The Love and Lust of India’s Aphrodisiacs

We explore the world of India’s aphrodisiacs, looking at the relationship between food and sex and how this has impacted Indian culture.

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"Rub rosewater and musk onto the intimate parts"

India’s aphrodisiacs are celebrated in art and literature, where there is a sense of both sensuality and sacredness associated with food.

It is a window into the bold, sensual representation of a 2,000-year tradition, whether it is art, delicacies, or the book that many cannot get enough of – The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana.

Food has always played an important role in human life, from satisfying the hunger to sensual pleasures.

Indian culture is known for highlighting the beauty of the human body and we’ll dive into how the country pioneered the use of aphrodisiacs, where food, art, and sexuality are intertwined.

A Brief History

The Love and Lust of India's Aphrodisiacs

It is said that food is not only for the body but also for the soul, according to the Kama Sutra.

In many cultures, certain foods are thought to be aphrodisiacs like oysters.

Food and sex are two of the most fundamental human drives.

For example, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, is the inspiration for giving birth to aphrodisiacs, food, and drink that make sex more pleasurable or attainable.

It is primarily the visual satisfaction of seeing appetising food, as well as the stimulation of its pleasant aroma, that conveys the most satisfaction to us.

Like making love, cooking and eating stimulate the senses of smell, sight, taste, touch, and sound.

The use of roses as a seduction tool has deep roots in history, as scent plays a crucial role in arousal.

Love’s pain is symbolised by the thorns of the rose, Aphrodite’s favourite flower.

It is said that during Roman times, rose garlands were placed on dining tables, and rose pudding was eaten to rekindle a flame.

And myth has it, to woo Mark Antony, Cleopatra carpeted her floor with rose petals, just as many South Asians do today at weddings.

Although modern medicine has only identified a very small number of aphrodisiacs, we now know that certain trace elements, such as zinc, promote sexual desire.

Foods containing aphrodisiac properties are the subject of many recipes.

Aphrodisiacs in Art & Literature

The Love and Lust of India's Aphrodisiacs

But does it go much further than a recipe? Is being present at the moment also an instrument for satisfying our sexual desires?

Is Indian history teaching us how to rub shoulders or have red wine spill from a goblet as we passionately lean into our lovers?

Or does a silk choli that fits perfectly catch your eye with equal vigour. Is this intimate, yet dramatic moment part of a larger picture in India’s aphrodisiacs?

In ancient Hindu and Buddhist cultures, women and food were not associated with sin.

Women’s sexuality was openly embraced through associations with the senses, fertility, abundance, and prosperity.

In a long history, both visual and literary arts in India have continually celebrated the beauty of the human body with food.

One of the main methods that sexuality was celebrated was through paintings.

Some artwork consists of regal jewellery which can be considered seductive clothing as it increases the sensualness of the scene by electrifying pure physicality.

Other works include the alluring, erotic charge of a woman’s upper body against her loose tresses adorned with ropes of pearl necklaces, emerald chokers, and tassel hoops.

Whatever the message that ancient Indian artwork portrays, there is a present sense of eroticism, from women enjoying wine and sweets in their private suites to depictions of desire and sexual liberty.

So how did India pioneer the use of aphrodisiacs through literature and art?

Some of the foods associated with India’s aphrodisiacs have been painted and written since ancient times, including figs, honey, saffron, grapes, and pomegranates.

According to various texts, human fertility was directly related to land prosperity.

Both male and female potency was assured with aphrodisiacs.

And when foods were not readily available, undernourishment affected libido levels and reduced fertility.

As a result, the lack of these foods is what helped them gain their aphrodisiac reputation because of their suggestive shapes.

Carrots, asparagus, figs, and artichokes all resembled genitalia and, as such, were considered stimulating foods.

Even items such as eggs, beets, and fennel were also deemed as sexually powerful.

Foods with a sensual mouth feel were thought of as scintillating, such as oysters. And, spices with arousing aromas helped raise body temperature and provided instant energy.

The representation of aphrodisiac foods was also included in historic texts such as the fifteenth-century The Ni’matnama Manuscript of the Sultans of Mandu: The Sultan’s Book of Delights.

