Yogini Temple of Hirapur, Odisha

S Balakrishnan

The 64 Yogini Temple in Hirapur, though a small one, is special in many ways. First, it is a symbol of Women Power because the Yoginis are considered to be offshoots of Saptamatrika (Seven Mother Goddesses) and incarnations of Shakti. Second, it is one of the only four such surviving Yogini Temples in India; one more Yogini Temple in Odisha is in Ranipur-Jharial of Bolangir Dist. while the rest two are in Madhya Pradesh. However, another source claims there are 11 existing Yogini temples in India. Next, it is a circular temple and entirely different from the traditional Odishan temple architectural pattern. Another unique feature is it is without a roof – it is a hypaethral (roofless) structure (hypa=under, ethrus=sky, air).  This may be so because the Yogini cult worshipped the pancha bootha (five elements) – air, water, fire, earth and ether or sky. The Hirapur Yogini Temple is claimed to be the smallest among these four but the best preserved.
The Yogini cult thrived in India from 8th to 13th century AD. The followers practiced yoga along with tantric ways. The presiding deity is Goddess Kali or a Shivlinga, both of which are again associated with tantric worship. It is said that the yogini’s define and represent the ultimate feminine power. Hence the 64 yogini’s are vividly depicted and seem to embrace life rather than withdraw from it. Most of them can be seen riding their vahanas (mounts) or standing atop the human body. The yoginis are carved out of shiny black stone. But unlike the temples of that period (9th century), no erotic sculpture is found here.  This could be attributed to the reason that the cult believed in celibacy to attain salvation.
The Hirapur Chausath temple is 15 km from Bhubaneswar, Odisha’s capital city, which itself is acclaimed as a Temple City with hundreds of temples – small & big. This temple is believed to have been raised during the 9th century at the order of Queen Hiradevi (hence the name Hirapur?), mother of King Subhakar Dev II of the Bhaumakar dynasty. Vandalised by Kalapahad, a converted Muslim general of 16th CE, this small but striking temple was discovered in 1953 by  noted historian Shri Kedarnath Mohapatra who was then the curator of the Odisha State Museum. The temple is now under the good care of Archeological Survey of India (ASI).
I first explored it in 1983 (January 2) when I was working in Cuttack, the old capital of Orissa, some 35 kms north of Bhubaneswar. It was a Sunday, yet I sacrificed my sleep and woke up early to catch an inter-city bus at Cuttack’s Badambadi bus station by 8.30 am itself. It was almost three years since I was transferred from Port Blair (Andamans) to Cuttack but I had not seen the beautiful temples of Bhubaneswar which is praised as the Cathedral City of the East as it abounds with temples. Of course, I had visited Konark Sun Temple a few times and the Puri Jagannath Temple but not Bhubaneswar temples. So I decided to use up the three days of saved Casual Leave of the year 1982 [for Central Government staff it was 12 days of C.L. for every year then which was later reduced to 8 per annum; but Saturday, which was then a working day, was changed as weekly off along with Sunday, as if to compensate; the 5-day working style was introduced by Rajiv Gandhi government in the V pay commission so that the employees could refresh themselves on Saturday & Sunday and work efficiently (?) during the next five days! What a high expectation – govt. servants and efficiency!] Coupled with two Sundays, X’mas and Miladi Nabi, I managed to avail seven days of leave at a stretch to explore the few important temples of Bhubaneswar. I realized it was just impossible to see all the temples of the Temple City!
Getting down at Bhubaneshwar, I took my cycle from the Directorate of Field Publicity (DFP) office, where I had left it for safe custody on 30th December evening. [I had to attend office on the last working day of 1982; besides, the unused CL quota was also over. 1st January, New Year’s Day, is a working day for Central Government offices.] DFP is a sister department of our office Press Information Bureau (PIB). Enquiring all the way (You see, no Google map then), I pedaled the 15 km and reached Hirapur to see the 64-Yogini temple. Locally they call it Mahamaya Temple. I had cleverly chosen the right season Dec.-Jan., as the weather would be pleasant and there would be no sweating. After going around the temple I had noted in my travel jotting as follows: “Not an artistic structure, nor a stupendous one. But the statues are finely carved, though all have been damaged. Looks like wanton damage.” What a scholarly opinion! Pedaling along the canal road, I joined the National Highway (NH) 5 at Balidanda, Kuakhai Bridge, and then rode on to reach Cuttack by 3.30 PM. I was damn tired when I reached my YMCA room but happy that my dream tour to Bhubaneshwar had been successfully completed.
My second visit to Hirapur was again in January but 35 years later in 2018 when my family members accompanied me to Odisha. I was so excited to visit Odisha again after such a long gap. After watching the Republic Day Parade at the capital city on January 26, we proceeded to Hirapur. Comparatively the maintenance seemed better. Before all the Yoginis an earthen pot with a coconut, cloth piece and a bunch of mango leaf atop was placed as a symbol of worship. Paddy grains and flowers had also been offered. The sacred pond attached to this temple was brimming with water but its surrounding was littered with the omnipresent plastic trash. The temple was not as desolate as in 1983, yet the ambience was calm and green. It was a B & W still camera then and now a digital/cell phone camera.
While the circular temple is built of sandstone (khondalite?), the statues are carved of black stone. They are each placed in separate rectangular niches of 2ft. height along the inner wall. Most of the Yoginis are in standing position but in different postures – dancing, yogic, tantric, hunting, warring, etc. Though the temple as a whole is devoid of much ornamentation, the statues are finely carved with rich ornamentation, hair style, etc. Maximum height is said to be 8 ft and the diameter of this circular, roofless temple is 30 ft. The entrance is flanked by dwarapalakas (male or female guards, it is not clear as they are damaged/ruined). The outer circular wall has a few niches (could be eight in all) with damaged figures. At the centre of the circular temple is a raised square platform with arched portals and a few statues on the walls but no roof again.
Well, I did not actually count to check if there are 64 Yogini statues but I believe so. On this auspicious Women’s Day, let me seek the blessings of these Chausathi (64) Yoginis and also my Home Minister’s blessings!
The writer can be reached at [email protected] / 9840917608 Whatsapp