sculpted on the temple walls, soon came to be engaged in intercourse, masturbation (often with an olisbos), homosexuality, fellatio and cunnilingus, apart from aligning themselves in acrobatic and near-impossible positions.

These women were not only portrayed as lovers but also as dancers, drinking wine, playing various instruments and performing the shringara – the rasa of erotic or romantic love. One such type of woman, the Yakshi, is defined by the Natya Shastra as a woman “who loves quiet rest in bed or seat, is very intelligent, fearless and fond of wine, sweet scent and meat….”

The Yakshi was a powerful woman whose intellectual capabilities and sexual charms made her both irresistible and fearsome.

The Yakshi finds a place in most erotic sculptures (and also in Kalidasa’s Meghaduta) and represents an ideal type for the artists of the medieval times, a great allegory for the modern Indian woman, if the prime minister would like to know.

The erotic sculptures on the temple walls have been variously interpreted to have propitious and protective functions, signify growth of Tantricism (particularly of the Kaula-Kapalika sect), depict the various sexual poses in Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra and connote the congress of the linga (phallus) and the yoni (vagina) as a metaphor for the creation of the universe, among others.

Yet, there’s no denying that the image of women and men freely partaking of sexual pleasures was a powerful one and its exhibition on the walls of sacred places had a positive connotation in the mind of the viewer. It did not repulse or invite censure.

The Orissan text Silpa Prakasa opines that a temple “without love imagery is always a base, forsaken place, resembling a dark abyss”. Another Vastu text suggests that the best site for a temple is one where “loving couples have lived, loved and bred…”.

Thus, medieval Indian society comes across as a sex positive one, where, as Y Krishan says in his paper, ‘The Erotic Sculptures of India’ (Artibus Asiae, Vol 34, no 4, 1972, p.331-343), “the public exhibitions of voluptuous couples and sexual orgies in sacred places could only help to invest them with dignity and to sanctify them and free them from social stigma... In short, this was an open invitation to sexual license.”

Unlike the case with the Valentine’s Day party poopers of the Hindu right, sex and love was not to be shunned. It was something auspicious and desirable and had to be embraced.

Inconvenient truth

This, of course, in no way means that there were no restrictions on love and sex in medieval Indian society. However, the public display of women confident of their sexuality and aware of their desires would have created an environment more open and inviting to love and sex than the conservative ideology that the Hindu right harbours today (cue Love Jihad).

An inconvenient truth set in stone, these sculptures cannot be wished away like other seemingly fleeting bits of evidence such as the date of the Vedas. The fulsome women in these sculptures embrace their sexuality uninhibitedly, much like the modern Indian women.

It is about time that the Hindu right ponders how their narrative of a purportedly glorious Hindu past, laced with Victorian morality, would accommodate these sexually liberated women.

The right wing must know that each time a modern Indian woman is shamed for expressing her desires, a thousand more peek out from the walls of these temples.