Why are there erotic sculptures on the props of Kathmandu's pagodas? What is the relationship between sex and the sacred? This book - Tantra, Theology of Love and Freedom - the fruit of decades of field research, provides answers to these questions. A journey to the heart of the cults of ecstasy.
Couples and even threesomes embrace lovingly in the most improbable positions. They copulate from the front, the back, even in profile; an assistant sometimes encourages the lovers with his caresses or even joins in their games by sodomy, fellatio or even flagellation.
Here a young girl allows herself to be lovingly covered by a horse, another copulates with a dog, elsewhere a woman with her legs spread, raised to her shoulders, shamelessly displays her vulva, which her hands open wide. Two women are sitting next to a man, one feeding him, the other masturbating him, several characters are sexually united in complex positions, a man with several women or men with a single woman, groups are indulging in practices of exacerbated sadism, a religious man with a bun and a long beard is about to have coitus with a young girl?
No, this is not a pornographic film. These images of strange beauty, disconcerting eroticism and provocative obscenity are carved on the support beams of the elegant golden-roofed pagodas that stand all over the Kathmandu valley.
These sculptures, which shock or at least intrigue even contemporary Nepalese, were imagined and sculpted at a time when life and customs were very different from today.
Although Nepal has never been colonised, the English influence and Puritan Victorianism, which adapted so well to the rigour of Indian Brahmanism, has also permeated present-day customs.
In earlier times, "Dionysian" practices were still common, with annual festivals that broke the usual taboos for a few hours and were an integral part of religious rituals and a kind of social necessity, as the small population and devastating epidemics justified encouraging reproduction. The striking, starkly realistic images said more to seventeenth-century observers than long speeches on the subject, in a context, let us repeat, where the birth rate was a necessity in the face of a very high infant mortality rate, resulting in insufficient population.
Sex, a source of redemption
This essay does not claim to solve all the mysteries of the pagodas, nor those of Tantrism. It would have been necessary to begin by explaining all the subtleties of Hindu Tantrism, then those of Buddhist Vajrayana Tantrism, which would have taken us too far into general considerations of the two religions. Our aim is essentially to highlight the similarities between Hindu and Buddhist Tantrism, rather than to emphasise the differences.
We have focused on radical doctrines and practices that are sometimes shocking, but which ultimately aim only to achieve spiritual upliftment and liberation from the chains of reincarnation that trap souls in a kind of spiritual noria from which they find it hard to escape.
Text: Eric Chazot
Photos: François Guenet
Eric Chazot is a writer specialising in Nepal, where he lived from 1975 to 1988 and to which he returns several times a year. He is regarded as one of the leading experts on Himalayan art. He had the good fortune to meet an old Newar sage who explained to him tantric knowledge and practices that were kept ultra-secret.
This beautiful book, illustrated with 108 magnificent photographs, reveals the exceptional heritage of a sacred art and rites reserved for a rare few. It is also a precious testimony to the tantric dimension conveyed by the erotic iconography of certain Nepalese pagodas in the Neware Valley.
This book is all the more precious as it contains unique testimonies of the statuary of the temples and sanctuaries of the capitals of the ancient kingdoms, Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan, destroyed by the 2015 earthquake.
François Guenet is a photographer specialising in Art and Civilisations for major French and foreign magazines. He has an in-depth knowledge of Nepal, where he has produced numerous reports over the last forty years. He also works as a photojournalist and has covered numerous conflicts in the Middle East.
Some of his work can be seen on http://www.divergence-images.com/francois-guenet/
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