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Erotic Sentiment in Indian Temple Sculptures

Shringara rasa – the sentiment of erotic love, and first of the nine rasas / navarasas as they are called are the natural states of mind experienced by humans. Of the nine sentiments -nava rasas, shringara occupies an important place in the history of ancient Indian literature and fine arts. Indian temples show the figures of apsaras depicting the sentiment of love, both in the theoretical aspects relating to theatrics (as described in Natyashastra by Bharata Muni around 2nd century AD) as well as in the practical side of life with Kamasutra of Vatsyayana (by sage Vatsyayana, around 2-3 century AD) as its base. Many erotic sculptures depicting union also involve dwarf figures at the base as secondary figures which are in pranayama variations with hatha yoga mudras and are tantra based union figures. (Though based on Patanjali Yoga sutra assigned between 3-4th century AD, Hatha yoga gained prominence beyond 5th century AD). Several commentaries on these topics were written in the subsequent periods and by medieval period the kings who sponsored the construction of temples, the sthapatis and sculptors were all well versed on these topics along with religious and philosophical aspects. The outcome was the inclusion of these topics in a permanent medium of stone in temples for mass communication. This article focuses on how to understand the shades of shringara rasa that are depicted on the outer walls of Indian temples and how tantric themes are different from non-tantric ones as they are based on different ancient texts.

The depiction of a happy state of mind elevating the state of mind of the performer and the viewer to shringa- meaning a peak is called Shringara rasa and is called the “King of Rasas”. It is categorized as chitta vikasa (blooming of the mood) – which blossoms or opens out the mind leading to a pleasant state. Rasa means the essence, pith – the juicy and the best part of Indian fine arts like dance, music, painting, sculptural art and literature. In colloquial terms, it means beautification, pure and clean leading to attractive appearance and is related to the love theme of youthful enthusiastic hero and heroine. Feminine grace in youth, is the support of Shringara in sculptures too, and they show joyful facial expression with befitting actions through limbs.

Most of the Apsara sculptures are based on different aspects of Shringara rasa, adhering to the rules prescribed in the treatise of Indian theatrics- Natyashastra. The chapter on sentiments is about the rules of theatrical aspects giving a detailed account of how the Shringara rasa has to be enacted by the heroine of the play, how the state of mind has to be communicated to the audience with befitting body and facial movements, accessories that can be used or the stage setting to invoke Shringara. The heroine depicted as an apsara on a lotus pedestal (considered as semi divine for her insight into fine arts) exhibits all the rules of Natyashastra to be followed for depiction of Shringara. Shringara is the rasa used to portray on stage mutual desire and romantic love as primary emotion between a man and woman. The permanent mood – Sthayibhava of Shringara is Rati, meaning physical attraction and pleasure.

Dasharupaka, (an ancient commentary on some chapters of Natyashastra, compiled by Dhananjaya, around 10th century) in Part IV, Ch. 58, in relation to the state of mind of the hero and the heroine, states that Shringara is of three stages –

“Aayogo viprayogascha sambhogascheti sa tridha”

  1. Aayoga stands for acceptance of each other in love, are in a pleasant state of mind, though yet to meet, are ambitious of the meet as a precursor to union. Most of the Apsara sculptures depict the anxiety of Aayoga Shringara- as she is interested in the hero and is preparing herself for the meet. But the hero is not physically depicted in this group of Apsara sculptures and hence are classified as Aayoga phase.

  2. Viprayoga – where the hero and heroine had united before, but are currently apart, in non-harmonious state, separated or quarrelling for the hero has missed the promise of coming in time to meet the heroine. The sculptural representations are rare but are more in paintings and literature.

  3. Sambhoga – where hero and heroine are in a harmonious state of mind and united. Sambhoga Shringara is the core theme of the treatise Kamasutra.

While the heartache and pain of separation from the loved one is conveyed through Viprayoga, the intense desire for uniting with the lover is conveyed through Sambhoga.

  1. Aayoga Shringara in Sculptures of Apsaras of Belur Chennakeshava Temple

‘Aa’, is the second letter of alphabet in Sanskrit and is used as a prefix to verbs and nouns to express a sense of nearness. Yoga means joining or union. Aayoga also means an appointment (for yoga-joining), action or performance, and offering flowers, perfumes, etc., as a sub division of Shringara. It is easier to express emotions in literature or dance, but to bring it out in a sculpture is difficult because the sculptor is the non-performer and yet has to know the intricacies involved in dance of both pure and emotive aspects, to bring out a state of pleasure in the stone medium. In other words, the sculptor had to know thoroughly all the aspects related to the chapters of Natyashastra as well as physical body because Shringara is expressed through body movements as frozen (aangika abhinaya) postures along with facial expressions and supported by other hand accessories.

The aesthetic pleasure of Apsara sculptures is determined by how successful the sculptor is in expressing a particular emotion and evoking the rasa.

“Ramya desha, kalaa, kaala, Veshabhogadi Sevanai…”

Dasarupaka, part 4.56 quotes that Shringara is evoked and depicted when the hero or heroine is enjoying in the following context.

  • Ramya desha – A pleasant place like garden and enjoying nature

  • Ramya kalaa – Involved in fine arts such as music, dance and the instruments.

  • Ramya kaala – Pleasant time like pleasure of seasons or festivals. It could also be playing with pet parrot and hearing words about the hero from her pet parrot, etc.

  • Vesha bhoga – Use of garlands, ornaments, food that elevates the mood to a pleasant state.

The context in sculptures is determined by the behaviour of the character of heroin – the Apsara.


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