Fevers are not uncommon in India and it is thought that different communities sought protection from their local deities, before the coming of the Vedic gods, some 4000 years ago. They probably predate cholera, which may have originated in the Subcontinent, and smallpox – traces of which are found on Egyptian mummies 3000 years ago, although the disease is thought to be yet older. Over time, the goddess appealed to in case of fever and especially smallpox, in much of Northern India, Nepal, West Bengal and Kerala was Sitala “the Cool One”.
In the Hindu tradition, Sitala is considered an aspect of Parvati and given the honorifics Devi – goddess, or Ma – mother. Iconographically, she has remained linked to her village origins, riding on a donkey with a winnowing fan on her head and a broom in her hand, to drive away heat and the causes of disease, and a pot of cooling water. Often, she is dressed in red, a colour considered prophylactic against smallpox and sometimes carries a bunch of neem leaves (Azadirachta indica), an important element in traditional Indian medicine and used in non-chemical pest-control.
Across the Tamil regions of Southern India, Sitala Devi’s place is taken by Mariamman, originally the Mother Goddess of rain and hence associated with fertility – and cooling. Her cult has spread to all parts of the world where there are Tamil communities.
Smallpox has vanished and cholera can largely be controlled, but Sitala continues to be appealed to in cases of illness involving fever, and her help has been invoked across India, especially in the countryside, during the various waves of the Covid pandemic. Neem has also been suggested as a remedy, but there is no evidence that it has any effect, anyo more than it had on earlier epidemics.
There are numerous songs honouring Sitala and prayers begging for her help, including the following Octet on Her who is Cool from Kerala:
Lord Shiva said:
I pray that Goddess who cools who rides on a donkey,
Who is nude, who holds broomstick and pot in her hand,
And who holds the winnowing fan over her head.
I salute the Goddess who cools who cures all diseases,
And prayer to whom removes the great fear of eruptive diseases.
The one who is afflicted by thirst who calls,
Oh Goddess who cools, Oh Goddess who cools,
Would get rid of his fear for diseases of eruption within no time.
He who stands in the middle of water and worships you,
Would completely abolish the fear of the terrible eruption,
And such diseases would never visit his house ever.
Oh Goddess who is cool, to the one who is affected by high fever,
And to the one who has bad smelling wounds and,
Also to the one who has lost his eye,
It is told that you are the only living medicine.
Oh Goddess who is cool, you help us to get rid of,
Sicknesses that refused to get cured and
To the one, whose body has burst to eruptions,
You are like a rain of nectar.
Even serious terrible diseases like mumps,
Are destroyed just by thinking about you.
To the diseases caused by sin, no medicines have been suggested,
And I do not see anyone who is like a mother to them, except you.
You look like a thread of lotus stem and live between belly and heart,
And he who meditates on you would never ever face death.
The man who reads this octet on the cool goddess always,
Will never face the fear of eruptions in his house.
Translated by P. R. Ramachander
Vedanta Shastras Library at www.shastras.com
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