The Cradle Of The Yogini Cult
Simple circular enclosures without a roof are an unusual phenomenon among the religious shrines in India. In addition, the circular walls of these enclosures have niches that enshrine sixty-four female images known as "Yoginis". These shrines are referred to as the "Chausati" (sixty-four) Yogini temples, and the cult associated with them is known as the Yogini cult.
All nine Yogini temples that have been discovered so far in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh , Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu . Orissa has two of these outstanding temples located at Hirapur, a deltoid village just outside Bhubaneswar , and another at Ranipur Jharial in the western strip of Bolangir district.
Of all the Yogini temples of India, the Hirapur Temple is the best preserved. The Yoginis of this temple are shown as voluptuous women with slim waists wearing a 'skirt' held together by an ornate girdle worn low on the hips. From head to toe, these figures are adorned with necklaces, garlands, armlets, bangles, anklets, earrings and elaborate headdresses. The hairstyles vary from the more frequent large ornate buns piled one side of the head to small tight curls arranged on the head like a crown.
While some of the Yoginis of Hirapur are portrayed as huntresses with bows and arrows, others are shown balancing on a pair of wheels, or playing a drum. Most of them have two hands, but a few are also shown with four. Some of them are poised over a mount that could commonly be a fish, parrot, turtle, frog, snake, scorpion, rat, or a decapitated male head, an archer, to name a few. Some of the Yoginis also have non-human faces of animals such as the horse, ass, rabbit, elephant and lion.
The Yogini cult has its origin in the simple tribal and folk tradition of India that, by the 7th-8th centuries A.D., in conjunction with the "Sakta-Tantric" form, meaning the worship of the Mother Goddess combined with certain magical rituals, which had acquired a more definite shape. A large body of Tantric texts and a similar number of shrines found in various parts of the country clearly reveal that several inexhaustible attempts made by its exponents and followers went a long way to popularise this esoteric cult between the 9th and 12th century.
Some later inscriptions found in certain Yogini temples further indicate that the cult was practised even in the 16th century. It is still not clear as to when exactly the Yogini cult bowed out of limelight, and equally intriguing as to why its temples were abandoned.
In the ancient scriptures, often Yoginis are depicted as consorts of 'Yogis', and like their male companions practiced 'Yoga' (mediation) to gain mastery over science and acquire magical powers. "Kaula Marga", a tantric form of worship further includes Yoginis of different categories in its "Cakra" (circle) associated with lord Shiva.
The Cakra is alternatively known as "Yogini Cakra", "Kaula Cakra" (the circle of time) or the "Bhairavi Cakra" (the circle of Bhairavi, the female companion of the terrifying form of Shiva known as "Bhairava"). The 'Marga', or path, that defines five ways to perform penance to attain liberation and happiness are 'Matsya' (fish), 'Mamsa' (meat), 'Mudra' (parched grain), 'Madya' (liquor) and 'Maithuna' (sexual intercourse).
A large collection of historical texts mention that to attain 'Siddhi' (spiritual powers), the 'Sadhakas' (the Tantric worshippers) unanimously offered flesh, blood and wine to the Yoginis, a tradition still in practice in several parts of Orissa. Devotees offer all these things to most of the village goddesses on important festive occasions, in times of crises, and each time these goddesses manifest themselves in dreams or otherwise to the devotees, demanding such sacrifices.
Oftentimes, the Sadhakas took recourse to Maithuna to attain the power of the Yoginis. According to the Kaula path, women of lower caste such as the 'Rajaki' (washerwomen), 'Carmakari' (leather worker), 'Vesya' (prostitute), 'Matangi' (an outcaste) and 'Madhumati' (vintner's caste) are the most suitable partners in the ritual of Maithuna. It further suggests that Maithuna practised along with yoga leads to the most consummate and soul-lifting physical experience.
A number of ancient texts recount terrifying stories highlighting the sorcery or witchcrafts aspect of the Yoginis. According to these stories, Yoginis could acquire certain magical powers with which they could transform human beings into animals and birds. A few other stories talk of a category of witches referred to as 'Dakinins', known for their ability to fly, besides their appetite for human flesh.
In Orissa, surprisingly the ancient practice of witchcraft has still survived in certain areas. To cite an example, among the Santals of Mayurbhanj district, witchcraft is still prevalent. The Santali witches often leave behind their husbands in bed in the midst of the night to assemble in a forest. Completely naked, they spend the rest of the night dancing and singing with 'bongas' (spirits or deities) and lions as their partners. At the break of dawn, they return to their beds, back to being what they originally were. The Santals believe that the 'talent' for witchcraft is not innate, but is attained through strict discipline.
"Chandi Purana", a 15th century A.D. text, written by Sarala Das of Orissa, refers to Yoginis as forms of the 'Devi' or the Supreme Goddess of the 'Saktas'. According to the text, the Yoginis constitute the different parts of the body of the Goddess.
In some other religious texts, Yoginis are also referred to as the attendant deities of the Great Goddess. In contrast, another tradition categorised the 64 Yoginis into potent numeral groupings of 8 forms - those that signify the eight Great Goddesses or the "Asta Matrakas" The images of these Asta Matrakas are widely found in India, and especially in Orissa in their larger-than-life forms.
