Though the sculptures adorning the Chausath Yogini temple are typically Oriyan in character, the architecture is distinctly different from the local style, observes Chitra Ramaswamy

We make a digression on the Bhubaneshwar-Puri highway to hit the village road leading to Hirapur, 15 km from Bhubaneshwar. Our Innova deftly snakes its way through narrow alleyways flanked by mud houses, to come upon a lotus-filled tank, facing which is the 9 century A.D. Chausath Yogini temple, the object of our interest.

The temple, situated on the banks of the Bhargavi, is surrounded by open swathes of paddy fields. It was shrouded in a veil of secrecy until its discovery in 1953 by the late K.N. Mahapatra, eminent historian and archaeologist of Orissa. It was constructed between the 8 and 10 centuries during the reigns of Bhauma and Somavanshi rulers who patronised art. The structure, smallest of the hypaethral, or roofless temples in India, is apparently associated with the Yogini or Dakini cult prevalent amongst the adivasis from the sixth or seventh century to the 13th century. History records that around the late 7th century, these beliefs blended with the cult of Shakti and Tantrism. The Yogini temples served as centres of tantric practices.

Of the four Chausath Yogini temples surviving in India, the Hirapur temple is the only active one. Adorned in red cloth and vermilion, Mahamaya is the presiding deity of the temple.

Coarse sandstone

Though the sculptures adorning the temple are typically Oriyan in character, the architecture is distinctly different from Orissan architectural style and also from styles prevalent in the rest of India. The structure made of locally available coarse sandstone is circular in shape, measuring 27.4m in circumference, 2.4m in height, and has a frontal projection that resembles a Gauri Patta in appearance.

60 niches

The interior walls of the temple contains 60 niches, one each for the Yogini statuettes, two feet tall, sculpted from fine grey chlorite stone. Three yoginis adorn the central pillar or Chandi Mandap along with four Bhairavas. While three of the Bhairavas are sculpted in viswapadmasana or sitting posture, one of them is standing and is termed as Ekapada Bhairav, mounted on a fully blossomed lotus. The Chandi Mandap by design contained a statue of Lord Shiva as Moha Bhairav or dancing Natraj, but is currently missing.

Several of these sculptures are defaced or damaged with parts of their limbs missing. The yoginis, also known as Mother Goddesses, are portrayed as voluptuous women wearing a skirt held in place with ornate girdles, in standing posture. 

The figurines are adorned with other items of jewellery and their hair is done into a one-sided bun or with a coronet of curls. While most of the idols are shown to have a pair of arms, a few are four-armed and all the yoginis have been sculpted with their mounts, mostly animals or birds. In fact some of the yoginis are portrayed as having animal faces.

The wall itself is built of coarse sandstone blocks on a laterite foundation and is about eight feet high. Another unique feature of the temple: it is the only one of its kind that has female figures called Katyayanis, nine of them, sculpted on the exterior wall of the circular enclosure.

The projecting entranceway to the circular enclosure is unique to the Hirapur temple. Idols of a pair of gatekeepers or dwarpaal are carved on either sides of this doorway. In keeping with the tantric cult, skull sculptures are to be seen in the gear of most of the idols.

The temple has few visitors from outside since not many people are aware of its existence and even amongst those who are aware of it, many are intimidated by the cult associated with the deities.

But Chausath Yogini at Hirapur is certainly worth a visit and a monument to be preserved for the intricacy and beauty of its architectural content.

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