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Tamil Yoginis: Goddesses of Multiplicity

Among the sculptures visitors encounter in the Detroit Institute of Arts’ gallery of Indian and Southeast Asian art, is a life-sized yogini goddess from southern India. It was carved from stone sometime between the late ninth and mid-tenth century. Embodying both attractive and threatening characteristics, the yogini projects an unmistakable power.

The temple for which they made her no longer survives, but dozens of other such goddesses enshrined alongside her would have amplified the yogini’s power.

Many such yogini sculptures are now housed in museums throughout North America, Europe, and India. In a February 11 presentation broadcast by the South Asian Arts Council of San Diego, Dr. Katherine Kasdorf of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DEI), explored the changing contexts of the DEI yogini and her companions – from the temple that once enshrined them, to later shrines, and the museums that house them today. 

Birth of Yogini Sculpture

Yogini goddesses originated in Tamil Nadu. They were carved between the late 9th and mid-10th century AD. French archeologist Gabriel DuBois and his Indian associate Thangavelu Pillai discovered most of these sculptures between 1925 and 1926 around Kancheepuram.

Dr. Padma Kaimal, Professor of Art History at Colgate University, and Dr. Emma Natalya Stein of the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art suggest that Tamil Yogini sculptures began their lives together more than a millennia ago in a temple in Kaveripakkum, a small village near Kanchipuram in Tamilnadu. They were carved from a unique dark granite stone used commonly during the Chola period. The goddesses sat in a circle on the edge of the temple, worshiped by pilgrims who traveled great distances to pray for blessings, from courage to fertility.

Yogini symbolism

Yoginis have a place in many South Asian religious systems including various Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain tantric traditions, and even certain Islamic traditions. These traditions conceptualize goddesses as embodiments of Shakti–a divine energy that is gendered feminine and viewed as the driving force behind the universe.

A yogini can denote either a female practitioner of yoga or a woman ascetic. She is someone who cultivates great self-discipline, usually in pursuit of spiritual power.

The seated figures have a commanding presence. Their voluptuous bodies convey an idealized expression of female beauty, combined with terrifying facial expressions and other attributes that signal danger.

Yogini expression

Dr. Kasdorf pointed out that the Yogini looks both attractive and threatening. Her face is fixed in a menacing expression, her eyes bulge under her furrowed brow, her bared mouth displays her teeth, and her unbound hair radiates around her head with wild energy. Wild snakes wind around her body with hooded heads and she holds a cup made of a human skull in one hand while she sits above a headless corpse. Many of these attributes have a clear association with death in Hindu beliefs. In her upper arm, she holds a shield and a club that can be used to both harm and protect, according to Dr. Kaimal in her book ‘Scattered Goddesses: Travels with the Yoginis.’

Goddesses of Multiplicity

Dr. Kasdorf said that the statues of these goddesses occurred in groups of 64, with no two groups being exactly alike. Yoginis’ names are as multiple and individualized as their visual characteristics. Some are more ferocious and some more benign, some show idealized sexual bodies while others are withered and emaciated. Some yoginis appear in human form while others appear as animals. The scholar Shaman Hatley has noted that some religious texts even describe yoginis as shape-shifting beings.

This combination of contrasting characteristics is one way in which we may consider them goddesses of multiplicity. Tamil scholars have identified eleven yoginis that are now dispersed across museum collections in North America, Europe, and India from sculptures surviving from this time.

A Tantric Connection

The San Diego Museum of Art houses three paintings from the Binny collection. They depict the yoginis with long matted locks; one has ashes smeared on her body. They raise the question – are these women mere mortals or superhumans?

Dr. Kasdorf explained some yoginis are connected to yoga closely tied to Tantric practices. They are considered Tantric goddesses. The core aim of tantric practice is the attainment of supernatural power.

Tantric teachings grant the initiated few great powers such as the ability to fly, but the un-initiated may court harm by not following practices correctly. Some practices involved in gaining such power can go against the grain of mainstream convention added Dr. Kasdorf, and could be considered dangerous.

Because of its inherent danger, tantric teachings are closely guarded and given only to people who have been initiated into a particular tantric tradition. The yoginis are said to both guard and impart those traditions.

Tamil Yogini temples have vanished

Although there is no trace left of Tamil Yoginis temples, Indian temples further north suggest what they might have looked like. Art historian Vidya Dehejia has located seven surviving yogini temples in the present-day states of Odisha and Madhya Pradesh.

Some house a shrine to the fierce form of Shiva. The San Diego Museum of Art also houses one of the earliest known sculptures representing the Shiva Veenadhara-a form of Shiva that lived in the Tamil Yogini temple and features Shiva holding the veena.

Dr.Kaimal suggests that Tamil yogini temples did not survive because they were built from brick, not stone, and crumbled over time from lack of upkeep and the ravages of weather. The weather damage on the few remaining sculptures saved in various museums bears this theory out. But, adds Professor Kaimal, much of the damage seen in some sculptures, such as broken noses and lopped-off arms and legs, may have been deliberate, perpetrated by Indic groups in the 15th century, who feared the statues within the structure.

Reuniting the Tamil Yoginis

Today we only found Yogini sculptures only in foreign museums, because Thangavelu and DuBois negotiated the purchase of the Tamil Yogini goddesses from Kanchipuram and Pondicherry in 1926. 

It’s sad added Dr. Kasdorf, that many priceless works of art disappeared from India during its colonial history and are now only to be found in foreign collections.

She and her fellow art historians are currently working on a plan to reunite some of the yogini goddess statues into an exhibition for the Indian public.

Image courtesy: South Asian Arts Council of San Diego.
Yogini 10th century Chola dynasty Figure; granite (greenstone) H: 116.0 W: 76.0 D: 43.2 cm Kaveripakkam, Tamil Nadu, India. Housed in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in the Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.
Exhibit in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC, USA. This artwork is old enough so that it is in the public domain.
Yogini, Tamil Nadu, late 9th–mid-10th century. 45 11/16 × 29 15/16 × 17 in. (116 × 76 × 43.2 cm). Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.905.

Susheela Narayanan is a retired early childhood educator and Professor of Child Development from San Diego Mesa College. A longtime resident of San Diego, she is active in her community and with Rotary...