Tuesday, 14 May 2019

The Scorpion Woman of Khajuraho

Woman of Indian Sculpture - Part I

If you want to see some real action involving amorous couples, and threesomes, and foursomes going rumpy-pumpy, head for Konark, India’s erotic capital frozen in stone. If you want to get knocked senseless by the unidimensional fertility symbol exploding into an explicit femme fatale with in your face oomph and sexuality, come to Khajuraho to seek the Scorpion Apsara.

देखो रे, देखो रे, देखो उतर गयो बिछुआ
टूट के रह गयो डंक, उतर गयो बिछुआ

सैयाँ को देख के जाने

किधर गयो बिछुआ

कैसो रे पापी बिछुआ, बिछुआ
(Song from Madhumati)

The rare pair of Scorpion Apsaras found in the Pradaksinhapath of Kandariya Mahadev Temple - Khajuraho, MP

The scorpion chooses its quarry carefully. The women are all alone, unbelievably voluptuous and sensuous and in various stages of disrobing.

You are totally bewitched with the recently seen image of this voluptuous woman with a scorpion on her thigh. A woman whose breasts defy gravity and who will never need a corset, disrobed and exposed. Simona Cohen describes her as ‘full-blossomed young apsarā (Celestial Nymph) figure who is provocatively displaying the sexuality of her ripe breasts and exposed genital area’. You have seen erotica in Khajuraho and Konark and have seen lone women giving pleasure to themselves but you do not remember ever seeing this iconography of a disrobed and exposed woman with a scorpion climbing her thigh.  

This is how hard it is to locate the Scorpion Apsaras!

The woman is apparently from Khajuraho. This will require you to go into the depths. No pun intended. You have always visited Khajuraho without the point and shoot zoom cameras. You are sure there should be something in the projecting rows of images on the exteriors of the temples especially in the Western Group. Entire morning is spent in zooming the photos and hoping to find the scorpion woman. For the first time, you are actually looking at the images that brings tourists from all over the world for their erotic content.

Now that you notice, apart from the few images of Gods and their manifestations, the sculptures mostly capture the forms and moods of 11th century milieu. In most images, the women are shown with their partners dressed in finery and adorned with some fantastic jewellery and hairdos. Others, but very few compared to Konark which has erotica spread over every inch, show amorous men and women, sometimes with multiple partners, engaged, how to put it, in varying and innovative styles of rumpy-pumpy.

While the monkey tugs at her dress on the right, the left Apsara is luckier with the scorpion riding her thigh

Photo Courtesy: Khajuraho & Orchha by Dr Rajaram Panda

You look for the lonesome ones. Wait a minute – finally! But what is this? The woman is undressed but there is no scorpion on her thighs. Instead a little monkey is tugging at her wraparound like dress. And then you see the figure next to her. She too is in in the act of disrobing revealing her genitals. You can make out the disfigured form of a scorpion on her left thigh. This is exciting. More digging and you come up with several images from several places and across temples. There are a total of 22 extant Scorpion Apsaras in eight temples, with the grand Kandariya Mahadev Temple alone having twelve images.

The Apsara from Patan's Rani ni Vav with the scorpion on her robe

This time the scorpion has climbed her thigh and she looks quite pleased - Rani ni Vav, Patan, Gujarat

Hundred years later the motifs of scorpion and lizard will appear in Hoysala temples but not on the thigh as the Khajuraho woman. Does Konark, the erotic haven, has Scorpion Woman? And what about the monkey? It is all getting interesting. Friends have chipped in with photos from Gujarat’s 11th century Rani-ni-Vav in Patan with images of the Scorpion Woman!

The Apsara that started it all - where is she - is she still extant in one of the temples or now located in a museum? Photo Source: Unknown 

In all probability, the prettiest Apsara is the one you have been looking for. And you are so happy that she has a head and wow; she is beautiful!

And what about the image that got you started in the first place. You are not sure if the image is currently housed in some museum or it is one of the 22 images still extant in some projection of the temples.

The Apsara pleasuring herself even as the scorpion climbs her thigh. Photo Source: Alamy

So, what does the scorpion on the thigh signify and why is only the Apsara associated with the scorpion?
  • Is the Apsara disrobing out of fear of the scorpion?
  • Is scorpion just symbolic?
  • Is the iconography auspicious alankar with fertility symbolism and as sakti or power for cosmic creation?
  • Does she denote the passion of devotee towards diety ?
  • Is this unfulfilled desire?
  • Is the scorpion and apsara combo propitious and apotropaic or both?

