900 AD - 975 AD

Yogini Matrakas  

American Institute of Indian Studies

On the Threshold of Protective and Destructive energies : The exhibition is an attempt to celebrate the feminine energy-considered essentially as a creative energy- in its darkest of forms, through its focus on the cult of Yogini Matrakas (Semi- Demonic Mothers). Yogini Matrakas epitomizes the convergence of both the destructive and creative forces. Here we look at the temple complexes at Khajuraho and Bheraghat, both in Madhya Pradesh, India. 

This cult epitomizes the representation of otherwise compassionate, loving mothers in their darkest forms. They are venerated and revered for their power and from the fear of their power. According to the Devimahatmyam (Hindu religious text) story of the origin of the mothers, the seven of the Gods sent their female energies (saktis) who had the same attributes and powers as themselves and were their female counterparts, to help Devi Chandika in her great battle against the demons. (Dehejia, 1986: 28). These sixty four yoginis are then said to be the manifestation of these 8 matrakas- Brahmani (sakti of Brahma), Maheshvari (shakti of Shiva), Vaishnavi (shakti of Vishnu), Kaumari (shakti of Kartikeya/Murgan), Varahi (Shakti of Varaha), Narsimhi (Shakti of Narsimha), Indrani (Shakti of Indra) and Chamunda (independent standing)- (the number later expanded to 8 from 7) and 8 yoginis being derived from each Matraka.

Puranas (Kurma Purana, Matsya Purana) relates yet another story of the genesis of the cult of Matrakas. Here, Siva in the battle with Andhkasura, calls upon the Matrakas to drink the blood of the demon in order to prevent each droplet from becoming a new demon (Anne,1989: 169). Once the battle subsides, the Matrakas, still hungry for blood, begin to feed on everything in the universe, therefore, Bhairava (Siva), concerned for the inevitable collapse of the world, prays to Narasimha (Vishnu incarnation of half man and half lion) to withdraw the destructive powers of the Matrakas (Anne, 1989: 169).The Shaktic cult of the Yoginis thus, got assimilated with the larger cult of Matrakas (mothers) and the 64 yoginis then were said to be the manifestation of 8 Matrakas or Mother Shaktis. This led to the elevation of their status from being mere auxiliaries to the Shaktis to themselves being a manifestation of it. When pacified, these Yogini Matrakas assumed the sublime, compassionate and protective (towards her devotees) forms.

Dance, is a major form of portrayal for these destructive energies. This dance of rage threatens the existence of the entire world. The rage, out of bound after the battles, does not distinguish between good and bad elements. Here, we can see a fragment of Chamunda in the dancing form, wearing a garland of skulls around her.

Here, we can see Chamunda, the only Matraka, who is not claimed to be a consort of any God. She seems to represent the darkest aspect of femininity. She is usually spotted with a skull in hand, for drinking blood of the demons. Here also she can be seen standing on a corpse of a demon.

According to Varaha Purana, the Gods when, unable to quell the demon, emit from their mouth great anger and this way the eight Matrikas are born. Thus the matrikas represent the eight mental qualities which are morally bad, ‘ Maheshvari: Krodha / anger; Vaishnavi : Lobha/ greed/covetousness; Brahmani:mada/pride; Kaumari:Moha/ illusion; Indrani : Matsarya/fault finding; Yami or Camunda Paisunya that is tale –bearing; Varahi :Asuya or envy (Anne,1989: 170). Here, the Shakti or female energy of Brahma, one of the Seven/Eight Matrakas, striking a dancing pose.

The Shakti or female energy of Brahma, one of the Seven or Eight Matrakas, striking a dancing pose. A goose can be seen near her feet at the pedestal.


Said to be an incarnation of Saraswati, the consort of the Hindu God Brahma, she has four heads (one at back) just as her male counterpart. The hands of the sculpture are broken , however, as the female energy of Brahma, she holds a Kamndalu, a lotus stalk and as she is considered as the Goddess of knowledge, she holds books in her hands.

Sri- Amtakari

Sitting goddess with an open mouth, with a bull at the pedestal. In the words of Cunningham, she is ready to 'devour ' as she is a 'death -causer', a description that alludes to her name ' Anta-kari' i.e the end or death giver. Since, the mouth of many of these images are open, the following proverb, quoted by Cunnigham, seems apt:
‘Whether or not she eats the dead, The Goblin mouth is always red’. (Cunnigham, 1966:71)

Sri Aingini

Considered as the female energy of Lord Ganesha, she is also known by various other names like Gananayaki or Vinayaki. This Elephant headed goddess (gajanana), have a slender waist, as opposed to her male counterpart who has an enormously protruding belly. In this form, she is said to fight the obstacles and the protector of the negative energies from entering the household. The fast and the festival of Vinayaki Chaturthi, which is observed on fourth day of the first fortnight of the Hindu Calendar Month,is perhaps a derivation in her name. Here, we can see an elephant headed man can be seen at the pedestal.

Sri Phanendri

A goddess with the serpent headdress and a man prostrating at her feet .

Sri Sarvatomukhi
The three headed goddess, Sarvatomukhi meaning she who faces in all directions , can be seen grinding her teeth in anger. her protruding round eyes are adding to her fearsome looks. She would have been very helpful in battle against demons as she possessed the powers to look into all the directions simultaneously.

