Post‑smallpox Survival of the Hindu Smallpox Goddess

Michael York
Bath College of Higher Education


     The smallpox‑goddess Sîtalâ originates from the torrid jungles of Bengal. She personifies the fever accompanying smallpox as well as the divine power which could, if favourably propitiated, save or release one from the disease. During the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries ‑ if not earlier as well ‑ Sîtalâ's cult rose in popularity in Bengal from where it spread to other regions of northern India. As a microcosm of all India, a siginificant and sizeable Bengali community is to be found in the holy city of Varanasi. Here too, on the banks of the Ganges at the city's centre and on the most accessible of the river's ghats is the Sîtalâ Mandir. This Dashashvamedh temple became immensely popular during the times India was frequently ravaged by the plague of smallpox. Today, however, Sîtalâ's worship on the part of both local residents and the ubiquitous throngs of pilgrims who come to Varanasi is as equally fervent and shows no signs of abating. This paper seeks to question who is Sîtalâ and how does she fit into both the official and vernacular pantheons of Hinduism, why has her cult survived the eradication of smallpox and what roles does Sîtalâ assume in the guise of her post‑smallpox survival.

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The re-development of Goddess spirituality in the contemporary West takes various forms. Foremost, of course, are the feminist, Christian, Wiccan and Gaian-centric emphases on `The Goddess', but as Melissa Raphael warns, there is a current danger that we are simply `putting God into a dress'. In other words, inherent in the bi-theism of Wicca and much Neo-paganism in general is a monotheistic entity which has merely converted gender but in other essentials remains little different than the traditional Judaeo-Christian God.

To forestall merely replacing patriarchy with matriarchy, the polytheistic traditions of our pagan past and the present East may offer a more viable understanding of the gender dynamic of deity. Unhampered by doctrinal and dogmatic constraints which attempt to reduce the supernatural to some preconceived and controllable paradigm or even role-model, the more fluid Eastern and pagan comprehensions allow a fuller expression to deific ambivalence and variety. Identities are plastic and exchangeable without becoming permanently reducible or inflexible. Gods and goddesses interact and sport together in a ever-changing dance or lîlâ comprising the unending vacillation between life and death.

The Hindu goddess Sîtalâ as the deity of smallpox fully exemplifies the nature of an ambivalent goddess. Originating among the Bhîl tribal peoples, Sîtalâ has become popular especially in Bengal - extending her cult throughout northern and western India. A shrine to the goddess is also found in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu adjacent to the Buddhist stupa of Svayambhunath. Her name appears in the Hindu puranas though not in the earlier vedas or brahmanas. She clearly originates as a regional or local figure, and it is in the immediacy of local manifestation that her cult survives today.

As the goddess of fever, particularly that which accompanies smallpox and related postular diseases, the deity is named euphemistically as the `cool one' or `she who loves coolness' or `she of cold disposition' (Sîtalâ). The fever is considered to be brought by the goddess herself in the form of an affliction or as a possession or, alternately, by her companion Jvarâsura, a fever demon. Sîtalâ is beseeched to sweep away the smallpox fever - iconographically being depicted with a whisk broom, and her veneration usually involves the pouring of water or milk over her image to cool it - particularly during the hot, monsoon season. Sîtalâ's ambivalence is to be seen in the consideration that it is she who brings or allows fever, but it is also she who can protect the worshipper and keep the disease at bay. Other names for the goddess include Basantî Bûrhî (`the old lady of spring') and Basantî Chandî (`the cruel spring-goddess') - presumably because the vernal season often marked the onset of the smallpox epidemic.

The question which immediately arises in the late twentieth century, however, in which smallpox has been assessed by the World Health Organisation as a scourge that has been successfully eliminated from the world, concerns the survival of the smallpox goddess in a post-smallpox milieu. The focus of this paper rests with Sîtalâ's successful cult in the city of Varanasi (Banaras) and an examination into the adaptability of the deity's cult in this particular locale. At the main public access to the Ganges river (Dasashvamedh), and thus perhaps the most frequented of all the bathing ghâts which stretch the full length of the river's western bank as it flows past the city, is to be found the goddess's temple. A flat-roofed structure, by virtue of its location alone and the fact that it is the only notable temple in the immediate area, the goddess's cult at this venue is singularly popular.

