The scenes were beyond comprehension: pagoda temples, over 65ft tall and centuries old reduced to rubble. Images tumbled in on the news channels registering the impact of the disaster. On April 25th 2015 an earthquake measuring 7.8 in magnitude, its epicentre in the region of Lamjung, ripped through the Himalayan foothills of Nepal, killing more than 9,000 people. Facebook set up a register of survivors and I checked obsessively for my friends to declare themselves safe and well. Major aftershocks, continuing well into May, claimed another 200 lives.
As the dust settled, with the arduous process of rebuilding homes and businesses under way, my friends – most of them Newars – began to express a deeper anxiety, something that went beyond the immediate crisis, to the root of their beliefs and the lost temples themselves. It recalled a visit I had made to Kathmandu some years before, when, for the first time, I began to appreciate what these landmarks meant to the people who lived among them.
The Newars, the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley – nowadays numbering less than a third of the 2.6m population – are thought to be descended from the Kirata, a Himalayan people referred to in the great Indian epics like the Mahabharata. Profoundly religious and renowned for their exquisite craftsmanship, they are responsible for what UNESCO describes as “a concentration of monuments unique and unparalleled in the world”. All seven World Heritage Sites in the Kathmandu Valley were badly hit by the earthquake, including Kathmandu’s Durbar Square in the heart of the old capital where I had lived for a happy summer in my gap year and have been visiting ever since. The buildings I had come to love – pagoda temples, royal palaces, monastic courtyards, stupas and shrines – are bound up in a belief system unique to the Newars: an amalgam of Hinduism and Buddhism underpinned by the strange, ecstatic practice of Tantra.
Of particular appeal to my school-friends and I when we were hanging out with the dharma bums back in 1983, had been the erotic carvings, ubiquitously described as “tantric”, on the roof-struts of the royal palace and pagoda-temples around Durbar Square. Eye-wateringly, sometimes humorously explicit (one depicted a couple of elephants in the missionary position; another, a woman enjoying the branch of a tree) they had seemed at odds with the dignified Nepalis going about their daily worship at shrines beneath them.
Our guidebooks had offered only a weak explanation: the carvings protected the buildings from lightning by shocking the goddess of destruction and driving her away. But there was clearly more to it. Erotic vignettes are signatures of all the major tantric sites – the temples in the city centres and on the cremation ghats of Pashupati, Mother Goddess shrines, and the former palaces of the Hindu king, places that are believed to channel powerful energy. Tantra to us teenagers, however, meant little more than smutty notions of superhuman sexual stamina. We had no idea how it related to beliefs in Nepal.
What we know as Tantra in the West is a far cry from the original. We tend to confuse it with the Kama Sutra, the second-century Indian sex manual that has titillated Westerners since its discovery by the late Victorians. Heralded as a beacon of sexual liberation, a new kind of feminism, even an antidote to the anxieties of our time, Tantra has spawned websites, books, videos, yoga classes, massages and workshops. Popstars seem particularly attracted: Jimi Hendrix etching tantric symbols onto his guitar, Mick Jagger with his psychedelic film “Tantra”, and Sting memorably claiming that sex for him and his wife lasts “seven hours and includes dinner and a movie”.
It was to try to gain some understanding of the real Tantra that I ventured out one sunny morning for a tour of the buildings in Durbar Square in the company of Professor Mukunda Raj Aryal, one of Nepal’s foremost tantric experts.
“So you are the English lady who wants to learn about Tantra.” There was a hint of knowingness in the professor’s tone. He extended a signet-ringed hand as though throwing down a gauntlet. We were standing outside the old royal palace. Around us flowed a familiar continuum of street vendors, bicycle rickshaws and revving motorbikes, punctuated here and there by a sadhu in orange robes posing for tourists, a Brahmin cow chewing a plastic bag, a ragged boy astride a temple lion.
