“Strange temples that beat the canons of popular architecture echo the presence of an esoteric cult of the Mother Goddess in the form of Chaunsat Yogini shrines…Shakti transforms into power here….”
From Indian Temples and Iconography by Kavitha
Can India’s vibrant goddess traditions help us decipher the mysteries of the women of Angkor Wat?
By Kent Davis
Siem Reap, Cambodia - Angkor Wat, the renowned 12th century Hindu temple now located in the jungles of Cambodia, is much more than the largest religious structure in the world. This Khmer temple also has a human side: for nearly 1,000 years, it has enshrined the images of more than 1,796 sacred women.
The puzzling fact is that no one knows who the women of Angkor Wat were and what principles of spirituality or government they represent. Why these female were chosen to dominate this magnificent structure with their prominent presence remains a mystery.
Each female portrait at Angkor Wat is distinctly different, with myriad varieties in their pose, hand positions (mudras), ethnicity, jewelry, clothing, hair style, accoutrements and location.
Almost no written records detailing the Khmer civilization have survived through the ages. The best account we have is from the Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan, who visited 150 years after Angkor Wat was built.
Daguan makes no secret of his interest in Khmer women. He comments in detail about the importance of women in conducting business, the huge numbers of women who live in the palace and even to ogling women as they bathed topless. Despite his fascination, one of many questions Daguan does not answer is: Why did the Khmers populate their greatest temples with respectful images of women?
Devata.org is dedicated to understanding these women, and to paying tribute to them in the context of their contributions to the greatness of the Khmer civilization. Some clues may be found in India, where many aspects of the Khmer civilization originated.
This article considers Indian Yogini traditions, which involve both female worshipers and female divinities. It is unknown if the Khmer religion at the time of Angkor Wat had similar female-centric traditions. However, it is quite clear that Khmer temples prominently featured sacred women to the near exclusion of men. A handful of Indian Yogini temples exhibit this same trait.
This article examines one Indian temple that, like Angkor Wat, predominantly features female images: the Chaunsat Yogini Temple of Bheraghat Jabalpur.
What is a Yogini?
The term Yogini, used in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions, has multiple meanings. These aspects are drastically simplified for this article and readers are encouraged to investigate more specialized sources.
First, it can refer to a human woman dedicated to pursuing spiritual knowledge and enlightenment through the practice of Yoga. A male practitioner is called a Yogi. Through her practice, a Yogini may acquire certain supernatural powers including the power to control bodily functions (i.e. heartrate, fertility, resistance to pain or cold and metabolism), or even the ability to fly.
Yogini can also refer to personifications of aspects of nature, manifested from the Divine Mother Goddess, or Devi. These Yoginis include the ten Mahavidyas (also called the Great Wisdoms or dakini) who represent the spectrum of feminine divinity, from beautiful and gentle to violent and terrifying.
In some branches of Yoga and Tantra, these powerful manifestations serve as models for human Yogini practitioners to emulate.
Another definition characterizes Yoginis as aspects of the Hindu goddess Durga, who is another form of Devi. During a battle to save the universe, Durga emanated eight Yoginis to achieve her goal. In some systems they are called Matrikas. Later texts multiplied these 8 into 64 Yoginis representing the full range of forces in the world, controlling fertility, disease, abundance, vegetation, life and death itself.
The variety, complexity and power of the Yogini traditions are such that the final understanding of this concept is best left to the individual. For the purposes of this discussion we will summarize by broadly stating that Yoginis are range of women, from human to divine, who represent, control or seek to control powerful forces of nature, including life itself.
The images in the Yogini temples of India and the spiritual practitioners who have worshiped there for more than a millennium are all somehow connected to the Yogini tradition.
Yoginis, Goddesses or…Goblins?
In his report for the Archaeological Survey of India 1862-65, Director General Alexander Cunningham had this to say about the yogini temple at Khajaraho:
“Chaonsat Yogini, or the “64 female goblins,” appears to be the most ancient temple at Khajaraho.
“It is the only one of all the temples that is not placed due north and south. It is also the only temple that is built of granite, all the others being of a fine light coloured sandstone from the quarries on the east bank of the Kane River. The Joginis, or Yoginis, are female goblins who attend upon Kali, the goddess of slaughter.
“When a battle takes place, they are said to rush frantically to the field with their bowls to catch the blood of the slain, which they quaff with delight. In the Prabodha Chandrodaya they are called the “spouses of demons who dance on the field of battle.”
“From their connection with the blood-drinking goddess Kali, it is probable that the temple may have been originally devoted to Siva — a suggestion which is partly confirmed by the position of a small shrine of Ganesha on the same rocky ridge immediately in front of the entrance. But as the Brahmans on the spot assert that the dedication of a temple to the Yoginis ensures victory to the dedicator, it is possible that this temple may still retain its original name.
“Vans Kennedy’s Hindu Mythology (p. 490) mentions the names of six Yoginis — Brahmi, Maheswari, Kaumari, Vaishnavi, Varahi, Mahendri — who were all called by Siva to devour the flesh and drink the blood of the great Daitya Jalandhara.
