Dhumavati is one of the ten Tantric goddesses and is believed to have appeared between the 10th and 15th centuries (Zeiler 165). She is rarely discussed apart from the other ten Mahavidyas, and always appears to stay within a Tantric context. Up until the 19th century, Dhumavati did not develop individually and has no importance in Epic, Puranic, or Smarta literature (Zeiler 169). The only textual reference to her outside of the Tantric Mahavidya group is in the Saradatilakatantra that was written in the 11th century (Zeiler 169). Although, the first source that mentions her in detail is a commentary on the Saradatilakatanta during the 15th century by Raghavabhatta titled Padarthadarsa.
Described to be a widow, Dhumavati has dirty robes, disheveled hair and has only a few teeth (Bhattacharyya 353). She is thought of as pale, tremulous, and angry (Bhattacharyya 353) as well as rough, deceitful, unstable, and terrifying (Zeiler 174). She wears ornaments made from snakes, and her dress is made up of rags from a cremation ground (Kinsley 176). She is often depicted sitting on a cart on which there is a banner with a crow. Dhumavati is described to be tall with harsh eyes, a big nose, and asymmetrical features (Bhattacharyya 353). She holds a blowing fan and is consistently hungry and thirsty. Also described to be thin and weak, Dhumavati is said to live in ruined and deserted places (Zeiler 174). In one hand, she holds a skull bowl while the other holds a spear (Kinsley 176). She is also presented as a social outsider and can be connected to poverty, misfortune, and evil (Zeiler 174). The thousand-name hymn for Dhumavati describes her home as a cremation ground and how she sits on a corpse while also describing her embodiment of the tamas guna, meaning lust and ignorance. She is also said to like liquor and meat, which are both tamasic (Kinsley 182).
Worship of Dhumavati is meant to achieve protection from one’s enemies. It is believed that one’s enemies will either be restrained or dispelled if they use the mantra of Dhumavati (Zeiler 170). She has also been described as the destroyer of all destroyers (Zeiler 178). If supreme devotion to Dhumavati is practiced, it is said that they will achieve liberation (Dold 242), as well as rewards and ultimate knowledge (Kinsley 183). However, it is typically advised that individuals do not worship her because she is regarded as inauspicious, and married couples especially should refrain from worship as it will create a desire for solitude. (Kinsley 183). A magical ritual of Dhumavati comes from a chapter of the Phetkarinitantra Patala that describes the ritual to be in a deserted place or a cremation ground on the 14th day of the dark part of the month (Zeiler 172).
The origin of Dhumavati is contested, and there are two myths regarding how she was born. The first myth says that Dhumavati was created from the smoke that arose from Sati burning herself to death on her father’s sacrificial fire. Since she was born in funeral smoke, Dhumavati is said to have, “a sad frame of mind” (Kinsley 181). She is considered to be a reincarnation of Sati in the form of smoke. The second myth describes how Sati, Siva’s wife, was hungry and when Siva would not give her any food, she swallowed him. Once he convinced her to expel him, he put a curse on her and she was now in the form of Dhumavati (Kinsley 181). Therefore, in this myth, Dhumavati is associated with Siva and the aggressive part of Sati.
Dhumavati is considered a symbol of inauspiciousness because she is a widow and is also considered unattractive and unlucky. Widows are believed to be dangerous as well as troublemakers and should be feared and avoided. The crow that resides on the top of Dhumavati’s banner is a symbol of death, and she is also referred to as looking crow-like, thus showing her connection to dark things (Kinsley 182). A priest at a Dhumavati temple stated that she only likes those who are unmarried or widowed, and that “only unmarried people could withstand her great power and successfully spend a night alone in her temple. For a married person to do this would result in death” (Kinsley 184). This shows that she encourages solitude and independence. Dhumavati is in the form of smoke and constantly drifting which can connect to samnyasin who wander and never stay in the same place for long.
