Trisha Das’s Kama’s Last Sutra is a feminist fantasy that travels across time, foregrounds women’s sexual agency, challenges gender roles, sexual taboos and caste divisions. An excerpt from the book when budding archaeologist Tara Singh gets to go back in time to 1022 CE and meets Chandela King, Vidyadhara, who built the Kandariya Mahadeva temple.

‘Do you like it, Tara Bai?’

I glanced up to see Vidyadhara and the men around him looking at me as I bent down. I stood up quickly. ‘Yes, the sculptures are beautiful and so big.’

He nodded. ‘They are big because they will sit halfway to the sky, but must still be accessible to the humble pilgrim who would have come a long way to pay homage to the deity.’ He cast his eye over the sculpture I had been touching.

I caught my breath as it suddenly hit me that I was standing before Vidyadhara, the very man who had commissioned the much-debated sex carvings on the walls of the Kandariya temple. The only person who could bring to a close the longstanding debate about why such explicit stuff was depicted on the walls of a sacred place. And I wasn’t in a position to ask him why he had put them there. What a giant anti-climax. Then Vidyadhara looked at me with a spark of mischief in his eyes. ‘Would you like to see more sculptures?’

I blinked. ‘Yes, absolutely! I mean, yes, Maharaj.’ That made him chuckle again. He gestured for me to follow him.

Beyond the site, hidden by trees, there turned out to be a smaller complex completely dedicated to the carvings. There were huts and sheds and ovens and tools. And sculptures, hundreds of them of different sizes and in different stages of creation.

The king walked slowly, carefully looking over the carvings, until he came to a stop under a shed. He waved away the men surrounding him and said in a casual voice, ‘Tara Bai, come here.’

I went closer to look and soon realized why he had made the men step away. My jaw dropped. It was the carving I had debated over with the tour guide the other day – the one which featured an upside-down man having sex with a woman while fingering the two attendants who were holding her suspended over him. It was lying flat on the ground, at an angle where I could clearly see the underside of the woman’s buttocks. The part that was normally shaded from view when the sculpture was upright on the temple wall. At this angle, I could clearly see the man’s erect penis partly sheathed in his partner’s vagina. The attendants’ features hadn’t been fully carved yet, but the rest lay before me in huge, intricate, shocking detail. Vidyadhara looked at me carefully and tilted his head in barely disguised amusement. ‘What do you think?’

There were many things that could have potentially caught my attention – the delicate detail of the woman’s jewelled armband, the coil of her hair that was suspended forever in the process of becoming undone, the layers of intricate necklaces around the man’s neck – but I just stared at the space where their bodies joined.

There were many things that could have potentially caught my attention – the delicate detail of the woman’s jewelled armband, the coil of her hair that was suspended forever in the process of becoming undone, the layers of intricate necklaces around the man’s neck – but I just stared at the space where their bodies joined. Even though I had seen it a hundred times before, it had always been far away, a distant novelty I never had to deal with. This was so big and so close it felt overpowering and uncomfortable. ‘It’s obscene,’ I whispered before I could help myself, and then groaned inwardly.

To my surprise, Vidyadhara laughed. ‘Why do you think it’s obscene?’

I gulped and looked up at his face. He didn’t look in the least bit offended. In for a penny … I soldiered on. ‘Well, look at what they’re doing. Even if you discount the fact that you need to be an acrobat to actually get into that position, how can you do it in front of other people, with other people simultaneously? It’s a private act, between a couple. Or at least it should be.’

Vidyadhara’s smile had got wider as the words tumbled out of my mouth. By the time I’d finished, it was a teasing grin.

‘Why should the act be private, Tara Bai?’

Well, duh! ‘Because … I don’t know. It just should. This is…’

‘This is what? Tell me.’

I wanted to slap that grin off his face. ‘It’s kinky.’

He looked a little confused at that. ‘What does “kinky” mean?’

Oh God, I needed to shut up. ‘Well, I guess it means out of the ordinary. Something that is not normal or commonplace. Something … deviant.’

Vidyadhara considered me for a moment, the amusement suddenly gone. Then he looked around the complex, said, ‘Follow me,’ and strode off towards the construction site. The chief architect, Sarvadasa and the rest of the men scampered after him. I mentally kicked myself and began to follow, dread simmering in my chest. What was I thinking? He was the only thing protecting Puppa and me from all the paedophile priests and Vidanas of this world and I had gone and pissed him off.

So I walked up to him, ready to apologize, as he bent down between two large stones that had been carved into cubes. On one stone was a longish, rectangular block sticking out of the centre of one side. Like the stone cube had a penis, basically. The other stone, well, it had a rectangular vagina – a hole exactly the size and shape of the other stone’s penis. I knew that this was how most of the Khajuraho temples were constructed – stones that were fit into one another using ‘male’ and ‘female’ parts and then stacked to form walls and pillars. In an age when cement and other modern binding materials were absent, this simple, interlocking technique had proven surprisingly stable and long-lasting.

I knew that this was how most of the Khajuraho temples were constructed – stones that were fit into one another using ‘male’ and ‘female’ parts and then stacked to form walls and pillars. In an age when cement and other modern binding materials were absent, this simple, interlocking technique had proven surprisingly stable and long-lasting.

Vidyadhara pointed at the stone and then looked up at me. ‘These two stones were built to fit one another and stand with countless other stones just like them. On their own, they are useless. Joined together, they can support a structure that will almost touch the sky. Alone, each of these pairs are just coupled stones. When all the pairs unite as one, they are a tribute to the Mahesvara himself. Is that … kinky?’

I looked at the stones. Only the most perverted of minds would see anything pornographic about the way they would fit together.

‘No, it’s not.’ I looked up at him. ‘It’s perfectly natural.’ He nodded. ‘So was the act you saw depicted in the carving. The only problem, Tara Bai, was in the way you looked at it.’

Excerpted with permission from Kama’s Last Sutra by Trisha Das published by HarperCollinsIndia. Pages – 304, Price – Rs 299

Picture Credit: HarperCollinsIndia

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