Saptamatrka in texts
In the early references to Matrkas they are mentioned as groups of goddesses. Their numbers vary from text to text and from episode to episode. Their natures and dispositions too are varied. They function as a group; and all references to them are as a group. They are generally characterized as inauspicious and dangerous.
26. There is no mention of Matrkas in Ramayana. The earliest references to a group of Matrkas goddesses known as Matraha or Matragana appear in Mahabharata. Its Sections in Vanaparva and Shalyaparva – narrate various versions carrying copious descriptions of Matrka in the context of the conception, birth, abhishekha* and marriage of Skanda. Of the two sets of references, the one in Vanaparva is considered older and more helpful in understanding the concept of Balagraha. These narrations, in general, portray Matrkas as dangerous and fearsome goddesses.
[*The varied versions of Skanda’s origins seem to be shrouded in a range of tribal legends of martial nature. Skanda, it appears, established his superiority over many other gods by his sheer power; and was eventually accepted as their commander – in – chief, replacing Indra. To celebrate the occasion a formal Abhishekha was held.]
26.1. Vana-parva mentions a group of goddesses called Lokamata, Mothers – of – the world (Mbh: VP: 215.216). All the Lokamata, numbering about sixteen, are said to be of inauspicious qualities and loathsome habits. Two of these goddesses are described. One of them (Vinata) is born of anger and carries a spike. The other (Lohitayani) – a daughter of sea, red in complexion and of bad temper – is said to live on blood. It is likely that the others in the group were also of inauspicious nature. They were sent by Indra to kill the newborn Skanda. When they approached the infant, their maternal instincts raise, their breasts ooze milk and they cannot bring themselves to kill Skanda, as commanded by Indra. They then request Skanda to adopt them as his mothers (215.18).
26.2. In the other accounts narrated in Mahabharata surrounding Skanda’s birth, a host of goddesses emerge from Skanda, when Indra strikes him with his thunderbolt (vajra). Skanda adopts all of them as his mothers and divides them into Shiva and a-Shiva, groups of good and evil spirits. The auspicious Matrkas – Devasena – are said to be: Sasti, Laksmi, Asa, Sukhaprada, Sadvrtti, Aparajita, Sinivali and Khuhu. The eight ferocious and terrifying goddesses of malicious nature given to stealing children (asiva-matrka) are: Kaki, Halima, Malini, Brhali, Arya, Brahmata, Palala and Vaimitra.
26.3. The dangerous nature of the Matrkas is elaborated in another version of the episode that is also related to the birth of Kartikeya or Skanda. It says that the six wives of sages (among the wives of Sapta-rishis; excepting Arundhati) were alleged to be the biological mothers of Skanda; hence banished by their husbands on suspicion of being adulterous. The forlorn wives approach Skanda and beg him to adopt them as his mothers. He agrees to their request. The six ask Skanda to grant them two boons. One, to be recognized and worshipped by all as Maha-matrkas , Great Mothers; and two , to be allowed to pester and harm children , since they have been banished unjustly and have no further chance of bearing children. Skanda accepts to the first; but is reluctant to grant the second request as it pains him to see the children hurt. He asks Matrkas to protect children instead of harming them. They agree. But in the closing lines of that episode, Skanda allows the Matrkas to afflict children until their age of sixteen: “In your various forms, you may torment children until they are sixteen. Thereafter you have to protect them“. Further, he grants them his terrible form Skanda-Apasmara (identified with Vishakaha) who torments (graha) children. They continue to have their violent nature. These six Rishi-patnis who turned into Matrkas are identified or associated with Krittika; the constellation of fiery nature [Pleiades (star cluster)] presided over by Agni. Skanda comes to be known also as Kartikeya or Krittikaputra or Krittikasuta.
[The classical literature mentions Krittikas as six. The earlier tradition counted them as seven. It was said: “The Krittikas are six. But when they ascended into heaven they became seven stars (Saptasirasabham)”.They are also known as many (bahula) emphasizing their plurality; and hence Skanda is celebrated as Bahuleya. The seven stars as named in Taittareya Brahmana (TB: 22.214.171.124) are: Amba; Dula; Nitatni; Abhrayanti; Meghayanti; Varshayanti; and Chupunika.]
26.4. Another list of ten female sprits is mentioned in the subsequent episode of the story. All of them serve inauspicious purposes; and have hideous forms. They are described as given to eating flesh, drinking strong intoxicants, prowling about in the confinement chamber where birth takes place. They torment pregnant women, and are also a threat to the newborn’s life, especially, during its first ten days. They torment children until they are sixteen years of age in various ways; but later, they act as positive influences. The ten are named as: Vinata, Kadru, Putana, Shita Putana, Revathi, Diti, Surabhi, Sarama, Lohitayani and Arya. Elsewhere they are listed as: Sakuni, Revathi, Mukhamadika, Vinata, Putana, Sitaputana, Lohitayani and Sarama. They all are classified as grahas (seizers) or Rakkasi (demons) or Pisachas (ghouls). All but two of these (Vinata and Lohitayani) are blood thirsty. But, all harm pregnant women and attack children by surprise. Apart from these ten spirits, eighteen other grahas are mentioned, without naming them specifically.