In the late 19th century, new hymns featuring Dhumavati were created in the Dhumavatitantra chapter of the Mantramaharnava. A fierce Tantric goddess, one description in her hymn known as stotra says that, “[Dhumavati] entered the cremation ground with upraised banner in the arm, after binding a garland of warriors’ heads on her head, which were cut in battle with swords and whose teeth are bloodstained” (Zeiler 177-178). It attempted to incorporate her into a non-Tantric frame while still keeping her roots. One of the reasons thought to explain why her image remained stable for seven to eight centuries was because she had only one function which was to destroy enemies (Zeiler 180-181).
Numerous contemporary works follow the transformation of Dhumavati in the Mantramaharnava and the Saktapramoda. They use both Sanskrit and Hindi, whereby all ritual instructions are in Sanskrit, and are followed by brief comments and remarks in Hindi. All hymns found in modern textual sources are still written in Sanskrit (Zeiler 183). There are only two large works that contain complete ritual instruction, and take into account all information presented in the Mantramaharnava and Saktapramoda, the first being Asli Pracin Dasa-Mahavidya Tantra Mahasastra. As well, there is the Dasa Mahavidya Tantra Mahasastra, which was published in 1998 and includes an illustration, introduction in Hindi, and essential parts of the ritual in Sanskrit for Dhumavati (Zeiler 187-188).
Dhumavati is identified with several other goddesses including Nirrti, Jyestha, and Alaksmi who are also viewed to be inauspicious and are to be avoided (Kinsley 178). They are also connected to misfortune like Dhumavati (Zeiler 184). Nirrti is identified with death, destruction, and bad luck. She is also associated with pain, and many Hindus give her offerings in order for her to stay away from them (Kinsley 178). Jyestha resembles Dhumavati in the usage of a crow as well as possessing similar physical characteristics. Jyestha’s name means “elder,” and Dhumavati is usually portrayed as an older woman. Alaksmi, the third goddess associated with Dhumavati, appears in inauspicious ways such as poverty, hunger, and thirst (Kinsley 179). Dhumavati is also connected to poverty, inauspiciousness, hunger, thirst, and bad luck. However, she is also described to be “fierce, frightening, and fond of blood,” none of which are stressed in descriptions of the other three goddesses. She is also related to Siva and Sati, while the other three are not (Kinsley 180).
In Varanasi, there is a Dhumavati temple, one of very few that exist. The central image consists of a black stone Dhumavati with large eyes, red lips, and four hands that hold a winnowing fan, a broom, and a pot while her fourth hand makes the fear not mudra, a gesture of fearlessness and protection (Kinsley 185). Her sculpture contains attributes that are more common for a married goddess, such as jewelry and the color red (Zeiler 188). Offerings such as flowers, fruit, liquor, cigarettes, and meat are common, and these offerings must be in a smoky fire. The smoke attracts Dhumavati since she is made of smoke. The smoke from incense and cremation fires is also appreciated (Kinsley 186). At this temple, in particular, blood sacrifices are sometimes performed. The temple in Varanasi is also said to exist on the spot where a part of Sati’s body fell, and was found by a sage who has a connection to Dhumavati. She looks after this local neighborhood primarily, and supports them with blessings (Kinsley 186). As such, Dhumavati is regarded here in a different light as she is viewed as approachable and auspicious since she protects those around her. This temple attracts many devotees but she is not significant in other areas of Varanasi or elsewhere (Zeiler 188-189).
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Bhattacharyya, Narendra Nath (1982) History of the Tantric Religion: A Historical, Ritualistic, and Philosophical Study. New Delhi: Manohar.
Bunce, Fredrick (2001) The Yantras of Deities and their Numerological Foundations: An Iconographic Consideration. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.
Dold, Patricia A. (2009) “Tantra as a Religious Category in the Mahabhagavata Purana.” Studies in Religion 38:221-245. Accessed February 1, 2017. doi:10.1177/000842980903800202.
Kinsley, David (1998) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Zeiler, Xenia (2012) “Transformations in the Textual Tradition of Dhumavati. Changes in the Reception of the Tantric Mahavidya-Goddess in Ritual, Function, Iconography, and Mythology.” In Transformations and Transfer of Tantra in Asia and Beyond, edited by István Keul, 165-194. New York: De Gruyter.
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Article written by: Courtney Derksen (March 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.