Black Enigma

SHEILA KUMAR stumbles on a small, mysterious 
but beautiful temple tucked into a fold of a hill 
up above the Narmada river

When you are far down in the swirling gorge of the mighty
Narmada river you catch your first glimpse of it. More than
 a hundred feet above, sunlight glints off the blackened stone
 of a tiered steeple and chatris. Your imagination is immediately
 caught by this place, the Chausat Yogini mandir.

Like all worthwhile things, the temple is not accessed easily.
 In the fork where the Bawanganga joins the Narmada, the
 rock formation rises to a small round hillock.

Just ahead of the steps that lead down to where the Marble
Rocks stand sentinel over the jade green Narmada, ancient
and worn stone steps lead up to a plateau where stands one
 of the most compact temples ever, with intricate carvings all
 over the roof. It is only 130 feet in diameter, of a cloister
 shape with dozens of separate shrines. This Chausat Yogini
 (the temple of the 64 yoginis) is a 10th century shrine, the
 personal temple of Rani Durgavati from the Kalchuri
dynasty that once ruled these parts of central India. Right
 in front of the shrine complex is a heavy stone slab, under
which should lie the tunnel that led from Rani Durgavati’s
chambers in the Madan Mahal fort palace to the temple.
However the palace is now rubble and it seems unlikely that
 much of the tunnel still exists. The extant walkway that rings
 the temple affords charming views of the jungles of Maha
Kaushal on one side and a bend in the Narmada on the other.
The temple is unique for the outer circular gallery built for
the bloody ritual sacrifices dedicated to the Goddess,
which were performed here in past centuries, and because
the main sanctum has an idol of Shiva and Parvati riding the
 Nandi. Tales also suggest that Shiva decided to reside
here eventually, due to a particularly devoted ascetic.

From the 9th to at least the 13th century, there was an 
active cult of Dakinis, usually called yoginis. History indicates
 that dakini rituals were practised well into the 16th century, 
but soon the cult diminished and its temples were abandoned.

However even today, offerings are often left at the feet
of the images. At least nine yogini temples have been
discovered so far. The best known are the ones in Orissa,
 Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu as well as this one in
Madhya Pradesh. These shrines were centres for Tantric
 practices, the ultimate goal of which was the
acquisition of supernatural powers. The practitioner aspired
 to control the body and mind, bring rain and otherwise
regulate the elements, obtain wealth, heal the sick …
and perhaps also acquire destructive powers.

Religious lore has it that this temple is dedicated to
Goddess Durga and her 64 attendants. There are eight
major forms of Devi, the Ashta Matrikas, the eight mothers.
Each of these has eight attendants and thus we arrive
at the number 64.

In Yogini worship, the Tantrik symbol is a chakra with 64
 spokes in the wheel and each spoke represents one yogini,
 one form of Shakti. The Yoginis are Dakinis, feminine
demons, but attendants of Shakti. Each yogini is a
voluptuous woman wearing apparel held around her hips
with an ornate girdle. Besides the belt, she wears
the other seven symbolic ornaments: bracelets, armlets,
 anklets, earrings, necklace, garland and headdress. Some
are warriors or huntresses with bows and arrows, others
balance on a pair of wheels, or play a drum. Most have two
 arms but a few have four. The mount of the dakini includes
 animals such as parrots, turtles and scorpions. Several of
 the Dakinis have animal faces, for example those of the
horse, lion and hare are represented. One yogini is Ganeshani,
 a feminine form of Ganesha and shown standing, with the
 head of an elephant. Another is Shri Aingini. A
 small-sized Ganesh stands at her left leg. However far
from all the statues are intact: marauding armies
invaded this place in 1564 so many of the yoginis in
this Chausat Yogini mandir are decapitated and some
are in stages of repair.

In the centre of the complex stands the Gauri Shankara
 mandir. The priest beckons you inside the sanctum
sanctorum and offers `prasad` right next to the jet-black
 main idol, something we do not do in the temples of
south India. And as you make your way down with many
a backward glance, you suddenly notice strange
 inscriptions to one side of the stone steps.

More mystery. It is of a piece with the utterly enigmatic
 ambience of the Chausat Yogini mandir.

How to get there: The Chausat Yogini temple
is about 25 km from Jabalpur, at Beraghat. Jabalpur
 has an airport (Dumna) as well as being a major
 rail hub. On the Mumbai-Howrah via Allahabad main
 line, all mail, express and passenger trains halt here.

By Road: Buses, tempos and taxis are available from
Jabalpur. We recommend the last, though.

Best Season: October to May.

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