A simple circular enclosure with no roof and no hidden sanctum sanctorum, standing open to the sky and permitting the sunlight to pour into its exposed arena, is an unusual phenomenon for an Indian temple. Within the enclosure and placed in niches in its circular walls are a series of female images, generally sixty-four in number, with beautiful bodies but often with non-human heads. These shrines are referred to as Chaunsat (64) Yogini temple; the cult that gave rise to them has remained a mystery and total ignorance surrounds their character and construction. Intrigued by the curious nature of these temples and their enigmatic images, I embarked on a study of the Yoginis and their shrines, hoping to uncover the secrets of this mysterious cult.
Remains of this remarkable variety of temple are scattered over the northern part of India and with a few exceptions, they are located in sites remote and difficult of access. Most of the Yogini temples were reported by Cunningham in his exploratory tours of the late 19th century, but few have been explored since. My travels into the les frequented parts of central India where robber-gangs known as dacoits are still active, led to interesting encounters. At Dudahi (which has a Yogini temple) the villagers barricaded themselves in their huts fully convinced that I was the local dacoit queen, Hasina; while at the Yogini site of Naresar, I discovered that following a successful kidnapping, the temples were frequently used by the dacoits as a safe and unknown shelter.
One reason why the Yoginis and their temples have been neglected may be due to the deep sense of fear and awe that they inspire in the average person. People generally refer to the Yoginis in hushed tones, if at all they mention them. This secrecy is maintained to such as extent that the very existence of the Yogini temple at Hirapur became public knowledge only as recently as the year 1953. it is quite amazing that this well-preserved shrine, barely ten miles from the major temple center of Bhubanesvar, should have remained unknown all these years. There is a widespread apprehension that one may be cursed by the Yoginis for a whole host of reasons and it is believed that even approaching too close to their temples may have disastrous consequences. This deepseated fear makes the average villager and even town-dweller steer clear of the Yogini temple. He would rather not talk to you about Yogini, much less lead you to one of their shrines.
This dread of the Yoginis seems to have been prevalent since ancient times. The Brahmanda Purana which incorporates the well-known poem Lalita Sahasranama or "Thousand Names of Lalita", concludes the section with the warning that anyone who so loses his wits as to impart the poem to a non-initiate will be cursed by the Yoginis. To incur the curse of the Yoginis is regarded as a fate worse than death. The Jnanarnava Tantra similarly tells us that a person transmitting sacred and secret knowledge to one who is uninitiated, will become food for the Yoginis. This attitude has probably been the cause for the Yogini cult remaining such a well-guarded secret over the centuries.
Published material holds little of relevance to the Yogini cult. Surveys of Indian art have generally ignored the Yoginis and their temples. To historians of architecture the simple, hypaethral shrines of the Yoginis, lacking towers, gateways and decorative carvings, may have seemed insignificant in the context of the history of the Indian temple. It is surpising, however, that the exquisitely sculpted images of the Yoginis in some of the temples have not attracted those interested in the development of Indian sculpture. More difficult to comprehend is the fact that neither iconographers nor historians of Indian religion have paid any attention to a cult that was of notable consequence during the medieval period, judging from the considerable number of temples that still exist and others that have been destroyed. The cult of the Yoginis has been ignored even in those works destroyed. The cult of the Yoginis has been ignored even in those works devoted entirely to the lesser-known religious sects, as also in books devoted to the various forms of worship connected with the Great Goddess? Even studies on tantra have by-passed the Yogini temples in relative silence, ignoring this unique cult.
Preliminary investigation having suggested the tantric character of Yogini worship, I attempted to communicate with tantric gurus, hoping to gain from them an insight into these ancient, lost traditions. I found, however, that only these ancient, lost traditions. I found, however, that only those seeking initiation are welcome. While I considered the possibility of taking such a step, I soon realized that this would not be a practicable solution since in north India (in contrast to the south) such initiation would involve not only participation in rites of a decidedly dubious nature, but also the swearing of an oath of secrecy regarding all information imparted after initiation.
I turned hence to manuscript collections in various parts of the sub-continent, and it was after many months of persistent search that I finally came across manuscripts, both on paper and palm-leaf, that threw light on this hitherto neglected facet of medieval religion and culture. I have been able, of course, only to skim the surface of the vast quantity of material available in manuscript form. Apart from the numerous and often uncatalogued library collections, several families possess old and valuable manuscripts. In many parts of India, manuscripts are regarded with reverence, being worshipped together with the family gods besides whom they are placed. Frequently it is believed that these documents possess a certain potency; for instance, to this day when Orissan rivers are in spate, manuscripts are thrown into them to placate and appease the gods!
