Were ancient Indians really as flexible during sex as the Kamasutra shows?

What are we to make of these gymnastics?
What are we to make of these gymnastics?
Image: Reuters/Kamal Kishor
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The Kamasutra describes a number of contortions that “require practice”, as the text puts it mildly, and these are the positions that generally make people laugh, uneasily, at the mention of the Kamasutra.

Vatsyayana attributes some of the more difficult positions to his rival Suvarnanabha:

Now for those of Suvarnanabha: When both thighs of the woman are raised, it is called the ‘curve’. When the man holds her legs up, it is the ‘yawn’. When he does that but also flexes her legs at the knees, it is the ‘high-squeeze’. When he does that but stretches out one of her feet, it is the ‘half-squeeze’. When one of her feet is placed on the man’s shoulder and the other is stretched out, and they alternate again and again, this is called ‘splitting the bamboo’. When one of her legs is raised above her head and the other leg is stretched out, it is called ‘impaling on a stake’, and can only be done with practice. When both of her legs are flexed at the knees and placed on her own abdomen, it is the ‘crab’. When her thighs are raised and crossed, it is the ‘squeeze’. When she opens her knees and crosses her calves, it is the ‘lotus seat’. When he turns around with his back to her, and she embraces his back, that is called ‘rotating’, and can only be done with practice.

Evidently, Vatsyayana regards these as over the top, which is why he blames them on someone else, Suvarnanabha.

What are we to make of these gymnastics? Did people in ancient India really make love like that? I think not. True, they did have yoga, and great practitioners of yoga can make their bodies do things that most other people would not think possible (or even, perhaps, desirable). But just because one can do it is no reason that one should do it.

But I think the answer lies elsewhere:

Vatsyayana says: Even passion demands variety. And it is through variety that partners inspire passion in one another. It is their infinite variety that makes courtesans and their lovers remain desirable to one another. Even in archery and in other martial arts, the textbooks insist on variety. How much more is this true of sex!

The extreme positions may simply be the artiste’s freeranging fantasies on a theme of sexual possibilities: they are not instructive but inspiring, and inspired. The text is a virtual sexual pas de deux as Georges Balanchine might have choreographed it, an extended meditation on some of the ways that a naked man and a naked woman (or, rarely, several men and/or women) might move their limbs while making love. It represents a literally no-holds-barred exploration of the theoretical possibilities of human heterosexual coupling, much as the profusion of fantastical compound animals in other texts—heads of horses on the bodies of women, or torsos of women on the bodies of cobras, and so forth—push back the walls of our imagination of the variety of known and unknown animal species. It is a fantasy literature, an artistic and imaginative, rather than physical, exploration of coupling. And it boggles the contemporary imagination.

Though sexual reality may in fact be universal—there are, after all, just so many things that you can do with your genitals—sexual fantasy seems to be highly cultural. This, then, is what is new to us in the brave new world of this ancient text, in which the constant alternation of the familiar and the strange teaches us a great deal about human nature and human culture.

Adapted Redeeming the Kamasutra by Wendy Doniger with permission from Oxford University Press © Oxford University Press 2016. We welcome your comments at