Colgate Hosts Symposium on Reuniting the Tamil Yogini Goddesses

This past weekend, on Nov. 4 and 5, Colgate University hosted a symposium entitled “Reuniting the Tamil Yoginis II: Planning The Exhibition,” in which art history scholars from around the globe gathered to discuss the future exhibition of 14 Yogini goddess sculptures from the 9th and 10th century. The discussion was led by Colgate Professor of Art & Art History Padma Kaimal, Detroit Institute of Arts curator Katherine E. Kasdorf and Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art curator Emma Natalya Stein. The speakers at the symposium delved into the Yogini goddess statues’ complicated and deeply interconnected history and outlined how truly remarkable an exhibit centered around them would be. 

Unlike ordinary exhibits whose central purpose is to share collected works with the rest of the world, the Tamil Yogini exhibit would have two purposes: to share the goddess statues’ power with the rest of the world but also to reunite them with one another after centuries apart.

“When the Yoginis are together, a story begins to unfold that is imperceptible when they are apart,” explained Kaimal. “When brought together, you begin to see them as a crew, as a dynamic gang who are surging quietly on their perches and dancing to the song that Shiva is playing on his veena. When visitors come to see the exhibit, we want them to be able to stand within the circle of Yoginis and experience it both in terms of the rich visuals but also in a deeply personal and somatic way.”

Their story states that the 14 tantric goddesses began their lives together more than a millennia ago in the same Kanchipuram temple in Tamil Nadu, India. Arranged in a circle around the edge of the temple, the goddesses sat cross-legged and often with multiple arms outstretched, waiting to be worshiped by the people who came from far and wide to pray to them about various topics from strength to courage to fertility. For many lifetimes, the goddesses remained together in the Kanchipuram temple. However, this all changed when, in 1927, French archaeologist Gabriel Jouveau-Dubreuil endeavored to purchase them on behalf of the Chinese art collector C.T. Loo who wished to display the goddesses in his gallery in Paris. In order to obtain the statues, Jouveau-Dubreuil engaged in questionable purchasing tactics, not the least of which was going door to door until he felt he had obtained enough permission to take the statues. 

Once Jouveau-Dubreuil had come to an agreement with the temple, the statues were pried from the walls to which they were fastened and shipped to Paris. This, however, is not where the statues’ journeys ended; within a few decades of entering Loo’s gallery, they had been separated once more and sold to museums around the world ranging from the nearby Musée Guimet in Paris to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to a prolific collector in Zurich, Switzerland. Today, these seven statues remain scattered across the globe, but they are not the only Tamil Yogini statues to have endured such a journey.

At the same time that these seven Yoginis were being dispersed by Jouveau-Dubreuil and then Loo, so too were the remaining seven Tamil Nadu Yoginis being separated from their temple and sent to collectors near and far. Like the first seven, the majority of these made their way into the hands of European and American collectors with only one remaining in its Tamil Nadu homeland where it continues to be worshiped to this day, albeit as a general goddess as opposed to a Yogini.

Curator Emma Natalya Stein only recently discovered one of the lost Yogini goddess statues. When Stein first viewed the statue, it was cloaked in a vibrant orange sari, draped with floral garlands or “mala,” and coated in decades worth of sacred substances, which changed its appearance from the gray stone color of its sister goddesses to an oily black color unique unto itself. Despite these differences in appearance, Stein could not shake the goddess statue from her mind and after careful investigation, she concluded that it must be one of the lost Tamil Yoginis, removed from its original context.

“Once I recognized the goddess statue as a Yogini goddess and it began to be cleaned off, it was like watching a polaroid picture developing before my very eyes,” said Stein. “Suddenly, I could see these details that weren’t visible before, and it crystallized in my mind that the face before me was the same Yogini face I had stared into so many times before.”

Junior Emma Attar, who attended the symposium for her art history course, Housing the Sacred in Ancient India, was deeply affected by the power of Stein’s story and remarked on the different ways that the Yoginis are viewed inside and outside of their original contexts.

“What struck me most is that priceless pieces of art may not appear special in the way they are perceived by historians or curators when seen out of context,” Attar said. “When Stein told the story about the missing Yogini being worshiped as a general goddess as opposed to a Yogini, it made me wonder what other missing art pieces may be hanging in people’s houses or simply existing elsewhere. It served as a reminder to me that the use and importance of a thing can change over time depending on peoples’ needs.”

This most recent gathering was the sixth symposium that Kaimal, Kasdorf and Stein held for the planning of the exhibit, but in the future, they hope to hold even more. Reuniting and exhibiting the Tamil Yogini goddess statues will not be an easy task, but after recently receiving a planning grant, the trio is now one step closer to their goal. The exhibition has been tentatively scheduled for 2027-2028, with many more opportunities for planning and collaboration in the future.