How to spot a lesbian in sacred Indian art

Is it our discomfort with homosexuality that makes us believe that it cannot be part of the sacred?

The celebration of the female form abounds in traditional Hindu temples. On the walls, in every corner, in every bracket, there are beautiful women. Some holding the branch of a tree (salabhanijka). Some indolently stretching themselves (alasakanya). Some dancing (nartaki). Some making music (sangitavadini). Some looking into the mirror (darpanasundari). Some fondling their own breasts (svasthanasparsha). Some exposing themselves (vasanabhramsa). Some with babies (putravallabha). Some with swords (khadgadhari). Some meditating (tapasvini).

Who amongst these women could be a lesbian – a woman who desires another woman erotically and emotionally? Not a couple, just a single autonomous woman with a particular kind of desire. If the question disturbs you, it could be because of four common reasons.

First, you are simply homophobic, and can’t tolerate the idea of same-sex desire.

Second, you are puritanical, or monastic, and feel the sacred must not be contaminated with anything sexual.

Third, you simply assumed that all women in sacred art desire men – or gods – by default, not women or goddesses.

Fourth, you believe women on temple walls are simply objects of desire, for men, not women.

Erotic scene frieze, Lakshmana Temple, Khajuraho. Image: Kkavita CC BY-SA 4.0 Wikipedia Commons
Erotic scene frieze, Lakshmana Temple, Khajuraho. Image: Kkavita CC BY-SA 4.0 Wikipedia Commons

I ask this question because it reveals a culture’s relationship between the sacred and the sensual, as well as the politics of desire.

Why am I seeking the homosexual, not heterosexual? Because most societies either deny homosexual existence, or forbid any expression of same-sex desire.

Why homosexual, not transgender? Because it is relatively easier in art to establish queer biology than queer feelings.

Why sacred, not secular? Because it reveals the worldview much cherished by a culture that it seeks to transmit from one generation to another.

Why lesbian, not gay? Because the female gaze and female desire has traditionally not been given preference.

Why only Indian? Because writing on global sacred art will demand a book.

Why singular (a lesbian) not plural (lesbians)? Because coupledom is so much easier to represent than a state of being.

Asking this question seems appropriate at a time when there have have been glowing obituaries to art critic John Berger. He forced the world look at art differently, thanks to his celebrated work, Ways of Seeing. He drew attention to the politics that governs the patronage, representation, distribution and consumption of art.

The question needs to be seen from two angles: cultural (Why should a lesbian be represented?) and technical (How will a lesbian be represented?).

First the cultural question.

Photographed at the Sanchi Hill, Raisen district, Madhya Pradesh. Image credit: Biswarup Ganguly/ Wikimedia Commons.
Photographed at the Sanchi Hill, Raisen district, Madhya Pradesh. Image credit: Biswarup Ganguly/ Wikimedia Commons.

Why should a lesbian be represented?

The idea of delinking sexuality from holiness rose first with the monastic Buddhist and Jain orders, 2500 years ago. Monastic orders see sex as essential constituent of nature, but as an obstacle to liberation from worldly life. Buddhist stupas, chaityas and viharas, as well as cave murals such as in Ajanta, that started being commissioned from 2000 years ago, show ornamented and sensuous men and women, often couples (mithuna), next to the serene Buddha. Desire here is always heterosexual, even though texts acknowledge existence of non-heterosexual and queer desire.

Jain manuscripts illustrate sturdy yakshas and sinuous yakshis paying homage to the meditating Tirthankaras. But Jain monks so feared the desire as a pollutant that it is said they outsourced the sensual act of painting to non-Jain artists. It is therefore understandable that Jain sacred art shies away from depiction of sensuality, queer or otherwise.

Islam forbids depictions of God’s creations and so Islamic art focuses more on geometry, on calligraphy and the abstract, than on human forms. Palaces, tombs and mosques built by sultans of Delhi and Deccan do not show the human form, let alone sensuality.

