Kissing in public is as bad as committing a crime in India - the moral policing combined with the horrified looks one receives simply doesn't allow it. But what if we told you that this un-sanskari (uncultured) expression of love originated in India? Will Indians still hold it in contempt? Before we unpack India's fascinating relation to kissing, let's understand the possible reasons why humans started kissing. Contrary to what you might think, kissing isn't an innate behaviour, meaning we aren't biologically wired to kiss as even today, there are certain cultures that don't engage in kissing. So, a romantic kiss with your partner may seem intuitive to you but only because it is a learned behaviour.
Scientists say one origin of kissing is that the act evolved from "kiss feeding" - where mothers feed their babies by passing chewed food into the baby's mouth. There are still some indigenous cultures that practice the act of kiss feeding.
Vaughn Bryant, a Texas A&M University anthropologist who has long researched the history and spread of kissing, tells the Seeker, "From these observations, it is claimed that humans also learned kissing from exchanging food between mothers and their offspring." But he questions this claim, "However, if this were true and it was innate, then why didn't all humans kiss? We know that many cultural groups did not kiss and knew nothing about it until they were shown."
Another two common theories are that kissing could be a form of grooming behaviour or a way to enhance penetrative intercourse. But overall, there's no consensus on why human started touching mouths and tongue to express affection. Historians, however, are certain that the earliest references to kissing date back to India.
The history of kissing: It started in India
The Vedas, ancient religious texts of India, contains references to an early form of kissing, dating as far as 1500 B.C - it wasn't exactly how it's practised now, rather it involved rubbing and pressing of noses together. Bryant comments on this saying, "Eventually, someone slipped and found that the lips were very sensitive and found it pleasurable. That's one theory on how it started."
After ambiguous mentions in the four Vedas, Mahabharata, the 4,000-year-old epic poem, is the second place where historians found references to lip kissing. "She set her mouth to my mouth and made a noise and that produced pleasure in me," a quote from the text read. Then came the Kama Sutra, a well-known ancient text on intercourse written during the early 5th century A.D. It's no surprise that an erotic text such as this had mentions of kissing.
Historians believe that the idea of kissing travelled outside India after Alexander the Great's armies entered India. Bryant says that they learned about kissing from the Indians as after the death of Alexander, his army retreated and went towards areas of the Middle East.
The Romans popularised kissing
Then it was the Romans or the kissing missionaries as Byrant called them, who created a buzz around the act, and spread it across Europe and North America. Kissing soon became a crucial part of Roman culture. It arose to such popularity that laws were made to regulate it. For example, one of the laws stated that if a man passionately kissed a virgin girl in public, she could demand him to marry her. The Romans had also categorised types of kisses into three kinds - Osculum, a kiss on the hands or cheeks usually as a form of greeting, Basium, a form of romantic kissing and Savolium, a more intense and erotic love kiss which came to be known as french kissing.
In the Middle Ages or from 5th to the late 15th century, Europe had completely adopted the practice but strangely, the practice was regulated by one's rank. So, people of the same rank were allowed to kiss on the lips and people of lower ranks could only kiss one's cheek, hand, knee, foot or the ground in front of the person. Bryant described it as, "The greater the rank difference, the further from the lips one would kiss that person."
Here's another fun fact: Kissing was also used to seal contracts! As a lot of people didn't know how to read and write, so they would draw an "X" as a symbol for their name and kissed it to make it legal. This is where putting X on Valentines' letters to denote a kiss originated from.
The end of the kissing era
Kissing was losing its edge and was slowly gaining the reputation of an inappropriate act. In the 1300s, the Catholic Church became concerned about kissing and feared it would lead to carnal acts. At the Council of Vienna in 1311-1312, Pope Clement V forbade the so-called "holy kiss" during church services. Even today, the Catholic Church uses a handshake as a gesture of peace instead of the kiss of peace or the holy kiss.
In the mid-to-late 1600 Europe, kissing was replaced by other gestures such as bows and topping one's hat. This shift from intimate greetings to a no-touch way to greet people was influenced by the Great Plague of 1665 in London, similar to the pandemic we are currently in. People feared that kissing would spread the disease further so social distancing-styled greetings became more desired.
This carried forward after the plague as well. From 1760 to 1840, in the age of the industrial revolution, hand-kissing eroded away as a greeting and the handshake took its place. To this day, it continues to be the traditional way to close business deals or symbolise an alliance.
Kissing in Cinema
The first film to showcase a kiss was Thomas Edison's 1896 silent film "The Kiss" starring May Irwin and John C. Rice. The kiss lasted a short two seconds but caused a huge scandal internationally nobody had witnessed a kiss on a movie screen before. One of the reviews said: "The spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other's lips was beastly enough in life-size on the stage, but magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over -- it is absolutely disgusting."
In Indian cinema, the first kissing scene appeared in a 1933 movie called "Karma". It had actors Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani shooting a 4-minute long kissing scene. However, the scene wasn't romantic in nature, rather the heroine was trying to recover her lover from unconsciousness by kissing him. In 1952, kissing was ruled as indecent by the Supreme Court and hence, movies would portray sensual scenes in the most subtle ways. Then in the 1990s, directors were pushing boundaries and kissing was starting to make a comeback. For example, Karishma Kapoor and Aamir Khan's minute-long kiss in the 1996 film 'Raja Hindustani' created a stir and restarted the conversation on kissing on-screen.
Contemporary Bollywood movies are relatively relaxed about kissing on-screen now, however, the issue is still contentious when it comes to a couple kissing in a public space. This was seen in 2014 when Jai Hind News, a popular local news channel Kerala broadcasted footage of a couple kissing in an upscale terrace cafe. After the broadcast, a group of right-wing Hindu fundamentalists barged into the cafe with iron rods, smashed windows to shards and upturned all of the furniture. This was an act of retaliation for the cafe endorsing "un-Indian" behaviour - kissing in public. While the Indian law doesn't have a complete ban on public display of affection, it can be considered a crime if it disturbs others or creates a nuisance - a condition not difficult to fulfil in a place where kissing is considered as uncultured.