In 2009, the Delhi High Court declared Section 377 of Chapter XVI of the Indian Penal Code “unconstitutional”, 150 years after the British administration first legislated against homosexuality. The celebratory response of Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders in India was predictable. However, Hindu fundamentalists and even telly-celeb’ guru Ramdev also weighed in to denounce this restored liberation as, of all things, “un-Indian”, exposing an astonishing ignorance of their own country’s history and culture.
Just four years later, in 2013, the enlightened action of the High Court was overturned by the Supreme Court of India. The colonial law that criminalises intimacy between men has been reinstated.
And yet despite modern India’s willingness to impose a Victorian Christian prudishness on its own rich and sensual culture, it is still possible to find people who remember the myths associated with the old, homoerotic traditions that long flourished across the Subcontinent.
The Peacock King
One example is the tale of King Shikhidhvaja – ‘He who is Marked like a Peacock’ – a compassionate ruler, who found the wealth and privilege of his birthright unjustifiable when his subjects endured a daily, grinding struggle.
The morning eventually dawned when the kindly king awoke, stared at his gilded ceiling and finally admitted that his life was too meaningless and superficial to tolerate. He kicked off his silken sheets, dismissed his astonished servants, discarded both his royal robes and rank, and slipped from the palace to wander in the forest in search of a greater truth.
Shikhidhvaja had travelled far from the comforts of his court when he came across a humble temple attended by a young ascetic named Kumbha – ‘Water Pot’ or ‘Paramour’ – who invited him to stay. The two men soon became the closest of friends.
Handsome and youthful he may have been, but Kumbha was a wise soul, who had already explored and embraced his true nature. Now every night he would reveal his ‘feminine’ form, Madanika – ‘Passionately Aroused’ – and sleep beside the man who was once king.
Longing to be loved
One morning as they bathed together, Kumbha asked Shikhidhvaja why he did not reach out to touch him as he lay by his side all night?
“I long to be loved,” he confessed, “in the ways a husband makes love to his wife.”
Shikhidhvaja was not in the least perturbed by Kumbha’s admission – and promptly married him. After all, Shikhidhvaja shared his name with the god Skanda, ‘The Spurt of Semen’, symbolic patron of men who reject conventional marriage in preference for the love of another man.
Thereafter, the devoted pair would pass their days as they always had, in deep discussion, exploring their true, limitless nature (as recounted in the Yoga Vasistha), whilst their nights would be spent in each other’s arms – an embrace so ardent that even a breath of breeze could not pass between them.
[You’ll find other such myths from the largely hidden homoerotic culture of old India in Limitless Sky]