Sri Kamada
The seated feminine form is the manifestation of the fabulous cow of plenty that sprang from the sea of milk. She, thus grants all the desires.(Cunnigham)

As the cult is associated with Tantricism- Yoni worship which means worship of vulva and even its fluids, is core to the practice. Yoni is seen as the manifestation of power of creation thus by indulging in its worship, the practitioner may wish to acquire various kinds of Shaktis or Sidhis. This ritual of veneration of the Vulva -the nether mouth of the Yogini- has for its final end the consumption of the yonitatva, the female discharge of the Tantric consort. (White: 109) This ritual is considered of prime importance while taking the new initiates into the Tantric sects of Kaula Marg.
Here, we can see two men worshiping the Yoni(vulva) and its fluids

As the female Shakti of the Lord Vishnu, she is an incarnation of Laxmi and adorns all the paraphernalia of her male counterpart. She thus carries, shankha (conch shell), gada and chakra (discuss), with garuda as her mount sitting on the pedestal.

Sri Simha-Simha

The goddess with a head of a lion. Cunnigham suggests she can be identified with the Narasimhi, the female energy of the Narasimha. A male with a lion head can also be seen on the pedestal. (Cunnigham,1966:p.69)

Sri Jamvavi/ Jambhavati

The daughter of the bear king Jambhavat, Sri-Jambhavati, was one of the principle wives of Lord Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu. According to legends, she was unable to bear children, thus Lord Krishna did a penance to please Lord Shiva and was granted a boon in the form of a son called Sambha. Sambha is said to be an incarnation of Shiva himself. Though Jambhavati is not considered as a Female Shakti of any God assisting the Durga in killing demons, her inclusion as a Mother Yogini, seem to be emerging from the said legend.

Sri- Varahi

Varahi is the feminine energy of Varaha, the incarnation of Lord Vishnu in the form of a Boar. She has a face of a sow and discuss (chakra) as her weapon.


In the words of the famous Alexander Cunningham, the British founder of ASI, ‘The compound Kshattra-dharmma means the duty of a kshattra or a soldier i.e. bravery but as ksttra is derieved from kshad, the title of this goddess may mean the ‘ to eat, to rend, to tear to pieces’ (Cunnigham, 1966: 69). Both the derivations are suggestive of the fighting role of the Goddess.

Sri Gamdhari/ Gandhari

The Yoginis possessed the power to fly and many of the practitioners of Tantra, venerated the yoginis for acquiring this Sidhi (magical power) through her boon. Here we can see a winged divinity seated on a horse. This perhaps symbolizes the practitioner’s obsession with acquiring this power of flight, which lead to the worship of the deity in the winged form.

Sri Rupini

The crocodile at the pedestal symbolizes her to be the river goddess.


The worship of the bovine in the form of goddess is not a new phenomenon. The economic benefits derived from the bovine capital have lead to her veneration from Vedic times only, particularly in the form of Kamdhenu. The representation of the Yogini in the bovine form, is also symbolic of her being venerated as a Mother for she is the provider of milk. Erudi has also been referred to as Vrishabha. Here, she is accompanied by a cow at the pedestal.Two ladies worshiping her, with the joined hands can also be seen at the pedestal.

Seated Female divinity: Sri Vibhatsa

Cunnigham describes her as 'the terrible' or the 'piercer' of the demons . A prostrate man can be seen on the pedestal.The Yoginis were said to pierce the corpse to satisfy their hunger for flesh and blood. She is also carrying a shield in one of her hands.

Standing Female divinity: Sri Teramva

The goddess with 20 arms, can be seen striking a similar pose to that of the Mahisasurmardini, with Mahisasur being attacked by her lion on the pedestal beneath.

Rectangular Yogini temple at Khajuraho-West row of shrines, view from East.
 Khajuraho, had been located near the capital (Mahoba) of the Chandella rulers (9th to 13th centuries). This temple is a part of Khajuraho group of monuments. At khajuraho, each yogini, had a small shrine of her own, in contrast to the other temples, where they are placed in niches. The rectangular shape of this temple, sets it apart from all its other circular counterparts. There are no Yogini sculptures in it, many of them are now kept at various museums.  Local Legends has it that the Yoginis left the temple as they were not satisfied with the worship under the Chandela’s rule. The temple was made out of granite blocks. 
The Yogini temple at Khajuraho- Inner shrine  
 The cult signifies the culmination of destructive energies but for the attainment of a constructive goal (the killing of demons or symbolically fighting against all the negative energies like –ego, anger etc.). The cult has a unique standing as it is the celebration of feminine energy even in its darkest form. It is the amalgam of various forms of femininity and symbolizes the convergence of destructive and protective energies.The rage makes them transcend the boundaries of motherhood and channelize all their negative energies towards a common good. It is to stimulate the reader to think and explore the both sides of the coin.  
Centre for Art and Archaeology, American Institute of Indian Studies
Credits: Story

Image Credit : American Institute of Indian Studies.

Curator: Swati Goel.

Courtesy for Street Views: Archaeological Survey of India

1. Cunnigham, Alexander.(1966) Archeological survey reports, Vol. 9 , 18 Varanasi: Indological Book House.
2. Donaldson, Thomas E. (2002) Tantra and Sakta art of Orissa,Vol 2, New Delhi: D.K Printworld Ltd.
3.White, David Gordon. (2003) Kiss of the Yogini, Tantric Sex in its South Asian Contexts, Chicago and London : The University of Chicago Press.
4.Anne, Katherine Harper (1989), The iconography of the Saptamatrikas, seven Hindu goddesses of spiritual transformation, E. Mellen Press.

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