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The Cold Ones: India’s Epidemic Goddesses

Indian historical tradition isn’t very good at recording epidemics, but the veneration of epidemic goddesses preserves the folk memory of diseases in South Asia

A watercolour of Shitala, date unknown
A watercolour of Shitala, date unknown (ALAMY)

Terrifier of spirits who prey onpregnant women,

Destroyer of smallpox and myriad diseases,

A mother to her devotees,

With limbs that cool like white sandalwood,

I reverently praise the supreme yakshini,

Mother of many children.

A stotra (hymn) to Hariti by Bhavaratna. Translated by Miranda Shaw

Between the second and sixth centuries, a series of pandemics destabilized the Roman empire. The first of these was the Antonine Plague, between 165-180 AD, and the second was the Plague of Justinian, between 541-542 AD. The first outbreak killed some five million people across Europe and Asia while the latter was even more deadly, killing close to 50 million people. Historians have concluded that the first outbreak would have been either smallpox or measles, while the second one was probably bubonic plague. What’s clear is that these pandemics contributed to the decline and eventual decimation of the Roman empire.

So what do these pandemics have to do with India? The outbreak of the Antonine Plague coincided with the first artistic depictions of South Asia’s first “epidemic" goddess, Hariti. This demonic yakshi-turned-protector of Buddhism was a well-known figure around the turn of the Christian Era. The Mother of Demons, as she was called in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, Hariti and her demonic progeny were notorious for stealing and eating newborn children. According to Buddhist legends, she was made to see the error of her ways by the Buddha and converted into the chief protector of the Buddhist sangha. In her new avatar as a benevolent goddess of plenty, among other roles, she would grant boons of healthy childbirth.

And she was also a protector from diseases, mainly smallpox.

The seventh century Chinese pilgrim I’Tsing reported seeing Hariti statues in every monastery he visited across the subcontinent, as well as various rituals in her honour by laypeople and monks. I’Tsing mentions in his travel diary, A Record Of Buddhist Religion As Practised In India And The Malay Archipelago, that Hariti needed to be propitiated for the well-being of children and the boon of childbirth.

His contemporary, Hsüan-tsang, mentions a stupa dedicated to Hariti in Gandhara (identified with Peshawar and its surrounding region in Pakistan), which was said to mark the spot where Hariti was converted by the Buddha. He wrote that women in the area worshipped the stupa for its power to ensure the well-being of children.

There are many sculptural examples of Hariti as a stylized Roman matron holding a child, from the Kushana empire (first century to third century AD), with its main capital in Peshawar. The Kushana empire stretched from Central Asia to central Uttar Pradesh and was the origin of the Indo-Greek artistic styles which would have a profound impact on medieval Indian art. It was also the incubating culture from which Mahayana Buddhism emerged.

A second century statue of Hariti with her children from Skarah Dheri in Pakistan
A second century statue of Hariti with her children from Skarah Dheri in Pakistan (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Many statues of Hariti, dating to the time of the Antonine Plague, have been excavated from the Kushana territories. One such was located at the Peshawar site mentioned by Hsüan-tsang. The historian Étienne Lamotte, in his 1958 book History Of Indian Buddhism: From The Origins To The Saka Era, records that the pedestal of this statue, from the middle of the second century, has a prayer begging Hariti “to take smallpox away into the sky".

To archaeologist A.D.H. Bivar, this wasn’t a coincidence. In his paper Hariti And The Chronology Of The Kushanas (1970, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London), he wrote that the proliferation of Hariti statues suggested devotees were trying to avert the threat of infection. It’s well known that the Antonine and Justinian plagues had travelled along thriving overland and sea trade routes, moving from South and East Asia to the Mediterranean and beyond.

Bivar writes, “The role of the Kusana Empire in such a catastrophe is evident enough. The focus of smallpox infection during the second century AD was no doubt in South Asia, as at the present day. If our dating of the Skarah Dheri image to AD 136 is correct, the epidemic was already growing in the reign of Kaniska. Within a few years the infection would have been reaching pandemic proportions, and the numerous Hariti images of Gandhara would thus reflect the growing desperation of the Buddhist devotees. Soon the virus was launched along the caravan routes of the silk trade, and on its way to the harbours of the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. It would not be surprising that the Romans encountered it at Ctesiphon in AD 165."

Historian Alfred Foucher records in his 1915 book, Notes On The Ancient Geography Of Gandhara, that a mound near the Hariti stupa in Peshawar was venerated by local Muslim and Hindu women who would take dirt from the site and put it in amulets for their children to avoid smallpox.

In India, for many centuries, Hariti continued to be propitiated by people anxious to avoid infection, even as her cult spread with Buddhism to countries like Nepal, China and Japan.

Her boon of cooling fevers, especially among newborn children, made her a popular deity across India. Hariti sculptures have been excavated from most major monastic sites across South Asia, including Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, Ratnagiri in Odisha, Saran in Bihar, Rajshahi in Bangladesh, Ajanta, Aurangabad and Ellora in Maharashtra, as well as Salihundram, Nagarjunakonda and Bojjannakonda in Andhra Pradesh.