While the neighbouring Apsara is dressed and pleasuring herself, our Scorpion Apsara is already disrobing for the encounter

Simona Cohen examines this in her interesting paper which you will try to summarize here:

Apsaras are the heavenly nymphs that came into being during the Churning of Ocean, are grouped with the Gandharvs, live on Mount Meru and have names like Urvasi, Menaka, Rambha, Tilottama, Sukesini, Manorama. The Apsaras can be usually found playing musical instruments and dancing with Gandharvs. Hoysala temples have the musical aspect of the Apsaras. Apsaras are also known to corrupt sages as embodiment of sexual desire and pleasure. No literary evidence exist that explains the iconography of the Apsaras so there is no way of knowing why a scorpion sits on the thigh.

Scorpion Apsara epitome of Khajuraho erotica - On the exterior of Kandariya Mahadev Temple

Britannica says:
Apsara, in Indian religion and mythology, one of the celestial singers and dancers who, together with the gandharvas, or celestial musicians, inhabit the heaven of the god Indra, the lord of the heavens. Originally water nymphs, the apsaras provide sensual pleasure for both gods and men. They have been beautifully depicted in sculpture and painting in India and throughout areas of South and Southeast Asia influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. Notable examples are the 5th–6th-century frescoes at Ajanta in India and at Sigiriya in Sri Lanka and the sculptures and bas-reliefs decorating the temples of AngkorCambodia.

While the anonymous Apsara is busy getting dressed and ornamented our Scorpio Apsara is ready for some fireworks

Photo Courtesy: Eicher Goodearth Travel Guide

Scorpion or Vrscika (Sanskrit) has been used as symbol of procreation and fertility. Scorpions and serpents are worn as necklace by Shiv in Aghora aspect. The Agni Purana prescribes an herb called vrscika (the Sanskrit word for scorpion) for the cure of epilepsy. So scorpions can be used as apotropaic image on talismans, the body, or the temple.

Virakumari Yogini at the Chausath Yogini Temple in Hirapur Odisha with her Scorpion Vahan

The Fierce Bhadrakali with Scorpion on her belly

Photo Courtesy: Maverickbird and do read her amazing series of stories on Khajuraho http://www.maverickbird.com/india/khajuraho-and-what-lies-beneath/

Kadwaya in Shivpuri MP has plenty of Bhadrakalis

The earliest such iconography was seen on a seal of Indus Valley. A female figure / goddess is seen flanked by two scorpions displaying her genitals. The constellation of the scorpion controls the genitals, sexual passion, fertility and progeny. Bhadrakali, a fierce emanation of Parvati is the scorpion goddess and is shown with a scorpion on her emaciated belly; a total opposite of the Apsara. One of the Yoginis of Hirapur Odisha has scorpion as her Vahana. Four different verses of the Yavanajataka (4th to 6th century), emphasize the association between Scorpio and the genitals. Al-Biruni, in his book on astrology, written in 1029 A.D. just about the time that the Kandariya Mahadeva temple was constructed and shortly after his own trip to India with Mahmud of Ghazna in 1022 A.D., states that in India, Scorpio was associated with the genitals, fertility, progeny and hermaphrodism.

She is most dressed of all - Khajuraho

Are the Apsaras actually wearing scorpion amulets? Tribals around Khajuraho who worship village deities still wear ancient scorpion amulets. In Bundelkhand, the girl in the course of the rai dance, sings that she will die because a scorpion has bitten her. Scorpion here is her lover. In contemporary Gujarat, the women have motif of scorpion embroidered on their ghaaghro. The scorpion is malevolent towards any man trying to steal the woman from her husband. Further, in Bundelkhand, a horny wife is called dankini and in Rajasthan a sex-obsessed wife is called bichchhuri, pointing to the observation that a female scorpion usually kills the male after mating.

Now’s the Time for the Breakdown!

Scorpions have ambivalent characteristics – they both kill and protect. Temples always had erotic imagery as prescribed by sacred literature and shilp texts which had both Propitious - Apotropaic purposes. So, for a brief time in the making of Khajuraho temples, especially during the raising of Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, the Shilp-in-Chief got this idea of putting a scorpion on the thigh of this overtly oomphy Apsara. The sensuous Apsara, breasts filled with amrit, uninhibited and seductive will be the epitome of free-spirited allure that is Khajuraho. The Skunk Works team sat down to decide the iconography. Word is sent out in the neighbouring villages and some voluptuous maidens descend into the studio with live scorpions. The Scorpion Apsara will be clad in this diaphanous sarong like outfit and the sculpture will capture the moment when she sees the scorpion on her dress climbing up her thigh. She will be shown untying the knot around her waist revealing her genitals. 

