“Thou, silent form,
dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity.” –John Keats
The sixty-four Yogini temples are few and far between. There appear to be only just four in the entire country. One is Bheraghat near Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh and another in the renowned Khajuraho, though not so known for its Yogini temple. The other two are in Orissa – one at Ranipur-Jharial near Titilagarh and the other at Hirapur about 9 km. from Bhubaneshwar, the Ekamrakshetra of the distant past.
Orissa has been the land of temples down the ages. The Lingaraj Mandir at Bhubaneshwar, the Sun-temple at Konark and the Jagannath temple at Puri have become immensely popular. Puri-Konark-Bhubaneshwar, the Golden Triangle, have become centres not only for religious and cultural tourism but also for pleasure tourism over the last few decades and Independence. The delight principle in travel has been a recent trend. Orissa has a hoary past attracting pilgrim from all over the country and even abroad. The Shakti and Tantric cults have been dominant in particular ages as have the Vaishnava and Shaivite worships both before and after the advent of Buddhism.
The hypaethral temple of sixty-four Yoginis in Hirapur has been the treasure of an enigmatic monument for art historians. Perhaps this temple too had been the pride of our brethren in Odhradesa in the distant past. This temple is circular in shape. Though a little difficult of access, it is an identified National Monument. The diameter of the circular shape inside is about 25 feet and the height of the wall from the level is 6 feet. In the middle of the enclosure there is a rectangular Mandap, a sanctum enshrining originally the principal deity, Lord Shiva. The Mandapa has four openings (not exactly doors) facing the East, West, North and South. The east-west openings are three feet four inches wide and the north-south two feet and one inch each.
In the circular wall round the enclosed space there are sixty niches holding the icons of the Yoginis. The conception of the Yoginis as mentioned in the scriptures is approximated to by means of more Yoginis represented on the outer walls of the Mandapa.
The Mandapa too is open to the sky and known as Chandi Mandapa. It is 9 feet 6 inches wide and 8 feet long which was adorned with eight images. One of these had been missing for decades. There are two icons on the inner sides of the narrow passage which is 2 feet 6 inches wide and 8 feet long and two more on the outer side. Besides these there are nine Katyayani icons on the outer wall of the circular construction.
In all, of the 81 icons 80 remain, though mutilated. Of these, though there are four-armed ones and ten-armed ones, the number of the two-armed icons predominates. The Yogini figures are the most important of these; the size of the icons varies from 1 foot 8 inches and 1 foot 11 inches in height and 9 inches and 1foot width. The images on the outer walls of the Chandi Mandapa are somewhere between 1 foot 8 Inches and 2 feet high and 10 inches to 1 foot 1 inch wide. The four images on both sides of the passage are between 2 feet 10 inches and 3 feet 8 inches in height and 1 foot 7 inches to 2 feet in width. The Katyayani images on
the outer wall of the temple are between 2 feet 6 inches and 2 feet 11 inches in height and 1 foot 5 inches to 1 foot 7 inches in width.
The Yogini figures are highly ornamented female forms (there are some male forms also) some frightful, some graceful though awe-inspiring. They may be Yoginis dedicated to the service of the Supreme Mother as believed by the adherents of the Kaula and Vamachara ways of the mysterious and awe-inspiring Tantric cult.
Charles Fabri in his History of the Art of Orissa tries to get at the bottom of the mystery, unsuccessfully though. Writes Fabri: “Who are these sixty-four Yoginis? I have been unable to find out much about them; and I seem to be in good company, for no one seems to have been able so far to give an explanation about their function, their cults and tribes, not even their names – though we have a plethora of names, far more than presumed to belong to them – and what they symbolize or stand for is unknown. The images seem to be given different names by different people. Fabri mentions that there are as many as a hundred names to these sixty Yoginis.
Some are simply called Yoginis by the generic name, while the others are given names such as Narmada, Yamuna, Gouri, Indrani, Vaishnavi, Charchika, Vindhyavasini, Ghatabhara, Kakavali, Saraswati, Kauberi,Bhalluka, Navasimhi, Kaumari, Rudrakali, Matangi, Brahmani, Jwalamukhi, Agneya, Agnihotri, Chamundi, Maruti, Ganga, Tarini, Ajaikapada Bhairava and Chanda Bhairava.
The strange cult (or, was it an order?) of the sixty-four feminine godlings strikes us as sensuous and erotic, nearer to the Kaula and Kapalika ways. The cult, or order if you will, may not be entirely Brahmanical or Buddhist.