Information pertinent to the Yoginis and the cult associated with them emerged ultimately both from a series of unknown and unpublished manuscripts, and from certain published Sanskrit texts, which have not been, so far, systematically analysed. Details of these sources will be found in the Bibliography, but I would like to review briefly the material I have explored. Extant in manuscript form, in libraries at Varanasi, Baroda, Madras and elsewhere, are a number of Yogini namavalis which are lists of names of the Yoginis. Such name-lists are not preceded by any explanatory material and they usually end with a single verse stating that the Yoginis should be worshipped devoutly. While several such namavalis exits, these give us little information on the Yoginis or their cult, merely providing us with sets of names that rarely tally from one list to the next. Puranas referring to the Yoginis usually incorporate such namavalis, and the Agni Purana for instance contains two name-lists, as does the Skanda Purana and the Kalika Purana. Two namavalis within the same Purana (as in the case of the Skanda Purana) often contain totally different lists of sixty-four names. However, a closer examination of these and other Puranic texts provides information on the character of the Yoginis and clues to their relationship with the Great Goddess.
A group of manuscripts with titles such as Yoginipujavidhi or "Manner of Worship of the Yoginis" might appear, at first acquaintance, to contain material that would throw light on the Yoginis of the Yogini temples. However, all these documents prove to be texts of the Sri Vidya cult, and the Yoginis of its Sri Cakra belong to a category apart from these were are considering. Such manuscripts may then be discounted in our present study. The same applies to a class of texts found in most manuscript libraries, entitled Yoginidasa: these are works of astrological significance only. Historical romances and semi-historical literature such as Somadevasuri's Yasastilaka (A. D. 959), Kalhana's Rajatarangini (c. 1150) and Somadeva's Kathasaritsagara (c. 1070) contain tales about Yoginis. A close scrutiny of these stories in the original Sanskrit indicates that while most such accounts are about human witches, a few portray the Yoginis as goddesses and thus provide us with relevant material.
It is, however, from tantras belonging to the Kaula school that really significant information on the Yoginis and the cult associated with them may be culled. The language in which these tantras are written is by no means straightforward; in fact, these documents are often couched in an intentional abstruse language called sandha bhasa, clear only to the initiate. Cults associated with tantra are esoteric by nature and initiation through a guru is essential. Since the guru introduces the initiate to the secrets of the cult, there is no necessity for explicit statements in the written texts. Kaula tantras then refer to the Yoginis without clear explanatory statements on the position held by these goddesses, obviously assuming that such basic facts would be known already to their readers. The Kularnava, one of the best known tantras of the Kaula school, gives us valuable clues to the status of the Yoginis and indicates their prominence among followers of the Kaula path. Published with selected English readings which do not mention the term Yogini, the Kularnava Tantra, in its original Sanskrit texts, clearly contains numerous reference to the Yoginis. A series of such references are found, on analysis, to be highly enlightening. The tantric text Kaulajnananirnaya which belongs to a school that calls itself Yogini Kaula is also noteworthy.
The hitherto unknown and unstudied Sri Matottara Tantra provides us with extremely important information on the Yogini cult. The Matottara, listed in certain traditions as one of the original sixty-four tantras, ends each chapter with a reference to its doctrine as Yoginiguhya meaning "Secret of the Yoginis". Written in Sanskrit, this tantra exists in the Nepal National Archives in over thirty manuscript copies in both the Newari and Devanagari scripts, of which the earliest version dated in the text itself, belongs to the Newari year 729 or A. D. 1609. My study of this tantra is based on a complete version written in the Devanagari scripts (No. 4-2506). Not unknown in India proper, the Matottara Tantra is the original of the so-called Goraksa Samhita published in its incomplete form by the Sanskrit University at Varanasi. In this later version, it is repeatedly stated that this esoteric knowledge has not been told elsewhere except in the Sri Matottara (anya tantram maya guptam kathitam srimatottare), and each chapter ends with the statement that the text is of the Kaula school. Janardan Pandeya who edited the Goraksa Samhita is of the opinion that the manuscript is approximately four hundred years old. The text of the Samhita may, however, have been composed much earlier, which would indicate that the original Matottara was composed earlier still.
Taking the form of a dialogue between Siva and Devi Kubjika, the Sri Matottara Tantra is in the nature of a compendium of cakras (ritual circles), the origin and significance of each being explained in an independent chapter, together with instructions for its diagrammatic presentation. Of special relevance to Yoginis are four cakras detailed in this text; the Khecari Cakra and the Yogini Cakra are both circles of sixty-four Yoginis; the Mula Cakra is a grouping of eighty-one Yoginis; and the Malini Cakra is a circle of fifty goddesses. The Matottara intimates that the aim of Yogini worship is the acquisition of a variety of occult powers and it also given an indication of the ritual practices associated with the cult.
It appears that the worship of the Yoginis, most frequently in a group of sixty-four, was one of the significant, though less familiar, cults practiced by the Saktas who believed in the supremacy of Sakti or Power concentrated in the person of the Great Goddess.
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