We caught our first glimpse of the temple when Samhith stopped to play in a canal cutting across the road.
We sat on the steps, enjoying the feel of the flowing water on our feet, staring into the distance, where the single hillock rose, and the circular walls of the temple rose above it. This was our first sight of the Chausath Yogini temple at Mitavali. (Also spelled as Mitawali, Mitaoli or Mitauli).
Little is known about Yoginis and their temples. They are usually considered to be 64 in number, but there are also instances of temples being constructed to 42 or even 81 yoginis. They are usually depicted as beautiful women, but with heads of birds or animals, adding to the mystery surrounding them. Dr. Vidya Dehejia, who has done extensive research on the Yoginis, says
“…the Yoginīs formed a group of goddesses closely connected with the Kaula cult, and more specially with that branch of the Kaula path known as Yoginī Kaula. Visualized generally as sixty four in number, the Yoginīs were divided into eight kulas, or groupings of eight, and pictured as forming a circle around Siva as Bhairava. They were invoked by Kaula sādhakas to protect followers of the Kaula path and worshipped in order to gain a variety of magical abilities. Temples of the Yoginīs must have been constructed by such Kaula believers.”*
The temple at Mitavali is believed to have been built by the Kacchapaghata ruler, Devapala (1055 to 1075 A.D.), though the inscriptions at the temple are from much later, suggesting that the temple was restored, or re-embellished, or donations were made during that period. The latest dated inscription is from A.D.1503, the period when Man Singh Tomar ruled over Gwalior, suggesting that the temple was in use even then.
|A smoothened circular stone structure outside the temple, with inscriptions.|
The temple’s location, atop the hillock in the middle of nowhere seems to be typical of most Yogini shrines. These Yogini cults were tantric in nature, and had their roots in tribal worship, well outside the orthodox Brahminical tradition of the period. The cult seems to have been popular from the 9th to the 12th centuries, and it has been suggested that the constant threat of war, and attack by foreign invaders would have aided their popularity, with the powerful deities being invoked for protection and victory in war. The king would have patronized such temples for these purposes alone, keeping them away from the cities, while building traditional Brahminical shrines within the city.
Climbing up the hill, we were more than aware of our solitude. Our driver had stopped by the car, uninterested in climbing up to see an empty temple no one visited, and there wasn’t another soul around.
I walked slowly, admiring the beautiful patterns in the dendritic sandstone, which was such a common feature here. They added a touch of nature even to monuments, reminding us that the stones were here long before humans arrived to use them!
Samhith of course, had already reached the top, and stood waiting impatiently, as I paused to catch my breath. The temple stood before us, its doorway and the steps leading up to it the only break in the perfect circle of the exterior.
Almost all Yogini temples are circular in shape, and open to the skies, with a central shrine for Shiva or Bhairava. The Yoginis themselves are in niches or smaller shrines on the inner walls of the temple. They also stand out in their simplicity, in sharp contrast to the Brahminical shrines which are elaborately and intricately carved, with human as well as divine figures.
|One of the few sculptures on the outer wall of the temple, depicting a couple, probably Shiva and Parvati|
It was an eerie experience, to be up here, all alone. Our sole companion here was a dog, fast asleep by the door. The door itself appeared to be closed, and I hesitated, wondering if I should disturb the perfect isolation of the site. Even as I hesitated, Samhith walked up and tried the door, which opened at once. As for the dog, it woke up and walked away, leaving us free to enter. Having come so far, we didn’t hesitate any more, but walked in.
The temple is magnificent in its simplicity. The shrines of the 64 Yoginis, plus one extra shrine (probably for the main goddess) stand in a perfect circle, with a row of pillars forming a walkway, on a raised platform, which runs along the niches.
The niches must have originally housed the Yoginis, but sadly none of them remain today. Instead, the shrines house lingams, without their yonis. These are believed to have been added in more recent times, after the temple lost its importance and the Yogini images disappeared.
At the centre is a circular pavilion, with two concentric rings of pillars. Originally, this shrine must have housed an image of Shiva, but now, it is empty.
A Shiva linga stands alone, just outside this shrine today.
It is very interesting to see that there are clear channels for water to flow, and outlets are provided from all the raised platforms, and these channels all lead outside. It is clear that this must have been provided for a dual purpose – to deal with rainwater, since it’s an open shrine, and also to channel water from ritualistic oblations to the deities.
In that absolute silence, where even Samhith was quiet, unlike his usual boisterous self, it felt as if our every sense was heightened. I could almost hear my heart beating louder, and it was a disconcerting feeling. Though there wasn’t a single person around, and the niches were empty of the deities they were made for, it almost felt like I was intruding. Calling to Samhith, I walked out, and he followed, for once, without an argument. Outside, he found his voice again, asking why we were rushing out, when we had just come. And for once, I had no reply.
As we began our descent, I looked back one last time, and there was the dog, sitting by the door, looking at us leave. Call it a flight of fancy if you will, but at that moment, I wondered if it was the dog I was seeing, or Bhairava himself**, the natural guardian of the temple!
* Dr. Vidya Dehejia, Yogini Cult and Temples, A Tantric Tradition, National Museum, New Delhi, 1986
** Bhairava is usually accompanied by a dog