Friday, 11 July 2014

I Walk The Path of Water and Skies [Guest Post by Seema Kohli]

I was introduced to the Shakti as Goddess, or better still, she introduced me to herself when I was very young. As a family we were believers of Advaita Vedic order (monistic order of one Supreme Consciousness, with no idol worship) with secular leanings - extremely progressive in our approach imbibing, the best of all faiths.  But, at the same time there was no idol worship. 

Somewhere in early 1970’s I visited Haridwar along with my parents and bought the idols of all the three gods Brahma (creator), Vishnu (purveyor) and Mahesh (destroyer) with the Goddesses Durga, Lakshmi and a small Deepam. I felt a strange affinity with these images. So much so, that on my own, I started a small ritual of lighting the lamp; on some days I also bathed these Gods and Goddesses.  I had even borrowed a small book of basic chants and aarti of the Goddess Durga.  Thus, I developed a relationship without any communication or understanding. I was very young, maybe 10 or 11 years old.

While growing up, the more I started to hear about her, I wanted to read about her. And the more I read about her, the mystery deepened and I wanted to understand her better. It was as if someone was holding my hand compulsively and I did not want to leave that. I just wanted to wander away with her to somewhere mysterious. There was no fear; I felt protected all along.

So here started my journey to decode this basic flow of energy, the energy that makes this whole world go around. Everything is moving and is synchronized even if we think it is not, everything rejuvenating, positively recycled; in spite of the apparent death or stoppage everything comes around anew, afresh. 

Chaunsath Yogini at Mitauli, nr Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh

I wanted to understand her (the goddess) more closely and started reading, exploring and experimenting by visiting various sites of this energy, connecting to its vortex. Is it not apparent everywhere? Is it not the main source of life, breath and continuation? So then why these special sites….. I was and am still intrigued. Did I want to be comforted by the domesticated feeling of going Home? A physical place maybe, which we created to perform rituals to feel her physical presence - Temples. I visited various Shakti peeth in Himachal, Punjab Uttar Pradesh, Uttar Kashi and Bengal, in order to understand this ethereal power which they say, makes this universe spin.

Beraghat, Jabalpur, Chattisgarh
I began visiting various Yogini sites - where no rituals were taking place and also some, where rituals were still being conducted. The concept of ritual is extremely important to me as this repetitive exercise or habit helps discipline the mind. It also helps us on the path to self realisation. But, to me, these various rituals should be understood and self-created according to our perception of energy. Along with this, a study of scriptures can be used as tools.

The first Yogini site I visited was in Beraghat, Jabalpur, in 2005. I knew I had to come back here again to understand my relationship, the overwhelming power of theses circular spaces, where by just going around the circumference my own vortex seemed to align with the energy forces prevalent there. These sites are extremely calming and balance your inner space. The sense of rhythm and movement along with the deep set faces of the Yoginis is intriguing. It is one of the largest Yogini sites which has 81 Yoginis instead of the usual 64. Though there is fencing around the idols we can still get a clear view of the Yoginis. What I understand about the Shiva Temple at Bheraghat is that it was installed to “remove the flow of the negative power” of the Yoginis. The inscriptions speak about a queen mother that patronized the construction of this ‘traditional temple’ after her sons recovered from an illness.   Probably, she believed that those female creatures had negative powers. Among the many stories I have heard, some legends depict the Yoginis as malevolent creatures that could take away children, transform men into animals, etc. Some other legends talk about the benevolent qualities of the Yoginis such as teaching their followers to realize the divine enshrined within the body. 
Behraghat, Jabalpur, Chattishgarh

In most of these sites the sculptures are defaced - as is the case in Beraghat. Maybe as humans we want to check out our power by defacing and demolishing these sites of faith and reverence. Mind you, this kind of showing of power is not there only in one community but as humans on the whole.

Though I had been working on the idea of feminine energies such as Hiranyagarbha, Saptamatrikas, Dusmahavidyas and Ashtanayikas for a while, a more full-fledged plunge into the visual representation of Yogini came only after I visited these spaces in 2012 and aligned my mind, body and soul to them. For me now, the Yoginis not only exist in a mere mystical, visual form but also in a physical form. 

 All these sites have a sense of peace and calm about them. They were all built in secluded places,  hidden from public gaze. It is believed practitioners used to go to these secluded sites to perform various rituals and conduct experiments on themselves - their bodies in order to achieve self-realization. In the process they acquired certain “siddhis” where they were depicted as a certain form of a bird, reptile animal, human or endogenous form having a human body.  A power to construct, reconstruct; destroy and reconstruct the material world around them.  They could perhaps walk on water or wonder off into the skies with or without their bodies!

Chausanth Yogini at Ranipur, Jharial, Odisha
The Chausath Yogini at Ranipur Jharial is on the top of a hill isolated from the village settlements nearby. The main Yogini temple shares remarkable topographical similarities with other Yogini sites like the ones at Mitauli and Bhedaghat in Madhya Pradesh. The rocky landscape, reminds me of intergalactic space and the presence of a water body nearby seems to present an ideal setting for female mendicants to meditate and practice austerities. The circular hypaethral form of the Yogini temples is said to allow the circulation of divine cosmic energy that inhabits these sites. This idea of the “circulation of divine energy” also exists in Sufism (with the circular dance of whirling dervishes) as well as in shamanic practices. 