Professor Mukunda Raj Aryal, a retired lecturer from the Department of Culture at Tribhuvan University, is consulted by leading scholars on the subject. He could explain the basic concepts, he said, but the inner teachings were taboo. True knowledge requires a dedicated guru and conditions of utmost secrecy – prerequisites that most Western seekers of enlightenment tend to ignore.
“Tantra is not something you can learn from a manual,” he said. “All earthly fears must be overcome. The ego must be harnessed and tamed. These things can only be learnt under the guidance of a tantric master.”
No one knows how old the philosophy of Tantra is, though there are hints of it in India’s oldest literature. Tantra’s roots spread deep and wide, stemming from animist belief and village cults of predominantly female deities. Tantra has, from the outset, thrived on the periphery, away from the centres of hierarchical control. By the Middle Ages it was well established in places like Bengal, Kashmir and parts of southern India. With its emphasis on powerful female energy, or shakti, it has always been at odds with the patriarchal religions, and ultimately, with the rise of Islam, orthodox Hinduism and Christianity in the subcontinent, it found itself relegated to a marginal position.
Early on, however (probably around the seventh century but certainly by the 12th century) it took hold in the fertile Kathmandu Valley – an area of 220 square miles ringed by mountains, and far from the reach of empires. Here, boosted by local shamanism, Mother Goddess cults and the matrifocal culture of the Newars, Tantra found a natural home. It remains a powerful form of religious practice to this day.
“Tantra is behind the scenes of every state occasion. Every festival is accompanied by rituals conducted by tantric priests. But normal householders can also be tantric practitioners. Many Newars of the high Buddhist castes undergo initiation, as well as Newars and other Nepalis of high Hindu castes,” the professor said as he steered me towards the Basantpur Pagoda, the medieval seven-storey look-out tower at the corner of the old palace. “Tantrikas perform two types of worship: exoteric worship, in the open with everyone else, at festivals or temples – and esoteric worship, which is more powerful. They do this in secret shrines in Buddhist courtyards and Hindu temples, or on the top floor of their houses.”
Tantra, he explained, is the invisible backbone running through both Hindu and Buddhist belief-systems in the valley, and this inner worship is believed to discharge an undercurrent of creative and protective energy into the world.
“So there are two ways of looking at tantric images. You can look at them with the ‘innocent’ eyes of a lay person, or with the inner eyes of the practising tantrika.
“We have some good examples here,” he said, peering up at the roof-struts. “You see the couple on the right in the sexual act, and beside them, an attendant? She is holding out a bowl to catch their bodily fluids. This is the nectar of life, the most powerful of all earthly substances. It is drunk by participants in the highest tantric rituals.”
A couple of passing tourists stopped in their tracks.
“Here”, continued the professor, “we have an interesting arrangement. The man is being lifted horizontally off the floor by two women, one of whom he has penetrated, the other he is stimulating orally.”
The tourists, jaws dropping, were rooted to the spot.
“Here, the lady has her legs over her shoulders...”
The professor lit a cigarette. He cast an intimidating eye at our bystanders who slunk away. I wondered if I would be wise to go with them. But he was just reaching his stride.
“The language and imagery of Tantra are deliberately misleading,” he confided. “So the foolish and ignorant will not understand it. They find themselves lost, as in a labyrinth.”
“These buildings are sacred mandalas, geometric designs representing, if you will, the DNA of the gods”
He repeated phrases ponderously, half-closing his eyes, as though intoning a mantra.
“Tantra, we might say, is the ‘fast track’ to enlightenment. It is a way of achieving nirvana within one’s own lifetime, without having to wait for aeons on the wheel of rebirth. But, like any short-cut taken at great speed, the tantric way is risky and dangerous. It is easy to crash, to destroy oneself. The guru must steer his pupil safely through the obstacles.”