Dancing Moghul women. From Auguste Racinet's Le Costume Historique, France. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.
Dancing Moghul women. From Auguste Racinet's Le Costume Historique, France. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Only Persian painters, patronised by royalty, defiantly painted epic heroes and heroines, venturing at times to depict the pure, virginal, translucent but sexually ambiguous angels and houris. These were restricted to paper and shown privately. Eventually, Indian artists learned these Persian techniques to paint the romance and erotic encounters of Hindu deities in their miniatures, under the patronage of both Rajput and Muslim nobility. In these images, we often find women in each other’s company, collectively bathing or adorning themselves. The assumption is that they are women in a harem, or maids serving a princess, despite folktales and Puranic stories of women who cling to each other so much that they want to be married into the same household, or of pairs of women who live as companion nuns in the forest, much like pairs of monks described in the Jatakas.

While in popular memory, the Islamic period saw the destruction of temples in India, some of the grandest temples of India with explicitly erotic imagery were built in the centuries well after the arrival of Islam. The crowded images of bejewelled, confident, sensuous women, must be seen as much as a push back to Buddhist and Jain monasticism as to Islamic puritanism.

If monastic orders drifted towards a nihilistic and pessimistic view of the world and puritanical religions saw sex as something shameful, Hinduism drifted towards a more world-affirming worldview, where pleasure (kama) was a valid human goal, alongside responsibility (dharma), wealth (artha) and spirituality (moksha). Great value is placed on concepts like indulgence (bhoga) and tranquillity (ananda). Like the Mahabharata, which is said to contain a reference to all things that exist, the profuse carvings outside Hindu temples were meant to represent all that exists in nature. And so we find images of plants and animals, gods and demons, priests and warriors, monsters and mendicants, fools and lovers, musicians and dancers, plants and animals. We must assume there is the lesbian somewhere. But how will we recognize her?

 Siva Temple, Prambanan, Central Java. Image credit: Dharma from Penang, Malaysia/Wikimedia Commons.
Siva Temple, Prambanan, Central Java. Image credit: Dharma from Penang, Malaysia/Wikimedia Commons.

How will a lesbian be represented?

This brings us to the technical question: how will a lesbian be represented? I will restrict myself to the Hindu temple here, for there are greater chances of finding her here than in other sacred Indian art. There are three options for her representation: sexual, romantic and in code.

Sexual representation is the easiest option. For lawyers and judges, it will serve as proof that lesbians are very much part of Indian history. Or will it? Khajuraho does have the image of a group of women making love to each other. One can argue, however, that it serves the same purpose as sex between women in a pornographic film created to satisfy the male gaze. Or as suggested in Deepa Mehta’s film, Fire, it could even be seen as an optional intimacy sought by women who feel betrayed and abandoned by men. An act of lovemaking between women need not be an expression of sexual desire. A woman could desire a man but use another woman’s body as a substitute, an idea described in descriptions of Ravana’s harem where women kiss the lips of women who have been kissed by Ravana. There are images of single women, exposing their genitals to the observer or playing with their own breasts. Who is the woman exposing herself to, or imagining, during these acts? Only men? Why do we assume so?

Romantic representation is tougher. A woman touching another woman, embracing her, adorning her, can be described as just a friend, a servant, a sister. Not many people realise that the song Khwab banke koi aayega, in the 1983 Hema Malini starrer, Razia Sultan, showed a lesbian lovemaking sequence between the queen and her companion, and it used the usual code of lovemaking – in this case, feathers, such as the one used in the lovemaking scene of the prince and the concubine in the film Mughal-e-Azam.


We are so comfortable with the idea of sakhi, or intense platonic love between friends, that it eclipses all sexual desire. Surely two women next to each other, holding each other, it could well be argued, are consoling each other for their lost lovers, of either gender; or maybe arguing about the merits of their respective lover, of either gender?

There are temples in India where the enshrined goddess is worshipped along with another goddess, who is often dressed exactly like her, indicating equal status of the two. Who is she? Typical explanations are: friend, companion, sister, devotee, or another body to contain the great power of the deity. It is a common practice in rural India to build temples to women who die violent deaths. Could these be temples built for girls who so loved each other that they chose death over separation? We don’t know. Such stories are often suppressed or rendered invisible with elaborate metaphysical jargon. In fact, even suggesting that this would rile up the patriarchal puritans.

In the Vedas, the fire-god Agni has two mothers (dvi-matri). Is it to be taken literally or metaphorically, to represent the two sticks used to spark off a fire? In rituals, Ganesha is worshipped with two mothers sometimes, and Kartikeya with six. The parental relationship is emphasised. But what is the relationship between the women? We are told they are co-wives – multiple wives – of Shiva. The suggestion that women could perhaps be independent of men is not even considered. Yet, the collective of independent women such as matrikas, mahavidyas, yoginis, and dakinis are an important theme in Indian art. Contemporary Hinduism, strongly influenced by male monastic orders, distances itself from such ideas and images by deeming them Tantric.