She is the prettiest Scorpion Apsara in Khajuraho - and who says the Apsara is frightened seeing the scorpion - here she is already fantasizing about the impending copulation

Now you are not sure if she is supposed to throw off the scorpion thus indicating fighting off the lust and desire or if she is actually preparing for the impending copulation; the raised sting signifying ithyphallic scorpion. Some scholars opine that there is a look of fear in the eyes of the Apsara when she sees the scorpion climbing her thighs. But to you all you see is unadulterated delight and excitement on her beaming face. All the longing and yearning for her lover is just about to come to an end.

This was a huge evolution. While other single women mostly indulge in self-pleasure without exposing themselves, the Scorpion Apsara ups the ante; she is one among the anonymous group of Apsaras who has just graduated from the Plain Jane fertility symbol to full blown femme fatale with in your face explicit eroticism. Instead of being almost utilitarian, even as she throws off her robes, she puts on the dress of ambivalence; just like the ambivalent scorpion, who can kill and protect at the same time, as it makes its way up the thigh towards the sweet world of pleasure. This world is again ambivalent – the participants will experience the highs of both life and death together in those few ecstatic moments. The invoked experience of orgasm is like ‘half-death’ – it is almost halfway to heaven.


The Scorpion Apsarās at Khajuraho: Migrations of a Symbol by Simona Cohen published in JOURNAL OF THE ASIATIC SOCIETY OF BOMBAY Volume 74/ 1999 
Simona Cohen (Professor Emeritus), Art Historian at Tel-Aviv University, has published extensively on Renaissance iconography, Venetian painting, medieval and Renaissance animal symbolism and depictions of Time. Her recent books, Animals as Disguised Symbols in Renaissance Art, and Transformations of Time and Temporality in Medieval and Renaissance Art, were published by Brill (2008 and 2014). Indian Art History is her second field of research and teaching.

The Scorpion in Muslim Folklore by Jurgen Wasim Frembgen in Asian Folklore Studies, Volume 63, 2004, 95-123

Erotic Sentiment in Indian Temple Sculptures by Rekha Rao

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  1. You have a flair for illuminating the lesser-known dark corners of history and heritage. The Gahadwala Vishnu, the Lat Masjid, Bijamandal...with each encounter you are becoming an expert in distilling knowledge from an array of codes and ciphers. Now, you outdid yourself in understanding the enigma that's the Scorpion Girl.

    Loved the lovely, lighthearted and fascinating story which felt familiar yet strange.

    Woman and her wants make up for such a mystery!

    1. Hi Anuradha,

      India's history and heritage has so many hidden recesses that become so exciting the moment you step off the trail. Of course even God does not know what women want. I have just tried to put to words what i felt seeing this incredibly beautiful woman who for a few days totally had me obsessing.

      Thanks as always to read and to contribute to my stories.


  2. In every stone is hidden a sculpture and in every sculpture, a soul. Waiting to be understood.

    I was intrigued when I saw a dazzling scorpion apsara on the sunny pavilions of Rani ki Vav eight years ago. I looked for her on the net but couldn't find much except a few mere mentions. Most of them saw her just as a recurring motif on temple walls or as a concept, at the most.

    I like the way you articulate your thoughts and feelings in your stories. I liked the way you treated and developed this story. I liked the portrayal of the Scorpion Apsara not as divine or human or stone, but as a woman and an evolution.

    Look at her. She's not only the prettiest apsara but also the only smiling apsara. She seems to know one day you'll be looking for her and be totally bewitched by her. She seems to smile at you, urging you to look beyond the stony surface to the layers beneath. Beckoning you to move beyond the realm of the physical to the spiritual. Nirdesh she cast a spell on you!

    I come back to read the story again. Now when I look at her, her amusing smile speaks volumes. It seems she foresaw her journey from Sex Tantric to Just Tripping and the fascinating story featuring her. She seems to be happy with the story. Her smile seems to grow wider even as I look at her.

    It doesn't take God to understand her.

    1. Hi Anuradha,

      Thanks for reading the story again! Of course, no one can analyse a story so succinctly like you do. Yes for few days the Sex Tantric did have me under her spell when i saw her everywhere, breathed her and dreamed her. And i just wonder about the first sculptor who gave her this look, the look on her face and the entire message she gives out. I am just glad I got to meet her, study her and fell in love with her. We will meet again and this time I wont be surprised if the Scorpion Apsara climbs off the wall as she sees the scorpion approaching with that bewitching smile on her face. I cant make her wait any longer.

      Thanks Anuradha!