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Reading Chausathi Yogini Temple as a Proto-Feminist Text – Part 1

Author: Shikha Maharshi

Ph.D. English, Ravenshaw University

I am talking about the 9th Century Odisha and not of the first, second or third wave feminism. I am talking of the Chausathi yogini temple in Odisha as a tradition that celebrated women with all her prowess. The temple is said to be built by the queen called Hiradei of the Bhauma dyanasty in the village called Hirapur located in the outskirts of Bhubaneshwar. Out of the four extant Chausathi Yogini temples in India, Odisha holds the distinction of housing two of them, one at Hirapur and the other in the twin village of Ranipur and Jharial in the Balangir district. For this piece, however, the Hirapur temple is taken into consideration.

Akin to the other 64 Yogini temples, this temple too is hypaethral. The temple complex is built in a circular pattern and does not have a roof hinging on the possibility of unrestricted mobility of the yoginis in and out of the temple. The 64 yogini idols are placed in the cavities of the inner walls of this circular complex. Carved on black chlorite stones, the yoginis stand on their vahanas, exemplifying various facets of the behavioural ideals that people exhibit. The most remarkable aspect of the yogini idols is that they are carved as ordinary women. Some express rage, sadness, while others express pleasure, joy, desire and happiness. These yoginis look the most human; strong, vulnerable, beautiful, all at once. If the concept of Rasa perplexes the students of Indian aesthetics, the temple is a must see.

How can this temple be read as a proto-feminist text? The temple was constructed in the 9th century and stands as a stellar evidence of the womanhood, much before the theories and discourses around feminism and womanism raised head. The only difference being that the shakta culture exemplified in the yogini temple culture did so without spelling out a ‘theory’ of feminism. Further, the commissioning of this temple by Hiradei again throws light on the fact that those were the days when Odisha was ruled by a successive line of woman rulers, a story, conveniently silenced in history.

The circular pattern of the temple’s construction meant to me the endless cycle of birth and death, reiterating the idea of a woman’s role and importance in nature as a creator and nurturer of new life. As mentioned earlier, the hypaethral nature of the temple can be effectively read as a woman’s text on freedom of mobility at will. By means of this roofless temple, the Bhauma queen might have announced her support for all women to assert their voices and to choose their own line of work.

The yoginis are carved in different shapes. Nearly all the yoginis have different body types and are adorned with distinct ornaments or alankaars. I read it as a telling answer to the questions raised on the uniformity and homogeneity levied on the standards of beauty and what constitutes being beautiful. Difference is what makes them unique and beautiful in their own way.

Now, coming to the question of agency, a cursory look at the yoginis’ vahana or vehicle makes this proposition clear. All the yoginis are carved as standing on their vahanas ready to move and perform their tasks. The differences in the type of vahanas chosen by each yogini, again highlight the importance of difference and tells of how distinction in terms of work mattered and existed during those times when women did not have a handbook of feminism telling them of the pursuits to follow and dream to cherish. These readings of the Chausathi yogini temple led me to think of it as a proto-feminist text and to envision it as a vital link that could enable scores of researchers working in the realms of Odia Studies to rethink the notion of feminism, largely western and how insufficient it gets when carelessly applied to the oriental world. Historical contextualization of this temple in terms of its period of construction is an area that still needs to be probed. The social conditions that might have led to the construction of this temple, commissioned by a woman ruler would be the subject of enquiry in the consequent article.

( To be continued…)


Chausathi Yogini Temple, Hirapur

Sculptures of the Mother Goddesses, Chausathi Yogini Temple, Hirapur

About the Author:

Shikha is currently pursuing her Integrated MPhil/PHD at the Department of English at Ravenshaw University . Her research interests include social history , literary theory , cultural studies with Indian literature with special reference to Classical medieval literature from Odisha.

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