Chausath Yogini temple, also known as Mahamaya temple, Hirapur, Odisha. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons
Chausath Yogini temple, also known as Mahamaya temple, Hirapur, Odisha. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

While most of us are familiar with images of Krishna surrounded by a circle of milk-maids (rasa-mandala), few know of temples in Madhya Pradesh and Odisha where women form a circle (yogini-mandala) where the male figures, the Bhairavas, play a subordinate role. In these shrines, the male deity has an erect phallus, but there are no images of copulation. We are told these are Tantrik shrines, about a thousand years old, where desire was acknowledged and diverted for occult purposes. But what kind of desire? Is the single man there just an object of desire, or simply the seed-provider? Could this be a band of women who loved their independence (svarini), and each other? In medieval Europe, such women who formed such groups were branded as witches and killed. In India, they became part of temples.

The use of codes to depict various ideas is quite popular in Hindu temples. Divinity, for example, is often conveyed by a code by giving them multiple arms (as in the case of Durga) or multiple heads (as in the case of Brahma). In many temples, the gateway is adorned by two river-goddesses, Ganga on a dolphin and Yamuna on a turtle. The two rivers merge and the union is auspicious. Can we consider this a code for the lesbian? Or must this necessarily refer to a metaphorical union of metaphysical principles?

Since sexual images are often censored, films tend to project homosexual men as effeminate men – their womanly social behaviour is seen as code for their attraction to men. Can the same be done for women? That is, could lesbians be depicted as manly women doing traditional male jobs, or playing traditional male sports like wrestling and boxing? Might we then argue that the images of women on temple walls holding weapons such as a sword or a bow could be representation of lesbians? In Greco-Roman mythology, goddesses associated with knowledge (Athena/Minerva) and hunting (Artemis/Diana) were imagined as avoiding male company, and preferring female company.

Chausath Yogini Temple, Hirapur The female version of Kama, god of love and desire, is seen here as she draws the bow, his primary attribute. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons
Chausath Yogini Temple, Hirapur The female version of Kama, god of love and desire, is seen here as she draws the bow, his primary attribute. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

But Hindu goddesses are very often depicted holding weapons. In Hindu temple art, women with weapons are often identified with apsaras such as Urvashi and Rambha, who in the Puranas are depicted as seductresses of stern sages. Just as many homosexual men in modern India do not like being imagined as a campy effeminate man in a film, not all lesbians like being imagined as masculine women.

On temple walls we can find androgynes, hermaphrodites, animals copulating with members of other species, all kinds of non-vaginal (ayoni) sex between men and women, fantastic beasts that are a mix of two or more animals such as the yali (lion with elephant head). We can argue these queer images are a code for all kinds of homosexual desire, both male and female, where traditional or popular boundaries get blurred. And so the female forms around such images are embodiments of queer, including lesbian, desire. But not everybody is convinced.

Darpana Sundari, Kesava Temple. Image credit: Santhosh/ Wikimedia Commons.
Darpana Sundari, Kesava Temple. Image credit: Santhosh/ Wikimedia Commons.

Darshan – the Indian way of Seeing

The Hindu way of seeing is called darshan. It is a function of our prejudices. The self-absorbed mind crumpled in fear (aham) sees the world very differently from how a sensitive and empathetic mind expanded in love (atma) sees it.

The idea of darshan is most beautifully evoked when we see the image of woman on the temple wall looking at herself in a mirror. For whom does she adorn herself? For the deity within the temple? For the pilgrim looking at her? For a secret lover, maybe? Does the gender of the deity, or the pilgrim, or the lover, matter? Why do we assume she is heterosexual? That she is adorning herself for a man? Yes, we can argue that she is adorning herself for herself. But will we give ourselves, and others, the permission to imagine she could be a lesbian adorning herself for a woman? If we don’t, why don’t we? Is it our discomfort with homosexuality, or our belief that homosexuality cannot be part of the sacred?

The ancient temple builders may have included many lesbians on temple walls, without the need to sexualise them, or provide them with explicit codes. I guess, they let her visibility be a function of our darshan.

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