The book is a compilation of recipes by the peculiar Ghiyath Shahi, the Sultan of Mandu in Madhya Pradesh, including remedies and aphrodisiacs for the royal court.

Taken from the book, here is a recipe that we know contains an aphrodisiac:

“Cook meat of every kind and hens’ eggs and pigeons and birds of every kind and onions and fat young pigeons.

“Cut them into tiny pieces and fry them in duck fat, add salt and roughly minced white chickpeas.

“Make it produce enough liquid to cook it thoroughly, then seal the lid of the cooking pot and cook for long enough to cook the pigeon and chickpeas.

“Then add one diram (approximately 3 grams) of cassia and half a diram of galingale (khulanjan) and add the acid juice of citron (karna).”

In addition to this recipe, there are many others in the book that claim to produce similar results and illustrate the cultural and artistic diversity of Indian heritage.

From food to wine and the wonderful inclusion of aphrodisiacs in almost every recipe, the book is one of the greatest records of life and pleasure.

It is written that Ghiyath found sparrow brains fried in milk and ghee very effective, followed by applying balsam oil, cardamom, Tibetan musk and honey to the penis.

It is written that the combination will produce:

“[A] strong lust…desire returns, joy is bestowed on the heart, there are erections and semen flows.”

Sultans seemed to be ahead of their time by using these aphrodisiacs in Indian kitchens if history is any guide.

Ni’matnama is most notable for its focus on the sense of smell, one of life’s most intense pleasures.

And as a true enthusiast for aphrodisiacs, Ghiyath refined his recipes to distill rosewater, incense, deodorants, and fragrant salves. For example, another passage reads:

“Take the sap from the bark of the mango tree and from the bark of the wild-fig tree and from the pepal tree and wash the body [with it].

“Rub aromatic paste, perfume and musk into the armpits.”

“Rub rosewater and musk onto the intimate parts and rub sandal on the throat. Essence of musk is good for the mouth.

“Rub rosewater on the forehead, use scented-flower oils of every kind.”

Whether it is daily rituals, food, or diets, or aphrodisiacs in many pleasurable forms, India has shown that it is a country of continuous cultural traditions.

It is through texts like these that more than anywhere else in the world, the ability to use scent in ancient India was not simply seen as a matter of sophistication, but also as an essential element of sensuality.

The Impact of Aphrodisiacs on Sex in India

The Love and Lust of India's Aphrodisiacs

Despite popular western perception, the Kama Sutra and Indian culture were not intended to solely satisfy desires.

It was described as a guide to love, family life, and good eating.

Through forgetting part of India’s aphrodisiacs, the sad truth is that many have lost the art of understanding food and its relationship with sex.

The subject has now become a hush-hush secret discussed behind closed doors as opposed to embracing one of life’s most intense pleasures.

As the author, mythologist, and sexual health educator, Seema Anand states:

“This taboo is mostly associated with the fact that sex is perceived as the mere act of penetration.”

Seema goes on to explain:

“The Kama Sutra text hasn’t really been understood. There are still a lot of misconceptions.

“There is still a stigma attached to the word ‘Kama Sutra’.”

“There’s just so much that we don’t know and the research being done to understand how we look at pleasure or a woman’s body is a very slow process.”

Sensuality and eroticism that were once at the core of Indian culture and art now seem strange in modern-day times.

Has India forgotten the act of experiencing food in its most provocative form?

Where once, an act of describing the delicate touch of an exotic spice melting on their taste buds was normal and exhilarating.

Sexuality and aphrodisiacs mean different things to different people.

In some ways, it could be viewed as a way to enjoy sex and sexual practices through food. For others, it could mean sexual orientation with jewellery, feeding, or simply desire and eroticism.

A true definition of sexuality, however, evolves with a person’s own understanding and expression based on their experiences, fantasies, desires, beliefs, roles, relationships, etc.

Anisha is a Food Writer, Co-author and Specialist on Food Sustainability and European and Indian Food Identity. Her favourite quote is “an ounce of sauce covers a multitude of sins.”

Images courtesy of Freepik.

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