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Sex+, Non-binary and LGBTQ+ Imageries from Ancient India

We are a collection of stories, traditions, rituals, food, music and dance. The true art of storytelling lies in capturing what is known and visible and encapsulating it with an air of magic, mystery and philosophy.

Today, I bring to you tales and imageries from Ancient India, the land of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Tantra, the land that birthed plenty of religions, spiritual quests and philosophical journeys.

Let’s begin by defining Mythology.

  • Fact is everybody’s truth, usually measurable

  • Fiction is nobody’s truth

  • Myth is someone’s truth

  • Mythology is someone’s truth expressed through Stories, Symbols and Rituals.

When one gains access to people’s stories, symbols and rituals, that are conveyed over generations, one can begin to understand how communities think and gain a world-view from how these communities view and interact with the world around them. So today, we will walk through these symbols, stories and rituals, and begin our Journey Through Time.

We commence with this temple sculpture of Kama, God of Love, shooting a passion-inducing arrow at two women. Originated in Orissa (East India) in the 10th century, this sculpture now resides in the Seattle Art Museum. The ancient Hinduism or Vedic Hinduism spoke of three types of passionate, sexual exchanges one needs to have in life.

  1. Dharma: passion obtained from duty, from utilitarian sex (reproduction)

  2. Kama: energy obtained purely from passion, unfiltered, kinky, highly imaginative sex (sometimes involving the courtesans or prostitutes)

  3. Moksha: sexual energy generated upon indulging in activities that are essential for liberation or enlightenment (Tantric practices)

So here, Kama Dev or the God of Love represents the link between the physicality of experiencing pleasure and an individual's desire to attain the ultimate union with the divine in order to be enlightened.

If one looks closely at the sculpture, one notices that although it is being defined as a masculine form, the divinity is graced with a feminine energy, represented by the curves added to the stance, and the lack of hard-edged strokes to the divine’s form. It's feminine, therefore divine. We should also make note of the fact that in the 10th century, there was a representation of 2 women, same sex and gender, being struck by the arrows of Kandarpa (Cupid).


Dated as 885 AD and 1000 AD, we now walk over to the Khajuraho temple complex, built by the Chandela dynasty. One such imagery that stands out is located in the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple of Khajuraho (Central India).

We see an image of women-identifying people having sex. One can even speculate whether or not the woman below is actually a transgender woman or a woman wearing an ancient phallic strap-on. These images weren’t meant for exhibitionism but do provide us with the opportunity to peek in as voyeurs.

There are many such sculptures at this Khajuraho site with several such sexual activities being depicted, most of these are just records of what’s happening around the world. We have just been invited to take a peek at them and witness the world with our own eyes.

At the Lakshmana Temple of Kahajuraho (Central India), we have a depiction of an orgy where the central couple is being watched by a man sitting below them masturbating, and by a woman beside them, stimulating her clitoris, while the man on the right is receiving a deep-throat.

We also have sculptures of men giving each other blowjobs.

From the Bhoramdeo Temple in Chattisgarh (Central India), dated 10-12 century, we see a sculpture depicting what we know today as 69.

All of these are highly sexually explicit images and erotic depictions, but aren't meant to titillate, as they were part of temple structures, depicted as records of normal human behaviors. If one were to contextualize Indian Temple Art, they will see images of flowers, animals, birds, war, families, poetry, art of dressing up, gods, goddesses, demons, serpents, everything known to have existed for those ancient humans. From images depicting women waking up braiding their hair to war, from kings on processions to men indulging in 69, everything is happening simultaneously around us.


In the South, we have sculptures standing at 7-8 feet at the Meenakshi Madurai Temple which have been dated back to (1190 CE–1205 CE). On the left, we see a man adopting the posture of a woman, indicative of him presenting himself as a woman to the society. On the right, we have a woman with a beard, presenting herself as a man.

Are these transgender men and women or are they crossdressing? Are they performers or do they represent themselves in this fashion as they walk their regular life? No one knows. But back in the 12th century, when crusades were occurring in the rest of the world, a temple was built in the southern India with a record of people adopting a different lifestyle.


Fast-forward to a more contemporary image, we now look at a temple art of Ardhanareshwar from the 19th century. It depicts the God and the Goddess forms merged into one.

An image depicting Hari Hara, we see 2 Gods merged as one. If the previous image depicts the conjoining of a male and a female energy, how does one begin to decode the second image. Is the artist making a political statement or perhaps a sociological one, maybe a psychological statement or perhaps a spiritual one? How does one even begin to solve this conundrum that is the above image.


From the Ramcharitmanas written by Tulsidas in the 16th century, the God Ram says, “Any man, transgender, woman, living being, as long as they give up malice and come to me with love for all, they are dearest to me.” The keyword here is “Napunsaka” which can be translated as ‘neuter’ (neither male nor female) or as ‘queer’ (both male and female).

This word appears for the first time in an Indic grammar book, Patanjali, written by Panini in the 2nd century CE. The description refers to someone with breasts but having a male body, a.k.a an Intersex person.

Around the same time, we have the Vinaya Pitaka, loosely translated as Rules for Monks (a Buddhist Literature), detailing certain classes of people not being ordained into the ranks of Monks as they are Napunsaka. Unfortunately, the literature was aimed at distancing the monastery from the “Other” gender.

