Temple Tales from Assam: Of Medieval Sculptures and Sensual Reliefs

Chance visits to Madan Kamdev and Pingalesvar, both on the outskirts of Guwahati, reveal carvings that are brazenly bold and arrestingly artistic.  
Pingaleshvar 1
Illustration by Aastha Mittal.

With a Sunday to spare in Guwahati, I spot a mention in a guidebook about the 12th-century Madan Kamdev temple, a 50-kilometre ride up north, across the Brahmaputra. It apparently has interesting sculptural depictions of tantric practices that have earned it the epithet ‘the Khajuraho of Assam’. In medieval days the jungly, hilly tracts of Kamrup were a centre for tantrism and even today the famous Kamakhya temple, on a hilltop outside Guwahati, draws pilgrims and tourists alike. Such as me. But this time I skip Kamakhya and instead go off to explore Assam’s lesser-known gem.

After my taxi deposits me at the Madan Kamdev gates, I climb up a desolate knoll to find a jigsaw puzzle of a temple—a jumble of blocks of finely carved stone scattered across the grounds. The temple would have been a majestic sight once, but nothing stands today save for remains of its innermost sanctum.

Many slabs depict scenes of dance and music, suggesting that in those times religion was a joyous affair. An elderly custodian sidles up and points out a worn frieze, “Sexual.” He knows what tourists come for. The doll-sized sculptures are frozen in postures they have kept for almost a thousand years: one strikes me as particularly acrobatic, in which characters have huddled into a complex position. There are several quite intriguing scenes to behold. Apparently, these figures covered the outer wall of the temple and in the book Archaeology of the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam by R.D. Choudhury, I read about the ancient “popularity of Tantrism in this region. The Pingalesvar ruined temple and the Madan Kamdev ruined temple have yielded quite a good number of such sculptures.”

Madan Kamdev is not quite Khajuraho, however. Had I ended my tour here I might not have had anything to write about, but then I recall the mention of the virtually ungoogleable Pingalesvar temple and ask the helpful custodian how far it might be—he says four to five kilometres. My taxi driver checks his GPS and says the distance will be 10 times longer than that and simply not doable. I persist.

It turns out to be more like 10 kilometres on pothole-riddled country roads meandering through picturesque rice fields. The car crashes into one of the bigger craters making a horrendous sound as if the rear axle snapped. But it still rolls and after 20 minutes, I see a signboard set up by the Directorate of Archaeology, pointing down a winding village lane. To my utter surprise, the temple looks brand new.

Pingaleshvar

Illustration by Aastha Mittal.

I’m bamboozled by how I got it so wrong. I ask the custodian who sits outside how old it is.

“12th century,” he says.

“It looks so new!”

“Yes, built five years ago,” he admits.

I can’t get my head around this: Five-year-old medieval temple? He mentions an earthquake that brought it down and I recall reading that Madan Kamdev likewise was devastated by a quake in 1897.

“What happened to the old one?”

He points to a shed across the temple pond, which turns out to be a site museum where the excavated remains are kept. It’s double-padlocked. “Government servant comes on Monday.”

I put a brave face on. “Surely you have a spare key?”

“No key, but will you have tea?” He serves laal sah, the red tea which is considered the national beverage of Assam and offers me a booklet about the temple. The tea has a delicious smoky flavour as it has been boiled over wood fire. The text is in Assamese. Not entirely—  there’s a brief English quote that mentions that some sculptures were discovered while foundations for the new temple were being dug in the early 1970s, “Different erotic figures including those showing [missing word] between human and animal figures.” I smile sadly when the custodian returns, curious.

“How did you hear about our temple? Nobody comes here.”

“I read about it in some old book, so I thought I must see it.”

I perk up when I hear what he says next: “We found a key.”

I head to the shed that sits in a walled-in garden where sculpted stones litter the lawn. The lock is almost impossible to open and two temple servants struggle with the rusty grille, but once we’re inside I see at least 40 blocks adorned with reliefs. As it turns out, there’s no electricity, so I view the pieces in the semi-dark, which only adds enigma to the voluptuous body of art.

I have hit a touristic g-spot. The sculptures are smaller but stranger than what I’ve seen at Khajuraho—and that this amazing collection is virtually unknown to the world (outside the archaeologist community) makes it exhilarating. There are characters both male and female, who engage in the noble art of self-satisfaction, which, according to Archaeology of the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam, is rare in temple art. The book states, “This shows that there were also women who derived more enjoyment in masturbation than in the sexual union with their male counterparts.” However, the stones excavated also “yielded some interesting male and female human figures in copulating posture.” They appear drawn from an exercise manual—and frequently a yogi sits nearby, perhaps the tantric instructor. Another mindbender depicts a Walt Disney-style crocodile romancing a lady. In all my years of travel, I’ve never seen anything to match it.

As I leave, the custodian shakes my hand warmly and says, “Please come again.”

  • Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).

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