Published on 11th December, 2016, in Mumbai Mirror.
Bejewelled women once lived in Hindu temples, immersed themselves in art, danced and sang and made music in temples, had multiple lovers, were bound to the deity, not to any one man, and their beauty was captured in the sensuous images on temple walls. Unable to fathom such matriarchal structures, British rulers of India deemed these free women as prostitutes. Social reformers supported this move, convinced these women were exploited and could not possibly have agency over their bodies. Freedom fighters offered no support, as women, for them, could only be mothers and daughters and sisters, not desiring and desirable women. Male priests rode this patriarchal and puritanical wave to delegitimise the feminine hold over temple rituals and temple wealth.
This was all ironical, for ancient architects imagined the temple as the reclining body of a languid woman with her womb (garbha) housing the enshrined deity. Temples were architectural celebration of sensuality and fertility that challenged the monastic sterility of Buddhist viharas. In fact, a thousand years ago, before the building of the grand temple complexes of India dedicated to male deities such as Vishnu and Shiva, before the arrival of Islam that preferred a bodiless God, India saw temples exclusively dedicated to womanhood – the circular temples of the yoginis.
Few still survive. There are two in Odisha: Hirapur near Bhubaneshwar and Ranipur near Bolangir. And there are three in Madhya Pradesh at Bedaghat near Jabalpur, at Mitaoli of Morena district, near Gwalior and the not-quite circular ruins in Khajuraho. These temples were abandoned long ago for mysterious reasons. Was it a natural decline following rise of devotional cults to Shiva and Vishnu? Was it the push back by Vedantic monasticism led by celibate men? Was it the arrival of Muslim warlords such as the Afghan general Kalapahada who attacked Odisha and destroyed much of its iconography? We can only speculate. The temples were rediscovered and restored by archaeologists only in the last century. Sanskrit texts are ambiguous about these deities, with numerous lists of names, and attributes, and rituals, but no binding mythology other than tales of Durga and Kali riding out to battle with armies of female warriors, often the shaktis of male gods, who drink the blood of asuras.
A typical Hindu temple is square and its orientation is linear, the deity facing the east mostly. But these circular temples, the deities facing every direction, though the entrance to the well-like structure does face the east. The characteristic vimana or dome is missing; in fact the temples have no roof. In Odisha, at Hirapur and Ranipur, the images of the yoginis are embedded in the inner walls and face the central shrine. In Madhya Pradesh, at Bedaghat and Mitaoli, the yoginis have individual pillared shrines with a roof but they all open into a central circular courtyard. The images are relatively intact in Hirapur, Ranipur and Jabalpur. Only three images survive in Khajuraho. In Morena, there is no iconography. Were they removed, and replaced with Shiva-linga? No one knows.
The images in Hirapur show women in various postures. Some dancing, some hunting with bows and tridents, some making music on drums, some drinking blood, or wine, some doing household chores with a winnow in their hand. Most women are bejewelled, with fine hairstyles. Others have the head of a snake, or a bear, or a lion, or an elephant. They stand on human heads, male bodies, on crows, roosters, peacocks, bulls, buffaloes, donkeys, pigs, scorpions, crabs, camels, dogs, on water and in the midst of fire. Some are recognisable – like the gaunt Chamunda, the lute-bearing Saraswati, the pot-holding Lakshmi, female forms of Vishnu’s avatars such as Narasimhi and Varahi and of Vedic gods like Indrani.
What is clear is that yoginis are lifeaffirming. If the yogi withdrew from life, the yoginis seemed to have embraced life. If the yogi yearned for immortality, the yogini did not fear mortality. If the yogi sought to withhold desires, the yogini unleashed desires.
Why sixty-four? Again ,only speculation. Maybe it refers to the sixty four arts the apsaras and courtesans of yore were proficient in. Maybe the meaning is more esoteric, referring to the eight divisions of time that make up a day or the eight directions or the boxes of the chess board, a game invented in India.
All these circular shrines have a central structure. At Hirapur, the central structure is a pavilion, empty and opens to the sky, with four Bhairava and four Yogini images on the four walls. At Ranipur, the central shrine is occupied by a three headed image of Bhairava, Shiva’s fierce form. At Morena, there is the linga. At Bedaghat, there is a temple that enshrines, rather unusually, the image of Shiva and Parvati on Nandi. Was it placed there later? For Shiva temples typically worship Shiva in aniconic form (linga) rather than iconic form (svarupa).
When the goddess appears as a collective in Tantrik traditions, even when they stand in a line and not in a circle, they are accompanied by one male – the Bhairava, often shown as fierce and with an erect phallus. He accompanies them, as guardian and lover. The women circle him. Why? Is the world-renouncing hermit being forced to acknowledge the feminine? Is it a depiction of nature, where every womb is sacred and only the alpha amongst males matters; the rest disposable? Or could this be a Tantrik precursor of what would later become the rasa-leela with the yoginis turning into shy gopis and Bhairava becomes the charming Krishna? Speculation is all we have.
Just when you think India has all but forgotten the yoginis, someone tells you that the circular yogini shrine of Mitaoli inspired British architects during the Raj who built the Indian parliament. Yes, it is circular, yes it has a circular courtyard, and yes, there is a central hall. Too many Bhairavas inside maybe; time for more yoginis?