1700 years ago, we had Jain texts creating a 3x3 matrix to explain the nature of sexualities and gender expression within humans. They laid down the concepts for

  1. Dravya Sharir (Sex/Physical Body: the sex assigned to you at birth)

  2. Bhava Sharir (Gender Identity and Attraction/Psychological Body: how you see yourself and whom are you attracted to)

  3. Roopa Sharir (Gender Expression: How the world sees you or how you present yourself to the world).

Again, these texts were written to filter out people so as to ensure they do not get ordained into the monastic orders.

Let us pause for a second and analyze these terminologies. For example, if we say someone could be a:

  1. Purusha Rupini Napunsaka: it refers to a male-identifying Intersex person/ Intersex person attracted to a woman as they are socially presenting themselves as men.

  2. Stri Rupini Napunsaka: it refers to a female-identifying Intersex person/ Intersex person attracted to men as they are socially presenting themselves as women.


In the Mahayana Buddhism and Jainism too, you’ll see males being depicted with a feminine energy.

Specifically seen in China, and emerging during a time when an Empress wanted to take control politically and defy the Confusian Lobby, images of Goddess Tara or Avalokitshwara were created in her own image. Thus, establishing Buddhism in China. Although the imagery is androgynous, the stance as observed here, is feminine (Tribhanga).

The sculpture of the Jain monk, Mallinath (a Tirthankar or a spiritual teacher) however, is depicted in a masculine stance. The artist, though, has tried his level best to hide the breasts. In the orthodox tradition, the monk was presented as male however, in some traditions the monk is a female. We know as there is a pot underneath the sculpture, the universal imagery of a vulva-owner.

Body posture called Tribhanga, loosely translates into not straight. It is essentially a feminine stance. We can see that in the Padmapani pose in which the statues were positioned earlier and in Lord Krishna’s stance.

Lord Krishna in Hinduism is considered a Purushottama (the ideal man): a man who embraces his feminine nature. He’s depicted here in this Tribhanga position and is often caught cross-dressing, and is also recorded as an extremely sexually explorative individual with at least 16,008 partners.


When we move to Sikhism, we come across a painting of Guru Nanak (Spiritual Teacher) from his travels in Baghdad, where he meets with a Sufi Sheikh (saint) who is cross-dressing so as to connect with the divine in his feminine form. Someone thought this exchange to be extremely iconic, so much so that they painted it.

In Nepal, we see Tantric imageries of Napunsaka (Intersex) being depicted: a person with both breasts and a phallus. In Tantric traditions and for a long time in Ayurveda, it was believed that a male takes birth when the white seed of the man is strong and a female, when the red seed of the woman is strong. However, when there are varying proportions, one gets a spectrum of sex and genders taking birth.


West India.

We have sculptures of the God Shiva, a highly masculine deity, depicted wearing mascaras, nose rings and adorning a veil. The story takes place in Madhuban, Krishna's land, where there's a time of the year where everyone gathers around for the Rasleela, a festival intended for dance and music.

There exists a rule here that states that any man other than Krishna, who wishes to enter the Rasleela, is advised to bathe in the River Yamuna, cross-dress as a woman and then dance. Highly interested, and a great dancer, Shiva was looking forward to the Rasleela. As advised, he bathed in the Yamuna, cross-dressed as a Gopi (milkmaid), just so that he could dance a duet with Krishna. He’s now worshipped as his feminine form, Gopeshwar Mahadev, in the west.


From the South, we have the Goddess Huligamma from Karnataka, depicted wearing a moustache. It is said that she’s so powerful that she’s been given a moustache.


And finally from the East, in Bengal we have this image and a love song called Shveta Gwala which talks about Radha and Krishna falling in love. They were so in love that they decided to experience each other's emotions by stepping into their partner’s life and exchanging each other's clothes.

We also have this imagery of Kali, positioned on top of Shiva, originating from the Baul Traditions in Bengal and Bangladesh. The narrative talks about Kali stating “I’m tired of being a female and a top. I’m now ready to become a male.” So she takes the form of Krishna. To which, Shiva states, “Well if you become Krishna, I have to do something as well. So I’ll become Radha and this time I’ll be a Top.“ So we have Radha and Krishna where this time, Radha is Shiva's avatar and a Top, while Krishna is Kali’s avatar and a Bottom.


Here, we have a world emerging with narratives that do not fall under the Sex Binary. Perhaps our ancestors were ahead of us when it came to creating a Sex+, Non-binary and an LGBTQ+ safe space for everyone to exist and flourish at the same time. Over time we have managed to curtail all activities and expressions and oppress genders and minorities, so as to ensure the continued rule of Patriarchy.

Any Indian Storytelling you pick up, you will see this idea of fluidity sprinkled all across the narrative. Not a part of LGBTQ+ tales, but this story that engages the reader on a philosophical journey: the story is about a demon who in his arrogance asked for a boon that said, “I must not be killed by a human or an animal, at day or at night, above or below.” So he’s killed by Narasimhan, a creature that’s neither human nor animal, at twilight which is neither day nor night, on his thigh, which is neither above nor below and at the threshold of his house, which is neither inside nor outside. This creature was an avatar of Vishnu, a God. Divinity lies in that being that is able to understand fluidity in Nature.

That is exactly what the scriptures talk about.

In Greek Mythology there existed a monster that is part goat, part lion and part serpent, and it was advised that should anyone witness such a creature, they should immediately kill it, for it is an abomination of nature.

However, a folk story in Orissa talks of a creature that is part rooster, part peacock, part human, part bull, part lion, part tiger, part antelope, part elephant, part deer and part serpent. The advice here is that you can’t destroy it, you submit to it. For nature is diverse and no matter how hard you try you cannot box it.


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