We skirted the exterior of the palace. White stuccoed walls and neoclassical pillars towered over us. On our left, ladies carrying puja plates and swathed in saris ducked their heads under the narrow doorway into the red-brick residence of the Kumari, or Living Goddess – a little Newar Buddhist child presiding over the fortunes of Kathmandu from her lion throne. Two and a half centuries old, her three-storey house is an honorary temple, golden finials on the roof, eaves hung with red fringes and wind-bells, and with a pair of formidable stone lions guarding the entrance.
On the far side of the square, a group of devotional singers was chanting in the 12th-century pavilion of Kasthamandap – the building that gives Kathmandu its name. The professor moved swiftly on, past the five-roofed pagoda-temple of Trailokya Mohan Narayan and the nine-staged platform of the mighty Maju Deval Temple, and the lower two-storey temple of Shiva-Parvati, its divine couple leaning out of the window like an eternal Romeo and Juliet.
“All these buildings were built according to tantric principles,” the professor said. “They are more than bricks and mortar, somewhere for people to worship. They are sacred mandalas, geometric designs representing, if you will, the DNA of the gods. They are designed to emit their energy – a channel between heaven and earth. And like a two-way mirror they reflect the state of the nation, the mood of the people. If all is not well in the country, if there is civil unrest or a drought, say, images of the gods in the shrines inside will begin to sweat, or their faces may crack.”
The professor neatly sidestepped a cowpat and drew to a halt in front of the diminutive Jagannath Temple.
“In the same way,” he said, “our own body is like a temple. It carries the blueprint of the universe and we can awake inside it the energy of the gods.”
As we circled the small pagoda, examining the figures cavorting above us, the professor ran through the Sanskrit names for some of the yogic practices on show: kula dravya (ingestion of sexual fluids), yoni puja (veneration of the vulva), vajroli mudra (semen reabsorption through urethral suction), khechari mudra (placing the tip of the tongue into the back of the mouth or nasal cavity in a form of temporary self-asphyxiation). The phrases rolled off his tongue like marbles.
“In Tantra it is the desires and sensations of the body which are the key to enlightenment. We don’t have to look for nirvana somewhere nebulous, out there in the great beyond.” He tapped his chest. “It is right here.”
This was the revolution of Tantra – the concept that flies in the face of most mainstream religions. Christianity, Judaism and Islam all describe the sins of the flesh, viewing the body, with its limitations and brutish impulses, as one of mankind’s greatest obstacles to the divine. Conventionally the religious seeker is taught to be ashamed of him- or herself; to believe that heaven is not naturally expressed in flesh and blood, but in the world of the spirit; that only by overcoming earthly desires can they hope to reach God. Tantra turns all that on its head and makes the body itself the tool of enlightenment.
Tantra’s earthiness stems from its roots in the Indian village. It gained strength in medieval times, promulgated among the lower castes as a grass-roots reaction to the conventions of orthodox Hinduism. It was an assault on the tyrannies of patriarchy, the caste system and notions of ritual purity. Tantra inverted the spiritual hegemony of India, wrestling it from the immaculate hands of the Brahmin elite and thrusting it into the filthy, bloodied hands of butchers, prostitutes and untouchables. It was underpinned by a powerful conviction: that social pride and belief in one’s inherited virtue were the biggest obstacles on the path to spiritual release. The tantric practitioner, therefore, had to commit to acts that destroyed any vestiges of social status or self-esteem.
The professor turned back to the roof-struts for evidence. “The tantrika needs to practice things that are deliberately polluting in Indian culture, that he or she would normally consider repulsive. If they are vegetarian, they eat meat. They drink alcohol. They eat with their left hand – the hand that is normally reserved for wiping away excrement. In Tantra these are all called “vamachari” – left-handed practices. A tantrika has sex with his wife when she is menstruating, or drinks her menstrual blood, or his own semen. If he is high caste, he has relations with someone of a lower caste, or an untouchable, or even an animal, like a dog.
“Sex is important in Tantra because the sexual urge is the most powerful of the body’s impulses. There is nothing stronger than the desire to unite oneself physically with another. It is the overpowering instinct for unity, for the male to return to the female, for the female to unite with the male, to enter a state that is beyond all boundaries. Consider, if you will, the phenomenon of orgasm.”