“Under this view, however, we might expect to find the temples of the Yoginis rather numerous, as many generals would be willing to purchase victory at so cheap a rate. But as this is the only shrine of these goddesses that I have yet met with, I am inclined to doubt the tradition, and to assign the temple to Durga or Kali, the consort of Siva.”
Could the Women of Angkor Wat be Yoginis?
In direct contrast to the women of Angkor Wat, a considerable amount of written information has been passed down regarding the sacred women depicted in India’s Yogini temples. While much is known about Indian Yoginis, next to nothing is known about the women of Angkor Wat, also known as devata or apsaras. Could they represent Yoginis, too?
If they are Yoginis, they are all certainly quite reserved in their demeanor and seem to represent only the gentler aspects of the Yogini pantheon.
The women of Angkor Wat display no horrific or supernatural attributes or abilities. In fact, they appear quite normal, lacking fangs, halos, multiple eyes, wings or other fantastic features.
No woman at Angkor Wat appears as a sakti, the manifestation of the female aspect of a god, sometimes seen with the animal head of a boar, bull, horse or lion.
Nor do the Angkor Wat women possess necklaces or cups made from human skulls, skeletons or weapons among their accouterments.
All of the devata at Angkor Wat are standing in dignified poses with both feet firmly on the ground. None are seated. Only a few assume kinetic positions that can be associated with dance.
Still, portrayed in a temple, the women of Angkor Wat do share a divine residence with their Yogini sisters. Some also display similar hand positions (mudras), jewelry adornments and an association with plants and flowers from nature. As admirers have noted for centuries they are frequently quite attractive, but there are many exceptions.
The women of Angkor Wat only seem to only represent an harmonious relationship with nature, while Indian Yoginis evoke more the full range of creation, including violent aspects.
Perhaps there is a connection between these two extraordinary groups of women but it is not immediately obvious. A good place to start is by examining IndianYogini temples, using the specific example of the Chaunsat Yogini Temple of Bheraghat Jabalpur.
Yogini Temples – Natural, Circular and Hypaethral
In India, Brahmins have long held that sangam, the confluence of two rivers, are especially sacred because the mingling waters of two streams are considered more effective at washing away sins. This is why Bheraghat, where the Narbada and Saraswati rivers meet, is an especially holy bathing spot.
High on a hill near the river junction we find one circular yogini temple, whose courtyard protects the Gauri Sankara temple devoted to Lord Shiva (see details at the bottom of this article).
The circular form is unusual for Brahmin enclosures ; but it is the correct form for temples dedicated to the Chaunsat Yoginis (i.e 64 yoginis). Two other Yogini temples of this form are in Hirapur and Ranipur-Jharial. A fourth yogini temple at Khajaraho is oblong. All of them are hypaethral, or open to the sky.
The circular Yogini temple of Bheraghat is 130 feet in diameter (its inner diameter is 116 feet 2 inches, and the outer diameter 130 feet 9 inches). Using 84 pillars, its perimeter is divided into as many spaces. Each of the 84 cloisters or alcoves constitutes a separate shrine measuring 4 feet 9 inches wide and 5 feet 3 1/2 inches high under the eaves. Three niches—two to the west, and the other to the south-east—remain open as entrances. The remaining 81 spaces are fitted with pedestals for statues of sacred women. Only two male statues appear in the temple.
The Yogini Temple Statues at Bheraghat
Among the statues at Bheraghat two poses are seen: sitting and standing. Many are damaged and a few are missing entirely. Most are four-armed goddesses who, early writers noted, “are especially remarkable for their breast size.”
Early reports characterized most of these images as “Yoginis or female demons who serve Durga.” The temple is, therefore, commonly known as the Chaunsat Yogini, or “sixty-four yoginis.”
Eight figures are identified as ashta sakti, or female energies of the gods. Three seem to be personified rivers. All the sitting figures are taken to be Yoginis. Each one is highly ornamented and made of a grey sandstone.
Four dancing female figures are not inscribed (Nos. 39,44, 60 and 78]. These are made of a purplish sandstone and are much less ornamented. One of them, No. 44, is thought to be the goddess Kali. The others seem to be other forms of that deity.
Siva and Ganesha [Nos. 15 and 1] are the only two male figures.
The result of this examination shows that the statue set up in this circular cloister may be divided into five distinct groups as follows:
Saktis, commonly known as ashta-sakti………….8 statues
Rivers: Ganges, Jumna, and Saraswati………….3
Dancing goddesses: Kali, etc……………………..4
Gods: Siva and Ganesha……………………………2
Yoginis, or chaunsat yogini, 57 intact, 7 lost…..64
Two entrances [= 3 spaces]………………………3
For a complete detailed inventory of the Chausath yogini temple goddesses and gods please visit this page. This article is based on Archaeological Survey of India reports from 1873-75.
