Konark – Before Porn Was Born

“Let’s take a stroll around my temple. Ooh, look at what those carved figures are doing! Do you like it, sweetheart? Would you like to try it?”

Whatever pick-up line teenage King Narasimhadeva used on his ladies, it must have been quite a scandalous one for the 13th century. Because the walls of his temple are covered by hundreds of explicitly erotic sandstone carvings; threesomes, foursomes, sixty-nines, oral sex, voyeurism. It’s all there, displayed among more innocent images of warriors, landscapes, giraffes and other animals. His pubescent girlfriends must have either blushed and fled or simply shed their clothes, because even today, it’s difficult not to be affected by the sexy pictures.



Disguised as a house of worship to the sun god Surya, the Konark Sun Temple was constructed in the form of a horse-drawn chariot with twenty-four massive wheels, ready to fly into the heavens. It has three images of the sun god, which are in turn lit up by the sun’s rays at sunrise, noon, and sunset.

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An old legend says it was Samba, the son of Krishna, who built the original temple thousands of years ago. His father had cursed him with leprosy after he was caught sneaking a peek at his naked step-mothers. Only after years of penance and prayers to Surya was he finally cured of the debilitating disease. Samba thanked the sun god by honoring him with this sanctuary.

The young King Narasimhadeva set out to rebuild the ancient temple to continue Samba’s mission. But we all know that was just a fib. It is well known that building temples to the sun god was in fashion during those days. Besides, what else could an adolescent say to receive approval to get his pornographic fantasies materialized?

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But the Konark Sun Temple is so much more than just filthy pictures. It is an extraordinary piece of art, intricately carved, very-well preserved and one of the most celebrated temples in India.

So in the end, does it really matter when it was built and by whom? As long as we agree why.

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How to Be A Good Driver in India

Imagine this: you are driving down a narrow alley. Suddenly, you turn a corner and notice a large group of women ahead of you, a few school children playing, a couple of cows on the side of the road and an SUV driving towards you. What would you do? Would you slow down? Would you wait for the car to pass you before proceeding? Or would you stop?

In India driving is easy – you just honk a few times, increase the speed and drive on.

Miraculously, the cars and motorbikes that blindly rush into crowds may brush an arm or the side of a rickshaw, but rarely hurt anyone. Like a choreographed dance, everyone slowly moves out of the way, leaving just enough space for the vehicle to pass. The constant honking becomes a white noise that is unconsciously picked up but largely ignored.

So this urban orchestra continues to direct the rhythm of Indian traffic. And all the terrible drivers never learn what it means to really drive well.

Naked and Proud – The Naga Sadhus

The first time you come across a Naga Sadhu, you will most likely look twice. Once, because his skin is completely grayed from ashes. The second time, because you won’t believe what you just saw. But yes, there it is. His penis is dangling freely for the whole world to behold. By then you will not be able to pull your eyes away. Because there is no shame. There is no lack of self-esteem. Obese or fit, well-hung or dwarfed, wrinkled as an old apple or taut as a newborn babe, these men have nothing to hide.



Whether this sect has been around for thousands of years or was founded in the 9th century CE, the Nagas clearly stand out among their clothed peers. Following Shiva, their master deity, they discard their clothes, renounce all worldly possessions and join a group of men living in complete seclusion. Wearing their hair knotted like dreadlocks and their bodies smeared with holy ashes, they spend their lives in frigid Himalayan caves, meditating, practicing yoga and smoking cannabis in search for enlightenment. 

During the Kumbh Melas, which take place every 12 years in four different cities in India, the Naga Sadhus come back to civilization for a month and a half to meet with other akharas (groups) and for spiritual cleansing. It’s their fair. They philosophize with others and play-fight them with sticks and swords. They lead the parades, initiate rituals and are the axiomatic main attraction of the celebrations. Hindus and tourists alike seek them out to stare at their bare bodies and to receive a blessing: a smear of ashes on the forehead. But they inspire both fear and awe. Like animals, they don’t talk a lot, keep to themselves and are notorious for their rash temperament. 