I resorted to the safety of my viewfinder, aiming my camera at the rafters to avoid the professor’s penetrating eye.
“For a brief moment, at the point of climax, the mind becomes empty of thoughts. It is like a moment of meditation. The ego is extinguished by an experience of supreme bliss. And yet all too soon that moment has vanished – we are left feeling disappointed, dissatisfied, wanting more. Am I right?”
I nodded uncomfortably, reluctantly admitting myself into the bedroom of his first person plural.
“This is the moment the practice of Tantra aims to expand. The tantrika regains this moment through sexual activity but gradually he – or she – must learn, through meditation and control of their desire, to reach that same experience without releasing energy or becoming the slave of lust.”
Mastering the art of orgasm without ejaculation is an act of self-discipline involving the awakening of the kundalini, the serpent of female energy lying dormant, coiled eight times at the base of the spine, blocking the opening of the genital organ with her mouth. When the kundalini is aroused it can be channelled up the body through the chakras – psychic energy centres ranged between the perineum and the brain – piercing them like a shaft of brilliant light.
Experienced tantric masters, the professor explained, can raise their kundalini up through these chakras, experiencing different states of awareness, right up to the highest head chakra. From there, they can channel the female shakti energy through the top of the skull so it can unite with Shiva, the male aspect of Pure Consciousness pervading the whole universe, thereby opening the 1,000-petalled lotus of the sahasrara chakra and flooding the being with indescribable bliss.
In Buddhist terms, he said, the attainment of mahasukha, the great bliss, is achieved by the same resolution of polarity; through reuniting the cosmic aspects of male and female.
While Hindu temples openly exhibit erotic scenes, tantric Buddhists have their own images – sacred paintings or bronze statues of a god and goddess united in cosmic bliss – that are, traditionally, meant to be kept away from the eyes of the uninitiated in protected shrines. Seeing them without due preparation is thought to be dangerous and misleading.
As the professor talked, I trained my lens on the faces of the little human figures cavorting above us. Their expressions were not, as one might expect, contorted with desire or slavishly pornographic. They were, instead, remarkably tranquil. Homely, familiar and yogically entangled though they were, the figures of these tiny mortals had been captured in a moment of sublime stillness. They were indeed, their serene faces seemed to imply, on their way to a higher state of bliss.
“Through tantric practice, kings believed they became physically one with their kingdom”
The professor was smoking again, perusing the roof-struts above the erotic carvings where multi-armed, bare-breasted goddesses danced in frenzied array.
“The goddesses you see there are generating shakti, the creative desire which arises when the kundalini is awakened. We only see images like this on the outside of a temple. Inside, the inner shrine is very simple, totally unadorned, like the seed embedded in the womb. The inside of a temple represents the internal state where this energy is directed; where the mind becomes free of struggle, where there is stillness, where Shakti finds union with Shiva. So ‘tantric sex’, as you Westerners call it, is not about surrendering oneself to the sensation of pleasure, it is about learning how to direct it; about uniting the body with the vast expanse of the mind.”
He pointed to a depiction of cunnilingus. “Eventually,” he said, “the tantrika becomes so skilled in his practice he can insert the tip of his tongue into a woman’s vagina and recite sacred mantras without losing himself to his arousal. Ultimately he or she can excite these energies without a partner, without even moving. A state of transcendent ecstasy can be reached through mantras and visualisations alone.”
He wouldn’t elaborate on whether normal Nepali householders who have taken tantric initiation go in for these challenging sexual practices any more. It is more likely that, particularly in the Buddhist context, tantric performances are nowadays achieved as visualisations, during deep meditation.
The professor paused, then recalled himself to the old royal palace beside us. Ironically, though it began as a peasant movement, Tantra eventually came full circle and was adopted by the elite who believed it could make them invincible. The kings of Nepal had all been tantrikas. “Through tantric practice, kings believed they became physically one with their kingdom. They could exert power over their dominion and their subjects by directing the energy within their own body.”
