Mahamaya Temple – Riddles of the Yogini Cult

The yogini temple at Hirapur, also known as Mahamaya Temple, is situated not very far from the present Bhubaneswar city, at a distance of about 15 km. The temple was shrouded in a veil of secrecy that its presence was only discovered in 1953 and the credit goes to Kedarnath Mahapatra. Stietencron1, who visited this shrine in 1965, mentions that the fear among the commoners was so deep that his taxi driver asked for double the fare and stopped about a km before the shrine, refusing to go any nearer. The driver was visibly afraid stating that the place was very dangerous. However, time has changed the circumstances and perceptions among the locals. The shrine which was connected by a narrow, lonely and muddy road earlier is now connected through a good motor-able road and is frequently visited by tourists.

Mahamaya Temple

Yogini cults and its practices are secretive and unknown to common world. It is told that this secret is only transferred to an initiated person but not to others. Also, the initiated is taken under oath for not transferring the knowledge to a non-initiated. It is believed that this cult has close connections with the older Sapta-matrika tradition. Sapta-matrikas represent a heptad of shaktis of different gods, and the group comprises Brahmani, Maheshvari, Vaishnavi, Kumari, Aindri (Indrani), Varahi and Chamunda. In many instances, this heptad is extended by an extra shakti, making it an octad known as ashta-matrikas. Chapter 27 of Varaha Purana explains the origin of ashta-matrikas or matrgana. It tells that Shiva, while fighting Andhaka, found that the falling blood drops of the latter was resulting in creation of new demons. To stop this, Shiva produced Yogeshvari. Similarly, Vishnu, Brahma, Kartikeya, Indra, Varaha and Yama created their saktis. These together with Mahesvari and Yogeshvari are the eight matrikas. The Gupta caves of Udayagiri has the earliest plastic representation of the sapta as well as ashta matrikas.

Yogini images inside the enclosure

Yoginis are believed to be the emanations originating from ashta-matrikas where each mother invokes eight yoginis resulting in total number of sixty-four yoginis. Chapter 52 of Agni Purana enumerates the names of these 64 yoginis, mentioning those as different forms of Durga. Various different texts have lists of 42, 64 or 81 yoginis, however none matches with each other. Donaldson2 quotes a reference that there are 120 different names and identifications of 64 yoginis.


Kaulajnananirnaya is an authoritative text on Yogini Kaula school whose founder is said to be Matsyendranatha. Karambelkar3 tells that Matsyendranatha founded this school in Kamarupa around 8th century CE. Kamarupa in Assam is a well-known ancient sakta-tirtha still holding its reputation. Bhattacharya4 is of opinion that Kaula Kapalikas who migrated from Kamarupa seem to be responsible for the evolution of Yogini cult in Orissa.

Yogini, variously identified with Yamuna
Yogini riding a scorpion
Yogini riding a crab

Bhattacharya mentions that originally the yoginis were women or priestesses supposedly possessed by the goddess. These were later raised to the status of divinities. Dehejia opines the same stating that these yoginis are the assemblage of various village deities. On the term ‘yogini’, Stella Dupuis5 explains that probably it does not mean an expert in yoga but rather an idea of union where yogini represent the female practitioner (sadhakas) carrying intrinsic force (kula or shakti) which when circulates around the male (viras) completes the union.

Yogini, variously identified with Indrani
Yogini as huntress
Yogini riding a peacock, variously identified as Kaumari

There are about eleven yogini temples in India, existing in various states of preservation. Mahamaya temple at Hirapur is the smallest among all, measuring about 25 feet in diameter and 90 feet in circumference. Built on a circular plan, it is a hypaethral (open air) shrine. The entrance is provided on the east, in form of a small, 4 feet long, projecting passage. This results in an overall appearance of a yoni-pitha, fitting perfectly with the yogini cult and rituals. The temple is very simple from the outside, the only decoration is in form of nine pagas placed at regular intervals. These pagas have a niche housing an image. Mahapatra6 refers these female images as Katyaninis. Dehejia7 differs with this identification stating there no supporting evidence. She suggests that these could be the nine Durgas of the chanda or fierce variety, serving as the guardian deities. They all are shown standing over a severed head. Their hair are done in chignon style, a characteristic fashion feature of later Bhauma-kara period. The katyayini images, on either sides of the entrance, are shown dancing holding a sword and a kapala.

Yogini, variously identified as Saraswati
Bhairava at entrance
Yogini, variously identified as Vinayiki

Dvarpalas at the entrance are carved in high relief however these are badly worn off. On either side of the entrance is placed an emancipated Bhairava figure, one holding a severed head and another holding a kapala. Both the Bhairavas are shown holding a curved sword. Presence of these fearsome images in the passage inspire the awe through a visitor passing through it. It perfectly sets the stage for what is expected inside the shrine. Bhairavas are associated with the yoginis and ashta-matrikas. Bhattacharya mentions that corresponding to ashta-matrikas, there are eight Bharavas, Asitanga, Ruru, Chanda, Krodha, Unmatta, Kapala, Visana and Samhara.

Yogini, variously identified with Chamunda
Yogini, variously identified as Nrisimhi

Inside, around the enclosure, are carved sixty niches housing various yoginis. Each niche is treated as a miniature shrine, with an arch above, however only outline of the carving is visible at present. All the yoginis are shown standing with their mounts (vehicles) carved below. All images are similar in size, about 2 feet high, except the yogini in the central or 31st niche which is the largest among all. Locally known as Mahamaya, she is the presiding deity of the shrine. While other yoginis are shown with two or four arms, Mahamaya is shown with ten arms.