Bhairava at Chausanth Yogini, Ranipur

Yogini, Ranipur, Odisha
I must mention an incident that took place here while we were attuning ourselves to the space. A Brahmin priest from the nearby temple came and touched the feet of Bhairava but left without acknowledging the presence of Yoginis. Some moments later, a family from the village came - mother, son and daughter-in-law, along with a new born. With the mother leading the way, they went around the Yoginis . And they did not acknowledge the Bhairava. I asked the mother  about it and she replied saying it was each one to their own  - “For me she does everything, Pandit ki Pandit jaane”. 

At the site, I also saw the ancient remains of a once existing “maze” – a series of concentric circles - a concept that is shared by numerous belief systems such as Sufism, Christianity and Buddhism. This “maze” allows entry of two people which is not just a physical encounter but also a spiritual union with the Higher Form. 

Chaunsath Yogini at Ranipur, Jharial, Odisha
This Tantric experimentation at these sites was not restricted only to the personal realisation of the eternal self, but also to gain spiritual power that would then enable these practitioners to help others on the path. Many Kings would install idols of these female goddess, especially Saptamatrikas, to attain fierce powers to win over enemies, which, however, is not a prescribed use of this divine energy. (Ellora Temples, Maharastra)

Today, there is a move to reinstate the mysterious science of the Yogini cult. In a pedagogical sense, Yoginis were a very important thought system and practiced forms of Tantric worship that centred on the perfection of the body to achieve perfection of the soul. Even in the fiercest form, we can see the serenity and rejoicing in their posture. The presence of Bhairava is indicative of a balance of the male and female energy within them.

Lingam at Mitauli nr Gwalior

Yoni, Naresar, Madhya Pradesh
The site of Naresar, near Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, is interesting for a unique yoni sculpture which houses 15 smaller yonis within itself; this fascinated me. The Archaeological Survey of India is trying to restore the ancient temple complex at Naresar to its former glory as a secluded spot of meditative worship. There are several carved temple blocks, which they are trying to put together but sadly without much thought. The identity of a certain God or Goddess is confused by reconstructing their temples, by installing different vahanas for different deities.

During one of these visits I went to Chaunsath Yogini at Mitauli, near Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, the original sixty-four Yoginis have now been replaced by sixty-four cement lingams without any pedestals or yonis from which the lingam traditionally arises. The yogini idols that were once placed within the temple niches have been stolen, damaged or transferred to the Gwalior Museum nearby. Under the given circumstances, filling the empty niches with cement lingams is not only a historical error and a false representation of the cultural practices of the past but also points to a deep neglect of the feminine form. It is clearly indicative of the state of woman in today’s time. In spite of the up- gradation of woman in social order through education, reservations and apparent political equality, replacing the lost idols with smaller replicas of Yogini sculptures, would have been a more thoughtful gesture. For me, this is a “rape of the sacred site.” (Stella DuPuis 'The Yogini Temples of India' Pilgrims Publishing, Varanasi, 2008, pg 67.) 

Chaunsath Yogini,Mitauli, nr Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh
Here too while walking through the village, I asked a little girl where the Yogini is?  She replied unabashedly “Neeche, rasoi main” (Downstairs, (at home) in the kitchen).  For me too, a Yogini symbolizes the nurturing aspect of woman, creating not only spiritual bliss but also material contentment.

Chaunsath Yogini at Mitauli, MP
Panchvarahi is located about 180km from Bhubneshwar. Varahi as Yogini, is one of the Saptmatrika’s and the consort and power of Varaha, which is one of the incarnations of Vishnu, the purveyor.  We drove from Bhubneshwar and then walked, took a boat then walked again and were lucky enough to hitch a ride till the site of the temple through remote villages, paddy fields and sea drenched barren lands. The site is absolutely magnificent with an old small temple on the virgin beaches of Bay of Bengal. The sea is extremely wild here with violent, roaring and high waves that snatch the earth beneath your feet, urging you to join the sea. According to hearsay about eight centuries ago there was a violent storm which plunged the entire kingdom under water, except this small piece of land where the present day community of Savana tribes stays. So, the king installed the idols of Varahis and requested the women of this tribe to conduct all the rituals of the temple. It was felt that since she is a female deity, women would take best care of her. Even till date, one of the twenty surviving families of this Savana tribe moves into the premises to conduct the rituals and look after their beloved Varahais, in rotation, every month. A woman priest conducts all the rituals and only she is allowed in sanctum sanctorum. It’s a rare site to see this female tradition upheld today, at the fringe of the male Brahamanical order.

What really excites me about these places is the parallel in these Tantric practices and other extinct faiths such as Sufism, Buddhism or Hinduism. At a time, maybe, when the concept of codified religion did not exist or was not as compartmentalized as today, personal identities and practices were much more fluid; where a constant borrowing and exchange of ideas took place. I feel that, today, when the urge to answer “Who am I’ or “Who are we?” and “Where do we come from?” is so strongly rooted in our religious identity, we tend to compartmentalize practices and beliefs into regimented and narrow frameworks which, according to me, is a practice much in vain.

My journey does not end there, it continues in the quest of trying to find the end of that cycle. Somewhere deep inside me I do know it does not exist but the journey continues without despair.

Seema Kohli is a painter. She lives and works in New Delhi.