The Pocket Kamasutra

By Alka Pande

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Dharma is better than Artha, and Artha is better than Kama.
But Artha should always be first practised by the king, for
the livelihood of men is to be obtained from it. Again, Kama
being the occupation of public women, they should prefer it to
the other two. And these are exceptions to the general rule.

—Kama Sutra 1.2.14[14]1[1]

What is the Kama Sutra? Is it a compendium of acrobatic sex positions—including one in which the man must stand on his head in the shirsha asana (a yogic headstand) to make love? Is it a guide to orgiastic excesses and delight, in which a man may satisfy three women at the same time? Is it a book for the courtesan? Is it a book of same-sex love? Is it a catalogue of aphrodisiacs which can keep men and women in a state of extended inebriated pleasure? Is it a how-to book which teaches men the means to enhance the size of their sexual organ and acquire immense prowess and energy? The Kama Sutra is all of this and much more.

The Kama Sutra was compiled in the 4th century ce by the sage Vatsyayana, who is himself believed to have remained celibate all his life. It was brought to light in modern times by the British explorer Sir Richard F. Burton and translated by F. F. Arbuthnot from Sanskrit to English. First published by the Kama Shastra Society in 1883, its circulation was restricted to a limited audience—publishing under the aegis of a private society was the only way to avoid censorship. It took more than eighty years, until 1962, for the Kama Sutra to be published in the Western world, so powerful were the vestiges of Victorian prudery in the English-speaking world.

There has always been a robust tradition of erotic writing in Indian literature—particularly in the genres of the Sanskrit kavya (poetry) favoured by court poets; Bhakti poetry and Sangam literature. In pre-modern India, there were several outstanding writers who composed poems, plays, novels, philosophical texts and works on the practice and theory of love. The wealth of this literature demonstrates that the erotic played an important role in the lives and the consciousness of people, and that the pleasure principle was of great significance in pre-modern India. Poems and plays freely chronicled love affairs, sexual adventures, faithfulness and infidelity. Both male and female beauty were celebrated—men were described as having ‘great arms’ like ‘plantain trees’, torsos ‘like the face of an ox’ and eyebrows ‘like a strong bow’. Women, meanwhile, possessed faces ‘like the full moon’ and were ‘long-eyed’, ‘tiny-waisted’ and ‘broad-hipped’. An instance of the centrality of the pleasure principle can be found in the Gathasaptasati, compiled by the Satavahana king Hala around the 2nd century bce, which is perhaps the oldest extant anthology of poetry that has come down to us. Focusing on themes of love and the erotic, the anthology is quite extraordinary in its frank treatment of sexual desire and relationships.

In this context, the Kama Sutra may be described as a distillation of the kama-related wisdom of India’s enlightened pre-modern sages. One of the first sages to reflect on kama was Shvetaketu, the son of Uddalaka, who recorded a summary of Nandi’s words in the 8th century bce. Nandi, Shiva’s sacred bull and his doorkeeper, is credited with having transmitted the very first treatise on lovemaking to mankind. According to tradition, Nandi overheard the sacred utterances of the god Shiva and his wife Parvati while they were making love. He then conveyed to mankind what had transpired within the divine bedchamber, and his description of this divine coupling formed the basis of the kama shastras.

Shvetaketu’s scholarship was extensive, and a number of learned and holy men were deeply influenced and inspired by his work between the 3rd and the 1st centuries bce. Babhravya, Charayana, Ghotakamukha, Gonardiya, Gonikaputra, Suvarnanabha and Dattaka are only a few of many such scholars and sages. It is said that Vatsyayana drew upon all their ideas to compile the Kama Sutra. One of the source texts in the Indian kama shastra tradition—works dealing with sexual pleasure in the Indian literary tradition—the Kama Sutra is, to my mind, the mother of all erotic manuals across continents and cultures.


In this small intimate book of images, appropriately named The Little Book of Pleasure, I am looking at four concepts through which I would like to unpack the colossus which is the Kama Sutra. In order to get a taste of the aesthetics of the erotic and the exploration of desire from which stems kama (pleasure), I am taking you, dear reader, through the love escapades of the nayaka and the nayika, and through maithuna where the sexual act gives ananda or ultimate joy which is aided and abetted by the ganika or the courtesan.

The Kama Sutra is one of the world’s most widely illustrated texts. Almost all illustrated versions available today, however, are products of a refined brush, and therefore, while exquisite, also predictable. This selection is a deliberate deviation towards a raw, almost primitive representation. The images in this little book will surprise you with their naïve quality, which is unique to the Sirohi School of miniature painting from Rajasthan.

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