26.5. Notable among the female spirits is Putana Rakshashi who appears in Bhagvata Purana as the stalker in the night and as one who kills children by poisoning them. She tried to kill the infant Krishna by suckling him with poisoned breast milk. But, she was eventually destroyed by Krishna. Another evil goddess Jara is mentioned in Sabha Parva (Mahabharata: 16.40-17.45).She joins together (sandhi) two pieces of a newborn and makes it into a whole baby-boy. He is named Jarasandha (the one who is put together by Jara); and he later becomes the powerful king of Magadha.
26.6. Among the other grahas, it is said, Sakuni harms children and Kadru assumes subtle forms to enter into pregnant women. The mothers of the afflicted children, praying for relief, are recommended to worship Karanjeya tree. Lohitayani, the daughter of Red sea, who nursed Skanda, is to be worshipped under Kadamba tree. Arya is to be worshipped for fulfilment of desires. All these goddesses that are harmful to children till they are sixteen are classified as the grahas of Kumara (Skanda).They are to be worshipped along with Skanda.
[Many have wondered about Matrka’s obsession to attack children. Some say; these beliefs originated in the fear that women who die childless or in childbirth might linger on as evil spirits envious of other women and their children. Matrkas are therefore feared. And that fear continues to haunt even today. The mothers are chary of talking too much about the charm and attraction of their pretty looking little ones. It is not considered safe for children to attract the attention of the evil ‘eyes’ of the goddesses. And, sometimes; the mothers mark their well adorned children with a spot of collyrium or other dark substance on their cheeks to hide their beauty. These practices mixed with hope and fears are meant to safeguard the children .The mothers fondly hope to prevent spiteful goddesses from noticing their good-looking children, lest the jealous might harm the dear little children.]
The myth of the genesis of Skanda in the Vana parva of Mahabharata establishes the emergence of Skanda cult in association with the heterogeneous Matrkas. The same theme appears in the later Puranas. If read together, they outline the evolution and the widening of Skanda cult.
27.1. The Chapter 46 of Shalya Parva of Mahabharata narrates the elevation of Kartikeya as the Supreme Commander of the godly forces (Deva-senapathi). There is a long list of 213 Matrkas (the text says there are many more female beings whose names are not mentioned) or warriors who fight under the command of Kartikeya in his battles against the demons. Please click here for the list.
As a group, this host of female warriors is described in different ways. Mahabharata gives a graphic description of their appearances: Some of them are lovely to look at, with fair skin, cheerful and youthful; while the others are of inauspicious qualities and have long nails, broad teethe, red eyes and protruding lips, inspiring fear. They all fight valiantly like Indra in the battle.
27.2. It said; “These and many others Matrkas numbering by thousands… of diverse forms become the followers of Kartikeya. Their nails are long; their teeth are broad and their lips protruding. Of straight forms and sweet nature all of them endowed with youth, were decked in ornaments. Possessed of ascetic merit, they were capable of assuming any form at will. Not having much flesh on their limbs, they were dark and looked like clouds in hue and some were of the color of smoke. The braids of some were tied upwards; and the eyes of some were tawny; and some had girdles that were very long. Some had long stomachs, some had long ears; and some had long breasts. Some had coppery eyes and coppery complexion; and the eyes of some were green.
They all have their abode in inaccessible places away from human settlements, on trees and open spots and crossings of roads. They also live in caves and crematoriums, mountains and springs. They of hideous appearance are adorned with weird ornaments, they wear diverse kinds of attires and speak different strange languages. These and many other tribes of mothers are all capable of inspiring foes with dread, followed by high souled Kartikeya the chief commander of the celestials.” (Book 9: Shalya Parva: Section 46).
And some others were endued with the splendour of the morning sun and were highly blessed. Possessed of long tresses, they were clad in robes of white. Of invincible power and might their prowess was also invincible. Capable of granting boons and of travelling at will; they always were cheerful. Possessed of great strength, some amongst them partook of the nature of Yama, some of Rudra, some of Soma, some of Kubera, some of Varuna, some of Indra, and some of Agni. And some partook of the nature of Vayu, some of Kumara, some of Brahma, and some of Vishnu and some of Surya, and some of Varaha. Of charming and delightful features, they were beautiful like the asuras. In voice they resembled the kokila and in prosperity they resembled the Lord of Treasures. In battle, their energy resembled that of Shakra (Indra). In splendour they resembled fire. In battle they always struck their foes with terror. Capable of assuming any form at will, in fleetness they resembled the very wind. Of inconceivable might and energy, their prowess also was inconceivable.
