We left the Chitragupta temple at the hottest time of the day. Most of the other visitors had disappeared, and only a few vendors remained outside the gate where our taxi driver stood waiting in the shade. Seeing us, he proudly exclaimed, “Sir, now I know where the site of Sixty-Four Yoginis is!” I told him we would visit that shrine in the cool of the evening or perhaps the next morning, but he insisted. “No, no,” he said, “it is right here—it is on the way to the hotel.”
Knowing that we were so close to our goal, our enthusiasm returned. Mercifully, the taxi was air-conditioned and we were content to ride along slowly while the driver pointed out the small palace belonging to the former kings of that province. Just past the palace we took a right turn, drove several hundred yards between rows of eucalyptus trees, and stopped at the edge of a barren field. Pointing toward a rectangular stone platform about twelve feet high, the driver said, “Here is Sixty-Four Yoginis.”
We got out, bewildered. Where were the temples? Where was the shrine? Swamiji’s stories had led me to expect lush trees with mischievous monkeys swinging through the branches and sadhus (holy men) with matted locks resting under them. In my imagination sixty-four temples were arrayed on the platform, each embodying a stream of the divine energy that nurtures and guides both the inner and outer worlds. But what I saw were a few scraggly trees and thorny bushes poking up from a sun-baked field around what appeared to be an empty platform. There weren’t even any steps leading up to it.
Trying to see this holy land through the eyes of the masters who once lived here, I walked around, struggling to square what Swamiji had told me about this place with what I was seeing now. He had often told me that he had lived with his master here at the shrine of Sixty-Four Yoginis. “It is my Mother’s courtyard,” he had said. “Here I spent many winters with my master. It is here that my master picked me up, swirled me in the air, and was about to hurl me at her feet when she appeared, took me into her lap, and blessed me.”
The Divine Mother, Sri Vidya, is the most benign, beautiful, and exalted tantric goddess.
As I remembered these words I could see Swamiji’s face clearly, illuminated with the joy of remembering the Divine Mother. I remembered how excited he had been when we found ourselves a few miles from here in 1985 and how disappointed he was that events kept him from bringing me to this spot. I recalled how vivid his relationship with her seemed when he said, “She is my mother. She is always with me, even when I am not aware of her presence.” How profound was his conviction when he said, “Tomorrow I will show her to you.” In his speech and action I had seen more than once that he had a living relationship with the divinity who resided here at Sixty-Four Yoginis—for him it was as if she was there in the flesh.
But now I stood a stone’s throw from the shrine I had been longing to visit, feeling nothing but disappointment. The temples I had seen earlier were still charged with energy: their architecture, the motifs on their exterior walls, the sanctity of their interior spaces—all told me something about the journey of life. But here was only emptiness.
I found a foothold in the protruding stones and climbed onto the rectangular platform. The ruins of some twenty small temples could be seen here and there along the edge of the platform. Three of them were big enough for a few people to sit in; the rest were even smaller, and most had no roofs. Originally there had been sixty-four temples, each dedicated to an individual goddess. Collectively they were one shrine—to the Divine Mother, Sri Vidya, the most benign, beautiful, and exalted tantric goddess.
The run-down condition of this place hit me hard. I considered sitting in front of one of those little temples and meditating, but it was impossible to regain my inner balance. I was preoccupied by an inner monologue:
What has happened to this place? Even though the temples have been destroyed, their spiritual energy should still be here. Have I become insensitive, or is this place actually dead? Swamiji made such a big deal of this site. Was that simply to teach me a lesson about expectation and disappointment? Oh well; if this place doesn’t measure up to my expectations, that’s all right: there’s still much to see and learn here. I have hardly scratched the surface of the profound beauty and wisdom that lies in the western temple complex, and I have not yet seen the eastern complex or the temples in the villages nearby. I haven’t even visited the museum. Perhaps I should go there next.
So after a late lunch at the hotel I made my way to the small museum that housed statues, inscriptions in stone, and other items recovered by archeologists. A magnificent statue of the dancing Ganesha caught my attention. Over the years I had seen thousands of Ganeshas in all shapes, sizes, and materials, but none had cast a spell like this. I was riveted. It was as if my heart had been pulled from my rib cage and was beating inside the statue. And along with my heart went the sense of emptiness that had descended when I saw the remains of Sixty-Four Yoginis. It was an overwhelming experience.
It was only after I made inquiries and learned that this statue had been recovered near Sixty-Four Yoginis that I remembered that the scriptures say no one enters this shrine without the permission and blessings of Ganesha. How could I possibly enter the shrine of Sixty-Four Yoginis without his help? I remembered, too, that sadhus call Khajuraho Yogini Pitham (the seat of yoginis) because the whole area is the shrine, not just one complex.
For years I had been longing to come here as a seeker, but when I arrived I had turned into a tourist. I knew what to seek and how to seek it, but I had ignored the injunctions laid out by the tradition. I had forgotten that in places like this the pilgrimage must begin with Ganesha. Now I prayed to Ganesha and silently asked his permission to enter the mysterious world of Khajuraho, convinced that whatever I had seen at the Sun temple and whatever I could not see at Sixty-Four Yoginis were simply welcoming gifts from the playful goddesses who lived there. Now I would make my visit a pilgrimage.