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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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”


“Like what?”


A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”




“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:


This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.