When I visited the gorgeous historical site of Sankaram in Bojjannakonda in 2013, a large sandstone statue of Hariti, known locally simply as “amma", held pride of place. Scholar Sree Padma Holt, in her 2011 paper Hariti: Village Origins, Buddhist Elaborations And Saivite Accommodations (Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University), writes about her fieldwork on folk goddesses in Andhra Pradesh. She found deities with similar origin stories, some of which were Hariti statues, being worshipped as fever and fertility goddesses, with names such as Erukamma, Pochamma and Peddamma.

She also notes the similar roles played by Hariti’s Japanese counterpart, Karitei. Karitei or Kariteimo (“mo" meaning mother) is venerated at the eighth century Buddhist temple of Tōdai-ji in Nara, Japan. Interestingly, the temple, a Unesco World Heritage Site, was built in 752 AD by royal decree, partly in response to a major smallpox outbreak between 735-737 AD.

There have been many other “fever" goddesses in India but I will mention two other, related goddesses: Parnashabari and Shitala. Parnashabari is a Buddhist tantric or Vajrayana deity, most likely borrowed from tribal sources (her name translates to “the leaf-clad tribal lady"). Her cult as a goddess who heals fevers and smallpox coincided with the same areas where the goddess Shitala is venerated for similar attributes—eastern India, primarily Bengal and Odisha.

As scholar Miranda Shaw describes in her brilliant book, Buddhist Goddesses Of India (2006), there is evidence of Parnashabari’s worship in Pala-era art from Dhaka district’s Vikramapura in Bangladesh (11th century) as well as textual sources like the Vajrayana mantra and meditation manual Sadhanamala (c. 11th century). Clad in leaves and brandishing a leaf wand to ward off illness and cool fevers, she strides and tramples over diseases—as well as Saivite gods like Ganesha. Parnashabari’s cult venerates both her practical disease-slaying self as well as her hidden, tantric meaning as a destroyer of false notions. Although Parnashabari’s cult died out in India, she remains a major goddess in Tibetan Buddhism.

A 10th-11th century statue of Parnashabari, with a tiny Shitala to the bottom left, from Bengal/Bangladesh
A 10th-11th century statue of Parnashabari, with a tiny Shitala to the bottom left, from Bengal/Bangladesh

Flanking Parnashabari in the 11th century statue, and subservient to her, is Shitala, who is today the most well-known “fever" goddess in the country. Her features can be clearly made out in the stone stele, riding a donkey and brandishing a broom with which she is said to sweep away diseases.

In her very name, Shitala embodies the primary trait of all Indian epidemic goddesses: the Cold One. Her iconographic form has also remained the same as the one we encounter on the Parnashabari stele: riding a donkey and holding a broom to drive away fevers. In her later and modern iconography, she sometimes also holds the leaves of a neem tree or an earthen pitcher.

In his paper Old Rituals For New Threats: Possession And Healing In The Cult Of Sitala (in Ritual Matters: Dynamic Dimensions In Practice, ed. by Ute Husken, Christiane Brosius, 2019), scholar Fabrizio M. Ferrari refutes the Orientalist view of Shitala as the “smallpox goddess". He writes that his fieldwork in West Bengal revealed that to locals she was the vasanta rog’er adhicsthatri, or “she who controls the fever of the month of Basanta".

“…Sitala is not to be identified with disease, as the label ‘smallpox goddess’ seems to imply. Smallpox, measles and fevers exist independently, and they are already in our body—though inactive. Sitala simply controls them, as many of her names suggest," he writes.

A watercolour of Shitala, date unknown
A watercolour of Shitala, date unknown (Photo: Alamy)

He also mentions other, more localized Bengali disease deities like the goddess of cholera (Olai Chandi for Hindus; Olai Bibi for Muslims) or the goddess of blood infections (Raktabati). Quite fascinatingly, he also found that sometimes Shitala is identified with entirely different goddesses like Shashti, Manasa, the snake goddess, as well as Hariti and Parnashabari.

Another fascinating revelation is the ritualized variolation that formed part of Shitala worship before vaccination became common. Variolation, a common folk remedy in epidemics, involved infecting a person with a mild form of a disease in the hope that this would help them gain immunity . In Shitala’s ritual, a person was inoculated with infected dried pus from an earlier smallpox victim. The aim was to trigger a milder form of smallpox and thus gain immunity. The ritual variolator (Shitala-pujak or priest), Ferrari writes, “belonged to low castes such as malins (gardeners) and napits (barbers). They were known as tika chikitshaks ‘marking doctors’ or dehuris." The inoculation would be accompanied by the reading of mantras or other vocal sounds which would draw the goddess into the person inoculated (akarshana) and then install her (sthapana).

Isolated in a room, but under watch, the fever’s shakes would symbolize that Shitala had entered the patient’s body. The patient would then become Shitala and be propitiated with cold, stale edibles, including cold water or infusions, vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. Outside the isolation room/temple, women would draw alpanas, people would hold musical performances and tell stories from the Shitala-pala. Once the fever subsided and the patient recovered, Shitala’s work would be done.

As we live through a pandemic, the story of India’s epidemic goddesses is a fascinating one. If nothing else, it shows that till very recently, uncertainty about disease was an intrinsic part of human life. In India at least, the only succour from raging fever, from the demon of disease, could be had from soothing touch of the Cold Ones.

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