The inner sight, the dhyan drishti, of the tantric raja was believed to bring heightened powers of perception whereby he could master the elements, visualise distant terrain and predict the movements of his enemy. He could even, it was said, control his own soldiers with his breath. Acquiring those powers, however, was not just attractive to kings. Anyone with designs on power would undertake tantric training.
“Even today, a number of people in authority are initiated in Tantra. But the true purpose is to gain powers to help other people, to reach a state of egolessness and compassion.”
“Are you a tantrika, professor?” I asked.
An enigmatic smile crossed his face. He looked up again at the carvings on the roof-struts.
“When we look at these acts of physical ecstasy, we can both be aroused by them, but you do not see what I see. Within each scene is a message that only tantrikas can read. See how the arms and the legs go out at strange angles; sometimes the people are upside-down and standing on their heads.” He laughed. “I think if you or I were to try these positions we would end up in hospital. This is not something we should be trying at home. These are symbols, a secret code.”
“I suppose you can’t tell me what any of them mean?”
“How much time do you have?” he asked. “And how do I know you will not misuse the information? It is tempting, once one has power, to use it for the wrong reasons. If I give you a loaded gun”, he said, with a cowboy flourish of his hand, “and you shoot everyone here, am I not responsible? That is why the tantrika must be supremely self-disciplined.”
He crunched his cigarette butt on the flagstones, before taking a final look at the buildings around us.
“Nowadays, fewer people are finding the time to devote to the tantric disciplines. There are fewer tantric priests. Fewer people are being initiated. Even lay people are growing lazy about rituals. Ask any priest, Hindu or Buddhist, and they’ll say the same thing. They’re worried about people losing their devotion; they’re worried what this will do to this country.”
His words came back forcefully to me in the weeks after the earthquake. Drone footage on YouTube showed the seemingly arbitrary damage in Durbar Square. The top tiers of Basantpur tower had crashed to the ground. Next to it, slabs of masonry had slid off the old royal palace leaving a wonky, gap-toothed façade. Round the corner, the temple of Shiva-Parvati was unscathed, as was the little Jagannath Temple. The ancient pavilion of Kasthamandap had been totally destroyed, however, and the multi-roofed pagoda-temples on the gigantic stepped plinths of Trailokya Mohan Naryan and Maju Deval had simply vanished; while barely feet away, the Living Goddess’s residence was untouched. As I hovered over it on my virtual flight, it seemed miraculous. Not a tile had been lost from the roof though mountains of bricks and gigantic timbers had fallen at the front door.
Facebook messages described terrifying experiences. The Living Goddess had been on her throne as the Earth began to move, the caretaker told my friend, and had shown no fear. The priests and her caretakers had prayed to her and begged forgiveness.
Swayambhu Dyama, a spirit medium and attendant to one of the holy temples, gave voice to the anxiety felt by many pious people in Nepal. The earthquake happened because of disrespect to the gods. The tantric correlation between the cosmos and the human condition, between the temple and the body, the resonance of human actions in the world, had manifested itself in a disaster of epic proportions.
“The Earth starts shaking and trembling because she cannot bear the weight of people’s sin and suffering any longer,” she told my friend. “People have become selfish and greedy. They forget how to worship. They only think of getting fatter instead of working to alleviate the suffering of others. They build big houses, buy big cars, accumulate rubbish.
“People have been disregarding the Earth – drilling into her for water,” she said. “Extraction and pollution have angered the deities and made us very vulnerable. There is only one Earth. This earthquake is not only for Nepal.”
If we go on like this, she said, “drought, flood, storms, earthquakes will come to everyone.”
In this spiritual land now more than ever is a time for soul-searching and reaching out to the gods. The job of resurrecting the mighty tantric structures in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square and across the valley has already begun.