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Revival of Goddess Cultures: A Day at the Chausath Yogini Temple in Odisha Where Ancient Tradition Meets the Modern

Revival of Goddess Cultures: A Day at the Chausath Yogini Temple in Odisha Where Ancient Tradition Meets the Modern

  • Built in the 9th century, and "discovered" in 1953, this living Yogini temple is unique in having no male deity. The Yoginis serve as Grama Devatis, or village goddesses, protecting the locals.

Brent Horning, a recent anthropology graduate from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and I have been doing research in my home state, Odisha. We had discussed ‌the dominant goddess cultures in Odisha in my “Cultures of India, and Magic, Science, and Religion” classes. After spending six months last year in West Bengal studying Durga Puja, Brent wanted to deepen his experience of India’s dynamic feminine divine cultures. We were keen on visiting the Chausath Yogini Temple, or the 64-Yogini Temple, in Hirapur, about 13 miles from Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha. 

So, along with my husband, cultural anthropologist Loki Pandey, we set out in a taxi to Hirapur on Aug. 17, the auspicious day of Sankranti, marking the monthly moon cycle.  It had rained the previous night, so the sky was overcast with intermittent sprinkles. It was a respite from the normal 100 °F days, even if it was still warm and humid. 

Ancient Tradition and Urbanization

While entering the village, we saw new home constructions on both sides of the road. When I came years ago, this area was surrounded by agricultural land, but now has been taken over by developers. The revival of the 64-Yogini site is attracting urban dwellers thanks to its proximity to the rapidly expanding Bhubaneswar. 

We talked to some villagers who lamented that outsiders, mainly Bengalis and Odias from the city, are settling in the area, which is developing too rapidly. They said the villagers are selling their arable land for a quick profit, abandoning agriculture. They were, however, delighted to learn about Brent, the white American interested in learning about Yoginis. One of them remarked that while young Hindus are losing interest in their culture and tradition, foreigners are deeply interested in this sacred site. 

We crossed a beautiful pond before the open temple site. The pond was surrounded by coconut trees, mango, jackfruit, and other indigenous fruit trees. We saw a group of men between 30 and 50 sitting under the old banyan tree, ubiquitous in Odisha’s villages, which provides shade and shelter for people and other living beings. 

While growing up, I have fond memories of cattle, goats, and sheep, among other beings, using this tree to escape the heat or the rain. These ancient trees, unfortunately, are being cut down in the name of urbanization and development, a significant cause of homelessness for birds and other creatures. 

Annapurna Devi Pandey and Brent Horning at the Chausath Yogini Temple in Odisha.

The Yogini Experience

We purchased diya (oil lamp), dhoop (incense sticks), bangles, sindoor (vermillion), coconut, and prasad. The store owned by an elderly woman, even sold literature on the Yoginis. Brent bought a book by Suresh Balabantaray.

First, we approached the Shiva mandir at the entrance and an auspicious anthill on the path to the Yogini temple. Anthill symbolizes the divine presence shrouded in mystery, where I offered prayers and lit a diya, Loki had a darshan of the Yoginis at the temple.

With an inner diameter of just 25 feet, the circular temple is the smallest yet most beautiful. It is known for its open-air structure, with two guardians on each side of the entrance. Gita Thadani in her 2016 book, “Sakhiyani,” wrote, “Leaving the central space open is an expression of the adya shakti (the primal energy).” 

Outside the stone structure, nine Katyayanis stood guard in enclaves. Inside, 63 of the original 64 remain in their niches. Despite vandals defacing many of them over the years, the Yoginis have retained their Shakti essence, reminding us that “form is emptiness and emptiness is form,” as Buddha declared in the Prajnaparamita sutra. They still emanate grace, power, sensuality, and archetypal transformation with their confrontational implements, such as skull cups and daggers.  

Recently, 64 Yoginis have become popular in the feminist narrative and marginalized accounts of the Dalits and other non-Brahmin castes. Yogini accounts reflect on women’s empowerment in subversive ways within overtly conventional Hindu patriarchal religious contexts. Satya Mohanty developed his 2008 narrative “Lakshmi Purana” as a radical pedagogy. A revival of the worship of 64 Yoginis helps us understand the complexity and challenges facing the struggles for women’s rights.

