A ring of tantrik women

Art by Devdutt Pattanaik

Published on 17th December, 2017, in Mid-day

One thing that often goes unnoticed in many traditional Hindu temples, is that the walls of the shrine is made of a circle of women. Some of these are musicians, some dancers, some undressing, some adorning themselves for lovers, some clinging to trees, some being teased by monkeys, some are warriors, some mothers, some entertainers. Hundreds of these women are found facing the world outside, creating a circle within which the deity is enshrined. Who are these women?

Sometimes, when not in a ring, these women appear as attendants, standing beside the Buddha adorning him. But, it is the ring formation, most obvious in Hindu temples from around 10th century CE that is often overlooked.

The earliest ring of women is seen in the railings of Buddhist stupas such as the one at Sanchi and Amravati. In Madhya Pradesh and Odisha, there are circular temples, with no central deity, where these women face the inside. In temples of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, these women face outside. They have been identified as apsaras, yoginis, devanganas, vidyadharis, yakshis, dakinis, by various art historians, but very little is known about them.

In Mahayana Buddhism, there is the concept of Hevraja surrounded by a ring of yoginis. Images of this kind have been found in Cambodia. In Bhutan, where Vajrayana Buddhism is still practiced, a recent image of Buddha holding the Vajra dominates the capital. He is surrounded by nymphs, who hold in their hand sacred symbols such as pots, jewels, lotus flowers.

In Hinduism, the idea of Bhairava dancing in a circle of 64 yoginis is found in Tantrik literature. In Cambodia, the grand Shiva temple at Angkor Wat is surrounded by images of hundreds of dancing apsaras. Is this an elaborate Tantrik mandala to harness spiritual energy, Shiva’s power with the ring of Shakti? There are folktales of how several women are needed to transform Shiva’s seed into his warrior-son, Skanda. Did this idea metamorphose into the idea of Krishna dancing surrounded by the ring of gopikas, to form the rasa-mandala? We can only speculate as there is no direct reference to the connection between the various circles of women – be it Buddhist, or Hindu, Tantrik or Vaishnav.

As per Hindu, Buddhist and Jain folk beliefs, death is directly linked to spilling of semen, and immortality is linked to retaining of semen. In the Tantrik period, the concept of vajroli, sahajoli and urdhva-retas emerged, whereby the man who retains semen has sex with specially trained woman who rather than suck out his semen, propels it back up the spine into the brain, where it enables him to have mystical visions and occult power.

A weak man would succumb to the enchantments of these women and either die, or lose his manhood, and become a hermaphrodite or a woman. A strong man would be able to resist their charms and use their feminine energy to become a mystical powerful siddha! In Tantrik lore, there is reference to the land of women, in a banana orchard, where no one dares venture. Men turn into women there. Only Hanuman and Gorakh-nath have ventured there and retained their masculinity and have become maha-siddhas. These ideas may inform the concept of circle of women. Within the circle, male power is harnessed. But again, these are speculations.