Saptamatrikas literally means seven mothers. They are often seen together on a panel in temples, usually carved on a single stone. Sometimes Ganesh and Kartikeyan accompany them, but not always. I have been wanting to write about Saptamatrikas since 2011 when I first read about them as part of my Indian Art course at the National Museum. I duly picked up a book to read about them in detail.
I was probably not prepared to write about them all these years. Last year I read Devi Mahatmay or Durga Saptashati where the whole story of their appearance comes. I thought now it is time to write about them since I have read their relevance in the big story of Durga, but not. Earlier this year I visited Odisha, and it here that I saw big and ancient temples dedicated to Saptamatrikas. I spent some time with them in these temples and I believe I now have their blessings to write about them.
Who are Saptamatrikas?
Sapta means Seven and Matrika means mother. So, the word simply means 7 mothers. These are Shaktis of the different Devtas, who come out of them as and when needed, usually to tackle the Asuras who no one else can destroy.
In folk traditions, Matrikas are seen in both benevolent and malevolent forms. As benevolent, they are protectors of fetuses and young children. As malevolent they come in the form of diseases. In general, they are benevolent when prayed to, as the tradition says that deities are bound to answer the prayers made to them.
Matrikas can also be thought of as Mother Goddess that is the oldest known form of worship in India and in many other parts of the world.
Though collectively called Saptamatrikas, their numbers sometimes are eight or more.
They are also a part of 64 Yoginis, the demi-goddesses that surround the Goddess.
In Tantra, they are also treated as Matras or 51 letters of the Devnagari Script.
Legends of Saptamatrikas
Devi Mahatmay is a part of Markandeya Purana. In its 8th chapter, the goddess is faced with Raktabeeja Asura, an ally of Shumbh and Nishumbh who are real asuras she is fighting. Raktabeeja has the boon that every time a drop of his blood falls on the earth and an equally powerful clone of his takes birth. During the war, millions of Rakabeejas keep taking birth as his blood fell on earth. To help Devi, Brahma, Vishnu, Kartikeya, Indra, Shiva, and Yama who were watching the war from the skies, send their female Shaktis along with their vehicles and weapons to the war to help Devi. They help her kill Raktabeeja. Once the job was done, they merge into their original forms.
A similar story comes in Mahabharata and a few other Puranas about the killing of Asura Andhaka, also called Andhakasur. He also had the same boon as Raktabeeja. In this story, Shiva was fighting the Andhkasur, when he started multiplying as soon as his blood fell on earth. Shiva then created Yogeshwari from the flames of his mouth to finish the blood of asura. Saptamatrikas again emerged to help Yogeshwari in the task. Some of the sculptures show Yogeshwari along with 7 mothers. This sculpture is probably referring to this incident.
In Suprabhedagma, Brahma created matrikas to defeat Nritti
Pan India Nature of Saptamatrikas Figures
Saptamatrika panels have been found across India. The oldest material evidence goes back to a Sindhu Saraswati Civilization seal where 7 matrikas are standing next to a tree.
In terms of stone sculptures, the oldest one from the Kushan period can be seen at the Mathura Museum. Almost all ASI museums I have visited across the country have some Saptamatrika panels. Stylistically, they depict the region and the era in which they were sculpted. During the medieval period, they have a clear depiction of each Matrika with her individual iconography. The epitome of their iconography can be seen at the Sapta Matrika temples in Odisha.
In the modern era, we see many creative expressions of the Saptamatrikas.
Seven Matrikas come from the Shakti or the power of 7 different deities. They travel on their respective vahanas or vehicles and they carry their Ayudhs or weapons. 2 of these Matrikas come from the family of Shiva, three from the different avatars of Vishnu, and one each from Brahma and Indra. They carry the traits and characteristics of their male counterparts.
They are usually accompanied by one or two of the Ganesha, Kartik, Veerbhadra, Veenadhara, Saraswati, or Yogeshwari on one or either side of the panel.
Let us meet each one of them.
Brahmi is the yellow complexioned Shakti of Brahma, wearing yellow garments. She rides Hamsa or a Swan, which is Brahma’s vehicle. Occasionally she is shown with 3 faces and one assumed behind to represent the 4 faces of Brahma. In her two hands, she carries an Akshmala and a pot of water. When depicted with four hands, her other two hands are in Abhay and Varada Mudra.
Maheshwari is the Shakti of Shiva. Resplendent in her white complexion, she rides Rishabh or Bull wearing a Jata Mukut. Snakes are her bangles, and the moon sits on her forehead. She holds Trishul or trident of Shiva in her hand.
Kaumari is the Shakti of Kartikeyan who is also known as Kumar and she comes riding on his vehicle Mayura or peacock. Depending on the style she either has one face or six faces and double the number of arms. She wears a garland of red flowers.
Aindri Or Indrani
Aindri is the Shakti of Indra, she rides the elephant and holds the thunderbolt in her hand. Sometimes she also carries an Ankusha in her hand. When four armed, her other two hands are in Abhay and Varada Mudra. She likes to dress up in red and golden color along with fine jewelry. Like Indra, she has a thousand eyes that can see everywhere.
This dark-complexioned Shakti of Vishnu loves to wear yellow just like Vishnu. Vaishnavi holds Chakra and Gada in her two upper hands and the other two hands are in Abhay and Varada Mudra. Sometimes she also carries Shankh or Conch Shell, Sharang or the bow, and a sword. Her characteristic feature is her Vanmala that hangs liberally around the length of her body. You can see Garuda, her vehicle on her pedestal or sometimes she is riding it.
As shakti of Yagya Varah, Varahi takes the form of Varah or the wild boar. She is usually depicted with a human body and a boar head. This feature makes her the most easily identifiable of the Saptamatrikas. She has a dark complexion and wears a Karanda Mukuta on her head. There are a lot of dedicated temples to her in Odisha.
Narsimhi is the shakti of Narsimha avatar comes as half human and half lion. When present in the panel, she is also easy to identify.
Sometimes, instead of Narsimhi, we see Chamuda – the Shakti of Yama. She is distinct by her skeleton-like body with sagging breasts, sunken eyes, sunken belly, wearing the garland of skulls, and holding a Kapala or a Skull bowl in her hand. She looks ferocious wearing the tiger skin.
Like I mentioned earlier, 7 or 8 mother goddesses are always sculpted together on a single stone. They are usually sitting in a similar posture called Lalitasana where one leg is on the ground and the other on the thigh. However, it is not uncommon to see them standing and occasionally in a dancing pose.
Some panels show a small child with each of the Matrikas to explicitly show them as mothers.
In some of the temples in Odisha, I saw huge Murtis of Saptamatrikas in black stone. They look giant and overpowering with their larger than life sizes. However, most of them are not in their original temples so it is difficult to guess how they were originally installed and worshipped.
For a more scholarly exploration read this lovely blog by Sh. Sreenivas Rao.
Temples of Saptamatrikas
In almost all ancient temples, you would find a panel dedicated to Saptamatrikas. These panels are not very big in size. Only in Odisha, I have seen dedicated temples to them, where they also appear in a larger than life form.
- Temple at Jajpur on the Banks of Vaitarni River in Odisha.
- The temple at Puri next to Markandeshwar Tank.
Saptamatrika temple in one of the oldest living areas of Chennai as told by Pradeep Chakravarthy.