Women in Tantra: The Yoginis of Hirapur

in Article
Published on: 16 May 2018

Prateeq Kumar

Prateeq Kumar, an alumnus of National Institute of Fashion Technology teaches design at the Pearl Academy. He has been a practicing designer for over a decade and has been at the helm of many national and international projects. A lot of his current research deals with complicated expressions of sexuality, gender identity, and queerness in arts.


Yoginis    are    representative of one of the most perplexing affiliates of  Tantra  which  connect  the  divergent  strands  of  incompatible  religious  traditions  to  create  a  uniquely  particular  visual  language  of  their  own.  The Hirapur Yoginis reify  this  unique  particularity  not  only  at  a  socio-religious  level  but  also  at  sculptural  level.  The  Yoginis  in  the  texts  trace  their  lineage  from  the  equally  ferocious  Asta  Matrkas—a  group  of  eight  powerful  female  divinities  deified  as  seven  mothers[1].  The tantric  texts  present  a  variegated  image  of  the  Yoginis—from  being  benign  to  being  malevolent.  The yoginis are beautiful maidens who present staggering anomalies when it comes to their visualisation. It is important to note that no two sets of the Chausath Yogini groups are similar therefore iconography of each of  the  64  yoginis  is  different;  hence,  not  all  Chausath  Yogini  groups  contain  the  same  64  yoginis.  The yoginis at other Chausath Yogini pithas are quite different to the ones found in the Hirapur Temple. This incongruity can  be  attributed  to  the  fact  that  several  regional  and  folk  deities  have  entered  the  yogini  pantheon  along  with  the  well-known  tantric  goddesses  due  to  localised  worship. The divinisation of individual mortal  women  who  also  become  a  part  of  the  local  Yogini  cult  may  also  account  for  some  of  these  differences.


Temple art in Odisha is replete with various kinds of semi-divine feminine figures like nayikas, salabhanjikas, apsaras, alasya kanyas, yakshis, nagis. However, there is another variety of feminine divine typology which includes yoginis, matrakas, katyayanis, mahavidyas, navadurgas and related anachronistic characters which fall outside the realm of normative Hindu iconographic conventions, with yoginis being the most complex of the lot. They are paradoxical in their figuration and therefore it is important to look them as beacons of an independent style that did not follow any predefined sculptural vocabulary.  The beautifully bodied Chausath Yoginis of Hirapur, with their sinuous bodies gracefully arched in different poses standing on top of their different vahanas (mounts), suggest  an  open-ended  deity  typology  capable  of  encompassing  a  wide  range  of  goddesses. The temple has been dated to 9th-10th century AD, based on the modelling of the yoginis which is stylistically similar to the alasya kanyas found on the brackets and columns of Mukteswar Temple in Bhubaneshwar, Odisha. However, it is important to note that the similarity between the yoginis and alasya kanyas is only limited to sculptural styling and modelling. Visually, their distinct nature could not be more manifest as one sees a yogini as a bold woman basking in her blatant sexuality, instead of the coy restraint displayed by an apsara or a nayika.


Unique architecture of the Hirapur Yoginis


There are not many extant temples dedicated to group of goddesses, and Chausath Yogini Temples in that way provide a unique variation where multiple numbers of goddesses are worshipped together. The Chausathi Yogini Temple of Hirapur continues with the tradition of worshipping a goddess group as with the Matrakas, Mahavidyas, Nava Durgas, Katyayanis, etc. This is what makes Hirapur such a unique site in comparison to other Chausath Yogini pithas. At other pithas, the yoginis are very brahminical in their modelling, and stylisation does not necessarily follow the tantric idea of female body. For instance, in Bedaghat, Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, the yogini sculptures are monumental in size and their styling bears great resemblance to brahminical deities like Durga and Lakshmi. The positioning and placement of the Hirapur Yoginis makes their sensuousness far more crucial and critically different than other semi-divine entities.  These yoginis with their fleshed-out figures and the vigorous movement depicted by their postures give way to the unique tantric style of modelling the female semi-nude.


Hirapur is the earliest known of the yogini temples and is considered the most beautiful of all. Sixty-three yoginis are enshrined there—Yogini Sarva Mangala is missing. All are exquisitely carved from black chlorite, a material that has preserved all details of jewellery and ornamentation, forming a striking contrast to the smooth areas that denote naked skin. Their gleaming, polished beauty seems pristine despite some smashed faces and broken limbs, the depredations of vandals over the centuries. Carved in the classical medieval Orissan style (9th to 13th century), they represent the Indian ideal of feminine beauty, with full breasts, narrow waists, and ample hips, their bodies gracefully posed to enhance their sensuality.


