Getting to know the city of Bhubaneswar starts with the exploration of its temples nestled in the four corners of a booming city. In the taxi that took me to the shrines, I noticed the profusion of plants, sculptures and murals with various themes that lined the city streets. My guide explained that the neighbourhoods had been embellished to give a warm welcome to fans and tourists for the hockey world cup. The walls of the buildings, the pillars and the footbridges of the highway are decorated with murals emphasizing the gastronomy, culture, sports, heritage, and modernity of the city. Depending on the location, various themes are highlighted: sports for the stadiums, disaster management for the fire brigade, heritage for the cultural and archaeological sites, and many others. A colourful display that serves as a backdrop to the religious jewels of the past that are the many temples of Bhubaneswar.
The 10th century Mukteshwar temple, dedicated to God Shiva, is a small but harmoniously proportioned structure. It is accessed through a separate, massive but delicately carved porch. The rectangular assembly hall called Jagmohan, topped by a stepped pyramidal roof, is a worthy companion to the elegant tower-sanctuary that rises behind it, crowned by an amalaka, a ribbed and chiselled stone cushion. The side walls of the porch tell ancient fables: the monkey and the crocodile, the tortoise and the swans. The columns dedicated to the Naga reveal serpentine deities coiled around the pillars carrying objects of worship.
Elsewhere in the city, the 11th century Rajarani temple lies in a beautifully manicured green setting. The stocky-looking shrine houses a treasure trove of sculptures representing the Dikpala or the Guardians of the Eight Directions (the four cardinal points and the intermediate directions). The concept of Dikpala is used in temples and houses architecture, as well as in the planning and layout of cities.
Celestial nymphs adorn the walls of the temple; languid pose holding a branch, joyful expression when caressing a bird, and mischievous when contemplating her face in a mirror.
The portal is flanked by thick columns around which serpentine goddesses wrap themselves. In the continuation, on either side, a lion stands on elephants. Some orientalists have explained this image by the victory of Hinduism represented by a lion over Buddhism symbolised by an elephant. Other hypotheses exist and the mystery remains, but it is clearly a powerful image of triumph.
Chausathi Yogini temple dedicated to the 64 Yogini
The day continues and we leave Bhubaneswar for the Chausathi Yogini temple or temple of the 64 Yogini located at about twenty kilometres from the city in a village called Hirapur. A pond and a banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) give a bucolic atmosphere to this exceptional sanctuary.
Are these goddesses, sylvan entities later incorporated into the Hindu pantheon? Hindu mythology tells of the fierce battle of Goddess Durga against the demons. As the gods were about to be defeated, a flow of energy emanated from their bodies and expressed itself in the form of deities embodying their respective energies (sakti). According to tradition, they are called Sapta Matrika or Ashta Matrika (the seven or eight divine Mothers). Later on, their number would rise to sixty-four. In the local lore, the Yogini asked to be consecrated in a roofless temple to be in contact with the Elements. Yogini are sometimes considered to be female demons, hence the superstitions associated with this type of temple. They are also portrayed as female entities who have acquired supernatural powers through intense spiritual practices called sadhana.
Some of the statues may appear repulsive, but it is worth remembering that they reflect the reality of the world, where violence, darkness and serenity co-exist. Ultimate knowledge ignores dichotomies, the concepts of beauty and ugliness fade away, as does the idea of good and evil. We must therefore look at the sagging breasts of Chamunda, the appalling expression of the lion-woman Narasimhi with the same equanimity as the serene faces of Ghatabari or Lakshmi. Despite the extensive damage caused by invaders of the past, the sculptures are striking for their delicate features, elaborate hairstyles, graceful postures, and sensual bodies with slender waists and high, round breasts.
Story to be continued...