27.3. Most other references in Mahabharata depict the Matrkas as inauspicious, fearful looking and dangerous to children. Though they eventually serve Kartikeya as his mother, their initial task was to kill him.
28.1. The first literary version of the group is mentioned in Devi Mahatmya. Here again, there are various versions about the origin of the Matrkas.
28.2. According to a latter episode of Devi Mahatmya and the one in Vamana Purana, Durga created Matrkas from herself; and with their help slaughtered the demon army.
28.3. In another important chapter of Devi Mahatmya, it is said, the Matrka goddesses were created by male Gods in order to aid Mahadevi in the battle against the demons Shumbha and Nishumbha. The Matrkas emerge as Shakthis from out of the bodies of the gods: Brahma, Shiva, Skanda, Vishnu and Indra. The texts describe their appearances and the destruction of the demons:
“Shakthis having sprung from the bodies of Brahma, Shiva, Skanda, Vishnu, and Indra; and having the form of each approached Chandika. Whatever, form, ornament and mount a particular god possessed, with that very form did his Shakthi go forth to fight the Asuras. In a heavenly conveyance drawn by swans with rosary and water pot came forth the Shakthi of Brahma: she is known as Brahmi. Maheshwari sallied forth, mounted on a bull, bearing the best of the tridents, with serpents for bracelets, adorned with the crescent of the moon. Ambika having the form of Guha (Skanda) as Kaumari went forth to fight the demons, with spear in hand, having the best of peacocks as her mount. Then Shakthi known as Vaishnavi went forth, mounted on Garuda, with conch, discus, club, bow and sword in her hand. The Shakthi of Hari who has the matchless form of a sacrificial Boar then came forth bearing the body of a sow. Narasimhi having the form like the man-lion then came forth with many a constellation cast down by the tossing of her mane. Then Aindri with thunderbolt in her hand, mounted upon the lord of elephants went forth; she had thousand eyes just like Indra. Then Shiva surrounded by the Shakthis of the gods said to Chandika: “may the demons quickly be slained by you in order to please me”. Then from the body of the Goddess came forth the frightening power of the Shakthi of Chandika herself, gruesome, yelping like thousand jackals. And she the invincible one spoke to Shiva of smoky matted locks:” You yourself become messenger to Shumbha and Nishumbha”.
[Because the Devi appointed Shiva himself as the messenger she gained renown as Shiva-duti.]
The Narayani Stuti, narrated in chapter 11 of the Devi Mahatmya, is sung with great gusto charged with intense devotion and a blessed sense of fulfilment. The verses 13 to 21 of Narayani Stuti are dedicated to Matrkas – Brahmi, Maheshwari, Kaumari, Vaishnavi, Varahi, Narasimhi, Indri, Shivaduti, and Chamnda. In salutations to the Matrkas, the verses describe, in brief, the splendour, virtues, powers and vahanas of these deities which are but the aspects of the Maha Devi, the Great Mother Goddess.
Salutations to you Oh Narayani who assumes the form of : Brahmi riding celestial Chariot Yoked with Swans; Maheshwari adorned with the moon , riding the Great Bull and holding the trident; Kaumari of great virtue holding the powerful spear, surrounded by peacocks , cocks and bears; Vaishnavi the most excellent holding shankha , chakra , gadha and the dhanus; Varahi appearing as a ferocious Boar sporting awesome tusks , rescuing Mother Earth from her distress; Narasimhi as lioness in fearsome rage , destroying the enemies and protecting the three worlds; Indri the glorious queen of thousand eyes , destroyer of the Demon Vritra , in all her splendour decorated with a diadem and holding a blazing thunderbolt; Shivaduti roaring loudly who sent Shiva himself as messenger and destroyed the Demons; and, Chamuda the most ferocious and invincible with dreadful face and sharp protruding fangs , adorned with garland of severed heads, the destroyer of Demons Chanda and Munda.
Hamsa yukta Vimaansthey brahmaani rupa dharini!
Kau shaambhaha ksharikey devi narayani namosthu they!!
Trishula chandraahidhare mahaa vrisha bhavaahini !
Maaheswari swarupena narayani namosthu they!!
Mayura kukkuta vrithey mahaashakti dhare naghe!
Kaumaree rupa samsthaane narayani namosthu they!!
Shankachakra gadhaa shaangaha griheetha paramaayudhey !
Praseeda vaishnavi rupey narayani namosthu they!!
Griheetho gramaha chakra damshtro dhritha vasundarey!
Varaaha rupinee shive narayani namosthu they!!
Nara simha rupenogrena hanthu daithyaan krithodhyamey !
Triylokyathraana sahithey narayani namosthu they!!
Kireetini mahaavajrey sahasna nayanojwale !
Vrithapraana hare chaindri narayani namosthu they!!
Shiva dhoothee swarupena hathadaithya mahabale!
Ghorarupey mahaaraave narayani namosthu they!!
