With, homosexuality and same sex love having earned a significant place in the common vocabulary of people, earlier denial of non- heteronormative identities has significantly altered. Into the bargain, although the homosexual orientation is very well able to battle the sophism of psychological dysfunction or physiological impairment, it still lingers as a subject matter which is difficult to analyse for some, given the surrounding social stigma and ostensible notions of wrong against God in several faiths.
But is it a newly synthesised phenomenon that a multitude has suddenly started to resonate with? Or was it always there, shrouded by misconception & god fearing conscience?
Indeed there is a need for mindful anachronism of the term homosexuality as before the 19th century nobody evidently called themselves as bisexual, straight, lesbian or even gay.
Architectural depictions have long served to provide a rationale for the existence of homosexual interactions in ancient mainstream society. Evidence of an all-inclusive idea of Indian culture, these temples, one might argue could be a symbol of its debauch patron but given the ritualistic significance and its role in the society, one cannot disregard the fact that they were, in turn, the representation of the then conventional ideas of society. By the same token, the idea of Hindu philosophy based on the 4 pillars of human existence namely- Dharma, Artha, Moksha, Kama, is significantly affirmed through the temple architecture.
After all who can invalidate the Khajuraho effigies, cherished for its bold array of queer depiction. In addition to the sculptures found at Khajuraho, one also finds homoerotic figures in Rajrani Temple in Odisha, depicting two women involved in oral sex. Another 12th century Shiva Temple walls in Karnataka also flaunt similar themes of homoeroticism. Not only are there depictions of humans engaged in homoerotic interactions, but also all other conceivable forms of non- vaginal interactions, such as animals copulating with members of the other species in addition to hermaphrodites and androgynes.
Interestingly, the only temple for same-sex love in the world is located in Taipei, honouring the Taoist god Tu Er Shen who came to be revered in the realm of the Qing dynasty.
Although the Jain and Buddhist monastic orders vacillate on the depiction of sexual engagement in their sacred art, they did give way to sex as an essential part of nature and didn’t fail to acknowledge the queer way of life in their texts.
Amara Das Wilhelm’s book Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex, reveals the ancient articulation of homosexual identities as normal and equal to the heterosexual expression. Historians Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai’s work Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History, a well-researched book also articulates extracts from various Hindu texts, indicating the acknowledgement of same-sex love and desire either by denial or in tones of conformation. Amy Richlin talking about the common themes of male homosexual interaction in Roman literature addresses that the poetry to boys by men was as popular as those addressed to women.
Vedas, which form the foundation of Hinduism for many, do not refer explicitly to homosexuality, but Rigveda says regarding Samsara- “Vikruti Evam Prakriti” -perversity/diversity is what nature is all about, or, what seems unnatural is also natural. Further Kamasutra produced by Vatsyayana around 4th century affirms the coexisting ideas of same-sex love with heterosexual expressions. Giving an explicit account of the practices of the gays and lesbians, he also goes on to describe multiple phenomena within the construct of homosexuality.
In the “Jayamangala” of Yashodhara, an important twelfth-century commentary on the Kama Sutra, it is also stated: “Citizens with this kind of homosexual inclination, who renounce women and can do without them willingly because they love one another, get married together, bound by a deep and trusting friendship.”
While texts like Dharmashastras, Arthashastras and Manusmriti acknowledge the existence of other forms of non- vaginal sex only to condemn them on moral grounds seeking to restrain these with fines.
We also come across the Book of Chen which mentions the relationship shared between the Emperor Wen of Chen and his favourite male lover Han Zi Gao. Sappho is another poet whose poems prominently give into the themes of love and desire between women, which are either requited or unrequited.
The same-sex relationship between Emperor Ai of Han and one of his male concubines was quoted by Hinsch as evidence of the historical tolerance of homosexuality within the Chinese empire.
Bisexuality came to be a norm in ancient Chinese history but also we come across rulers like Alexander the Great and Nero as the earliest example of the bisexual exhibition, having relationships with both men and women. Nero is also known to have taken two men, one as a bride and other as a groom. Further the ancient greek and roman culture demonstrate the practice of homosexuality and the heterosexuality at the same time, with men involved in sexual activities with women for the chief purpose of procreation.
In Greece, paiderastia or pederasty was the most prevalent type of homosexual relationships between adult and adolescent male . The roots of the practice can be traced down to the greek tribal societies, a rite was followed whereby a child to become a man used to be in the company of an older man to seek education and to understand the essence of greek life.
Bhagiratha meaning ‘he who was born from two vulvas’, well known for bringing the river Ganga down to earth exemplifies the mythological affirmation towards homosexual love. Krittibas Ramayana voices the story of his mothers conceiving him.
Passions of a cut sleeve, a subtle euphemism suggesting male homosexual desire and love dates back to the Era of Emperor Ai and his commander Dong Xian. The story follows when on one-day Dong Xian fell asleep in the emperor’s arms and to avoid stirring his beloved awake the emperor cut off his sleeve.
Male homosexuality is the most commonly depicted themes as compared to women, often represented through objects such as cups and bowls. One such is the Warren Cup, depicting male homoerotic themes and suggested to be a depiction of the practice of pederasty in ancient Rome. Into the bargain, the ruins of the Roman city of Pompeii, hold a plethora of painting of homoerotic essence along with 16 brothel friezes of the similar trope.
A story ahead of its time
Ismat Chughtai’s short story “Lihaf” (quilt) published in an Urdu Journal Adaab-i-Latif oweing to its homoerotic temper rubbed its pre- independence audience the wrong way where the begum is left to explore her sexuality with the househelp. The story was subjected with the charges of obscenity in law. Keeping aside the complex undertones and symbolism of the title itself, Lihaf was perhaps a bold stroke of the Pre Independence Indian Literature.
Queer voices of urdu poetry
Sa’adat Yar Khan or ‘Rangeen’ is attributed for coining the word Rekhti, an essentially feminine counterpart of Rekhta poetry. The Rekhti poetry is a lesser known genre with female homoerotic themes, often expressed in homorous or flamboyant tones. There are various Rekhti poets but majorly 3 whose majority of works highlight the female homoerotic liaisons – Rangeen, Sheikh Qalandar Baksh and Insha Allah Khan.
An interesting use of colloquial diction, evident with use of words such as Chapat or Chapatbazi for female hommoerotic activity. Moreover, Rangeen’s frequent use of the word dogona or dogna, term still used today for two fruits in a single shell, is a fine-drawn affirmation for a women’s intimate companion. The poet uses various words like ‘zanakhi’, ‘elaichi’ and ‘dogona’ all related to the ritual of dining in India, implying the division of the male and female role between two women.
Liked this piece? Also read: Queer Characters in Mythology.
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