On the holy bathing days, thousands of naked wise men march behind their teachers shouting “Har har Mahadev” (Hail Lord Shiva). Wearing nothing but their birthday suit slightly covered by a garland of orange carnations, they run towards the river. They are barely aware of the millions of people who may have been waiting for hours just for a peek of the close to divine nudists. 

Unfortunately, their perfect snow-globe world may be dissolving more rapidly than they know. With fewer and fewer men willing to give up worldly pleasures, the number of authentic Naga Sadhus is dwindling. In recent years, the leaders have commissioned destitute laymen to undress and join the parade in exchange for free food. It’s a scam as good as any, until one of the fake sadhus gets an erection and the fraud is revealed. Because a true Naga never gets a hard-on. During their initiation ceremony, a guru has forcefully pulled their foreskin back until the membrane snapped. And over time, the exposed organ has numbed and together with mind-control, all these gloriously naked men have managed to become completely asexual.

It would be incredibly sad to see the Naga Sadhu tradition disappear. More than just eye-candy for desperate women, they are living proof that mind over matter truly works. Fortunately for all of us, two thousand young men were initiated during the Maha Kumbh Mela in 2013.

Here’s to hoping these young men stay on the naked path and encourage new “members” to join.


Faith and Fanaticism: Maha Kumbh Mela

(or “100 Million People Can’t Be Wrong”)

Imagine standing on top of a hill looking over a sea of tents as far as you can see. Everywhere, across an area the size of Manhattan, people are coming and going, carrying bags and pots of food. Sitting down when they just can’t walk anymore. Sleeping under the open sky if they can’t afford a camp site. Squatting down to take a dump, with their naked butts visible for all to see, because they’re not used to even the most basic toilets. Like in a huge refugee camp, the majority of the attendees at the Kumbh Mela are poor. But they are determined. They have a very good reason to be here.


Every 144 years, the stars align in Allahabad to form a particularly auspicious constellation for reaching nirvana. It is called the Maha Kumbh Mela. Millions of Hindus walk hundreds of miles from their villages to bathe in the Sangam, where the sacred rivers Ganges and Yarmuna form a triad with the mythological river Saraswati . Because if you bathe here on any of the specified bathing dates, your sins will be washed away, and you and your family will be blessed by the divine for generations to come.

The tradition of the Kumbh Mela goes back thousands of years. Legend tells us that eons ago, when the gods resided on earth, they became exhausted due to a curse. To regain their strength they decided to churn the seas to create an elixir of eternal life. Because they were so weak, they asked the demons for help in return for an equal amount of the immortality nectar. However, when the nectar finally appeared in an urn, the gods did not want to share it. Of course the demons were outraged, and a war ensued. For twelve years, the gods and demons fought in the sky, until a celestial bird flew away with the urn, spilling the elixir in four places: Allahabad, Hardiwar, Ujjain and Nashik. These are the places where the Kumbh Mela’s are celebrated every twelve years.  And every 12 x 12 years, the magical Maha Kumbh Mela takes places in Allahabad.


It is a golden opportunity for all guru in India to attract new followers. Like a huge spiritual fair, they pin up posters and signs, guiding people to their ashram, where they sell calendars, t-shirts, books and posters with pictures of themselves. To make sure they really get noticed, they all transmit their message through loudspeakers from before dawn to midnight. Just in case, you know, someone might not have heard their voice. And if all else fails, they give away free food to lure more possible prospects into their web.


However, all wise men are not of the egotistic, self-serving type. In the sector closest to the Sangam, India’s most revered and spiritually powerful holy men reside. Here the naked Naga Sadhus live next to the voluntarily mute babas and those who have kept their arm up in the air until it rotted. Sitting in tents along the main thoroughfare, they offer blessings in return for cash. But mostly, they just sit and smoke hashish with their pals in front of a bonfire.


