Kings, Kinks and Kamasutra
Aphrodisiacs then and now
The concept of aphrodisiacs is based on the most basic of human needs- food and sex. Their name comes from the Greek goddess of sexual love and beauty, Aphrodite, who was born when her father's testicles were thrown into the sea. This explains why seafood has been long linked with love and sex, and might be the reason why the legendary Casanova was said to eat 50 raw oysters for breakfast every day.
Preferring to kill plants to arouse sexual pleasure, Kamasutra, the handbook of love, focuses on items easily found in Indian kitchens. They include garlic, fenugreek, nutmeg and more, which can be incorporated into our daily routine for a healthy sex life. Compiled around 200 CE and attributed to a celibate monk, Vatsayayana, Kamasutra is a guide to the art of finding a life partner, nature of love, living well, and more.
As the book was translated into English, the popularity it gained could be guessed by the rumour that more British officers had lost their lives to a heart attack from practising Kamasutra positions than from any other disease in India.
The book also includes recipes for various love potions, which it claims can help one control, curse, or attract their partner, boost sexual vigour, and even increase or shrink the size of their genitalia.
One strange recipe talks about drinking milk in which the testicles of a ram or goat have been boiled and mixed with sugar to increase sexual vigour. Milk is the common factor in many of the libido-boosting recipes in Kamasutra, as it was believed to instantly increase sexual vigour and strength. Nowadays there is the norm of offering a glassful of milk to the bridegroom on the night of the wedding to help with their performance in bed.
Aphrodisiacs were most useful for kings, whose tales of bravery and kinks became part of our childhood, as well as adulthood. Just as a king would indicate his bravery by proudly flaunting his injuries from the battlefield, similarly the number of concubines in his harem indicated his wealth, status and sexual potency.
Intimacy was such an important part of many sultans’ lives that the royal physicians had to work closely with khansamas (royal cooks) to help the sultan keep up his vitality. They would add ayurvedic and unani aphrodisiacs to his food, ranging from potent herbs to silver and gold in the form of ash to enhance libido. The metal of the utensils used also played an important role, and silver-lined copper cookware was the most preferred.
The fetishes of kings can be better understood by looking at the life of Patiala’s Maharaja Bhupinder Singh, who was also the grandfather of the current chief minister of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh. The maharaja’s personally curated harem is said to have had 365 wives and concubines, a team of plastic surgeons from Europe, jewellers, dressmakers, beauticians, and even a laboratory.
Bhupinder Singh was known to eat around 10 kilos of food in a day. To help him carry on his fetishes, his doctors added various aphrodisiacs in his diet, from a potion made with crushed sparrow brains and shredded carrots to various herbs, spices, iron, gold, silver, and pearl. However, the quest for virility caught up with the great maharaja, who took his last breath at the age of 46.
Europeans had their own set of aphrodisiacs as well. They tried almost everything conceivable, from zebra’s tongue to tiger genitals to arouse sexual desire. Love potions became so popular during medieval times that many herbs and spices, the prime ingredients in the making of love potions, were forbidden in convents. Similarly, truffles were attempted to be banned from sale near mosques in the Arab Empire to protect the morals of good Muslims.
Although we do not know the efficacy of these aphrodisiacs, our lives would be unimaginable without them. Helping people make love, and keeping kings from waging wars, aphrodisiacs are the silent heroes of history. They have been part of our daily lives through the food we consume everyday, for a very long time.