Tempting the Gods

Article excerpt

INDIA

Celebrating the erotic Khajuraho temples

The Hindu nationalists who now run India are a prudish bunch. So when "Fire," a film that touched on the subject of lesbianism, was launched in Mumbai (Bombay) last December, Hindu extremists took to the streets. Dozens of allies of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party wrecked cinemas, beat up patrons--and earned high praise. "I congratulate them for what they've done," said Manohar Joshi, then chief minister of Maharashtra state. "The film's theme is alien to our culture."

Boy, you can tell they haven't been to Khajuraho recently. Khajuraho's Hindu temples, among the finest examples of Hindu art, are 1,000 years old this month. India's president just launched a yearlong Khajuraho Millennium celebration, complete with a special postage stamp, to commemorate the anniversary. But there's one little detail that might bother the Hindu moralists: the temples are decorated with what amounts to one of the most explicit sex manuals ever assembled. Lesbianism is one of the tamer themes. Thousands of figures run in long friezes around the 23 temples. The intertwined men, women--even horses and dogs--combine in exuberant multiples and mind-boggling, backbreaking sexual permutations.

Sexuality has long been a theme in Indian art, which often portrays naked Hindu gods and goddesses. But the Khajuraho temples, by far the most explicit, have shocked visitors for more than 150 years. Capt. T. S. Burt, an English soldier posted to India with the East Asia Company, rediscovered the temples in 1839. …