The energy builds up for several weeks up until the main bathing day. The crowds increase gradually, every day,  drawing in like a tsunami. And just like a killer-wave, you know that 30 million people in one place can be fatal. Your mind goes haywire, affected by the pull of the river and the mass-hypnosis of people running towards it. It’s terrifying and fascinating at the same time, and suddenly you become very aware of your own mortality. Your eyes are drawn towards the plastic bottles in their hands. If the bottles are empty, it means they have just arrived. They still need to fill them up with Ganges water. If the bottles are full, well, hopefully they are on their way out.


The loudspeakers closest to the Sangam spell a different message. There, the announcements are not advertising, but family members crying about a mother, brother, husband who has gone missing. On the main bathing day, a disproportionate number of grandfathers run around, half-naked and desperately lost. Old women so crooked it seems they should not be able to walk, sprint towards the beach. They have to enter the waters before 4 a.m., when the guru-parade starts; floats with self-centered sadhus sitting on thrones, being fanned by their disciples shouting “Hail Shri Ram” (Hail Lord Ram). Time is of essence, if they want salvation.


This year, one hundred million people made their way to the Sangam during the 2 months of the Maha Kumbh Mela. The stampede we feared did not happen at the bathing site. But unfortunately, 36 pilgrims were tragically trampled to death at the Allahabad railway station on their way back home.

Luckily, they had already taken their bath.

Where Women Must Not Enter

“You must finish your drink and leave.”

The young man looked like he wanted to kill me. He wasn’t joking, and he wouldn’t back down. The feminist in me itched to laugh in his face and keep drinking, just to annoy him. Ever since we had entered the bar, he and his friends had made it clear that they did not want me there. It was a guy-kind of bar, a hide-out. And of course, there were no other women in this bar.

We found this bar by sheer coincidence. In religious Varanasi, bars are scarce. Devout Hindus don’t drink, nor do serious Muslims. Your only option when you are thirsty for a pint is to ask your guest house to scoot to the market to buy beer for you, or take a rickshaw to a far-away hotel bar. We were on our way to one of the established bars when we noticed a sign saying “Chilled Beer,” and a doorway covered by a curtain. It was too tempting to resist.

As if someone had hit the pause button, everyone stopped and stared at us.
“We only serve beer here,” said the man closest to us.
“Great! Can we have a Kingfisher, please.”

We knew exactly what we were doing. It was a men’s dungeon; a stinky, filthy place, where all dozen customers were either drunk, stoned or both. Just the kind of place we like.

Eduardo poured the beer into a glass, lifted it in a salute to all. “Cheers!”
Most of the men lifted their glasses and smiled at him.
Then it was my turn. I filled my glass, lifted it a salute and said “Cheers,” just as Eduardo had. Silence. Not one man cheered me back.

We were shown to the back room where we sat down on a cardboard box and smiled at the men sitting across from us. They smiled back and asked the usual questions about where we were from, how we like Varanasi, etc.

That’s when my would-be-murderer turned around, his eyes bleeding with anger.
“I don’t think they want me here,” I whispered to Eduardo in Spanish.
He didn’t believe me. But just to make sure, he asked the guy who seemed to be in charge:
“You don’t mind my wife being here, do you?”
“No, of course not!”

My nemesis didn’t agree.
“You should leave now!” he hissed.
We ignored him and ordered another bottle on the insistence of the others. Just to show we didn’t care.

The stares grew harsher, meaner, more frightening.
“Women don’t come to this bar,” said the woman-hater when he realized I wasn’t getting the hint.
“Really? So maybe it’s good that I’m here, so you get used to being around women.”
“No. It’s not good.”
“Well, maybe it is.”
At that point Eduardo was elbowing me to shut up. I was irritating the hell out of this guy. And I did it on purpose.
My enemy turned to Eduardo.
“If you would have come here alone, it wouldn’t have been a problem.” He wanted to make sure he wasn’t insulting my husband – a man.
“But she cannot come here.”

The angry guy and his friends made up some story about drunk guys coming in to this bar later, and that it might not be safe for me. We had heard of a recent group rape in Delhi where the victim had died and knew that women were at risk in India. But from the looks I had received, I knew these guys were not worried for me. They were furious that I had dared to cross the line and had trespassed into their male-centered territory.

