Note: I wrote this post back in mid-October before the second lockdown was announced, and god, I was so optimistic and so excited about getting back into London then. I’ll leave it as is so we can all reflect on the naivete of Jessica from just a few weeks ago.
After an absence of many months, I have finally ventured into central London again! I had a dentist appointment for which I had to take the train anyway (since I never changed dentist after I moved last year, and good luck trying to get into a new one now!), so I thought I might as well just hop back on the train in Wimbledon and go all the way into Waterloo and walk across the river from there (I’m not quite ready to brave the Tube. The train is bad enough). I hadn’t been into London since March, and I didn’t realise how much I’d missed it until I went back. And honestly, public transport was the worst part of the whole experience, because central London is still pretty damn empty. Kingston is 10 times busier and full of non-mask wearing assholes, and I much prefer the atmosphere of London, I just wish there was another way to get there! (And don’t suggest cycling, because I will die if I cycle on city streets. I’m not a confident cyclist AT ALL.)
It was a grand day strolling around Bloomsbury and Covent Garden, getting cinnamon buns and excellent sugared brioche pretzels from my favourite Swedish bakery (Bageriet, much nicer than the more well known Fabrique, in my opinion), an ice cream from Udderlicious, and going into an actual bookshop and buying a book that I could look through first. Glorious! I also of course got in a museum visit, which proved to be a bit tricky since everywhere now requires pre-booking (rightly so) and many of the exhibitions I wanted to see were already booked up, but there were still plenty of tickets left to “Tantra: enlightenment to revolution” at the British Museum, which runs until January, so that’s what I opted for (you can book online on the day if there are still openings, but they will only let you book for a time at least two hours in advance, so you do need to plan a little bit ahead). Admission is £15, or £7.50 with Art Pass.
The British Museum still has its queuing system set up that ultimately leads you through a little security hut for a bag search, but unlike the last time I visited, there was no queue whatsoever, and we (Marcus came too) went straight into the hut. We had to get a picture in front of the museum, because I’ve never seen it without fifty million tourists crawling all over it before! The tranquility extended to the interior of the museum, and it felt good to be back in that familiar grand entrance hall. I certainly didn’t have a problem with the lack of people, though I recognise it’s not great for the museum itself.
You also need to book a ticket to visit the permanent collections, though those tickets are free. Currently, only the ground floor is open, and they have planned a one hour route to take you through it, but we skipped that and headed straight for Tantra. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this exhibition, because like many people, I associate the term tantra with weird sexual practices, like the days-long sex Sting claims to have, which just sounds unpleasant, frankly. But it turns out that Tantra, like many things, was perverted by the British occupation of India, and it actually started out as a practice of worship of female goddesses.
Tantra was developed in the 6th century CE in Southeast Asia as an offshoot of Hinduism amongst followers of Shiva, god of destruction, and Shakti, goddess of creation, and involved the worship of Shakti as mother of all things, as well as a series of rituals people could follow to invoke these deities. The word tantra literally means “loom” or “weave” in Sanskrit, and Tantra was a weaving together of new ideas from existing practices. There was a period of political turbulence in India in the medieval era that caused the philosophy to become popular with those searching for something new, especially as there was no caste system in Tantra and women were welcome to join. Tantra also led to the creation of Hatha yoga, which, whilst not a sexual practice, did involve strange contortions of the body, and some of the diagrams showing these postures may have led to outsiders construing it as somehow sexual.
Things carried on happily enough for centuries, but when the British took over India, they saw it as a challenge to their authority, particularly as some practitioners used it as a form of rebellion by trying to use the goddess Kali (you’ve probably seen images of her standing on a corpse and wearing a necklace of skulls, as in the above photos) as a figure of anti-colonial resistance, and fair enough, because Kali looks absolutely baller (I want a skull necklace!). This led to the British trying to paint its followers as sexually depraved and practitioners of black magic, which is why when many people think of Kali (I’m including myself in this number, since my love for Indiana Jones is well-documented on this blog), they think of the cult in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but these depictions came about solely because of British attempts to quash the religion. (There was a pretty excellent little set of figurines depicting the supposed Thug cult of bandits who practiced Tantra, which again, was just part of the smear campaign by the British.)
So Tantra is actually pretty interesting, and though I’m not into the hippy dippy Western interpretations of Tantra that become popular from the 1960s onward (which is where the weird Sting-esque sexual practices come from), I am definitely into all these awesome rebellious interpretations of Kali, and the attempts to use Tantra to drive the British out of India. This is honestly probably not an exhibition I would have chosen to see had there not been literally nothing else I could get tickets to that day, but honestly, I’m really glad I did, because I learned a lot, and there were some fascinating objects here.
As always when visiting exhibitions, I did encounter some annoyingly slow moving people (not the fact that they walked slowly, just that they paused in front of each exhibition for what felt like ten minutes), and unfortunately, in Covid times, I can’t exactly lean over their shoulder as I used to do in the old days, so I ended up doing a lot of skipping around and just coming back to areas when they cleared out. It wasn’t super busy, since it was ticketed, and it was fairly easy to social distance in all but the busiest areas, and then I just moved to another area until it was less busy (and of course everyone was wearing face coverings). Although for £15 I would have expected more content, I was happy enough with my half-price admission, plus the excitement of being in the British Museum again probably enhanced my enjoyment. 3/5.