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 that city, it is also the place where I started my career. Both of us are familiar with Bhubaneswar’s monuments, handicrafts and amazing street food. During this particular trip, however, I realised there were heritage wonders still waiting to be explored.
One evening, we were discussing the temples in the city when my brother-in-law proposed a drive to the Chausath Yogini temple in Hirapur that 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 quaint village, about 15km from Bhubaneswar. The drive itself is picturesque. It was a typical autumn morning, with its characteristic azure blue sky and white cottony clouds—the kind that heralds the arrival of Durga Puja. As we left the city and crossed the main Puri Canal, the road narrowed and the landscape changed to green paddy fields on one side and the canal on the other.
We stopped at a shack right after crossing the canal. It was only 7.30am but a small crowd had already gathered. The smell of fresh, deep-fried food pervaded the air. After a hearty breakfast, we drove on for 10 minutes on semi-concrete roads, until a blue Archaeological Survey of India board appeared, pointing to the temple.
The road opened up to a clearing, next to a large pond—the Mahamaya Puskarini—and an old banyan tree. The atmosphere was serene, possibly because not too many people are aware of this structural marvel. It has somehow managed to evade the otherwise well-documented tourist/pilgrim circuit of Bhubaneswar-Puri-Konark.
As we got out of the car, it felt as if the gnarled banyan tree was whispering that we were entering an ancient, magical place. We entered a beautifully manicured lawn, lush with seasonal flowers. Near the entrance is a small temple to Sankateswara Mahadev and a Krishna idol. But where was the yogini temple? There was no shikhara in sight, no flags flying off its pinnacle, not even the mandapam and ardhmandapam so characteristic of Kalinga temples.
As we walked further, we realised this was a temple like no other. You enter the circular, hypaethral (roofless) structure through an extended passage. This lends the temple the aerial shape of a yogini pedestal, attached to a Shiva lingam—a characteristic of tantric architecture. The style does not find mention in traditional books on architecture, for tantric architecture has been kept a closely guarded secret.
Nine Katyayanis are carved on the niches in 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 gatekeepers, Jai and Vijay.
The entrance is narrow, you have to bend low to enter. On the corridor walls are idols of Kaal and Vikraal. The temple is designed in accordance with tantric prayer rituals that involve the worship of, and interaction with, the bhumandala (environment) consisting of the five elements of nature: fire, water, earth, sky and ether. It is roofless because the yoginis are believed to be capable of flight. The low circular wall around the sanctum sanctorum has small niches, each with a black chlorite stone idol of a yogini astride her mount.
Fifty-six of the 60 idols here have survived. You can see the elegant postures, elaborate hairdos and ornaments, though the faces have not survived. The ones I could identify were the idols of Vindhyavasini, Ganeshini, Bhadrakali, Aghora, Kamakshi, Chamunda, and their mounts, such as makara, a mythical water creature, the mouse and the donkey. At the centre is Goddess Mahamaya, the 31st of the 64 yoginis, standing over a human skull—symbolic of the victory of time over knowledge and everything mortal. On the central platform, the Chandi Pitha, rest the other four yoginis, though one is now missing. There are four Bhairavas in the corner niches of the Chandi Pitha. Some historians say the central platform, now empty, used to have an idol of Shiva.
This 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 women rulers, between the eighth-ninth centuries. The village is named after her.
No one knows whether 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 lay forgotten till it was rediscovered by historian Kedarnath Mahapatra in 1953.
Even today, its raw, cosmic energy keeps you mesmerised, privy to centuries of wisdom. And as we left, we felt we had stepped out of a time warp.
The Yogini Tradition
I have created all worlds at my will, without being urged by any higher being, and I dwell within them./ I permeate the earth and heaven, all created entities with my greatness, and 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 numerous forms of goddesses, all of whom are associated with nature. These ultimately find representation in the 64 yoginis, which were later merged with the mythology of Parvati or Durga, as incarnates of the Mother Goddess. Each yogini has a different animal/bird/mythological animal as a mount, depicting the force of nature she is associated with.
Four main traditions associated with the cult of the yoginis had tribal beginnings. All four revolve around the idea that the yoginis were minor divinities to greater goddesses. According to the first, the yoginis are said to have formed from different parts of the Devi, including her voice, sweat, navel, forehead, cheeks, lips, ears, limbs, toenails, womb, and anger. The second tradition suggests the yoginis are attendant deities of the great Goddess. The third focuses on the yoginis as acolytes: the 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.