As a child, whenever I accompanied my mother to the local temple, pouring water on ShivLinga and other members of the Shiva family was a norm. She also asked me to pour cold water on a little insignificant goddess seated just outside the main temple near Peepal tree who was dressed up in the usual fineries and was riding a donkey. She had four arms and carried a broom, a fan, small bowl and a pot of water.
My mother told me she is Shitala or Sitala, and she should be kept cool as she protects us from fevers and skin rashes. I was always curious about her as a child but soon forgot about her as she was never the main deity for us nor we ever had a photo or idol of her at our home. Decades later, I got a chance to know her as I came across plenty of books and articles on this little-known Goddess.
Goddess Shitala is often associated with smallpox, chicken pox and measles, and other deadly skin diseases which causes fever, blisters, and rashes. The condition is locally called ‘mata nikalna’ or grace of the goddess. Her consort is horse-headed Jvarasur meaning the demon of fever.
Eradicated now, more than a million people died in India until 1950’s of smallpox. In the book, Bugs, Drugs, and Smoke, a World Health Organization publication, it is described that how health care professionals in India in 1970’s followed people who came to make offerings to Shitala Mata temples and identified smallpox patients.
In the book, Religion, Devotion, and Medicine in North India- The Healing Power of Sitala by Fabrizio M. Ferrari, Shitala is discussed as a benevolent goddess, loving mother and protects from the poxes, fevers and other disorders. With time, she is also known to protect from other diseases. Ferrari writes that for the mallahs of Adalpur and Banaras, Goddess is not chiefly associated with smallpox. Shitala is an auspicious mother whose presences causes good luck and prosperity.
Nicholas, Ralph W. in his article, ‘The Goddess Sitala and Epidemic Smallpox in Bengal’, in the The Journal of Asian Studies 41, no. 1 (1981) writes that Shitala is a vital deity of villages in southwestern Bengal, and her rise to importance is closely related to the history of smallpox. However, no mention, of her is available in Ayurvedic medical texts.
Bhava Praksha, a medical textbook written by Bhava Mishra in A.D. 1588 talks about a disease masuri or smallpox. Masuri also means a kind of lentils. Mishra advises worship of Shitala amongst other remedies to get rid of this disease. Skanda Purana also refers to Shitala and Sheetlashtak, her main strota is believed to be written by Lord Shiva.
David Kinsley in his book Hindu Goddesses-Visions of Divine Feminine writes that worshipping Sitala provides people with the realistic and continuous view of life where good and bad things happen and are both are an inevitable part of life. The circle of life goes on and her grace can be both good and bad.
Marriyaman is a similar goddess associated with smallpox in southern India especially Tamil Nadu.
It is interesting to see how cultures, devotion, and lives of people blend seamlessly giving varied meanings and interpretations to the female divine.
Image credit: The National Museum of American History