Each yogini stands in her own niche, treated here as a miniature shrine. All stand side by side on their vahanas, the celestial mounts depicted on their pedestals. The vahanas include animals such as the ass, alligator, bull, boar, buffalo, camel, crow, cock, crab, deer, elephant, scorpion, tortoise, and snake; vegetable symbols such as the lotus and other kinds of flowers; and inanimate objects such as a table, vase, or wheel, as well as human heads and corpses. All of these must have originally been keys to the identification of the yoginis by their votaries. In Bedaghat and Mitaoli in Madhya Pradesh, the yoginis have individual pillared shrines with a roof but they all open into a central circular courtyard.


Their sensuousness is heightened by their unconventional postures and gestures as none of the yoginis can be seen in divine pose. There is no abhaya mudra or varada mudra. This also opens them to question the terrifying iconography of some of the yoginis who are openly vicious and brazenly violent. The interrelationship  and  mutual  exchanges  between  the  matṛaka  tradition  and  yogini  cult  offers  important  facts  about  the  goddess  cult,  where  folk  deities,  marginal  and  lower-rung  goddesses  entered  into  mainstream  religion  via  tantra. 


Bodies where Human Meets the Divine


A different theory states that the Yogini cult derives its present existence from the ancient cult of Saiva matraka cult. Various  textual  and  sculptural  representations  of  Yoginis  seem to point towards  an  open-ended  deity  typology  capable  of  encompassing  a  wide  range  of  goddesses.  It  is  often  seen  that  representations  of  yoginis  in  the  tantric  Saiva  literature  are  extremely  diverse,  but  some  of  the  most  common  characteristics  of  this  deity  typology  include  occurrence  in  groups  (sextets,  initially,  with  configurations  of  64  becoming  typical  by  the  10th  century),  organisation into  clans  (kula,  gotra),  theriomorphism  and  shapeshifting,  the  ability  to  fly,  association  with  guarding  and/or  transmitting  tantric  teachings,  and  potency  as  sources  of  both  grave  danger  and  immense  power (Hatley 2007: 11; White 2003: 27).  There are  several  characteristic  features  that  are  common  between  the  matraka  and  the  yogini  cult,  which  include  their  common  origins  which  have  ambiguous  and  violent  beginnings.  They do look watered down from their textual mentions but are modelled well enough to convey the iconological idea. Among these groups made up of identifiable characteristics of yoginis is a sub-group that is born out of deities who are perversely depicted opposite of their normative versions.


Tantric  literature  often  blurs  the  boundaries  when  it  comes  to  classifying  a  category  of  yoginis,  by  collating  the  human  and  the  divine. Tantric texts like the Kularnava tantra, Jnanarnava tantra state that through  perfection  in  tantric  ritual,  it  was  held  that  female  practitioners  could  join  the  ranks  of  these  khecari (sky-flying)  goddesses. Another group of tantric knowledge claims that the Yoginis were human adepts who were instrumental in helping sadhakas attain siddhi. The concept of moksha does not exist in Kaula tantra, as the sadhakas worship a tantric deity in order to attain certain special powers. The transgressive orgiastic rituals render the role of human yogini very important in the Kaula tantra scheme of things.


However, it is interesting to note that as a part of their paradoxical nature the yoginis at the temple are not depicted in any overtly sexual imagery. They are devoid of any male companion, the only sexual imagery one finds in the Chausath Yogini Temple are the ithyphallic Bhairavas. The Bhairavas are said to be yogini nayakas or leaders of the pack of yoginis, but inside the temples the Bhairavas are fairly calm and inactive. Lack of any sexual imagery is a common phenomenon across all the Chausath Yogini Temples. Lack of any inscription or text relating to the yogini temples does not help in shedding any light on the purpose of these temples. Did the orgiastic rituals take place inside the temple premises? Or the temple just served as a yantra or icon for the sadhaka to visualise while performing the rituals or propitiatory rites?


Yoginis Challenging the Brahminical Construction of Deities


The boldness of the Yoginis and the complete absence of any sexual imagery present an interesting juxtaposition. The texts which are extremely explicit in the creation or the making or becoming of a yogini do not find any semblance in the Hirapur temple. The ithyphallic Bhairavas are, however, commonplace in Odishan art found across various Saiva temples. The present structure that houses the Bhairavas is a modern construction; therefore, their placement within the original scheme of the temple plan is crucial to understand their exact roles in relation to the temple. The guardians with similar iconography also present a highly complex scenario. While the actual rituals remain shrouded in mystery, the highly sexualised human-animal imagery of these fierce Yoginis suggests the role of the female body as the medium and metaphor through which the power of life is transmitted.


