The goddess Dhumavati is one of the ten Mahavidya goddesses, whose origin stories have been part of Hindu literature since the early medieval period (Kinsley 1997:1). Known as the widow, Dhumavati represents the last stage of the Hindu female life. She is perhaps the most feared of all the Mahavidya goddesses, known as the very opposite of the great goddess Sri or Laksmi (White 472). This formidable goddess, also commonly referred to as “The Smoky One,” is frequently depicted with dark, matted hair, sickly complexion, wearing white or soiled clothes, holding a winnowing basket, and riding a chariot with her animal companion, the crow (Kinsley 1997:182). Dhumavati is known as an inauspicious goddess in Hindu culture, due to her widowhood after consuming her husband, Siva, in a fury (White 472). Duhmavati often takes the form of smoke from which her names possibly derives and, like her form smoke, is able to drift anywhere at will; furthermore, she is attracted to smoke, such as that from burned incense (Kinsley 1997: 186). In the Phetkarini Tantra, Dhumavati is described as pale, angry, and deceitful; a goddess who arouses horror and conflict, wears dirty clothes, and rides in a cart with a crow banner (Zieler 218). The crow in Hindu culture is often seen as an inauspicious animal, a bearer of evil and bad omens. The crow is often representative of recently departed souls, and is a vehicle, vahana, of many inauspicious gods and goddesses (Zeiler 214). As well, rituals performed to the goddess often use crows, such as burning them and scattering their ashes, so that Dhumavati may render one’s enemies as ineffective, harmless, or in order to destroy them (Zieler 224). Dhumavati herself is occasionally said to resemble a crow. In Hindu culture, it is prescribed that widows are to dress without elaborate adornments or colours; therefore, Hindu widows typically wear white saris with no jewelry or other ornamentation, such as how Dhumavati is commonly pictured (Rodrigues 128). Widowhood in Hindu culture is considered the most inauspicious state a woman can be in, and widows are typically banned from celebrations, especially weddings, as they are considered bad omens (Mukherjee 37).
Dhumavati is typically considered the seventh goddess incarnation out of the ten Mahavidya goddesses (Kinsley 1997: 9). The origin myths of these Tantric goddesses sets forth that all ten goddesses originate from one goddess, most often Sati. Although they represent separate goddesses, the ten goddesses are often considered to be one, as opposed to ten separate beings, and they are often shown in a group in temple paintings (Kinsley 1997:15). The origin myths differ, however, with the original goddess being either Sati, Parvati, Kali, Durga, or Sataksi, although most myths depict the goddess as Siva’s partner (Kinsley 1997: 22). The most common Mahavidya origin story depicts Sati and Siva, in which Sati’s father decides to host a sacrifice, but declines to extend an invitation to Sati and Siva. Sati declares to Siva that she will attend regardless, to which Siva protests and forbids her to attend. This causes great fury in Sati, who proceeds to transform into the ten different forms of the Mahavidyas. Sati attends the sacrifice, eventually burning herself on her father’s sacrificial fire (Kinsley 1986: 162). The nine Mahavidya goddesses other than Dhumavati are Kali, Tara, Chinnamasta, Bhuvanesvari, Bagala, Kamala, Matangi, Sodasi, and Bhairavi (Kinsley 1986: 162). Some Mahavidya goddesses are well known and are worshiped outside of their existence within the group of Mahavidyas, such as Kali and Tara, however others are not well known outside of the Mahavidya story, as is the case with Dhumavati (Kinsley 1986: 161). Unlike Visnu’s ten different incarnations, the Mahavidyas do not seem concerned with upholding dharma, the cosmic order of the universe. Many of the Mahavidyas are depicted as being frightening, such as Kali, Tara, and Dhumavati, and the goddesses as a whole are commonly interpreted as being either sister goddesses, different elements or stages of a female Hindu life, or different stages of creation and destruction (Kinsley 1997: 40-41). The Mahavidyas are most commonly associated with tantra and tantric worship, although they are also worshiped in Hindu temples. Dhumavati, however, is not particularly well known and there are not many temples dedicated solely to the goddess. Each Mahavidya goddess has a unique mantra dedicated to each individual goddess, which is spoken during worship to invoke the goddess (Kinsley 1997: 63).
Dhumavati is best known in Hindu culture for her ferocious nature, ugly appearance, and her widowhood. Other characteristics of Dhumavati include her association with poverty and need, hunger and thirst, bad luck, and a poor temper. Unlike some of the other Mahavidya goddesses, such as Kali and Laksmi, there is little known about Dhumavati except for what is written about her in the Mahavidya text. She is often associated with, or said to be, the same goddess as Nirrti, Jyestha, and Alaksmi, all goddesses associated with inauspiciousness, misfortune, and sorrow (Kinsley 1997: 176-181). All three goddesses are similar in character to Dhumavati, although Jyestha is most similar in appearance, including having sagging breasts and a banner depicting a crow. As well, Jyestha’s name means “elder,” and Dhumavati is most often depicted as an elderly woman (Kinsley 1997: 178-179). Alaksmi, sister of the goddess Sri, also possesses a crow banner, and is characterized in similar ways to Dhumavati, such as her poverty, hunger, and thirst. Nirrti is similar to Dhumavati because she is associated with destruction and misfortune.