Damshtraa karaala vadaney shiromaalaa vibhooshaney!
Chamundey munda mathaney narayani namosthu they!!
29.1. Following this episode, the later texts largely adopted the standard group of seven Matrkas consisting: Brahmi, Maheshwari, Kaumari, Vaishnavi, Varahi, Indrani and Chamunda. At times, Narasimhi is mentioned in place of Chamunda. The Varaha Purana names Yami – the Shakthi of Yama, the power of regulation and withdrawal as the seventh; and Yogishwari as the eighth Matrka, created by flames emerging from Shiva’s mouth. The Devi-Purana mentions nine Matrkas, by including Gana-nayika or Vinayaki – the Shakthi of Ganesha, and Mahabhairavi to the standard set of seven.
29.2. There is also a tradition of Ashtamatrikas, eight Matrkas, which is prevalent in Nepal region. In Nepal, the eighth Matrka is called Maha-Lakshmi (she is different from Vaishnavi). Narasimhi does not figure in the lists of Devi Purana and Nepal.
29.3. By about the seventh century Matrka’s and names and number– seven or eight- gradually began to get standardized. They took on the characteristic of their corresponding male gods; and came to be worshipped as Shakthis or energies of gods.
30.1. But, when you look across the various versions of the origins, evolution and development of the Matrkas you find that their names, numbers and attributes had been highly inconsistent. Most of the relevant texts that speak of the early stages of their development referred to Matrkas primarily as a group of goddesses, unspecified in number, inimical in nature and dangerous to children. None of the Matrka was significant in herself. The group was largely viewed and feared as hordes of malicious spirits harming pregnant women and children. In the later texts they were projected as troops of female warriors of ferocious nature assisting gods and goddesses in their battles against the demons. It was under the auspicious of the Tantra and Shaktha theology that the Matrkas were thoroughly reformed and rendered into worship-worthy benevolent mother-like goddesses of great spiritual merit.
30.2. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to put together, in one place, their names and numbers as they appear in various texts spread over the centuries.
Inconsistent names and numbers
31.1. In Vana Parva of Mahabharata the Matrkas referred to as Lokamata of inauspicious qualities and habits are said to be a group of about sixteen.
31.2. In another episode narrated in Vana Parva when Indra strikes Skanda with his thunderbolt many Matrkas emerge from Skanda’s body. Skanda groups them into Shiva and a-Shiva, good and evil Matrkas.
31.3. The auspicious Matrkas –Devasenas- are said to be eight: Sasti, Laksmi, Asa, Sukhaprada, Sadvrtti, Aparajita, Sinivali and Khuhu.
31.4. Another version of the episode mentions the eight auspicious Matrkas as: Sinivali, Anumati, Raka, Gungu, Sarasvathi (Dhata), Indrani, Varunani and Khuhu. Among these, Raka (subhaga) the rich and bountiful granter of offspring and Sinivali the sister of gods (devanam svasa) are prominent, while Gungu is rather an obscure name; and some say, Gungu could be another name for Khuhu. All these goddesses are related with fertility, as also with different phases of the moon. Among these, Anumati personifies the night before the full -moon night; Raka the full–moon night; Sinivali the night before new-moon night; and Khuhu the new-moon night. And, later these goddesses also come to be identified with metres (Chhandus): Anumati with Gayatri; Raka with Trishtubh; Sinivali with Jagati; and Khuhu with Anushtubh.
31.5. The inauspicious Matrkas of malicious nature (asiva-matrka) are also said to be eight: Kaki, Halima, Malini, Brhali, Arya, Brahmata, Palala and Vaimitra. In some versions the names of Raudra and Rshabha are added.
31.6. From among the groups of goddesses who came to be associated with the birth of Skanda the most important are the Krittikas. Another legend in Vana Parva of Mahabharata says that the six who were the wives of sages (among the Sapta-rishis) were accepted by Skanda as his mothers. And they prayed to Skanda to be named as Maha-matrkas, Great Mothers. These six goddesses are identified or associated with the constellation Krittika, presided over by Agni. It is said; The Krittikas are six. But when they ascended into heaven they became seven stars (Saptasirasabham): [Amba; Dula; Nitatni; Abhrayanti; Meghayanti; Varshayanti; and Chupunika.].
31.7. Yet another list of ten Matrkas, inauspicious grahas (seizers) having hideous forms are mentioned in Vana Parva of Mahabharata. They are named as: Vinata, Kadru, Putana, Shita Putana, Revathi, Diti, Surabhi, Sarama, Lohitayani and Arya. Another version lists them as seven: Revathi, Mukhamadika, Vinata, Putana, Sitaputana, Lohitayani and Sarama. Apart from these, eighteen other grahas are mentioned, without naming them specifically.
31.8. Shalya Parva of Mahabharata provides a long list of 213 Matrkas associated with Skanda (the text says there are many more that are not mentioned).These Matrkas are troops of female warriors who fight under the command of Skanda (Deva-senapathi).
