Dhūmavati

Dhūmāvatī, a typical representation of her portrayed as a hideous crone, with a long nose and cruel eyes, carrying a winnowing basket. Calcutta Art Studio.

śmaśāne saṃsthitāṃ dhyāyej jyeṣṭhāṃ vāyasasaṃsthitām || 7.42
atyuccā malināmbarākhilajanodvegāvahā durmanā
rūkṣākṣitritayā viśāladaśanā sūryodarī cañcalā |
prasvedāmbucitā kṣudhākulatanuḥ krṣṇātiūkṣaprabhā
dhyeyā muktakacā sadā priyakalir dhūmavatī mantriṇā || 7.43
Mantramahodadhi

“One should meditate on Jyeṣṭha, who is in the creamation ground and stantioned on a crow. The reciter of the mantra should meditate on Dhūmavati, who is extremely tall, wears a dirty garment, repulses all people, is sad, has three cars-looking eyes, large tees, whose abdomen is (round) like the sun, is restless, covered with perspiration, whose body is affected by hunger, is dark and coarse, whose hair is disheveled and who always likes to quarrel.”

Dhūmāvatī (धूमावती, “the smokey one”) is the seventh of the daśamahāvidyās. She is the eldest among the Goddesses, acting as their ancestral guide. She is most often portrayed as an old, ugly widow, toothless with sagging breasts, pale with unkempt hair, and wearing faded white clothing and no ornaments. Her skin is wrinkled and her complexion is dark like the black clouds that form at the time of cosmic dissolution. She is tall and emaciated, with a large, crooked nose and is restless and unsmiling. She is associated with inauspicious symbols, such as a crow and the Chaturmasa (rainy season) period. The goddess is often depicted on a horseless chariot or riding a crow, usually in a cremation ground.She is the Śakti that destroys the structure of all things. Dhūmavati represents poverty and misfortune on the surface, but on an deeper level, this same negativity causes us to seek a more profound inner reality, and thus the goddess stands for the good fortune that sometimes comes to us in the form of misfortune.

Goddess Dhumavati as a young woman dressed in bridal finery. Here she is seen seated with a winnowing basket in her hand on her vahana the crow, itself a carrion eater and an emblem of death. Mandi c. 1830

She is identified in the Mantramahodadhi as Jyeṣṭha, “the eldest, the most excellent”, and is worshipped to destroy enemies. The devotee instructed to worship the goddess while naked with disheveled hair and thus, ritually polluted. Phetkāriṇītantra describes Dhūmavati riding a chariot with a crow banner, holding a winnowing fan in one hand and making a varada-mudra with the other hand. The Śaktapramoda described Dhūmavati seated in a chariot with a crow on top. Her right hand makes the varada-mudra and her left hand holds a winnowing fan, and the same iconography is seen on a mural at the Śrīkālikā Temple at Jayapur/Orissa.

tama āsīt tamasā ghūḷamaghre apraketaṃ salilaṃ sarvamāidam |

तम आसीत तमसा गूळमग्रे अप्रकेतं सलिलं सर्वमा इदम् |

“In the beginning Darkness was hidden by darkness, all this was an ocean of inconscience.”
Ṛg Vēda 10.129.3

This primal state before creation is also the ultimate state after creation is withdrawn; this state is given the name Dhūmavati, who represents the foremost state before creation, anterior to the age of the gods, devānām pūrvye yuge, she is acclaimed as jyeṣṭha, or the eldest. She is also the ultimate darkness of dissolution, known as dhūmra vārāhi, the smokey swallower of the universe. Dhūmavati is both prāgabhāva and pradhvamsābhāva, both the non-being prior to being and the non-being resulting from dissolution of the universe, pralaya. She is therefore the primal darkness hidden by darkness, and of a smokey hue — the darkness being impregnated by the embryo of light, smoke carrying embers. Non-existence is both the Vedic night, rātri jagato niveśani which holds the world and all its obscured potentialities and also the great deluge, the chaotic ocean apraketam salilam. This state of non-being is a symbol of ignorance or obscurity, described as Dhūmavati, the Goddess of inconscience.

In Tantra, Dhūmavati is the dark and terrible night of delusion, kālarātrir, mahārātrir, moharātriśca dāruṇa. Tantra calls her the duṣṭa which is symbolic of an evil dream, duṣvapnyam. Dhūmavati is the only śakti without a śakta, described as a vidhava or a widow — as she exists where the primordial Puruṣa is in a deep slumber.

Dhūmavati is the residual smoke that remains after the dissolution which she symbolises. The smoke represents her nature to obscure rather than illuminate. By obscuring that which is known is to reveal the hidden or profound. Dhūmavati is connected to the sacrificial fire, and is a personification of the smoke that envelopes the world following the Rudra yajña. There are two different versions for the origin story of Dhūmavati. In the Svatantra-tantra the story is associated with Dakṣa’s sacrifice — Dhūmavati is said to have emerged from the smoke that appeared following the death of Sati by self-immolation. “She emerged from that fire with blackened face; she appeared from that smoke.” In the Prāṇatoṣiṇī-tantra, Pārvati is suddenly hungry and asks Śiva for food; when he delays in procuring it, she swallows her husband and becomes a widow. As soon as she puts him in her mouth, her body becomes covered in smoke. Or alternatively, Śiva persuades her to regurgitate him, and when she does, he curses her, condemning her to assume the form of the widow Dhūmavati.

Dhūmavati and Śiva in a cremation ground surrounded by crows, 19th century.

Thus Śiva then tells Pārvati that she would be known as Dhūmavati or Bagalāmukhi in the future (though they are listed as separate mahāvidyas, in some traditions they are identified together).

Śiva eulogises the Devī with the following words (from the Mahānirvāṇa-tantra)

“As the dissolution of things, it is Kāla who will devour all, and is thus called Mahākāla. Since thou devourest Mahākāla himself, it is Thou who art the Supreme Primordial Kālikā.”

Not only is the widow is considered inauspicious in Bengal but Dhūmavati is also associated with other symbols of questionable propitiousness. Her chariot is driven by crows or ravens, birds of ill omen. Her principal attribute, the winnowing basket is said to bring bad luck, however, it is used to drive away misfortune or alakṣmi. Despite all the associated ill omens, she is worshipped for the destruction of enemies.

A rare depecrion of Dhūmavati, one of the ten Mahāvidyas, as a young woman (she is generally depicted as a divine widow on a horseless chariot) on her vahana the crow; Mandi, circa 1830
Dhūmavati Yantra

Sources:

  1. Tantric Yoga and the Wisdom Goddesses, Dr. David Frawley
  2. Hindu Religion and Iconology According to the Tantrasāra by Pratapaditya Pal
  3. The Ten Great Cosmic Powers by S. Sankarnarayanan
  4. The Iconography of Hindu Tantric Deities, Vol I: The Pantheon of the Mantramahodadhi by Gudrun Bühnemann

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