Banaras (or Kashi) is the microcosm of all India. It is the pilgrimage destination primus inter pares for all Hindus, and it remains permanently settled with all the major ethnic communities from throughout the subcontinent - including the Bengalis. Not only the holiest of Hindu cities, it is also perhaps the oldest continual human urban settlement on planet earth.

Banaras is considered sacred to the god Shiva, the destroyer and the third figure of the Hindu trîmurthî which includes Brahman as creator and Vishnu as preserver. Within Banaras, the two areas preeminently associated with Shiva are the Vishvanath or Golden Temple adjacent to the gyan vapi or `well of wisdom' and the cremation or Jalsain Ghat next to the Manikarnika Ghat, the second most auspicious bathing site after Dasashvamedh. The former is intimately connected to the primordial union between the earth mother and lord of heaven from whence all creation ensued; the latter is the place where every Hindu wishes to be cremated - as Banaras itself is ideally the place where every Hindu wishes to die in order immediately to attain moksha or `release'.

The pyres of the burning ghat are almost invariably lit from a simple log-fed fire housed in a pavilion which overlooks the funerary platforms. It is maintained by the untouchable caste of the dôms who in turn are presided over by the Dom Raja, concurrently one of the most despised and most wealthy men of the city. This fire, sacred to Shiva, could well be the world's most anciently human-maintained fire. This hearth is itself highly ambivalent. It couches the manifestation of Shiva, but it is also hated, as is the Dom Raja, for its connection with death.

Parallel with the Hindu understanding of the gods are the consorts of the gods, their shâktis. Brahman is paired with Sarasvatî as the goddess of learning; Vishnu's consort is Laksmî as the goddess of prosperity; and Shiva's shâkti takes two forms: one benevolent (Gauri or Pârvatî), and one fierce or malevolent (Durgâ or Kâlî). The shâkti exemplifies the `power' of the god without which the god is simply a cadaver. For instance, the corpse-devouring Kâlî is iconographically frequently depicted standing above the prone figure of Shiva. As a conception of divine power in female terms, Shâktism is to be found predominantly in Bengal and Assam, but through the worship of goddesses throughout India, it is particularly an ubiquitous aspect of village worship.

Diana Eck, in her remarkable Banaras: City of Light, identifies the most indigenous, local manifestations of godhead within Kashi as the bîrs (male) and devis (female). These conform to the more animistic substratum of the supernatural which undergirds the pan-Hindu deities (Shiva, Umâ, Shrî, Durgâ, Vishnu and his avatars - chiefly Râma and Krishna, Ganesha, Kumar, Hanuman and Sûrya the sun) as well as the more regional figures such as, in Karnaktika, Yellamma (discussed elsewhere in this book by Kirsti Evans) or, in Banaras, the apotheosized mortal Rarajeshwari. The devi may be represented in various forms including that of Kâlî, but what identifies her as a devi is the presence of the trident, otherwise the emblem of Shiva. The bîr manifests aniconically in a crudely raised shape that is often mistaken for a lingam, the phallus or cult icon of Shiva. A noteworthy bîr shrine is to be found in the back streets near to a major road crossing named after the figure, namely, Lahurabîr. Designated euphemistically as the `short god (bîr)', the idol is relatively large - four to five feet in height. Facing the murti is a shrine to Sîtalâ. The proximity of the goddess's altar to Lahurabîr suggests Sîtalâ here as an indigenous consort and re-emphasises her provenance as essentially a local deity.

But as the goddess of fever, Sîtalâ may be seen in Banaras as a female equivalent of Shiva himself. This is particularly the suggestion encapsulated by the goddess's cult at Dasashvamedh. Elsewhere, one of the most popular temples to an aspect of Shiva's consort is that of Annâpûrnâ, the `goddess who provides food to the fullest', a manifestation of Durgâ or Pârvatî. This complex is maintained by a monastic order and is found near to the main Vishvanath Shiva temple at Gyan Vapi. Another major Goddess worship centre is that of Sanka Mâtâ (`mother who removes dangers') which is to be found within a labyrinth of alleyways approachable from the Manikarnika Ghat. Sanka Mâtâ is either a form of Durgâ or a yoginî created by Durgâ. Shiva's consort, or Durgâ, has her own centre in an inland section of Banaras. This constitutes the city's third major goddess edifice and is known as the `monkey temple' due to the prominent number of simians living in the complex. By contrast, the Sîtalâ mandir is perhaps the most popular centre dedicated to an autonomous goddess, that is, to a goddess who has no husband and is not a shaktî of either Shiva or Vishnu. Since Sîtalâ has no consort, she `belongs' to no one. Although clearly associated with most of the most revered deities of Hinduism, in this temple Sîtalâ is essentially independent of all of them and is to be found here as a bona fide goddess in her own right.

