Off a Hidden Canal Road in Orissa Bhubhaneshwar, Orissa, India The golden triangle of Bhubhaneshwar ? Konark ? Puri is a much loved and visited tourist circuit in Orissa, accounting perhaps for the bulk of visitors to this state. While Bhubhaneshwar boasts of the largest number of extant temples from the 7th to 12th centuries A.D., Konark beckons with the magnificent Sun Temple, and Puri literally overflows with crowds seeking both the beaches and the famous Jagannath Mandir. Few visitors venture out beyond these well-known attractions. On our recent visit to this triangle, however, we discovered a gem of architectural history which is well worth visiting, but carefully tucked away and needs some prodding before it comes to light! This is the 64 Yoginis temple, on the Bhubhaneshwar ? Konark route. Apart from the state buses that ply on this route, there are private tourist as well as tourist buses run by the Orissa Tourism Development Corporation (OTDC), which cover the stretch to Konark. Not too many of these, however, stop at the 64 Yoginis currently. So if you want to visit this temple, it may be worthwhile hiring a taxi, easily available at the OTDC office.
We set out from Bhubhaneshwar early, on a pleasantly windy day and headed for the road to Konark. Since we were on a leisurely trip with time to spare, there was none of the "your time starts now" anxiety that afflicts most tourists and leaves them with little time to explore any of the places they visit. About 15 kilometers from Bhubhaneshwar, you reach a small town called Balakati, which is where the detour begins for those who would like to see the 64 Yoginis temple. We set out on the dusty canal road which leads to Hirapur village, where this temple is located. Driving down this canal road for 5 to 6 kilometers, with nothing in view but paddy fields and a few village houses, we were beginning to wonder if we had lost our way. Finally, when some kindly souls finally guided us some distance back where we had missed a road sign in Oriya showing the location of the temple.
As we reached the temple, all we could see from the outside was a regular modern day one roomed village temple with white washed walls, and we were baffled as to why some information I had found online had referred to it as ancient. We offered Puja at this temple, at which point, an Archaeological Survey of India caretaker posted there came up and escorted us to the 64 Yoginis temple located behind. We approached a circular stone structure, the entry to which is through a narrow passageway with carved sides. Entering through this passage, we found ourselves in an open well like structure that left us speechless. Unlike the grand temples of Bhubhaneshwar or Konark, there are no soaring spires here. Rather, it felt like the heart of a primeval society, open to the skies, yet safely hidden from prying eyes. Dedicated to worship of the mother goddess in her myriad forms, I felt as if the temple entry has perhaps been designed to replicate a passage into the womb, though I was unable to find any information on this.
The inner perimeter of the circular wall was covered with the statues of 60 yoginis or female goddesses, intricately carved from black chlorite. One feature which struck me was that the stone had been carved so finely as to look like black metal and deceive the onlooker from a distance. Each yogini has been lovingly endowed by her creator with her very own personality ? she possesses a distinctive hairstyle (some of them no less elaborate than what an Asha Parekh would have worn in the 70s!), elaborate jewellery and clothing, sharp facial features and her own vehicle, such as a rat, a snake, a pig or various birds. One of the most interesting Yoginis was Ganesani, a female Ganesha! There were many others such as Narasinghi, the female Narasimha, Baluka, a Yogini with the face of a bear, and others wearing garlands of human heads, or endowed with different kinds of weapons and standing in different poses. They also include the commonly worshipped goddesses such as Lakshmi and Chamundi. The entire place is a tribute to the beauty of the female form.
In the centre of the open circular temple was a square slab about 1 meter high with a pillar at each corner. At each of these pillars is stationed a Yogini, and this completes the set of 64 Yoginis. An image of Siva is also to be found on one of the pillars. This square slab is believed to have been used in olden days by wandering Tantriks as a sacrificial altar. The sparse, almost ascetic beauty of the place helped us to picture this readily. It is dated by the A.S.I. as having been built sometime in the 7th century A.D, and a few villagers told us that it is believed to have been built by a queen, Hira Rani, who also lent her name to the village, though the story behind this was not very clear.
We were fortunate to meet the A.S.I. caretaker here who is a knowledgeable person and more importantly, interested in sharing this with visitors. He explained to us in detail who each of the Yoginis is meant to be and pointed out tiny details of attire which we would have missed otherwise. It was a joy to meet this man who was so genuinely interested in these treasures that he guards. I contrasted this later with most of the temples in Puri including the Jagannath Mandir, which abound in a wealth of beauty but where self-appointed priests masquerading as guides exhibit a bloodthirsty zeal for your money. We were also fortunate to be the only visitors at that time, and so had the place all to ourselves. Reluctantly, we came out of the temple and unwilling to leave this beautiful place, took a slow walk around the outer perimeter of the circular wall. Here are placed figures of nine 'Katyayanis' or Durgas. The Katyayanis do not, however, have the finely carved beauty of the Yoginis. Rather they stand inside roughly carved stone enclosures on the wall, each mounted on a human head and accompanied by a dog and a jackal.
Considering the antiquity of the temple, it has been fairly well preserved, although a few of the Yoginis have had suffered some damage from being exposed to the elements. Not yet invaded by hordes of tourists, it is yet to suffer the ignominy of having M.G. loves A.P. being scrawled on its walls. The main visitors right now are academics with a specific interest in such work, or a few tourists like us who had wandered off the regular circuit having heard of the place. It is however the local people, who have, with their deep reverence for these goddesses, ensured their survival through time. Some times, perhaps, being unknown is a blessing! As Orissa continues to attract more tourists every year, I am sure visitors to this hidden marvel will increase ? it is only hoped that they will leave it untouched, for the Yoginis are bound to delight all who take the trouble to visit them!