Academically speaking the Hirapur shrine was the discovery of Kedarnath Mahapatra as stated in his article in the Orissa Historical Research Journal, July 1953. Around 1965 it was repaired. Today its remains are sequestered spot of awesome beauty. Fabri described at length the various aspects of the structure.
Finding the architectural qualities vastly different from the Indian temple architecture of various times and styles, Fabri suggests the raison d’etre for the form must have been functional, to be open to the sky and yet secretive, be secluded allowing admission in ones or twos at the most. The kind of ritual and observance must have made the design so. It is circular, roofless and was more away from human habitation than it is today. In the 9th century the structure must have been witness to esoteric, orgiastic rites – may be sacred, may be profane. Against the background of the Yoginis in the niches, under the sky, orgies of all corporal forms must have splashed. In the words of Fabri, there hovers about the “enigmatic monument” a mystery of creation, re-creation, the origin of all life, all happiness, all beauty, in the feminine element.
Writes Fabri: The temple of the sixty-four. Yoginis at Hirapur is a great work of art, an exquisite monument, born out of emotional inspiration. There is an atmosphere here such as pervades the great cave temples of India or the fine Cathedrals of the West; yet the circular temple of Hirapur is hardly bigger than a room.
Fabri considers the shrine aesthetically more inviting than the one at Ranipur-Jharial. Small is beautiful. He waxes poetical and lyrical as many an aesthetician when he writes:
“With its smaller size, its compact design, admirable proportions, its hard, close-grained stone sculptures neatly arranged in small niches, and exquisite variety and beauty of many poses it is only a fascinating monument, it exercises a strange effect on the spectator. What touches the entranced spectator is the fleshly humanity and the sensual beauty of these belles (the Sanskrit word Sundari means precisely that).
In Tantrism the acquisition of primordial energy and the male-female union in corporal ecstasy was a central tenet. Copulation is the nearest approximation to heavenly bliss: Yoni is the place nearest to heaven. Yoga, among several things it connotes and stands for, means junction and union. Yogini may not be exactly a goddess but is certainly a devotee of a high order. Yogini Kula and Sahajayana cult demand propitiating and satisfying human nature with its sex passions. Copulation is a mystic process. Initiation into the order through
sexo-Yogic practices lead to Mahasukha and the realization of Sunyata – the void – which may mean anything from Nirvana to uninhibited copulation as a religious rite.
Are the icons or idols given worship? Are they Tantric figures associated with Vamachara and practices like Yoni Puja? Were they godlings or merely rare incarnations of devotees with libidos unleashed? What were the rites, orgies and sprees they, their followers, or their worshippers, experienced? These remain ponderable for ever.
The Yogini Peethas are believed to have been established when Tantric cult became popular and began to vie with the Vajrayana of the Buddhist belief which originated in Orissa in the 7th and 8th centuries. The Kalikapurana embodies in depth and detail the origin, development and religious significance of the rituals associated with it. The Lalitha-Sahasranama Stotra describes the Supreme Mother as Chatushshathti koti yogini gana sevita – the one worshipped by sixty-four crore strong group of Yoginis. These may be followers of a very special cult.
Today their Tantric halo may have been lost, their religious glory clouded and their benignancy or otherwise may be of no particular credence and so of no consequence – but they remain an invaluable treasure-house for the art-lover, the historian and the cultural tourist. The structure is well-maintained. We find no hectic rush of pleasure-seeking drifters here as we see in places like, say, Agra. The Shiva temple at the entrance of the monument appears to be receiving worship. The charred and spot-covered icons in the niches are awesome: the loneliness and the seclusion of the spot augmenting the effect. The Yoginis are approached with fear. Though Fabri waxed poetic and the icons reveal exquisite art, the purport remains enigmatic. It struck me that the people of the area (as in the vicinity of Bhetal Deval in the capital) seem to believe that the Yoginis are not benign forces altogether occasionally to be propitiated though out of an inspired awe.
Except in the hot summer months the place is almost inaccessible. Even when the state is reeling under drought (to the point of attracting the personal attention of the Prime Minister and his frantic visit) the Hirapur shrine is surrounded by the cool effulgent green of paddy fields. An adequate description of the spot in tourist guides and maps and an approach road to the place straight from the national highway would go a long way in restoring the importance the shrine must have had – if only for a few – for centuries.
Fabri, Charles Louis, History of the art of Orissa (Orient Longmans), 1974.