A rectangular structure, known as devi-mandapa, is built in the center. It is a fairly recent structure built on top of an older platform. It has entrances on all four side with two niches provided on either side of each entrance, resulting eight niches in total. One niche, on south of the west side, is empty, rest all have images in situ. There are three yogini images, and four Shiva images. This empty niche would have a yogini image as combining with 60 images around the enclosure and three on the mandapa, the result is 64 images in total corresponding to 64 yoginis. About the empty niche, Mahapatra mentions that the priest told him that the image of yogini had been taken away to a place called Yamunkuda. All the four Shiva images represent some aspect of Bhairava, one representing Ajaikapada Bhairava. There must have been an image at the center of the mandapa, as also the case in the yogini temple at Ranipur-Jharial. However, this image is no more present and Dehejia mentions that there was one but it was stolen soon after the shrine was discovered.

Yogini on a wheel
Yogini on lotus
Yogini in benevolent aspect

We have discussed above that the yoginis are emanation of ashta-matrikas, and usually we find sapta or ashta-matrikas among these yogini images installed in a shrine. However, in this particular temple, among the many yogini images where though the mount confirms to the sapta-matrika iconography however the other attributes do not. Therefore, we cannot identify all the matrikas with precision. Dehejia tells that finding no sapta-matrika image in this temple is indeed a very curious case. However, Monalisa Behera8 differing with Dehejia writes, “The entire Sapta Matrka group, including Varahi, Aindri, Kaumari, Vaishnavi, Chamunda, Maheshwari and Brahmani, is found in Hirapur.” Behera’s identification is solely based on the mounts engraved at the base of the yogini images.

Yogini, variously identified with Kali

There are overall 81 images, 64 yoginis with one missing, 4 Bhairavas on the rectangular structure, 2 Bhairava guarding the entrance passage, 2 dvarpalas and 9 Katyayinis. The yogini images in this temple are not inscribed, unlike to the images in Bhedaghat temple, and this poses a serious concern in identification of the yogini images. Therefore most of the suggested identifications are without precision.

Yogini on deer
Yogini with a sieve

Stietencron suggests that the temple represents the time calculation or Kalachakra based upon solar and lunar systems. The interior is for the solar calculation where the presiding solar deity (Martand Bhairava) stands in the center of the central rectangular shrine and presiding yogini is on west wall. This presiding yogini rules the full moon. The lunar system is observed over the nine external niches, where the presiding deity is on the western niche. This presiding deity is Yogeshvari, who rules the new moon. Thus, the presiding yoginis of both, solar and lunar systems, rulers of full and new moon, stands in direct opposition on the west wall. On the number sixty-four, Stietencron explained that this number denotes the point in time when it is possible to harmonize the solar and lunar time by insertion of a leap month of lunar time. Lunar year is of 354 ¾ days while solar year is of 365 ¼ days. To put these two systems into synchronization, a leap month needs to be inserted after 2 years and 175 days or when moon has traversed through 64 nakshatras. The union of the yogini and yogin reflects the union of Sun and Moon, at the end of the leap month.

Yogini, variously identified as Ganga
Yogini over a parrot

There is no foundation inscription in the temple. Mishra9 hints that it was built under the patronage of the Bhauma-kara queen, Hiramahadevi, daughter of Simhamana and the queen of Lonabhadra alias Santikaradeva. Hiramahadevi is mentioned as a queen of Santikaradeva II in Talcher grant of Santikaradeva III, however no mention is made of her constructing a temple. This inference is probably based upon the name of the presiding deity, Mahamaya, derived from Hiramahadevi, however it lacks any supporting evidence.

Yogini, variously identified with Brahmani
Yogini on a drum

Though the yogini practices are secretive and terrifying to a commoner however not all yogini images in this temple are in terrific aspect. You will be bewildered seeing the beautiful, elegant and pacific images where the feminine beauty is brought out in maximum. Yogini as huntress, or one picking thorn from her ankle, or one standing over a peacock and even few who are standing over a corpse or severed head. This suggests that the yoginis as a group comprised of every different mood and aspect. Varaha Purana explains that the ashta-matrikas have their aspects as love, anger, greed, pride, stupefaction, rivalry, malignity and tolerance. It may be that the designer of this temple had these aspects in mind and they sculpted the images reflecting these different aspects.

1 von Stietencron, H (2013). Cosmographic Buildings of India: The Circles of Yogini published in ‘Yogini’ in South Asia: Interdisciplinary Approaches. Routledge. Oxon. ISBN 9780415625227
2 Donaldson, T E (1985). Hindu Temple Art of Orissa. Brill. Leiden. ISBN 9789004071742. p 260
3 Karambelkar, V W (1955). Matsyendranatha and his Yogini Cult published in IHQ, vol XXXI, no 4. pp 362-374
4 Bhattacharya, N N (1974). History of Sakta Religion. Munshiram Manoharlal. New Delhi. pp 104-105
5 Dupuis
6 Mahapatra, Kedarnath (1953). A Note on the Hypaethral Temple of Sixty-four Yoginis at Hirapur published in The Orissa Historical Research Journal . pp 23-40
7 Dehejia, Vidya (1986). Yogini Cult and Temples. National Museum. New Delhi. p 101
9 Mishra, B ().