Looking for a ‘yogini’ in Odisha


As restrictions eased last October, my husband, Om, and I decided to embark on our annual visit to my in-laws in Bhubaneswar. Not only did Om grow up in this city, but it’s also where I started my career. We both know the monuments, handicrafts and amazing street food of Bhubaneswar. During this particular trip, however, I realized that there were wonders of heritage still waiting to be explored.

One evening, we were discussing the temples of the city when my brother-in-law suggested that we drive to the Chausath Yogini temple in Hirapur, which exemplifies the ancient feminist tradition. He assured us it would be a short drive, perfect for a morning excursion, with the famous bada ghugni combination as breakfast at one of the roadside shops on the way. We didn’t even know there was a yogini temple so close to Bhubaneswar.

Hirapur is a picturesque village, about 15 km from Bhubaneswar. The road itself is scenic. It was a typical autumn morning, with its characteristic azure blue sky and white fluffy clouds, the kind that herald the arrival of Durga Puja. As we left town and crossed the main Puri canal, the road narrowed and the landscape changed to green rice fields on one side and the canal on the other.

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We stopped at a cabin just after crossing the canal. It was only 7:30 a.m. but a small crowd had already gathered. The smell of fresh, fried food filled the air. After a hearty breakfast, we drove for 10 minutes on semi-concrete roads, until a blue Archaeological Survey of India sign appeared, pointing to the temple.

The road opened into a clearing, beside a large pond – the Mahamaya Puskarini – and an old banyan tree. The atmosphere was serene, perhaps because few people know about this structural marvel. He somehow managed to escape the otherwise well-documented tourist/pilgrim route of Bhubaneswar-Puri-Konark.

When we got out of the car, it was as if the gnarled banyan tree whispered that we were entering an ancient and magical place. We entered a beautifully manicured lawn, lush with seasonal flowers. Near the entrance is a small temple dedicated to Sankateswara Mahadev and an idol of Krishna. But where was the yogini temple? There was not shikhara in sight, no flag flying on its pinnacle, not even the Mandapam and ardhmandapam so characteristic of Kalinga temples.

No less than 56 of the 60 idols survived Hirapur.
(Courtesy of Tanushree Bhowmik)

As we progressed we realized this was a temple like no other. You enter the circular hypaethral (roofless) structure through an extended passageway. This gives the temple the aerial form of a yogini pedestal, attached to a Shiva lingam – a feature of Tantric architecture. The style is not mentioned in mainstream books on architecture, as Tantric architecture was kept secret.

Nine Katyayanis are carved into the niches of the outer wall, each standing next to an animal normally associated with cremation sites. They each have an umbrella in one hand and differently shaped blades, believed to have been used to dismember bodies, in the other. The entrance is flanked by the guards, Jai and Vijay.

The entrance is narrow, you have to bend down to enter. On the hallway walls are idols of Kaal and Vikraal. The temple is designed in accordance with Tantric prayer rituals which involve worship and interaction with the bhumandala (environment) composed of the five elements of nature: fire, water, earth, sky and ether. There is no roof because yoginis are supposed to be able to fly. The circular wall around the sanctum sanctorum has small niches, each with a black chlorite stone idol of a yogini astride his mount.

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Fifty-six of the 60 idols here survived. You can see the elegant postures, elaborate hairstyles and ornaments, although the faces have not survived. Those that I could identify were the idols of Vindhyavasini, Ganeshini, Bhadrakali, Aghora, Kamakshi, Chamunda and their mounts, such as makara, a mythical aquatic creature, the mouse and the donkey. In the center is the goddess Mahamaya, the 31st of the 64 yoginis, standing on a human skull, a symbol of the victory of time over knowledge and over all that is mortal. On the central platform, the Chandi Pitha, rest the other four yoginis, although one is missing. There are four Bhairavas in the corner niches of the Chandi Pitha. Some historians say that the central platform, now empty, once had an idol of Shiva.

It is the first of the temples dedicated to the Chausath yoginis in India; it is also the smallest. The others are in Bolangir in Odisha and in Madhya Pradesh. The Hirapur temple is believed to have been built by Rani Hiradei of the Bhauma-kara dynasty, known for its five powerful rulers, between the 8th and 9th centuries. The village bears his name.

No one knows if the queen was a yogini practitioner. It is believed that Kalapahad (born as Rajiblochan Roy), the Muslim general of the Bengal Sultanate under the Karrani dynasty, destroyed part of the temple and the images when he invaded Odisha in 1568. The temple was forgotten until until it was rediscovered by the historian Kedarnath. Mahapatra in 1953.

Even today, its raw, cosmic energy keeps you mesmerized, abreast of centuries of wisdom. And as we left, we felt like we had come out of a time warp.

The Yogini Tradition

Four main traditions associated with the cult of

Four main traditions associated with the cult of “yoginis” have tribal origins.
(Courtesy of Tanushree Bhowmik)

I created all worlds at my will, unprompted by any higher being, and I dwell in them. / I imbue earth and sky, all created entities with my greatness, and I dwell in them as eternal and infinite consciousness. —Devi Suktam, Rigveda 10.125.8

This states that the feminine is the ultimate metaphysical reality and the supreme creator. The Rigveda discusses many forms of goddesses, all of which are associated with nature. These eventually find representation in the 64 yoginis, who later merged with the mythology of Parvati or Durga, as incarnations of the Mother Goddess. Each yogini has a different mythological beast/bird/animal as its mount, representing the force of nature it is associated with.

Four great traditions associated with the cult of the yoginis had tribal beginnings. All four revolve around the idea that the yoginis were from minor deities to greater goddesses. According to the first, the yoginis They are said to have formed from different parts of the Devi including his voice, sweat, navel, forehead, cheeks, lips, ears, limbs, fingernails, womb and anger . The second tradition suggests the yoginis are deities attached to the great Goddess. The third concerns the yoginis as acolytes: matrikas. This tradition describes the yoginis as being born of eight mothers, in eight groups. The fourth tradition focuses on the yoginis as patron goddesses of a specific tantric sect called the Kaulas.

Tanushree Bhowmik is a Delhi-based development professional, food historian and food researcher.

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