What can temples portraying women enjoying their sexuality teach us about womanhood and female empowerment?
During the Middle Ages, India was one of the most advanced civilizations in the entire world. They were extremely wealthy in economic terms. Their agriculture was one of the best systems in the world, and the exportation routes helped them become a well regarded land. Also they were one of the most interesting societies in terms of cultural production and its distribution. However, one of the most fascinating things about this precise moment in the history of India was their conception of sexuality and their open-minded perception of passions and drives in everyday life.
This might not be as surprising, since they were the culture that also created the well-known Kama-sutra, a book where they reflected that for them sexuality was one of the most important parts of life. Today, however, we're going to talk about one of the best representations of their conception of sex and the relevance it had in their spiritual and physical life: the amazing set of temples of Khajuraho. They were so risqué that Mahatma Gandhi believed they were indecent and embarrassing monuments that disgraced Indian culture.
Today, the Khajuraho temples are one of the World Heritage spots and the second most visited spot in India after the Taj Mahal. Every year, this place drags the attention of millions who are fascinated by the greatness of its remaining 25 temples filled with ornaments and carvings of men and women in erotic and sometimes sexually explicit situations. Well, now we know why Gandhi was so distraught by these buildings and even wanted to destroy them. The 85 five temples, located in the state of Madhya Pradesh in central India, were commissioned by the Chandela royal dynasty. The temples are dedicated to the deities Shiva and Vishnu, as well as the Tirthankaras, spiritual masters of Jainism. During this period, people were mainly devotees of both Hinduism and Jainism, which shows that back in those times it was common for diverse traditions to coexist.
This 20-square-kilometer set of temples was built during the golden age of Central India. Nevertheless, the most amazing thing about them is not the grandiosity of their intricate carvings, nor the hard work and time devoted to their construction (each temple took about 25 years to be finished), but everything they represent: the normalization of sexuality and the different manifestations of love that all creatures in the world are capable of experiencing. The carvings show deities, men, women, and even animals surrendering to their most intimate desires to show us that love and sex are only part of who we are and shouldn’t be taboo but something as natural as breathing or eating.
This open-minded way of thinking comes from an age of tolerance. With the merging of Hinduism and Jainism, all types of pleasure were seen as a manifestation of art, so both men and women instinctively were free to explore their sexuality as part of their role in life. The carvings not only portray characters engaging in sexual activities, but they also show other important everyday activities like praying, dancing, eating, and even some aspects of war. They were all activities that, according to these religions, human beings had to go through and respect, since everyone had a role to fulfill in their life. This has also led some historians to believe that these temples are a homage to female power and womanhood, and that they celebrate the importance of women in this culture.
Unfortunately, this didn’t last long, and with the downfall of the Chandela dynasty, these attitudes were changed for a more conservative and patriarchal scheme. With the arrival of the Muslim Delhi Sultanate, it was forbidden to worship other religions besides Islam, and soon the visible temples of Khajuraho were destroyed. Fortunately, 25 of these who were erected in the farthest and most remote part of the region were kept hidden and remained like that until the nineteenth century, when British army captain T.S. Burt led an expedition to find the so-famously and concealed temples that celebrated sexuality.
It's important to mention that we shouldn't see these scenes just from our modern views on sexuality. These temples weren't just about sex for pleasure's sake, but they also taught about affection, love, respect, and enjoyment. In that way, they stand out for the way they praised and encouraged female pleasure in equal circumstances. Taking into account how conservative Indian society became years later, this is a unique example of a simpler and more understanding age that no longer exists in any place in the world and that we should all look up to.
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