800 AD - 900 AD

Chausanth Yoginis

American Institute of Indian Studies

Manifestation of Dread and Wrath : The Shaktic cult of the Yoginis, evokes varying emotions - reverence, fear, awe, puzzle and inquisitiveness. This exhibition will take the viewer on a finding journey of a long lost and esoteric cult at Hirapur  and Ranipur-Jhariyal Temple Complexes, Orissa.

The cult stimulates one’s mind into asking questions like ‘After all, who were these Yoginis?’ What is the significance of knowing about them? It is not easy to arrive at a consensus regarding them, as the term ‘Yogini’ has multiple connotations in reference to different contexts. In modern context, the term is often used to refer to a woman hermit or even a female Yoga practitioner. However, the Yoginis of this early medieval cult – which is said to have been prevalent during 9th to 12th centuries- are the semi demonic, semi divine demigoddesses of the various forms of the Shakti.

Hosts of Puranic texts such as Candi Purana, Devi Mahatmya , Skanda Purana etc. emphasizes that the Yoginis were regarded as the varying aspects of the Great Goddess (Durga) who, through these Yoginis, manifested the totality of her presence.(Dehejia, 1986:22). These Yoginis are thus auxiliaries of the great Goddess on the battle field-in her battle against the demons- as well as her personal attendants and messengers.
Here, in the picture we can see an emaciated yogini holding a lion’s carcass, wearing a skull garland. This Yogini, can be seen as a manifestation of Chandi. Another yogini on black buck.

Circular Wall, Inner face, Yoginis
Chausanth (64) Yoginis kept in the niches at the Chausanth Yogini temple in Hirapur (Orissa). Each niche works as an individual shrine.All the yoginis, placed in these niches, face towards the centre of the temple.  
Hirapur temple , General view from North-East
Generally attributed to 9th century, this is Hirapur temple, located in Orissa. It is built of coarse sandstone blocks, smallest of all the Yogini temples. The temples of yoginis are generally in circular shape which is representative of a tantric ritual that requires the formulation of a Yogini chakra in order to meditate. Thus, the Yoginis are placed in a circular manner to formulate a Cakra or a Circle. 

These Yoginis - whose cult was central to Kaula Practice - possessed the power of flight, they took the form of humans, animals or birds and often inhabited trees (White,2003: 27). Here we can see a yogini in form of Sarpasya (literally meaning "Snake faced") - A four armed Snake faced Yogini with an ornate girdle around her waist. Dehejia opines that most of the yoginis depicted at these temples, have their genesis in local village deities/grahma devis. Hence, this yogini could be related with the Naga cult of Mansa.

The withering traces of her weapons,which she is holding in her two hands, are still slightly visible. However, the intricacies of the beautiful necklace she is wearing are still intact.

These Yoginis are Theriocephalic, which make them appear ghastly. Just like the Ganas or the attendants of Shiva, these Yoginis too have heads of animals, birds and even flora at times. It is perhaps reflective of their supernatural powers which render them the ability to appear in any form. It is indeed phenomenal that instead of being despised as witches or beasts, they are instead venerated. An Ass headed yogini standing on a tree or a creeper. She is perhaps holding a damru in her right hand. Simhamukhi, Lion faced yogini, standing on creepers and rocks.

Image of three yoginis, the first one is a two armed yogini, standing on a corpse, with a trident in hand.The presence of the corpse at the pedestral of these images, indicates the Sava Sadhana or corpse ritual (as suggested by Dehejia, 1989:58-59) in order to acquire occult powers by the practitioner.The middle one is having a snake by her side and can be seen standing on flowers. The third Yogini can be seen with a drum. Beneath the drum is a covered earthen pot. The beating of the drum can be seen as an announcement of the war.

On the Outer wall : Guarding the Temple

Hirapur temple has sculptures of females on its outer walls as well. Here, we can see a Yogini standing on a human head with her hair open adding to her fearsome looks with a Katari/dagger like weapon in one hand and spear in another, emphasizing her being on battlefield.

The images on the outer surface of the temple, like this one, represents the nine katyayanis, the awe inspiring and ferocious manifestation of Sakti who according to the Oriya version of the Kalika Purana, were created by Durga along with the sixty four yoginis for the sake of killing the demons. (Brighenti, 2001 : 300, citing K.C Panigrahi) She has an attendant figure, standing on a human head. She is holding a falchion in one hand.

In the another hand, is a cup to drink the blood of the demons.