A large part of the success of the Dasashvamedh Sîtalâ mandir and its continuing popularity stems undoubtedly from its location. As the pilgrimage destination par excellence, Banaras is converged upon by Hindus from throughout the subcontinent and even further abroad. With the Dasashvamedh bathing ghat being the most approachable for Banarsis and pilgrims alike, the strategic location of the temple makes it a natural veneration site for great numbers of devotees on a regular daily basis. But as the Hindu religious year is formulated around a calendrical sequence of significant festivals, the influx for these special occasions magnifies exponentially - with an even greater attendance and benefit to Sîtalâ's temple.

The Dasashvamedh Sîtalâ temple is owned and managed by the Pandey family. Currently, there are five brothers each with their own descendants. Consequently, as typical with many if not most ever expanding Indian families, the familial relationship is internecine and marked by jealousy and suspicion. Interfamily poisonings and threats of poisoning have been reported. I have also heard it alleged that the family are really non-Brahmanical interlopers, but this appears to be a standard accusation I have encountered levelled against other relatively successful brahman families as well.

Over the course of the nearly twenty years I have been attending Sîtalâ's mandir, I have presented solicited gifts of watches and other items to various members of the Pandey family, attended their weddings and other celebrations and have been observed in particular by several of the younger sons who have grown into adulthood and become my chief informants. On one occasion, however, various members of the family accused others of secretly hoarding lakhs and lakhs of rupees which they believed I had been giving to the attending priests on an annual basis. After several confusing meetings and my denials, the matter was finally resolved to apparent satisfaction.

As can be typically the reaction within Hindu temples in India, there are times when a conservative Hindu objects vociferously to a Westerner's presence and attempts to have the non-caste and thus `non-Hindu' ejected from the mandir. On those occasions in which this has happened to me in the Dasashvamedh temple, the Pandey priests do not directly intercede but maintain a total and stony indifference to the accuser - thereby deflating his efforts through tacit non-support.

The Sîtalâ mandir is situated between the Dasashwamedh and Ahalya Bai Ghâts. This last was built by a former queen of Indore State, and it was she who also constructed the present Vishvanath temple to Shiva as `lord of all' after the earlier Vishvanath edifice had been demolished by the Moghul emperor Aurangazeb so that the present and currently highly contested Gyan Vapi mosque could be constructed in its place. Ahalya Bai herself was an enormously popular ruler who consented to watch her own daughter commit suicide when she could not dissuade her child from performing sati following the accidental death of Ahalya Bai's son-in-law. When Ahalya Bai herself died after a long reign, the entire population of her capital city of Maheshwar went into an unprecedented three-years of mourning (no marriages, no celebrations) until ordered to desist by the wife of the succeeding ruler. As the Dasashvamedh Ghat is also cluttered by boats, many morning bathers use the Ahalya Bai Ghat for their morning ablutions. Since my first Banaras residence overlooked this ghat, I continue to bathe at this site - de rigueur before one can enter a Hindu temple in the city.

Within my first two hours in the city of Banaras, fortuitously I met the person I had unwittingly come to meet. Kailash Kapûr is my pûjâ guru who taught me the very thing I had originally wanted to learn in India, namely, temple procedure and etiquette. He introduced me to a round of daily visitations to various temples and shrines - a practice I continue still today when I am in Banaras. My evening focus centres on the Sîtalâ mandir at Dasashvamedh, and the very regularity involved in pattern and movement has allowed me over the years to grasp an understanding of the dynamics and hypnotic quality of venerational worship. A temple itself is a tangible metaphor, and it is largely through metaphor alone that the supernatural, that which is beyond or other than what we comprehend in empirical reality, can manifest or speak to us.