32.1. In the Devi Mahatmya the Saptamatrkas (seven Matrkas) mentioned are: Brahmi, Maheshvari, Kaumari, Vaishnavi, Varahi, Indrani and Chamunda. At times, Narasimhi is mentioned in place of Chamunda.
32.2. In some versions the, Martkas are counted as eight (Ashta-Matara) by including Narasimhi.
32.3. Nepal follows the tradition of eight Matrkas (Ashta Matara) but it counts Maha-Lakshmi as the eighth Matrka and omits Narasimhi.
32.4. Devi Bhagavata Purana (Book five; Chapter 28) while describing the battles fought by the Devi names ten Matrkas; and mentions that the Shakthis of the other gods (the wives of Kubera, Varuna, and other Devas) also came there with proper forms and joined the battle. The ten Matrkas mentioned are: Brahmi; Vaishnavi; Maheshwari; Kaumari; Indrani; Varahi; Narasimhi; Kalika; Shiva-duti; and Chandika.
32.5. Devi Bhagavata mentions that when Parvati approached to bless Skanda, she was accompanied by six Matrkas: Gauri, Vidya, Gandhari, Kesini, Mitra and Savitri.
32.6. Devi-Purana mentions nine Matrkas, by including Gana-nayika or Vinayaki – the Shakthi of Ganesha; and Mahabhairavi – Shakthi of Bhairava, to the standard list of Saptamatrkas.
32.7. Devi Purana also describes a pentad of Matrkas (Matra-panchaka), who help Ganesha in killing the demons. The five mothers named are: Kaumari, Rudrani, Chamunda, Brahmi and Vaishnavi.
32.8. The Varaha Purana names Yami – the Shakti of Yama, as the seventh; and Yogishwari created by flames emerging from Shiva’s mouth, as the eighth Matrka. These two replace Indrani and Narasimhi.
32.9. Vamana Purana (57; 27-29) gives a long list of 49 Matrkas accompanying Skanda.
32.10. Agni Purana (299.4950) mentions 38 female divinities. Of these, the Balagraha that affect the children day-wise are called Putana; and those that affect children year-wise are called Sukumarika.
33.1. The Tantra counts nine Matrkas by including Chandika and Mahalakshmi to the standard list of Saptamatrkas (Brahmi, Maheshvari, Kaumari, Vaishnavi, Varahi, Indrani and Chamunda).The Yoginis, who are the attendants of the Goddess Devi, are regarded as daughters of the Matrkas. Each Matrka is said to have nine daughters, thus bringing up a total of eighty-one Yoginis.
However, the tradition following the cluster of eight Matrkas (Kaula Tantra) counts sixty-four Yoginis (Chaushatti Jogini); each Matrka having eight daughters. And, each of the 64 yoginis is also associated with currents or ‘winds’ in human astral body.
[In certain traditions, each Matrika is also a yogini. The Tribal roots of Hinduism by Shri Shiv Kumar Tiwari (page 129-130) mentions that Mother goddesses are categorized in two ways. In one, as given in Kalika –purana, Matrkas and yoginis are listed together; they are of same family (kula). And, the other list (as given in Agni-purana) excludes Matrkas. The former list assigns high position to yoginis, while the other list relegates yoginis to lower positions. The list of 64 yoginis (which excludes Matrkas) belongs to the latter category. ]
[Incidentally, in the Tantra–tradition, the eight Matrkas represent the eight tattvas, the eight powers of the manifested universe. At the micro level, the eight Matrkas are said to manifest (prakata) in their gross form (stula-rupa) as eight body-constituents : skin (Brahmi); blood (Maheshwari); muscle (Kaumari); fat-tissue (Vaishnavi);bone (Varahi);bone-marrow (Indrani);semen (Chamunda);and vitality (Mahalakshmi) . Another text Sethu-bandha (8 – 123) mentions that the eight are located in the human body at the : meet of the eyebrows (Brahmi);breasts (Maheshwari);navel (Kaumari);heart (Vaishnavi);face (Varahi); nose (Indrani);neck((Chamunda) and forehead (Mahalakshmi).
Even otherwise the number eight has a special significance in the Tantra. It is associated with: the eight directions with four cardinal and four intermediate points (digbandahs); the eight types of yogic powers or attainments (siddhis); the eight primary mystic symbols (mudras) ; the eight limbs of Yoga (astanga) ; and of course eight forms of the Divine Mother (Matrkas) .Further , the 64 (8×8) celled square Manduka/ Chandita Mandala is regarded as the Mandala of the Siddhas where in its 64 chambers (kalas) Shiva and Shakthi reside (Thirumandiram V. 1418).]
33.2. The Uttara Tantra Shastra (Chapter 27) names eight graha-s (seizers) as: Skanda-apasmara (Vishakaha), Shakuni, Revathi, Putana, Andhaputana, Shitaputana, Ukhamandika, and Naigamesha.