Certain streams of Buddhism set great stores by Yogini or Sakta worship. The Vajrayana or the Tantric form of Buddhism, which had evolved against the principles of earlier Buddhism that was preached by the Buddha himself, had laid great emphasis on the theory of emancipation. The preachers of Vajrayana Buddhism redefined 'Nirvana' (liberation) as 'Sunya' (void), 'Vijnana' and 'Mahasukha' (extreme pleasure) that could be achieved by embracing a woman. In this newly restructured nirvana, women were designated as 'Shakti', and their union with the 'Sadhaka' came to be known as yoga.
Further, Vajrayana Buddhists were empowered to violate laws, kill human beings, and seduce women. They propounded a common slogan - identical actions by which mortals struggling for hundreds of billions of cycles could liberate the 'Yogin' (the Enlightened Man).
The circular plan of a Yogini temple is a self-contained symbol that expresses either the complementary aspect of completeness and separateness, or the relationship between man and nature. Sixty-four, usually the number of deities of a Yogini temple is often considered as a potent and effectual figure in several Hindu texts - a phenomenon that became quite marked after the arrival of the Tantras. Tantric texts refer to the sixty-four Bhairavas, who, united with their respective Yoginis, have attained 'Siddhi' or magical perfection.
It is quite apparent that a Sadhaka worshipped Yoginis in order to be initiated into a forbidden world of secret powers that he could exploit to gain control over body and mind, regulate natural elements, and obtain wealth. A Sadhaka also wished to acquire several destructive powers. Black magic was fascinating as it could help make a person lose consciousness, trigger off a sudden flood, annihilate a person, amidst other things.
The Mahamaya Temple
Located over the vast plains of the Mahanadi delta, on the bank of the sacred Bhargavi River, Hirapur is a small picturesque village, set amidst a peaceful environment, just outside the modern bustling town of Bhubaneswar . The Yogini Temple, otherwise known as the "Mahamaya Temple", situated near the village entrance has an ambience that is quite charged. The temple conveys an impression of the overwhelming power of its sixty-four Yoginis. Mahamaya, the presiding deity of the temple is found adorned with red cloth and vermilion. The deity is still worshipped by the local villagers.
The Hirapur Temple
The Hirapur Temple is the smallest of the Yogini temples in India. It measures only thirty feet in diametre, and is hardly eight feet high. The temple is built of coarse sandstone blocks with laterite as its foundation. The Yoginis are carved out of fine-grained gray chlorite. The inner walls of the temples have sixty-four niches with sixty Yoginis still in place.
The recently reconstructed small central pavilion has eight niches. Four of these have the images of the remaining four of the sixty-four Yoginis, while the other four have images of the Bhairavas depicted with erect phalluses as is customary of the images of Shiva in Orissa. The images are about 2 feet tall, and the niches, in which they are placed, were probably treated as miniature shrines.
The Hirapur Temple is the only Yogini temple that has female figures on its outer walls. The sandstone sculptures in the nine niches rise above large severed human heads. Each Yogini holds a curved knife or 'javelin' in one hand, and a cup carved in the shape of a skull, in the other.
Another unusual feature of this temple is a projecting entranceway flanked by doorkeepers. On either side of the narrow entrance hall is a skeletal male of fearsome men wearing a garland of skulls, and snake anklets. One of these male figures holds a severed human head. On the pedestal below are two more similar skeletal figures holding skullcaps, with jackals besides them.
+Among the deities absent at Hirapur are the 'Matrakas', and the 'Chamundas', which indicates that they were not worshipped in this temple.
The credit for building the Yogini temple of Hirapur goes to the illustrious Bhauma and Somavamsi rulers of Orissa who were known for their tolerance, liberality and eclecticism. Their rule, which lasted for two centuries (mid-8th to mid-10th century A.D.), has been depicted as the 'Golden Age' mainly due to their contribution in the field of religion, philosophy, art, architecture and literature.
During this period, there was a gradual amalgamation of Shaivism (worship of Shiva), Shaktism (worship of the Mother Goddess) and the Vajrayana, or Tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism (for more information, see Religion) in the region. It is believed that the Yogini Temple at Hirapur was built towards the end of the Bhauma rule, in the 9th century A.D., as the sculptures strongly resemble those of the famous Mukteshwar Temple of Bhubaneswar , constructed in the 9th century.
Legend of Chandi Purana
The Chandi Purana, based on the story of the Goddess 'Chandi' or 'Durga' killing 'Mahisasura' or the buffalo-demon, is a clear reflection of the extreme form of Tantrism practised in coastal Orissa of those times. According to the text, the Goddess Chandi is said to have liberated an innumerous number of female soldiers known as Yoginis, who were excessively fond of flesh, blood, bone and marrow. And to fulfill these desires, the soldiers fought incessantly with the demons till they were killed and could be consumed. The text says that numerous goats, rams and buffaloes were killed every day to propitiate the Goddess Sarala and the Yoginis.
A visit to the Yogini temple at Hirapur marks only the beginning of the journey into Orissa's mysterious past. It also throws light on the role the worship of feminine cults played in promoting harmony through the synthesis of major religious traditions of medieval Orissa.