In “Time Pieces,” Nayanjot Lahiri’s jaunt through love in ancient India

25 November, 2018

Who were ancient India’s “first couple?” This unlikely question from a purveyor of India’s antiquity is one among the many explorations in historian-archaeologist Nayanjot Lahiri’s latest book, Time Pieces – A Whistle-Stop Tour of Ancient India. Lahiri is an authoritative voice in the study of proto-historic and early India. Time Pieces, though, is a departure from the pedantic and voluminous tomes on the subject, and written, as Lahiri says, “to be widely read with, I hope, enjoyment.” Lahiri attempts to open a window to ancient India via facets that are “important from the contemporary perspective: food and hygiene, art and identity, environment and emotions … linking small phenomena to the larger world of the Indian subcontinent.”

In the following extract, taken from the section dealing with love in the time of the ancients, Lahiri journeys through the first known Indian love graffiti, found in the caves of Chhattisgarh, to the erasure of the “golden age of sexual enjoyment” from the “mythic glories of ancient India so fancifully touted by right-wing Hindus.”

The Gathasaptasati (dated to between the first and the sixth centuries CE), apparently compiled and partly composed by Hala, a king of the Satavahana dynasty, is immersed in conjugal love. This is expressed in two voices, male and female. Mansplaining is common enough in ancient texts (if not a scourge within them), but in this anthology women also speak: “I remember the pleasure of harshly dragging his hairs entangled around my large toe, when he sat without speaking with me in the vicinity of my feet.” Unlike the urban milieu of the Kamasutra, the world depicted here is rural, with men travelling out and married women, forlorn as Mariana of the Moated Grange, yearning poetically for their absent mates. A woman whose husband is scheduled to go abroad the next day entreats the night to lengthen so that “tomorrow does not at all come into being.” This feeling was mutual: “the traveller, being bound by sorrow on finding the face of his wife pale at the time of farewell, did not like to go abroad.” Separation anxieties here, among those in the throes of familial love, are similar to those in Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 BCE), where Andromache confronts her husband Hector when fearing misfortune as he prepares to leave her in the war against the Greeks. He too is uncertain whether this will be their last time together but warns her not to give in to the enemy: “But may I be dead and the piled earth hide me under before I hear you crying and know by this that they drag you captive.” One reason why wives were described as looking pale at the time of farewell was possibly that they feared the worst for their travelling men.

But coming back to our king-composer Hala, his work is strongly inclined in the direction of arguing for the desirability of physical pleasure unbridled by deterrents—including menstrual cycles. This is exceptional. Evidently, the king-composer was unhappy with the taboos that Dharmashastra texts had laid down in relation to, or rather in relations with, menstruating women. This is emphasized in different parts of the text and most evocatively in the following lines: “Though to people it is contemptuous, inauspicious and bereft of decorum, yet the sight of a woman in her menstrual course gives pleasure to the heart.” Or when the poet remembers “kissing by that (lady) with her face besmeared with ghrita mixed with (yellow) colour (to indicate her menstrual course)—the kissing wherein she bent down her lips, without however, rubbing her nose and touching her forehead (with those of mine).” Wives had to wear something to indicate they were menstruating, and thus seasonally taboo, for men: this sounds like something that the Hindu law codes—all written by non-menstruating men—would have approved of. The taboo was probably regularly transgressed, but it is rather nice that the text’s descriptions underline the desirability of transgressing. Romantic love is, in any case, presented here as integral to the marital relationship.

By no means, though, was it always that love followed marriage. Ashoka is supposed to have fallen in love with his first wife Devi before they became a couple. This was when, as a prince, he travelled to Vidisha on his way to becoming the governor of Ujjayini. They soon began cohabiting and had two children who would later be central to the story of how Buddhism became the religion of the ruling family of Sri Lanka. Sadly, for those interested in this love story, the retelling of it in Buddhist sources is cryptic. Mercifully, there are other kings whose passion is more poetically rendered, as for instance King Dushyanta, who falls in love with Shakuntala in Kalidasa’s play with a mouthful of a title, Abhijnanashakuntalam. When he sees her for the first time and is immediately infatuated, the moment is given metaphoric expression by, among other things, envy of a bee flying into the heroine’s face: “…you steal the concentrated power of love. And so you win her, while I am stalled, in supposition.” A few acts later the king marries Shakuntala, the bee notwithstanding.

From real couples to those who figure in antique poetry, it looks like romantic love leading to marriage and conjugal bliss was neither peculiarly Western nor particularly modern. Sometimes we hear the sound of the wedding bell. More often, we hear the sounds of bedding well.

This is an excerpt from Nayanjot Lahiri’s latest book, Time Pieces– A Whistle-Stop Tour of Ancient India, published by Hachette India in October 2018.