33.3. The Shakthi – sangama – Tantra (Upatti-khanda) gives a list of fifty Matrika kalas : Nivritti, Pratishtita, Vidya , Shanthi , Indhika , Dipika , Mochika , Para , Sukshma , Sukshmamrita , Jnanamrita , Apyayani , Vyapini , Vyomarupa , Ananta , Srishti , Riddhi , Smriti , Medha , Kanti , Lakshmi , Dyuthi , Sthira , Sthithi , Siddhi , Jada , Palini , Shanthi , Aishvarya , Rati , Kamika , Varada , Ahladini , Prithi , Dirgha , Tikshna , Raudri , Bhaya , Nidra , Tadra , Kshudha , Krodini , Kriya , Utkari , Mrityurupa , Pita , Sheveta , Asita , and Ananta.
34.1. Utpala (ninth century) commentator of Varahamihira‘s (fifth – sixth century) Brihat Samhita refers to Matrganah, the group of eleven Matrkas as Brahmi, Vaishavi, Raudri, Kaumari, Aindri, Yami, Varuni, Kuberi, Narasimhi , Varahi and Vinayaki.
34.2. The Devi Puja vidhi (a religious text of the middle centuries) mentions sixteen Matrkas (Shodash Matrika) and names the sixteen as : Gauri; Padma; Sachi ; Medha; Savitri ; Vijaya; Jaya ; Devasena; Svaha; Svadha ; Matru : lokamatru; Dhriti; Pusti; Tushti; Kuladevi.
[The Shodash Matrika along with Ganapathy are invariably worshipped at the commencement of the marriage rituals.]
34.3. There are two other lists of the Shodash Matrkas:
: Savitri; Gayatri; Sarasvathi; Jaya; Thristi; Megha; Puasti ; Tushti ; Dhriti; Vijaya; Devasena; Svadha; Svaha ; Matara; Lokamatara; Kuladevi.
: SavitriI; Kaumari; Rudrani ; Brahmani ; Gayatri; Tridhi ; Dhiriti; Vijaya; Jaya; Chandravigraha; Bhima; Chamunda; Varahi; Indrani; Narayani; and Narasimhi.
34.4. The Puja Vidhi also mentions seven home deities Grihamatrikas: Lakshmi; Shree; Dhriti; Medha; Pragya; Svaha; Sarasvathi.
35.1. Thus, the numbers, names and the order of the Matrkas have been highly inconsistent throughout. These are spread across the centuries covering their varied appearances, such as: the Balagraha, the female warriors, Krittikas, the mothers related to Skanda legend, Purana-deities, Tantra–shakthis, ritual-goddesses, the Vedic heptads etc. But, their numbers were eventually restricted to seven; and a set of Saptamatrkas was accepted as the standard. Such crystallization of the Saptamatrka possibly occurred in the late fourth century or early fifth century.
36.1. Some argue that the restriction of the number of Matrkas to seven is somewhat arbitrary. But, there also are many explanations which try to rationalize the formation of the close knit group of seven. These elucidations are essentially based in the Vedic belief in heptads.
36.2. It is said; the idea of Matrka as group of seven goddesses is linked fundamentally to the Vedic preference for number seven; and to the symbolisms associated with heptads. The other ancient cultures such as Babylonians, Greeks and Hebrew seemed to have similar fixations with the number seven.
In the Vedic context, seven was conceptually rendered into a single unit. It represented the sense of completeness. To go beyond number seven was to be born into a new sphere of existence; either to enter into a new cycle or to enter into a higher order of existence. Seven was employed as a notional unit to count, to gauge and to map out the material world as also the components of life. Structuring the world into units of seven seemed to be an attempt to impose order on the seemingly chaotic.
36.3. The Vedic people therefore viewed the world around them as composed of units of seven. For instance, the Universe was understood as having seven layers , each with seven Adityas (Suns) ; and the Sun’s rays having seven colours (sapta varna). Similarly ,the planet earth was seen as made of: seven islands (sapta-dweepa-Vasundhara); seven regions (sapta loka); seven communities (sapta kula); seven seas (sapta samudra); seven mountains (sapta parvatha); seven deserts (sapta arania); seven cities (sapta pura); and seven holy trees (sapta vriksha) and so on.
36.4. The number seven was found significant in understanding the composition of human body , which is made of seven types of substances (sapta dhatu); seven senses (sapta indriya); seven energy centres including the final Sahasrara chakra (sapta chakra); seven phases of existence or seven states of consciousness (Bhu; Bhuvaha ; Suvaha; Mahaha; Janaha; Tapaha and Satyam) and so on.
36.5. The Vedic poets composed verses in seven meters (sapta-chandasmi) having seven syllables (saptaream bhavathi) and sang in seven notes (sapta swara).Their most highly respected sages were seven (sapta rishi) . In certain yajnas seven altars were constructed (sapta-chitikagni) and altars had seven layers of bricks. Agni has seven tongues of flames.
