One of the most discussed aspects of the Konarak temple is the abundance of erotic sculptures on the temple wall. Many British commentators expressed shock and outrage at this open display of rampant eroticism on a temple wall. Lowell Thomas described Konarak as the “most beautiful” and at the same time “the most obscene building in the world”. However, various explanations have been offered for these “mithunas”, but no single explanation has succeeded in resolving the mystery. Benjamin Rowland and Percy Brown asserted that there was at that point of time, a mithuna movement involving orgiastic rites holding a spell over a large section of the people. But this explanation appears to be unfounded. The sun-worship at Konarak had nothing to do with such orgiastic practices. The profusion of erotic sculptures need not also imply that there was moral laxity of the devadasis employed in the temples, who were primarily concerned with service to the deity.
Of greater credibility is the explanation offered by A.K. Coomaraswamy who mentioned that the Indian sex-symbolism is ‘sacramental’ in its likeness to the union of the individual soul with the universal spirit. The representation of sexual union in sculptures according to Stella Kramrisch is regarded as a “symbol of Moksha”, because the ecstasy in sexual love was compared to religious ecstasy derived in merging of the human soul with the ultimate reality. Coomaraswamy further described the erotic sculptures as symbolic of the illusory world of pleasure in contrast to the solemn character of the inner side of the sanctuary. The outside of the temple represents various activities that belong to the samsara; beyond that and within the temple is the image of God. The worshipper must overcome the world of pleasure to find this god.
K.C. Panigrahi, a historian of Orissa, believes that the obscene figures were in all probability meant to test the self-restraint of a visitor before he was entitled to reap the merits of his visit to the god. Another explanation offered is that the erotic figures are inspired by Tantric rituals. A further explanation is that erotic sculptures are meant to ward off lightning and thunder. Although various such explanations are offered for the depiction of eroticism in the Konarak sculptures, Coomaraswamy’s holistic explanation appears to be more authentic. He says that such a characteristic feature of the temple architecture in India could be thought of as a representation of the rightful place of ‘voluptous ecstasy’in life. The erotic sculptures of Konarak reflect the life and vitality of the times; they are the expressions of a happy people who took delight in the pursuit of pleasure. The total frankness, lack of guilt, and the expression of mutual enjoyment and zest expressed through these sculptures have been noted by Nihar Ranjan Ray and Abanindra Nath Tagore, Prof. K.S. Behera, a noted historian agrees with these explanations and accepts this as most credible in his latest book “Konarak, the Black Pagoda” published by the Publications Division of the Government of India.
A comparison between the erotic sculptures of the Khajuraho temples and the Konarak temple can be noted. At Khajuraho, the sculptures being independent of the flat base of the temple body, seem as though they have been applied on the temple surface, without any basic relationship with the temple walls. But at Konarak, as in the case of the other temples of Orissa, the figure sculptures look as if they have blossomed forth from the temple wall. This organic relationship between the sculpture and the walls of the temple, contribute, to a very considerable degree, to the vitality and liveliness of the Orissan sculptures.