15th Century Odia poet Sarala Das in his “Chandi Purana” reinforces the concept of Yogini. He says that the 64 Yoginis were formed from different body parts of the Devi herself, including voice, sweat, navel, forehead, cheeks, lips, ears, limbs, toenails, womb, and also from her anger. According to Skanda Purana, Devi created the circle of Yoginis from herself to boost her fight with the great demon Mahisasura. Devi Bhagavata Purana also mentions a list of sixty-four aspects of Devi Bhubaneswari referred to as sixty-four katas. These narratives explain the Yoginis’ divine significance and power as goddesses. 

The sacred body parts of the Devi remind us that feminine bodies have divine potential. As the Yoginis demonstrate, women are intrinsically valuable in the primal embodied form. Elinor W. Gadon, in her 2002 article, “Probing the Mysteries of the Hirapur Yoginis”, says that “within Indian culture, no line is drawn between the human and divine female; both embody shakti.” 

Lately, Yogini power has been resurgent. The famous writer Padmabhusan Pratibha Ray has composed empowering Yogini songs sung by his daughter Dr. Adyasha Ray. This temple has been revived to perform international Odissi dance festivals that attract people worldwide. Outside the mainstream, transgender, gays, and lesbians find a new source of agency by identifying with the 64 Yoginis. 

Grama Devatis

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Built in the 9th century CE, this temple was institutionally “discovered” in 1953 and has been promoted by the Archeological Survey of India and the state as a rare site where 64 Yoginis can be worshipped without any male consort. This is unique in mainstream Hinduism, reflecting traditional Indian gender expectations. 

Studies establish that it is the only living 64-Yogini temple in the country where Yogini Mahamaya is worshipped as the presiding deity and serves the role of the Grama Devati (village goddess). The villagers we talked with affirmed that these Yoginis protect them from any foreseeable and unforeseeable danger and serve all their needs. They mentioned that each of them had a specific goddess they identified with. Goddess Mangala is worshipped as the Grama Devati in the village.  

In Odisha, Grama Devatis play the role of protector of the village. Gordon in 2002 and Dehejia in 1986 traced the 64 Yoginis to the Grama Devatis, the favored goddess of all, irrespective of caste, creed, sex, religion, and ethnicity. My 88-year-old mother remembers beautiful narratives of Thanapati, the Grama Devati of her village, Kurum Chaini. She says Thanapati will never let a single person in the village drown during the flood in the river Mahanadi across their village. She says, Thanapati also built alliances with the Grama Devatis of the neighboring villages. In one instance, when the entire area was flooded by the river at night, people would hear her yelling out to her sister goddess Bhodei in the neighboring Bhuinpur, just to sit safely on a Peepal leaf floating in the floodwater. In the morning, the flood receded. My mother’s story reverberates the deep faith in the Grama Devati. She tells me about the uncanny power of Grama Devatis, who would fulfill the wishes of the needy, the suffering, and the marginalized. 

Pujari offers incense to Yogini Mahamaya.

A New Identity 

The government of Odisha is promoting the Yogini temple to attract national and international tourists. People visit the temple for a specific purpose. Several vehicle owners came to offer puja for the blessing of their vehicles on this auspicious Sankranti day. We met an older couple from Indore visiting the temple. They heard about 64 Yoginis on TV and were happy to be here. A young couple was performing a special puja to fulfill a wish. They were very devoted, touched the feet of the young pujari, and sat on the stone ground for the blessings of the Yogini Mahamaya. Savita Singh, Professor, and Director of the School of Gender and Development, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), says she feels transformed at the Yogini temple and has written about its significance.  

The Yogini temple has given a new identity to the village of Hirapur and the villagers are getting accustomed to the limelight and realizing the Yoginis’ power and eminence. Easy transportation, smartphones, and social media bridge the gap between the ancient past and the present, giving a new meaning to feminine power and female equity independent of gender hierarchy, and male authority. 

Brent Horning, an independent anthropology researcher focused on the spiritual traditions of the eastern part of India, also contributed to the story.

Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, the U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity-making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received a Fulbright scholarship for fieldwork in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.

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