36.6. The most important aspect of Vedic life was its perennial river systems. The seven rivers Sapta Sindhu (Iravathi, Chandrabhaga, Vitasta, Vipasa, Satadru, Sindhu and Sarasvathi) were venerated as the life giving Mothers; and, Sarasvathi was the best of the mothers. It was from the depths of these waters that life arose; and the sun emerged and ascended the sky. Those waters were not mere physical features of their land; but were the very source of their life, of their divinities and of the meaning to their life. All their songs, myths and legends surround these seven rivers, the seven mothers (sapta matarah).
37.1. It was not therefore surprising that in the later ages when attempting to bring in a sense order into the chaotic world of Matrkas the ancient unit of seven was employed. It signified authenticity and ‘completeness’. It also, perhaps, suggested belief in the auspiciousness of odd numbers. And, by refining their natures, attributes and appearances; and by linking them to the older Vedic concept of the heptads, the Matrkas were invested with an aura of sacredness and spiritual authority.
37.2. Just as the seven mother-like rivers (sapta matarah) of Rig Veda, the Saptamatrkas, the mother-like goddesses, came to be characterized by their maternal nature and movement. The concept of Saptamatrka, the seven mothers, is thus an extension of the idea of visualizing the seven rivers as mothers. The Krittika constellation, incidentally, marked the beginning of a new yearly time cycle. Krittikas the Mothers of Skanda are, thus, also the mothers of time and of regeneration; and are initiators of the next epoch.
38.1. The iconography of Saptamatrkas presents a very interesting study. Normally, an icon or image of a god or a goddess is visualized and presented in a standard form following the descriptions of its attributes, dispositions, postures and features as narrated in the related texts. And, the salient aspects of the icon–to be-sculpted are, usually, epitomized into pithy Dhyana Slokas, for the guidance of the Shilpi.
38.2. But in the case of the Matrkas, their concepts, appearances and nature change rapidly from period to period, from text to text and from tradition to tradition. Their individual portrayals too vary from their group presentations. When portrayed individually they are depicted as benevolent and graceful mother-like goddesses. But, in group they appear as warriors; and their names and numbers also differ. Further, there are the regional variations in their depictions. These again are guided by the then current theological interpretations, the sculptural styles of the period and the ingenuity of the sculptors. Thus, when you look across their evolution and development spread over the centuries you find there is no single standardized universally recognizable form of the Matrkas. Each period, each region and each tradition developed its own iconographic interpretations.
38.3. Another interesting feature of Matrka- iconography is that their sculptural depictions are in no way linked to their descriptions narrated in the Puranas and other literary sources. The icons are hardly related to the narrative content. The Matrkas of the Puranas are invariably gruesome warrior females fighting the Demons. The ferocious, blood-drinking Matrkas are not referred to as mothers; nor is there a reference to their ‘motherly-qualities’. The early Balagraha deities called as Matrkas in the Kushana period were dangerous to children .Even the Matrkas associated with Skanda were inimical to children up to their age of five or sixteen. Thus, there is an obvious mismatch between the Matrkas described in the Puranas and the sculptural depictions of ‘mother-goddesses’ of the later periods.
38.4. It is only in the post-Gupta period and the medieval centuries the numbers, names and natures of the Matrkas started getting standardized .That was mainly due to the influence of the Tantra and Shaktha cults. In the depictions that followed thereafter, Matrkas were portrayed as goddesses, radiant, graceful, benevolent and caring mothers. Each Matrka came to be associated with a particular divine or mystic aspect in Tantra or Yoga. In sculptures, their motherliness was often emphasized by their playful attitude towards the children they carried on their laps. But, they held on to the weapons of war. And, yet their associated symbolisms were retained; harmony in their overall structure and countenance were ensured. The later Sculptures of mother goddesses exhibit aesthetic maturity and divine charm
39.1. The coexistence of male and female principles in the Saptamatrka depictions is yet another instance of dichotomy. Sometimes; Matrkas are described as feminine forces that derive their names and attributes from male gods. Hence, they are taken to imply the coexistence of male and female principles. Yet the female is dominant. In fact, the male is completely replaced. It is the feminization of the male personalities. Shaktha tradition achieves this through transformation of the already existing male gods into independent goddesses, female principles, Shakthis; thus, reinventing an absolutely new conception of a Goddess.
39.2. Speaking of the later times, the general descriptions of the Matrkas are given in various other texts. The vast body of references includes Purana, Agama, Tantra and Shilpa texts. The various texts of Shipa shastra:
Aparajitaprccha, Rupamandana and Manasollasa provide iconography – details of Matrka sculptures. There is, of course, the authoritative Vishudharmottara. Further, Agamas like Amsumadbhedagama, Surabhedagama and Ruruvarnagama also contain instructions for making Matrka images. In addition, several Tantra texts such as Svachhanda Tantra and Yogini Hridaya contain detailed descriptions of the Saptamatrkas.