Having made our point, we finished our second beer and shook hands with everyone including the angry boys. I can only hope that in the spirit of Rosa Parks, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, a seed was sown, however small. Because if you just accept discrimination and don’t make a fuss, things will never ever change.


It’s a Dog’s Life

In the holy city of Varanasi, you cannot walk more than a few feet without meeting a beggar. Young mothers with hungry babies, the terminally ill, blind, deformed and lame all converge here. But none of my fellow humans break my heart quite like the dogs. Disease-ridden and covered with scabs, they are shunned by almost all. They are kicked, beaten and shooed away wherever they go. Lowest on the ladder of misfortunates, they dine from the garbage piles, curl up on extinguished bonfires for warmth and scratch themselves silly to relieve itching from flea bites.


Unfortunately, puppies seem to outnumber even the fleas. Baby dogs are everywhere. And perhaps not surprisingly, if fornication is the only joy in these poor canines’ lives. The government has instituted a halfhearted effort to sterilize the strays to resolve the problem of the rapidly increasing dog population. But when only reaching 1,000 dogs per month, they are moving way too slowly. So every year tens of thousands of innocent, adorable pups are born into a life of suffering helplessly.


Life in Varanasi is truly a bitch if you’re a dog. And then you die – from any of a million diseases, including rabies.


Varanasi: The Beauty and the Beast

As the early morning mist clears, it gradually reveals ancient domes and temples rising from the stone steps over the Ganges River. The sun has barely made its appearance over the horizon, and already the bells are ringing and hundreds of holy men are up to their waist in the water; reciting the Vedic verses and chanting. The hour of the day makes all the difference. It is at dawn that the gods take their bath, and that’s when entering the river allows you to become one with the divine spirit.

Forever covered by a pink haze, Varanasi looks more like a water color painting than the real thing. Its dreamlike essence attracts visitors from all over the world – tourists and photographers alike flock here to capture a drop of this illusion. But it is for the Hindus that this town really matters. Benares, as they call it, is the door to Nirvana; a release from the eternal cycle of reincarnation. If you die here and your body is burned in one of the cremation ghats, your ashes will be spilled into the river so that you become reunited with the Brahman. Luckily, there’s an alternative option for those who are still young and healthy: if you shave your head completely here, you will be handed your own personal guaranteed ticket to Paradise.


However, as you move away from the waterfront the sublime image quickly fades; Varanasi is seriously filthy. The streets are littered with garbage and excrement from the hundreds of cows, dogs and goats. With no rubbish bins, the dark alleyways become their trash receptacle. You slip and slide in the mud, trying to jump to the side as the speeding motorbikes narrowly misses you. And everywhere you look, someone is urinating against a wall or squatting down to relieve themselves. Your lungs fill with the smoke of incense, bonfires and burning bodies. The stench can be overwhelming.

It seems like everyone you meet has something to sell, often mumbled with a mouth full of red, teeth-staining tobacco. “Boat, Sir?” is the most frequent way to address foreigners, followed by “Hello Boat, very cheap.” One of Varanasi’s most popular activities is drifting along the waves of the Ganga at sunrise, watching the city waking up. Other things on sale are chai, blessings with red tika powder on your forehead, massages (men on men only, please), rickshaw rides and a bowl-shaped leaf filled with orange carnations, yellow and red tints and a candle, which can be sent out on the river as an offering to the gods.

Unfortunately, it is this greed that may slowly ruin what is still one of the most mind-blowing places in the world. Who can tell if any of the dozens of sadhus offering morning blessings are real holy men? Anyone could set up shop by the river with a blanket, the right set of accessories and a painted forehead, cashing in on the fools who are willing to part with their hard-earned money in exchange for a benediction.

But all is forgiven once you sit down to rest in the shade and just focus on the real-life spectacle playing out before you. The vibrant colors, the glittering Ganges, the absolute conviction of those who bathe in the polluted river, drink its water and never get sick.

In the end it’s the ethereal beauty of this place that triumphs over the beast that shares its magnificent abode. And you know with certainty that you will be back one day. Again and again and again.


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