Yogini Temple of Hirapur: The Abode of Ancient Feminism

In India, once thrived an ancient order of female worshippers most often feared for their magical prowess and their existence often mired in controversies. 5 min


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In ancient India, bejewelled women lived in Hindu temples, sang, danced, had lovers and were devoted to the deity and not one man. Their sensuous figures were carved on temple walls as a symbol of fertility and sensuality as opposed to the monastic sterility of Buddhist Viharas. Puritanical British rulers saw them as prostitutes, social reformers as oppressed, and freedom fighters offered no support as for them women could only be mothers, daughters and sisters, not desirable beings.

Ironically, 1000 years ago before temples of Shiva and Vishu were built, Hindu temples were all about the celebration of womanhood. Few such examples remain in the form of ‘ Yogini Temples.’ 

Only 5 of these temples remain in India now. Two in Odisha in Hirapur and Ranipur and three in Madhya Pradesh in Khajuraho, Bhedaghat and Mitaoli.

In this article we will learn about the 64 Yogini temple of Hirapur, Odisha but first lets know more about the yoginis and the yogini cult.

Who were Yoginis?

Not much information is available about who actually yoginis were. That’s because the yogini cult was a very secretive one. It is said that to get such information one needed proper initiation into the cult with the promise that they cannot disclose that information to the outside world. The Jnanavarna Purana, one of the main texts of tantra, states that whoever tells the secrets of tantra to the uninitiated, will become food for the yoginis. 

So you can pretty much understand that the word “Yogini” or “Dakini” evoked fear in the minds of people in ancient India and continues to do so till now.

The current belief of the people is that they were forms of Shakti. But that is a very convenient explanation. It must go deeper than that. It is probable that the cult had origins in the animistic traditions of Adivasis( Aboriginals) and around 7th century those beliefs blended with the cult of Shakti and Tantrism. Their mention is found in Skanda Purana, Agni Purana, Kathasaritasagar et al where they are mentioned as sorceresses, having magical powers to turn humans into birds or animals, make rain and ability to fly( hence the open roof temples).

The cult was very powerful between 9th and 12th century AD and slowly vanished around 17th century AD. 

Now let’s talk about the 64 Yogini Temple of Hirapur in Odisha.

Location: 

It is located in a small hamlet of Hirapur nearly 15 kms from Bhubaneswar. 

Deities:

There are either 64 deities that reside in yogini temples. In one of the religious traditions of India, there are 8 forms of Devi. Each of them have 8 attendants so we arrive at the number 64. Devi Mahatmyam purana explains how they came into being to assist the Devi in killing Raktavij(Demon).

The number 64 is also associated with the different forms of the human psyche.

Architecture: 

The temple has a circular structure and is a hypaethral shrine(meaning it has no roof). It is made of locally available coarse sandstone and the deities or ‘Yoginis’ are carved in Black Chlorite( source unknown). 

The circular achitecture of the 64 Yogini Temple.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It has 60 yoginis placed on the inner walls of the circular sanctum with 3 other yoginis in the centre on a raised platform( Statue of one yogini is missing). They are accompanied by 4 Bhairavas(forms of Shiva).

Yogini TempleThe interior of the Yogini Temple with sculptures of Yoginis.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Most of the statues have been defaced and broken by successive Islamic rulers. 

The outer walls are adorned with statues of 9 Katyayanis( Mother Goddesses) and the entrance is guarded by two wrathful celestial guards. 

Yogini sect was a heterodox sect and hence it is expected that they do not follow common Hindu temple architecture.

The deities are completely unidentical to each other They are believed to be forms of Parvati and are named accordingly. Few names that come to mind are Bahurupa, Tara, Narmada, Yamuna, Shanti, Betali, Karakali and Jwala Kamini. The priest there can tell you all the names. The largest of these is ten-armed Mahamaya aka The Great Illusion. She is worshipped as Durga.

Carved from a fine, black chlorite, each rupa (form) is small — roughly a foot and a half high.  Each one represents a voluptuous woman wearing a kilt or skirt held around her hips by an ornate girdle.  Besides the belt, she wears the other seven symbolic ornaments: bracelets, armlets, anklets, earrings, necklace, garland and headdress. They all have different hairstyles.

Yogini TempleOne of the yoginis.

Each one rides a different vahana(vehicle) like pig, crow, sparrow, scorpion, buffalo, cow, iguana, frog, dead body, water waves etc.

Yogini TempleA yogini riding a pig.

Yogini TempleAnother one riding a frog.

The four Bhairavas are the protectors of these yoginis.

Yogini TempleOne of the Bhairavas.

Who built it:

It is supposed to be built by Bhaumukara Dynasty which ruled in 9th century. Buddhism was nearly the state religion of Odisha but they showed great tolerance towards Brahminical Hinduism and later became Hindus.

That period is known as Orissa’s Golden Age as a consequence of the dynasty’s patronage and eclecticism in the arts, and tolerance in religious matters. 

There was a rise in tantric mysticism in both Buddhism and Hinduism during that era and hence its incorporation into the temples. 

The Kings used these temples to appease cosmic deities through rituals to attain favours during wars. 

How to Reach: 

By Road: 

  • From Bhubaneshwar, take the Tankapani Road from Ravi Talkies Square on Lewis Road. Keep going on the road until you reach Gangua River. Cross the bridge and take the immediate right. After this there are proper directions to the temple or you can ask the locals.
  • Using Google Maps is the best option.
  • You need a reserved vehicle or a bike to reach there as no public transport is available. 
  • My backpacker friends can hitchhike there.

By Rail:

The nearest railway station is the Bhubaneshwar Railway Station(BBS). After that follow the road directions mentioned above.

By Air:

The nearest airport is the Biju Pattanaik International Airport.

Where To Stay:

There are no accommodations in Hirapur so you need to stay in Bhubaneshwar. The trip to the temple is hardly a day’s trip.

Interesting Fact:

The design of the Indian Parliament building is said to be inspired by the Yogini Temple at Mitaoli(Madhya Pradesh).

Fascinating Anecdote:

When I visited the place there was one other foreign tourist, probably a Japanese guy. When the priest explained to him about the forms of deities and how they were different forms of the same Shakti who is consort of Shiva but yet again Shiva and Shakti are the different forms of the same energy, he got really confused. He was simply not able to comprehend the fact that how can one God have so many forms and yet be singular. He went away disappointed and shaking his head.

Note: Please leave your views and further questions about this temple in the comments section.


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Somnath Verma

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