Kal Bhairav (manifestation of Siva)with a skull garland (mundmala),standing at the entrance corridor to the temple of Hirapur. He is surrounded by jackals, who seem to be feeding on the corpse. Bhairava is the head of the Yoginis and engages in plays and dances with them.

These Yoginis were worshipped by the Kaula sect of Tantricism to acquire Occult powers (Sidhis).
A yogini with a cup in hand to drink blood , standing on a boar with a spear by her side.

Three Yoginis - A four armed, lion faced yogini. Another yogini with a snake mount.

The Yogini on the snake mount can be seen holding a sword in one hand, with only the hilt of the sword being visible.

The lion faced Yogini can be seen standing on an elephant mount.

Circular wall, Inner face,Yoginis

Three yoginis, two standing on their respective mounts and the third one without a mount. The Yogini in the middle can be seen standing on a lotus. She is holding a shield in one hand (reflects her being on the battlefield) and wearing a sarpamala i.e. serpent garland around her body. The one in extreme right is standing on a peacock mount.

A two armed, Horse faced yogini, with another yogini holding a sword in one hand.

Gajanana and the Hunter Yogini

Gajanana, the Elephant headed yogini, with an enormously protruding belly and with an ornate headdress. She is standing on a donkey mount. Another Yogini as an archer with an arrow in hand and a smile on face. She is standing on a rat mount in a hunting pose.

Three human headed yoginis standing on different mounts. The first one is standing on a cot. The second yogini has bulging eyes. The third yogini (from left) is standing on a bird either a parrot or a crow.

Yogini temple and other shrines at Ranipur - Jharial (Orissa)
The circular temples are hypaethral (open to sky), with a projection of four feet on the east which serves as the entrance and gives an overall keyhole or yoni shape to the structure. ( Donaldson, 2002:661)   In these temples, the Shiva, in the wrathful form of Bhairava, is often placed at the centre of the shrine, which seems to be symbolic of a union between the male and female shaktis. Here  we can see an image of the Circular Yogini Temple at Ranipur -Jhariyal. This temple is twice in size to its counterpart at Hirapur. 

Here, a Yogini is seen in a form of a cat, eating a mouse. Symbolically, this may infer that she is ready to devour the flesh and blood of a demon on the battlefield and is after her prey, just like a cat is after a mouse.

Four armed dancing Gajanana (elephant headed) and a four armed sow-faced yogini holding club as weapon in one hand.

The two hands at the front of the sow-faced Yogini are clasping against her breasts, holding them tight and her fourth arm can be seen holding some unidentified object.

A four armed, horse headed female. She is holding a weapon in one hand, with other two hands nearing her thighs holding unidentified objects. Another, Buffalo headed Yogini, holding a trident.

Here we can see a Leopard faced, six armed Yogini holding severed human head in one hand.

She is holding a club in one hand and a rosary in yet another.

Invocation of Yoginis and Bhairava is still practiced in the recitation of the Aarti of the Amba in every Hindu household. The lyrics goes as "Chausanth Yogini Gaawat, Nirtya Karat Bhairav-Thus sings the 64 Yoginis in your praise and Bhairava dances to the tune". Here we can spot a dancing yogini with her left hand on her knee. The middle one is a three headed and four armed yogini with a trident in one hand and rosary in another. The third one is an emaciated yogini.

The emaciated yogini has sunken cheeks and sagging breasts.

It has been surmised that this cult has its genesis in the folk culture of the areas it is worshiped in. It was perhaps later assimilated into the mainstream Hinduism and came to be associated with the pantheon of Parvati / Durga. This cult, is significant as it establishes women as independent goddesses and not as consorts of Gods.Though later on assimilated into the pantheon and thus associated with the consorts of Brahmanical Gods, it is not easy to deny their independent existence as folk deities. Here we can see two armed yoginis with trident in hands. The sculptures at this temple have been carved out of a coarse sand stone. 
Centre for Art and Archaeology, American Institute of Indian Studies
Credits: Story

Image credits: American Institute of Indian Studies.
Curator: Swati Goel
Courtesy for Street Views: Archaeological Survey of India


1. Cunnigham, Alexander. Archeological survey reports, Varanasi: Indological Book House.
2. Dehejia, Vidya (1986) 'Yogini- Cult and Temples, A Tantric Tradition', New Delhi: National Museum, Janpath.
3. Donaldson, Thomas E.(2002) Tantra and Sakta art of Orissa, Vol 2,New Delhi: D.K Printworld Ltd.

Credits: All media
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