NOTE: The inventory is entirely based on the Archeological Survey of India reports from 1873-75. Unfortunately, modern photos of the site vary from some names and locations originally cited. Please contact me ([email protected]) if you can help clarify these discrepancies. Ideally I would like to include a clear photo of every statue on this website.
This page includes a detailed list of all the images recorded in the Chausat Yogini temple in 1875.
Divya Deswal wrote this article with photos of all the goddesses in March 2011.
Kavitha offers an excellent collection of more than 200 well-written articles about Indian spirituality, many of which directly relate to understanding the sacred women of the Khmer race. A few of her fascinating articles are about Gandharvas and Apsaras in the celestial world, the Chaunsat Yogini Shrine, Tripura Sundari, the Goddess Chamundeshwari…and so many more.
This article describes yogini temples that were active between 9th and 13th centuries.
Santhipriya is a retired government official in Bangalore, India who writes and translates articles relating to Indian history, culture and spirituality.
Voyage au Cambodge: l’architecture khmer
Based on his 1866 journey to Cambodia with Doudart de Lagrée, Louis Delaporte noted the similarity of Khmer design to the yogini temple of Khajaraho, and others:
“…enfin le temple Chauonsat Jogini Khajurao dont les soixante-quatre niches en forme de petites préasats sont terminées par des cercles décroissants cannelés semblables aux couronnes de lotus des sommets khmers.” (p. 425)
Details about the Gauri Sankara Temple at Bheraghat (1875)
In the center of the Chaunsat Yogini shrine is Gauri Sankara temple, the top of which is a comparatively modern structure. It was the personal temple of Rani Durgavati (1524-1564) of Kalchuri dynasty. Directly in front of the shrine a heavy stone slab covers a tunnel that led from Rani Durgavati’s chambers in his Madan Mahal palace-fort to the temple.
This central shrine is made up of old carved stones as well as bricks. For unknown reasons, it is asymmetrical and is not located in the center of the enclosure, nor does its mid-line correspond with the mid-line of the enclosure. The shrine’s basement, however, is ancient and undisturbed so this seems to correspond with the original plan.
The original central shrine was erected in 1,155 AD, making it exactly contemporaneous with Angkor Wat (1,116-1,150 AD). It was built by the Kalachuri Queen Alhanadevi during the reign of her son Narasimhadeva. The front wall of the sanctum still bears an inscription referring to the daily worship of the deity Gauri-Sankara by Gosaladevi, the mother of the Kalachi King Vijayasimhas (1,180-1,195 AD).
Inside, there are a group of five images. Between 1863-65, Indian Archeological Survey of Indian noted that the group is 4 feet 1 1/2 inches high and 2 feet 7 1/2 inches wide. These measurements corresponded exactly with the cloisters outside suggesting that the group was were originally there.
The images are:
- Vishnu and Lakshmi on Garuda in dark-blue stone.
- Surya, standing with Arun, driving the seven horses of the sun (this one is 3 feet 6 inches high by 1 foot 10 inches broad).
- A small Hara-Gauri, (Siva and Parvati).
- A Small figure of Ganesha.
- A figure of Dharmma, a 4-armed female, 1 foot 10 inches high, with a small figure of Buddha in the head-dress. Flying figures with garlands above, and the traces of the Buddhist creed inscribed on the base.
To some, the presence of this Buddhist figure suggests that the circular cloister may have once surrounded a Buddhist stupa. The letters of the inscription, however, are of a later date than those inscribed on the statue pedestals, which appear to be an integral part of the original structure.
Details about the Chaunsat Yogini Temple Dimensions (1875 notes)
The cloister’s inner diameter is 116 feet 2 inches, and the outer diameter 130 feet 9 inches. The cloister consists of a circular row of 84 square pillars, with the same number of full pilasters arranged opposite to them against a back wall. The actual cloister is only 4 feet 9 inches wide and 5 feet 3 1/2 inches high under the eaves, with a rise of 8 1/2 inches above the ground. The back wall is 2 feet 7 1/2 inches thick. The eaves are formed by a 10-inch projection of the architrave, which is sloped away in a graceful curve, as shown in the section of the cloister. The whole is roofed with large slabs of stone from 8 to 9 inches thick, which are molded on both front and back, and form a graceful finish to this fine colonnade.
The number of pillars being 84, the cloister is divided into as many spaces or intervals. Three of these—two to the west, and the other to the south-east—are left as entrances; while the remaining 81 spaces are fitted with pedestals between the pilasters for the reception of statues. Each of these pedestals is 3 feet 5 inches long, 1 foot 8 inches broad, and 1 foot high. The pillars are 10 1/2 inches square, and the intervals between them 3 feet 5 1/2 inches. But the intervals between the back pillars is 3 feet 7 1/2 inches, so that the pedestals just fit in between them ; and they were no doubt an integral part of the original structure.
Sitting statues are generally 4 feet 2 inches tall, and 2 feet 5 1/2 inches broad.