Tantric Yogini Offers Clues to Khmer Mystery

By Emma C. Bunker
This excerpt is fromthe upcoming book “Bronze in Khmer Culture” to be released in 2011.
© 2010 Copyright Emma Bunker & Douglas Latchford.

Khmer bronze Tantric yogini with clues to Southeast Asian rituals.
Khmer bronze Tantric yogini with clues to Southeast Asian rituals.

The Yogini, beautiful, wildly fierce females frequently shown dancing on corpses, derive their iconography from obscure Vedic, village, and tantric sources, and should not be confused with charming celestial females known as apsara, as will be discussed later.

Two Tantric yogini dance upon corpses in a ritual at a Khmer temple in Pimai, Thailand.
Two Tantric yogini dance upon corpses in a ritual at a Khmer temple in Pimai, Thailand.

Trained as ‘yogic-sexual assistants,’ yogini were indispensable in the Hevajra cult, resulting in a need for a significant number of women able to perform the necessary Tantric temple-rituals.* The Chinese Superintendent of Maritime Trade in thirteenth-century Guangzhou, Zhao Rukuo, mentions the presence of foreign women in Khmer temples.

“In Chenla [Cambodia], the people are devout Buddhists. In the temples there are 300 foreign women; they dance and offer food to the Buddha. They are called a-nan…”

Their description as a-nan (Skt. Bliss) suggests an erotic role in temple rituals.*

The Khmer Tantric Yogini dancer has distinctly foreign features.
The Khmer Tantric Yogini dancer has distinctly foreign features.
Detail of Tantric yogini dancer with third eye marking.
Detail of Tantric yogini dancer with third eye marking.

Such a role attributed to yogini may not have resonated with Khmer women, resulting in the need for foreign women to fulfill the required Tantric temple-rituals.

Zhao’s statement may explain this unusual little bronze dancing yogini who is not Khmer but Negrito, confirming Zhao’s statement concerning foreign women in Buddhist temples. Negritos are known to have inhabited parts of Peninsular Thailand and the Malay Peninsula.

The Negrito yogini wears a sampot chang kben that dips low in front, is adorned with a pectoral with pendants front and back, and displays an empty socket in back for a butterfly bow, all characteristics of the second half of the eleventh century.

A third eye marking her forehead and her dance pose, in which the raised right foot touches the left thigh, are typical Tantric yogini characteristics.

To date, this is a rare image of an obvious foreigner in Khmer art.

* Citing the work of Dr Peter D. Sharrock, SOAS, including “The Yoginis of the Bayon” and “Garuda, Vajrapani and religious change in Jayavarman VII’s Angkor”. Please see the final publication for full citations.

Rear view of Khmer Tantric yogini bronze showing sampot chang kben.
Rear view of Khmer Tantric yogini bronze showing sampot chang kben.

 

Emmy Bunker
Emmy Bunker

About the Author

Emma C. Bunker, a research consultant to the Denver Art Museum’s Asian Art Department, specializes in the arts of ancient China, the Eurasian Steppes, and Southeast Asia. Links to two of her publications relating to Khmer art appear below:

Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art.
Khmer Gold: Gifts for the Gods
Khmer Gold: Gifts for the Gods

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