Before sexting and Tinder: The secret codes the ‘Kama Sutra’ recommended for lovers to communicate

In a new book, Seema Anand draws on the ‘Kama Sutra’ and presents a guide to sex in the twenty-first century.

An expert knowledge of the secret love codes and symbols was one of the sixty-four essential skills of the Kama Sutra and indispensable to one’s success in society and in love. Vatsyayan begins his chapter on the love codes with a grim warning to men who underestimate the importance of understanding these codes (as opposed to women, who clearly get their significance). He says a man can be rich, good looking and skilled in all the other sixty-three arts of love, but if he has no knowledge of the secret love codes then the woman of his dreams will dump him in the same way that one discards a wilted garland of flowers – in the garbage, without a second thought. If it became known that a man had been dumped by his lover, he would be destroyed socially. The Kama Sutra was not kidding when it said that one had to put aside everything else and “study” the code with intensity and concentration because this code was like no other in history.

For one, this was a time before paper and pencil, so this whole code was not even entirely made up of words – it was a series of objects, gestures and symbols.

For another, it was not just a private exchange between two individuals; this code had to serve every lover across the land in every conceivable situation. It needed a massive vocabulary that could cover every emotion and situation and it had to be nuanced enough to craft the message with all the delicacy and detail of a love letter, but without the use of words.

For instance, Bihari (a seventeenth-century poet) tells us, “It was a religious festival. As the priests sit around the prayer fire he (our hero) picks up a lotus flower and looking at her (our heroine) touches the flower to his head. In response she lifts up her aarsi (ring with a mirror in the centre) and catching his reflection as well as the reflection of the sun in it, she puts it to her breast. He smiles and is content.”

The flower to the head means “charan kamal” or “your lotus feet”. A man would only have the woman’s feet on his head after they made love (i.e. they are lovers). When our hero touches the lotus to his head after looking at his beloved, he is begging his lover to meet him that night. When she catches his reflection in her mirror ring, she is agreeing to meet with him. Catching the sun and then “placing” it to her breast signifies that she will meet him after the sun has gone to rest in his mountain home.

Now if he had been ignorant of the love symbols...

The needs of lovers are endless and so are the symbols to express those needs. There was an entire range of love messages based on food and spices – cheap and easy to find.

To indicate love – a pouch of betel nut (hard supari) and catechu (katha).
Passionate love – cardamom, nutmeg and cloves.
In the grip of feverish passion – bamboo.
A booty call (I want you right now) – a bunch of grapes.
I am all yours – santol (cotton fruit).
I give you my life, sigh – cumin.
Be careful, I think someone suspects – wood apple (bilva).
It’s okay, the danger has passed – haldi (turmeric).

In contrast, the most expensive and the most public love messages were based on clothes – torn clothes – and this was specifically to express turbulent, frantic and uncontrollable emotions. Lacerated by the arrows of Kamadeva, you were so beside yourself that you went out in polite company in torn clothes. The more important and well known the beloved, the more expensive were the clothes you chose to wear – old and bad quality clothes would have been an insult to your love.

The clothes were strategically torn at the sleeves, the shoulders and the hem. One or two tears meant you were burning in the fire of extreme love, several tears (especially at the hem) depicted a breakup and re-sown patches with large visible stitches said you had made up and could not contain your joy.

The symbols and codes of love and lovers so captured the imagination of the poets and artists – this way of suggesting the actions of lovers rather than stating them – that very soon, the love codes of the Kama Sutra became the love language of the epic romances and miniature paintings of ancient and medieval India.

Imagine this is the fourth century, a time before text messages and WhatsApp. The only place you are likely to run into your lover is at a crowded mela or festival and you have to use subtle gestures to have a very intimate conversation, to set up a date.

Using body language, this is how the conversation would go:

You are surrounded by hundreds of relatives and friends. Your eyes meet across the room.

You touch your ear – which means “How are you?”

In response your lover touches the earlobe – “All the better for seeing you”.

Two hands to the heart and then one hand briefly to the head – “I’m going crazy thinking about you. When can we meet?” At this point you hope that your beloved will run her fingers through her hair – running your fingers through your hair expressed erotic desire. If you were really lucky she would also curl a bit of hair around her index finger and pull it – that meant she was aroused and imagining a previous sexual encounter.

Thrilled with her reaction you now have to set up a date. This was the complicated bit and was done by counting the divisions on each finger (there are fourteen in total – three on each finger and two on the thumb).

These represented the fourteen days of the fortnight, starting at the bottom-most division of the little finger for the first day of the moon and ending at the top of the thumb for the full moon. The nights of the waxing moon are indicated by the left hand and the waning moon by the right hand.

First, you would place your middle finger on top of your little finger and hold up your hand – that meant “give me a date”. Then you would hold your hand up and start the count. When you got to the appropriate date, the beloved joined her hands together and held them up above her head and the date was set! Phew! Talk about logistics!

The next question would be “where”. Generally, the meeting would take place at a rendezvous that the lovers had used previously. A raised thumb indicated the one to the east, the little finger the south, the middle finger west and the index north.

This secret exchange in a public place – of expressing attraction and arousal and setting up a rendezvous to slake that arousal – was as erotically charged as the physical act itself. The thought of sexual intimacy in public places, with the imminent fear of being caught at any time is obviously not a modern-day invention, it seems to have been a fantasy since the beginning of time.

Excerpted with permission from The Arts Of Seduction, Seema Anand, Aleph Book Company.

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