Fun and pleasure are located below the navel; the dispute and trouble are also located there.
This Bhutanese proverb opens the first essay by acclaimed urologist Johan Mattelaer in Alka Pande’s newly released book Pha(bu)llus: A Cultural History.
A recipient of the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government in 2006, Pande is currently the consultant art advisor and curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi, India.
For more than three decades, Pande has been researching and writing about eroticism and all things phallus: a representation of the erect penis that is often associated with fertility and male potency.
The Indian subcontinent is definitely no stranger to the erect penis symbolism. The erotic sculptures at the Khajurao temples, a UNESCO World Heritage site, are a compelling example. The nunneries of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh are also adorned with various representations of the phallus symbolising divine worship and strength.
In Bhutan, we learn from the book, the phallus could be seen hanging from walls and roofs in the early fifteenth century. Even today, phallus art can be seen painted on walls, carved into wood, worn on necklaces and carried by masked jesters in religious festivals.
Pande’s earlier book Ardhanarishvara: The Androgyne probed the gender spectrum spiritually – the complementary nature of the male and the female within the single body. In October 2014, she also did an exhibit on the Kamasutra in Paris, the “city of love,” featuring artworks that highlighted the intersection of Indian erotic art, spirituality and the fluid idea of love. It also aimed to bust myths surrounding the text.
“When my publisher suggested that I work on a focussed book around the phallus, it seemed like the most natural thing to do,” Pande recounts.
“The idea was to move beyond the representations of the phallus found only in ancient Indian socio-religious art. I thought if I approached it with a more global framework – it would bring about a sense of cosmopolitanism and universality to the book so that it wouldn’t be limited only to the Indian subcontinent.”
Probing beyond India, Pande was surprised to discover just how pervasive the phallus was in tribal societies and whole nations alike – particularly the trippy correlation of cats, phallic trees and magic in European societies.
Illustrations and wall murals dating back to the 13th century can be found across Italy, depicting cats holding a phallus in their muzzle. Cats, as transformed witches, were believed to be capable of attacking the male sex because they are alert at night and can see in the darkness.
A similar mural discovered in Massa Marittima, Tuscany, shows a tree that bears erect phalluses complete with scrotal sacs, while under the tree stand eight witches. Phallic saints like Saint Foutrin, the first bishop of Lyon in France, were also worshipped – so termed because they were depicted with gigantic phalluses. In Antwerp, the phallus-shaped statute of Verpus was worshipped by women as a remedy for sterility.
“It is quite interesting that, even in medieval Europe, there were these phallic saints. And not just European but also the Scandinavian and Celtic cultures. It was not some abstract high art like the one found in India. I found it quite amusing how they would treat phalluses – they would cut them, chop them up, cats would eat them, and then it was all linked to male impotence,” Pande explained.
Even though there was a common denominator of phalluses running across all cultures throughout the ages, Pande was still fascinated with the nuanced differences in the Eastern and Western approaches towards the phallus that cropped up during her research. There is also a psychoanalytical approach to the phallus by clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Amrita Narayanan.
In the Indian subcontinent, the phallus never became a part of social life. “It was only seen as a metaphor of worship,” said Pande. “You might have some phallic-looking betelnut crackers here and there, but in European societies, it was quite literally a part of their everyday lives. In ancient Europe, there were walking sticks with phallic handles and people would even wear phallus-shaped amulets around their ears.”
Pande also highlighted how codpieces were an integral part of men’s clothing in Europe during the Middle Ages – another nuance that showed the contrast between different cultures’ approaches to the subject.
The origin of the codpieces can be traced to England’s victory over the Burgundians in 1476. The metal shell of the codpiece, attached to the coat of armour worn by soldiers or the king, protected their genitals. Even the official portraits of Emperor Charles V and Ferdinand II prominently featured erect codpieces.
“But back in India, it was and still is only seen as a symbol of masculinity,” Pande said.
The prudish attitudes that came with the colonial times spoiled the phallus for Indians, she added. The phallus, despite its rich history in Indian scriptures, was suddenly considered pornographic.
“We primarily look at the phallus as a religious symbol, like the lingam,” she explained. “It is only now that you have phrases like ‘big dick energy’ on T-shirts. But Indians were always predisposed towards pleasure. We even had pleasure gardens during the Mughal times. To a large extent, the Victorian prudery diluted our approach.”
The way Pande sees it, the “covering” of the openness of traditional Indian society was the fault of its “prudish Victorian masters.”
Another unfortunate consequence was the criminalisation of homosexuality and cannabis use. Pande cited popular French philosopher Michel Foucault, who, in his trailblazing work The History of Sexuality, explained how piano legs were covered by medieval Victorians because they thought it resembled the female vulva. This also led to the culinary tradition of covering sandwiches – the cut-off parts were thought to resemble the vagina.
“We have always been a pleasure-seeking society. The evolved life according to the Kamasutra (ancient Sanskrit treatise on sexuality, eroticism and emotional fulfilment) is a life of balance where pleasure plays a very important role,” Pande said. “Or even in the Arthashastra (ancient Sanskrit book on politics, economics and the running of the state), courtesans are considered important stakeholders because they paid taxes. For us, pleasure permeated every pore of our lives. We need to do away with this moral duplicity surrounding phalluses and pleasure.”
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