As stated by Vidya Dehejia (1986: 1), ‘The entire phenomenon of yogini worship and the construction of the temples dedicated to this group of goddesses has its roots outside the fold of the orthodox Brahmanical tradition.’ Their origins probably lie in the worship of the local village goddesses (gramadevis) who preside over the welfare of the village and the occult practices of the agricultural and tribal peoples. The nature of their rituals is shrouded in the dim mists of prehistory, but given the inherent conservatism of Indian culture they were probably much like those still practiced by villagers today—shamanism, medicine, black and white magic, and astrology.


The cult of the gramadevis is ubiquitous in India; most villages have at least one of their own. According to Dehejia (1986: 2), ‘these village goddesses seem to have been gradually transformed and consolidated into potent numerical groups acquiring thereby a totally different character. It was tantrism that elevated these local deities, and gave them a new form and vigour as a group of goddesses who could bestow magical powers on their worshippers.’ The Yogini cult probably began to break down when the excesses practiced in the yogini temples became repugnant to the general population. Inscriptions added to certain yogini temples in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh indicate that the shrines were in worship even in the early 16th century. By ‘the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries memories of the cult were so completely wiped out that when the ruined temples were rediscovered, few clues remained as to the significance of the Yoginis or reasons for their worship’ (1986: 7). It is understandable as to why the appearance of Yoginis in the religious structure is so openly contentious—it is because of this fabled secrecy as well as these bloody rituals that is commonly associated with these goddesses.


Perhaps the key to the mysteries of the Yoginis in Hirapur lies in the fierceness of the female whose body is the medium and the metaphor through which the power of life is transmitted. ‘Shakti is a shifting network or chain of relations, emanating from all parts of the cosmos and the social organism, and is focused above all in the human body and sexuality (Urban 2001: 785).' Female sexuality has a unique place in this process of transformation. Tantric practice centres on ritualised acts of transgression...systematic violations of social boundaries and taboos. For ‘it is only by a reversal of values, an upsetting of the status quo’ (Sanderson 1988: 200) that the Tantric can unleash the vital sources of power that oversteps all dualities and blurs the division between the sacred and profane. Through ritualised transgressive acts—such as the consumption of meat and wine or sexual intercourse in violation of caste laws—the Tantrika hopes to unleash an astonishing source of suprasocial and suprahuman power (Urban 785).


The Yoginis  have  over  time  proven  to  be  powerful  gender  icons  whose  individual  characteristic  traits  have  been  incorporated  into  a  goddess  cult  that  was  marginalised  because  of  the  notions  of  purity  and  impurity  associated  with  it.  Even  though  the  yoginis  are  led  by  Bhairava,  the  cult  remains  primarily  removed  from  any  kind  of  androcentrism.




Dehejia, V. 1986. Yoginī Cult and Temples: A Tantric Tradition. New Delhi: National Museum.


Hatley, S. 2007. The Brahmayamalatantra and Early Saiva Cult of Yoginīs. Unpublished PhD dissertation. University of Pennsylvania.


Urban, Hugh. 2003. Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Sanderson, Alexis. 1988. ‘Saivism and the Tantric Tradition’ in The World’s Religions. ed. S. Sutherland et al. London: Roudedge and Kegan Paul.


White, D.G. 2003. Kiss of the Yoginī: “Tantric Sex” in its South Asian Contexts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Further readings


Donaldson, T. E. Tantra and Sakta Art of Orissa vol. II, New Delhi: D. K. Printworld, 2002.


Flood, G. Tantric Body: The Secret Tradition of Hindu Religion. London: I. B. Tauris, 2006.


Mahapatra, K. N. ‘A Note on the Hypaethral Temple of Sixty-four Yoginīs at Hirapur’, Orissa Historical Research Journal II (1953): 23–40; reprinted in H. K. Mahtab, ed., Orissa Historical Research Journal, Special Volume (1982).


Roy, Anamika. Sixty-Four Yoginīs: Cult, Icons and Goddesses. Primus Books, 2016.


Urban, Hugh. Magia Sexualis: Sex, Magic, and Liberation in Modern Western Esotericism. University of California Press, 2006.





[1] With the addition of Lakhsmi, they become Asta Matrkas