39.3. Brihat-samhita (sixth century) says that the Matrka images are to be made with the emblems, banners, ayudhas, vahanas and ornaments that are associated with the male gods after whom they are named. Brahmi should be sculpted like Brahma; Maheshwari like Maheshwara; Vaishnavi like Vishnu; Varahi with boar-face like Varaha; Indrani (Aindri) like Indra; and Kaumari like Skanda. But, Chamunda is herself, a terrifying war goddess with dishevelled hair and fearsome countenance.
40.1. The following is a brief summary of the Matrka descriptions as given, mainly, in Rupamandana, in Aparajitapuccha of Bhuvanadeva and in Vishudharmottara:
When the Matrkas are sculpted on a panel or arranged in a row they should be placed between Gananatha and a form of Shiva such as Vinadhara or the fierce Bhairava or Virabhadra at the other end. All the Matrkas are to be seated (asana) in comfortable lalithasana with the right leg stretched down (lambaka padam) and the left leg bent and kept on the seat (sayanam padakam); or in ardhaparyankasana with the right leg folded and the left bent perched on the edge of the seat; or in the formal padmasana .All are shown seated on their respective vahanas. Sometimes, the child-motif is etched on the pedestal or a child is placed on their laps [In many south Indian sculptured panels of later times the child or the child-motif is not depicted].
Two of their hands gesture protection (abhaya) and blessing (varada) while their other hands hold weapons and emblems associated with their male counterparts. They are well adorned with ornaments like a suitable simple crest (makuta or mouli) or a wreath of flowers around jatamakuta, flower garlands (vanamala), necklaces (haara), circular ear-rings (rathna kundala), simple armlets (ekavali), bracelets, anklets, jewelled waist-bands (kati–mekhala or kati-bandha) etc. “Matrikas should be endowed with beautiful breasts, a slender waist and full hips so that female beauty may be celebrated.”
40.2. In the row of seated Matrkas, Brahmi is depicted as bright as gold, four faced riding swan (hamsa) holding akshamala, pusthaka and kamandalu. Maheshwari fair in complexion, her hair (jatamakuta) adorned with crescent moon rides a bull holding in her six hands akshamala, shula, khadga, khatvanga and maatulinga fruit (a kind of sweet lime with seeds inside). Vaishnavi of dark complexion with a lovely face, adorned with ornaments and garlands of flowers (vanamala) rides Garuda , holds shankha, chakra, gadha, and padma; and in her two other hands gestures abhaya and varada. The six faced Kaumari rides a peacock and holds in her ten hands shakthi, dwaja, danda, dhanus, bana, akshamala, kukkuda and kamandalu; and in her other two hands gestures varada and abhaya. Varahi of the complexion of storm-cloud, boar-faced rides a buffalo holding danda, khadga, khetaka and pasha. Aindri of red complexion is seated on an elephant holding sutra, vajra, kalasha and paatra. Chamunda of dark red complexion, deep-set eyes, fierce looks, dishevelled hair bristling upwards, emaciated body, bright tusk-like teeth; wearing garland of skulls , rides a preta ghoul holding a trishula, kapala, khatvanga and fire.
40.3. The descriptions summarized above are rather the classic features as narrated in texts. But, in most cases when Matrkas are etched in a row over temple walls or in small niches, they all are made to look alike with a single face each. They are distinguished from each other by the ayudhas they carry or the emblems (lanchanas) etched below the figures on countersunk panels. In some cases, each Matrka might be provided with a child; either in the lap or made to stand by the side. The group usually is flanked by Vinayaka and Virabhadra.
Let’s look at the Matrkas, individually, in the next part.
Continued in Part Four
References and Sources
The iconography of the saptamatrikas: by Katherine Anne Harper: Edwin Mellen press ltd (1989-10)
Saptamatrka Worship and Sculptures by Shivaji K Panikkar; DK Print World (1997).
The Roots of Tantra by Katherine Anne Harper (2002)
Hindu Goddesses: Vision of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Traditions by David Kinsley; (1987)
Tribal Roots of Hinduism by SK Tiwari; Sarup and Sons (2002)
The Portrait of the Goddess in the Devī-māhātmya by David Kinsley
The Little Goddesses (Matrikas) by Aryan, K.C; Rekha Prakashan (1980)
Goddesses in Ancient India by P K Agrawala; Abhinav Publications (1984)
The Tantra of Sri Chakra by Prof. SK Ramachandra Rao; Sharada Prakashana (1983)
Sapta Matrikas and Matrikas
The mother goddess in Indian sculpture By Cyril Veliath
Some discussions on the Skanda – Tantra and Balagrahas
The Mahabharata of Krishna –Dwaipayana Vyasa (Book 3, Part 2) Section 229
Devis of the first enclosure
All pictures are from Internet