Preeti Sharma, Sanjeev Kumar H.M. | Gendering of Art through Religious Symbolism: Mapping depictions of feminine sexuality in

Hindu Temple Architecture


Gendered ways of imaging the world has been a crucial part of the cognitive processes among human beings. Its apparent manifestation has been visible in the rich artistic pedigree manufactured by different civilizations. Art as a powerful, active and vital shaper of culture; and a form of rhetoric, a deliberate, continued and regulated means of persuasion, pulsates with in depth knowledge of society, culture and material exuberance, including articulations of feminine sexuality. Besides, it does not merely illustrate an ideological predilection; rather it is inherently entrenched in the discourses supportive of the dominant ideological modes of the society. Visuals are representative of social values in general; however the vast, rich visual record still remains marginalized in assessing gender equations. This has primarily been due to the patriarchic bias, associated with the creation, imaging, expression and interpretation of artistic forms. This aspect may be understood by probing the archaeologies of male-centric depictions of feminine sexuality in Indian temple architecture.
The present paper seeks to argue that exhibition of the epitomes of feminine sexuality in Hindu temple architecture has served two purposes. Firstly, the euphemistic representation of feminine sexuality in temples laced it with religious symbolism and provided a tinge of spirituality to what is considered by modernist interpretations as simply an epicurean construct. Secondly, the explicit portrayal of the female body parts, women in compromising position with men, and feminine sensual passions in the Hindu temple art of India has been made to provide a veneer of religiosity to the brutish masculine dominance that sought meek feminine sensual subjectivity. It also imparted a kind of sanctity to male gaze and imposed the superiority of masculine sensual pleasure, at the cost of feminine sexual objectification. Both these phenomena reinforce each other in a vicious cycle and bolster patriarchic hegemony. So, gender issues in art need to be considered not only in a historical context, but its psycho-cultural implications in conditioning gendered power relations must also be dealt with. In view of this, an understanding of the projections of feminine sexuality in art, that gets moulded in a male-dominated socio-cultural set up and which persistently endeavours to bolster this patriarchic order, assumes prime significance.
Under this context, the ubiquitous presence of women in Indian art, sacred/secular, should be analysed from the perspective of the representations of feminine sexuality in Hindu temple architecture. Sexuality has been cultivated as an art and Hindu temple architectures are replete with sensuousness. Therein provocatively poised sensuous female figures; and frank sexuality of female form as the maithunas; mithuns; bestiality; promiscuous orgy; oral congress; sexo-yogic postures; self adorning, in various moods, etc., is a common phenomenon. It is, therefore, essential to explore answers to the fundamental epistemic questions whether the treatment of erotic motifs in Hindu architecture is symbolic or mere ornamental in nature? And, do these depictions serve any apotropaic function? But the critical question that arises here is do they convey some mental construct with complex iconographic needs? And how far these images bespeaks for the intervention in patriarchic constructions of femininity. Clipped to this is the crucial question as to whether women are just passive recipients/objects of male desire? Hence, it is imperative to focus on issues of spectatorship, agency and representation, ignored especially in religious art, all of which involves the issue of gendered power relationship.  Most importantly, it should be explored as to whether Western feminist discourses may be applied to explain representations of feminine sexuality in Hindu temple architecture, or, is it essential to evolve autochthonous models of understanding.