A characteristic feature of Buddhism and Hinduism practised in the tantric mode is a complex metaphorical discourse, much of which remains opaque. As the signification of tantric metaphor rests on particular subjective experiences, it has been a difficult to analyse objectively. Nonetheless,tantric metaphors can be explained with reference to the surrounding ideological and material culture. This project will investigate the metaphor of the bola and kakkola, two key terms of the Buddhist tantras. Modern translations reduce these terms to names for the male and female organs, following the glosses supplied within the tantras. However, their little-known original meaning—not yet noticed in the interpretive or secondary literature, but discernible in Asian materia medica—is that of the spices cardamom and pepper.
How did two spices come to be associated with the union of male and female and, by extension, the experience of transcendence? Is their significance related to their sensory characteristics? Where would the unknown revealers of these texts have been located, given that these two spices were distributed mainly in Southeast Asia in the precolonial era?What would have compelled them to use such a secretive metaphor? Answers to these questions will help illuminate the core of a form of religion that has been widespread in parts of Asia, especially the Himalayas, Eastern India and post-Song China, and increasingly also in the West.