Sacred Coupling

Modern Mythmaking 22 Comments

Published in Devlok,  Sunday Midday, August 15, 2010

Every time I cross the famous Sealink of Mumbai, I find on either end, close to the sea, couples engaged in various stages of intimacy, from heart-warming tenderness to brazen displays of lust. Overlooking them are grand houses that less than 1% of Mumbaikars can afford and acres of shanty towns that offer no privacy. This is the only place where they can be alone – in public, as cars whiz past, too intent on reaching the destination to stop and ogle.

There is political mileage and moral high ground and perhaps publicity to be obtained by assaulting these young couples and shoving them away. But I feel these couples are a reminder of our humanity. It is that moment when we do not want to be seen as members of society – as brothers, sisters, sons or daughters. We just want to be human beings bursting with unchecked, unrestrained desire.

Such intimacy is part of Indian temple architecture. Whether it is the temple of Konark in Orissa or that of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, the artisans have embellished the walls with images of lovers in various stages of embrace. They have been placed there deliberately, to catch the gaze of the devout who enter the shrine. Why? To titillate, to communicate, to provoke thought? No one is quite sure.

One explanation is that these are remnants of fertility rites meant to enhance the power of the temple. Another explanation is that it is sex education for the masses who visit the temple. Perhaps it was advertising for the devadasis or sacred courtesans who supplemented the income of the temple. Perhaps they were magical talismans meant to keep demons away. Perhaps they were meant to please Indra, god of the sky, who had a roving eye, so that he did not strike the tall roofs with lightening. Perhaps they were merely expressions of pleasure, one of the four aims of life – the other aims being ethics, economics and spirituality. Perhaps they are codes of Tantrik practices, metaphors for deeper metaphysical thought. Perhaps they are all of the above, or maybe, none of the above. No one is completely sure.

The British were convinced that this was proof of ‘Hindoo’ decadence. Many of our nation’s founding fathers felt ashamed. A group of overzealous social reformers once planned to raze or deface or bury such temple carvings. It is said that Gandhiji supported such action. But then Rabindranath Tagore wrote an impassioned plea that, good or bad, moral or immoral, this was a national treasure that we could not wish away. We had to preserve it. And so it has survived, continuing to baffle us as they have baffled onlookers for hundreds of years.

The astute observer will notice that the lovers – of stone on temple walls  and of flesh on the Sea-link – do not look at you. They are lost in their own pleasure. By looking at them, we are the intruders. We are the judge and the jury. These two sets of lovers are thus manifestations of Prakriti, nature, in all her myriad glory. Nature is about instinct, about desire unrestrained by law and custom. Nature does not judge. We do, and our ability to judge is also a reminder of our humanity. We can, if we wish, celebrate the love or condemn it as lust. Depending on the chosen measuring scale, either judgement can be divine or inhuman.

  • kjram

    I think the sculptures outside were symbolic- to leave those thoughts outside and not carry them inside the temple. Whatever it is , the message is well said- we should not sit on judgement on moral grounds for the couples are just being happy and those who pry on them are the intruders. It is an hypocrisy that the song & dance shows are viewed by the entire family in their living rooms whereas what couples do in private should be depraded. Leave them alone to their happiness

  • Nirmal

    My friend Shekhar once said over lunch, “New York (and perhaps this applies to most metropolitan cities) is an interesting city. One is not alone but one is not bothered.” Just a thought that occurred to me as I read the observation on privacy that the couples afford in public.

    It is interesting to ponder over the motivations of the intruders. What provokes them to object and suppress this public display of affections. Where does their morality stem from? Perhaps its the conditioning that love and lust are polar concepts and that the latter threatens the sanctity of the former. Perhaps it is the envy at the other’s fortune or an attempt to avoid the pain one experiences in the longing of a similar experience. “How I wish I wasn’t driving this car to work but was in the arms of my beloved by the sea..” “If I cannot have it, they shouldn’t have it either.” Or may be its an extrapolation of one’s fears of loosing control – whether its over one’s own urges and impulses or over one’s perception of society. Sometimes (and its rare) its out of compassion..its to protect someone from going through the consequences of reckless abandon and unfettered actions.

    The concept of non-judgement and non-intrusion is an interesting one too. Society by its definition has boundaries and stands on the fictitious pillars of propriety, morality and justice. The human race itself has evolved from loose collection of food gatherers that saw strength and efficiencies in numbers to a more organized group. We witnessed the benefits leadership, vision and discipline. These leaders experienced power, with that came the urge to prolong that power or control, hence laws, rules and social propriety. The shortcoming of laws stem from the shortcoming of their creators – humans – that I can never understand the full context of an event and my decision will always be limited by my knowledge. Hence laws are often blind and objective than relative and subjective.

    Take the case of the story in Mahabharata involving a murder case in the court of Hastinapur with four people being the convicts.. Each one was from a different ‘varna’, namely Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra.. In this case, Duryodhan considers everyone as equal for justice and punished them with equal penalty (perhaps the same way our laws are framed today).. while Yudhisthir didn’t agree with him and declared the penalty based upon each one’s respective ‘varna’.. and based on this decision, Yudhisthir was considered more capable than Duryodhana. However, I think the perception would go the other way, today. The point is that while the society considered ‘varna’ the absolute framework for justice then, it does not believe the same today.

    I don’t intend to side with the intruders. I am merely attempting to understand them. In my (sometimes foolishly optimistic) world view, society in general is moving towards being more compassionate (different from tolerant and accepting) and while we change, we will experience resistance and hesitation stemming from the fear and anxiety of uncertainty. Perhaps a way to change the reaction of intruders is to inspire empathy by expanding their awareness and understanding of the context. But are we prepared for the consequence of Omniscience – Inaction. When you cannot paint anyone or anything black and white because you can explain every action with a past event.. where does that leave you?

    • Shilpa

      Hi Nirmal ,

      Interesting Observation –


  • Mystical Sense

    so the question to any mind is: what do you see when you see the Yin-Yang symbol? Do you see a male-female coupling or balance/harmony of opposing forces or do you see the Tai Chi or the WuChi?

    The pendulum of the mind alternates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong. Carl Jung

  • shirish

    devduttji, like always it was a gr8 article.
    This seriously confuses me, when they say, what is indian and what is not. There has always been a cultural differences between South-india and North India.. probably because of the wars , the trade relations wid different people. If we see the south indian temples, the gopurams of the temple still have erotic images, the north indian temples on the other hand don’t have such art forms which may give any arousal, probably because of the collective influence of Islam, various bhakti movements in hinduism in these parts, influence of jainism and buddhism in these parts..
    But, still when it comes to family values, southIndians doesn’t seem to accept romantic Love on social front.
    But, if hinduism do have the sense of respect for romantic coupling maybe in the form of Leelas of Krishna, or erotic images and sculpts on khajuraho temple or Gopurams, why the so called authoritative people are so offended when it comes to pre-marital coupling.. These things r d part of hindu culture.. It seems, we started hating pre-marital coupling after the advent of Islam in India, same reason, which started ghunghat system necessary in Northern subcontinent..
    My question is- when people say it is not the part of our culture, which culture are they referring to? The pre-islamic era or the post islamic era? The pre buddhist era or post buddhist era?

    @ Nirmal, yours too was very intresting..