A Yogini is one who is possessed of magical powers and takes on different divine energies to maintain harmony in the Universe.
The water was still, reflecting the cloud clotted blue sky, the overgrown pond side greens and their lavender flowery ends swaying in the light breeze. In the middle stood the ‘Deepdandi’, with only its top visible. It was the perfect mystical backdrop for the place of worship we were about to enter.
Hirapur, a tiny village on the outskirts of Bhubaneshwar in Odisha holds a wonder at its heart. Chausath Yogini Temple or Abode of 64 yoginis here is the smallest of the Yogini shrines in India. The structure is circular as all Yogini temples are and open to the sky. The circular stone wall has niches for each of the yoginis. The yogini sculptures are exquisite, they are small and perfectly sculpted in greenish grey chlorite stone. Each one is different than the other, one with a horse face, another with a lion face, one with a sunken belly and another one which is fierce-looking.
The blue dome of sky above, sheltering these age-old murtis, the place is indeed mystical and calm. It was a beautiful fresh morning but the air around the yogini temple was thick with mystery.
Who are these Yoginis and who worships them?
Yogini by definition implies women master practitioners in the path of spiritual progress. They are ascetics who have renounced the world and are following a ‘Yogic’ path to attain the highest goal of Moksha. But then our ancient scriptures, temples, folklores, plays and paintings tell us about a different aspect of Yoginis.
We know about eight Matrikas (sometimes seven too), nine Durgas and in the same vein, there are sixty-four Yoginis, each Matrika commanding 7 more Yoginis. Sometimes there are sixteen or at times eighty-one Yoginis too as mentioned in some scriptures. Yoginis are also manifestations of Shakti, the ultimate goddess and power within according to the Shakta tradition
So why are these Goddesses worshipped?
With our legacy of dual and non-dual philosophies, different ‘Tantra’ practices were developed to provide methodologies for students to master the knowledge and gain insight into the ultimate truth – Moksha.
However, while you climb up the spiritual ladder towards Moksha, as your knowledge, awareness and dedication grows, a devotee also gains powers. Yog Shastra calls them the eight Maha-siddhi or 8 great powers. These include flying in the sky and becoming weightless or reducing yourself to the smallest size and then expanding to the horizon. Acquiring these siddhis also means, you can control someone else’s mind and body, or move things with your own will among other powers. Many aspire to acquire these Siddhis or powers using Tantra and hence worship Yoginis as part of rituals and in their path of spiritual advancement. Yogini, Shakini, Dakini, all these words are used interchangeably to denote these powerful pantheons in Shakta and Shaiva traditions.
Let us get our gaze back to the Hirapur Yogini temple. Right in the centre is a small stone structure dedicated to Bhairav, which is the presiding deity of Yoginis. The Hirapur Yogini temple was ‘discovered’ as recently as in 1953. Experts date it to the 9th century based on the sculptural elements. Since Hindus consider everything ‘prayer worthy’, although our collective memory has lost the thread to Yoginis and their cult, we still have no problem in praying to these murtis with flowers and lamps and bringing alive this forgotten temple. Locally this is known as the Mahamaya temple based on one of the prime Yogini figures in the circular wall, which is all decked up in a festive cloth.
Also interesting is the one-legged Bhairava at the entrance of this circular temple. The wall from outside also has niches to house eight direction goddesses, all of them fierce, standing on a human head, wearing garlands of human skulls!
Yogini temple and its circular plan imply a circle or Mandal of Yoginis. A circle is supposed to enclose whatever it holds within, be it energy or power. The yogini temples are hypaethral in nature i.e. they are open to the sky. No roof to cover or shield the energy flow that can originate from the circle. It is mentioned in texts that Yoginis could fly out into different realms through this portal and would come back in flocks once their space sojourn was over.
The Yogini temples are generally found in remote areas, isolated from human footfall, perched on a hill, or hidden in the woods.
Taking turns through some wooded hills and charming white limestone quarries, the next Yogini temple we are about to see is a hilltop attraction. The sandstone steps of Mitaoli hill near Gwalior are steep but few in number. The Sun was high in the sky, but the short climb became easier with a light breeze and beautiful vista all around.
On the top stood the massive circular temple which is visible from the bottom of the hill, and even from an aeroplane above. The sparsely ornamented outer walls looked impressive. As you enter inside, you are presented with one more circle in the centre and a Garbhagriha therein. There is a Shivlinga inside, and the temple housing it is known as Ekottar Shiv temple.
The temple was secluded. The niches in the walls are now empty. The concentric circles, the erect and austere pillars, the absence of roof or ornate pinnacle, and the gusts of wind playing through the circular boundary, the stone on fire with the blazing sun, this abode of Yogini casts a spell on you from the time you land there.
There is an inscription in the Mitaoli temple which mentions that the temple is dedicated to 64 Yoginis. As you stand outside the temple on a gleaming sandstone boulder, the beautiful, divine and near-perfect structure of this monument amazes you. And yes, it does remind you of our parliament building which is based upon it!
These illusive Yoginis do visit us through the pages of some old texts, like ‘Malati Madhav’, an eighth-century play by Bhavbhuti. There is a character of Yogini named Kapalkundala of the Kapalic sect and also Saudamini from the Buddhist sect in the macabre setting of ‘Smashan’ and burning pyres. ‘Katha Saritsagar’ or the original ‘Brihtkatha’, has several mentions of Yoginis with their lifestyle and belief system. We also see references to queens performing these magical rituals.
The Yogini cult must have grown in stature around the sixth century and became active during 9 to 12’th century as per experts. It received quite a lot of royal patronage and hence we see temples coming up in present-day Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, generally eastern India. Intricately linked with paranormal powers, it is possible that the royals became disciples to achieve greater powers and protection from others.
The last yogini temple we will visit is on the holy banks of Reva. The Narmada, after plunging through Dhuandhar, runs slowly and majestically through tall cliffs of marble at Bhedaghat. Earlier known as Bhairavi Ghat, on the northern bank and on top of a hill stands another Chausath Yogini temple.
It was late afternoon. The breeze from the Narmada and slanted sun rays from the bluest of the blue sky showered the age-old stone steps. As you climb to the top, the usual circular wall looking like fortification blocks the view. As you enter through the small entrance, the ever-turning enclosing high wall, the sun-kissed ground, the exquisite structure of the central temple, glowing in the setting sun and the marigold garlands cascading from the walls create a lasting impression.
The central shrine here is slightly off-centre. It is named as Gauri-Shankar temple and has a very peculiar roof. The outer round wall of this largest Yogini temple has 81 niches and each niche has a life-size yogini, sculpted to perfection but broken and destroyed at times. The Yoginis are sitting silently observing the crowds, some of them lingering and some making hasty retreats out of the temple. An inscription slab was found in the Gauri-Shankar temple, stating that a temple was built by queen Alhandevi in 1120 CE. Now we do not know if this refers to the outer Yogini enclosure or the Gauri-Shankar Temple.
There are other celebrated Yogini temples too, one in Khajuraho and another in Ranipur-Jharial. Shri-Parvat in Andhra Pradesh is mentioned as the prime centre of Yoginis in several ‘Nath Sampraday’ texts. Getting information about the Yogini cult is not easy. The cult flourishes on secrecy and hidden knowledge. There would be current practitioners, however, the information is not divulged unless you are initiated into it.
India as a country and civilization has many such riddles and long lost memory threads. But then again, aren’t we fortunate to have those temple walls to lean on, Yogini murtis to look at and old plays and lore to read so that we build the bridge of memories one brick at a time?