Aside from the Mahavidya origin myths, Dhumavati has her own origin myth. One such myth gives a possible origin for the name she is commonly referred to, The Smoky One. In the myth, Dhumavati was created out of the smoke of Sati’s burning body after Sati immolated herself on her father’s funeral pyre; therefore, Dhumavati is a form of Sati in smoke (Kinsley 1997: 181). In the second origin myth, Sati asks Siva, her spouse, for something to eat. When he declines to feed her, she eats Siva instead, who curses her, sentencing her to assume Dhumavati’s form. As well, by consuming Siva, Sati has made herself into a widow (Kinsley 1997: 181-182). Dhumavati is said to dwell in inauspicious places, such as the homes of widows, in cremation grounds, and deserts. Dhumavati is said to instill in her followers a distaste for the world and for material or worldly desires, similar to those in the renouncer stage of life, free from the social obligations and responsibilities of society. Therefore, Dhumavati is not a suitable goddess for married couples to worship, as it is said she creates a desire for being alone in her devotees. There is also a distinct prominence placed on describing the features of Dhumavati’s appearance in the Mahavidya story, specifically that she is exceedingly unattractive, described as being old and wrinkled, having sagging breasts, and missing teeth among other attributes. Despite her fearsome appearance, some suggest that she is gentle on the inside, as she will grant devotees any wish (Kinsley 1997: 183). As well, some scholars believe that Dhumavati’s perpetual hunger and thirst is a representation of unsatisfied desires (Kinsley 1997: 182).
Most Hindus, especially married couples, are advised not to worship Dhumavati. Nevertheless, many married couples worship her in hopes of attaining blessings from the goddess, such as male offspring. The gift of Dhumavati bestowing children onto devotees is implied in her hundred-name hymn (Kinsley 1997: 187). Dhumavati has very few temples dedicated to her in India. There is one located in Varanasi, in which she receives offerings such as flowers, fruit, liquor, meat, and cigarettes, as well as occasional blood sacrifices (Kinsley 1997: 186). Dhumavati is often said to be fond of blood, to crush bones in her mouth, and to wear a garland of skulls (Kinsley 1997: 180). Any offerings made to Dhumavati must be offered in a very smoky fire, as she is represented in the form of smoke, which is indicative of destruction. In the Varanasi temple, Dhumavati is seen as a village deity who looks after those in the area, contradictory to the very fearsome and furious character usually attributed to her (Kinsley 1997: 187). It is also said that she grants siddhis, or special powers, to those who do worship her (Kinsley 1997: 183). Dhumavati is often said to rule during four months prior to sukla ekadasi, the eleventh lunar day, of the month Kartik, which is the month Visnu wakes up from a four month nap (Kinsley 1997: 180). This time is known as being particularly inauspicious to Hindus, and events and celebrations, such as weddings, are typically not held.
There are a few recent depictions of Dhumavati outside of her typical form of an ugly, elderly widow. In a recent painting by Molaram done in the eighteenth century, Dhumavati is depicted typically, but with elaborate ornamentation and a colourful sari. Moreover, as opposed to the usual depiction of long, pendulous breasts, and an elderly and withered face, hers are round and high, with her face appearing youthful and unlined (Kinsley 1997: 188). Another eighteenth century painting of Dhumavati from Nepal depicts her as naked with long, braided, and light coloured hair, wearing pearls and hair decoration, and standing on a peacock, which is unusual for typical descriptions and depictions of Dhumavati (Kinsley 1997: 189). The third unusual painting was done in the early twentieth century by artist Batuk Ramprasad, in which she is once again dressed elaborately with intricate adornments. These three paintings may represent the notion that young widows in Hindu culture are dangerous to society, in that the young women are still sexually attractive to men and able to produce children, therefore potentially tempting to Hindu men.
References and Related Readings
Benard, Elisabeth A (2000) Chinnamasta: The Aweful Buddhist and Hindu Tantric Goddess. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Kinsley, David (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Kinsley, David (1997) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Mukherjee, Tutun (2008) “Deepa Mehta’s Film Water: The Power of the Dialectical Image.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies Vol. 17: 35-47.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2016) Hinduism: The eBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.
White, David G (2001) Tantra: In Practice. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Zeiler, Xenia (2013) “Dark Shades of Power: The Crow in Hindu and Tantric Religious Traditions.” Religions of South Asia 7:212-229. doi: 10.1558/rosa.v7i1-3.212
Related Research Topics
Widowhood in Hindu culture
Animal vehicles (vahana)
This article was written by: Natasha Polay (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.