In Hinduism, any sighting of an icon or idol is termed darshan, but the sudden, unexpected and uncontrolled manifestation of deity through its tangible depiction is understood as darshan in the fuller or truer sense, literally, `a seeing'. The monotonous regularity of ritual worship primes the devotee for the possibility of this special darshan, and it is in this second, more restricted context that I employ the term here. Its encounter, however, is spontaneous and beyond the immediate control of the observer. It appears to depend on the ever-changing catalytic ingredient - whether it be the juxtaposition within the temple with other worshipers, or the general malaise of illness which characterises so much of one's subjective condition within India, or a shift from one's regular timing, or the occasion of a festival, or the sudden loss of light contingent upon an invariable electricity failure, or the use of bhang such as is legally proscribed for the worship of Shiva in particular, or a peculiarly enchanting piece of music being played either over the temple's loudspeaker system or which is being performed live at the time. Any of these or more can trigger the sudden change of perspective which, cushioned within the rich metaphorical heritage of Hinduism, allows revelation or supernatural insight. Over the years, I have had many darshans of Hindu deities but especially of the goddess Sîtalâ.

Before entering the mandir, one first pays homage to the Ganges. In the morning, this comprises bathing and then carrying water in a small pot to Sîtalâ's temple where some is thrown at the image, some poured over lingams and other murtis both here and at other temples elsewhere in the city - the Vishvanath mandir in particular. In the evening, one lights a piece of camphour or a deepa (`oil lamp'), tosses a coin into the river and washes one's hands, feet and face before entering Sîtalâ's precinct. Usually one crosses immediately and diagonally from the Dasashvamedh entrance, passing between the `dioscuric' shrine to Rama, Laksman and Sîtâ and the facing shrine of Hanuman, to the open area which looks directly onto Sîtalâ's tabernacle and idol. After presenting flowers, monetary offering, perhaps a coconut or a box of sweets to the attendant priest for the Goddess, one bows or prostrates before the murti, lights some incense or camphour, ritually and rhythmically presses one's hands against the marble base of the protective railing, touches the representation of feet which is accessible to the worshiper, touches some of the other stone idols within reach, and then meditates either before or after (or both) circumambulating the central complex containing the Goddess's shrine as well as those of other deities.

Moving to the left, one is ladled out a small amount of Ganga pani (water from the Ganges) usually mixed with sugar and occasionally some coconut milk by the priest into the palm of one's proffered right hand. This is meant to be consumed as a gift from the deity. The priest may also offer prasad in the form of some fruit, a sweet or a piece of coconut. He may also place or toss a malla (a garland of flowers) around the worshipper's neck and put a tilak (a dot of red paste) on his or her forehead. Then continuing clockwise around the inner but openly visible sanctum, one encounters the Dasashvamedheshvar Lingam - a particularly ancient and at the same time large Shiva lingam which is also housed within Sîtalâ's mandir. Next to Sîtalâ's shrine itself is an icon of Ganesha, while facing the lingam is a murti of Durgâ, and between Durgâ and the opening on the left side of the temple overlooking the lingam is a small, reachable by hand, figure of Hanuman embedded into the wall and reputedly ancient and `very powerful'.

Continuing around the central sanctum, behind the murti of Durgâ is another shrine of Sîtalâ, only here depicting the goddess in her standard iconographical representation as a woman astride a donkey and holding a whisk broom in one hand and a water pot in the other. Often this iconography shows the Goddess naked, perhaps covered by the long tresses of her hair. On other occasions, however, the Goddess is clothed. The statue at this shrine is dressed with cloth and covered, as are all the murtis with garlands of flowers.

The iconographic shrine to Sîtalâ is flanked by the entrance used by the priests to reach the inner sanctum of the temple. On the other side of the passageway is a shrine to Kâlî. Next to Kâlî's shrine is a highly venerated, ancient murti of Shiva-Shankarî (Shiva and his consort). Around the corner from this shrine in the northwest corner of the central sanctum are two large temple bells. Beneath the second of these bells is a floor-level stone icon of the goddess Lakshmi - now covered with a permanent silver casing which depicts the goddess in relief along with the sun and the moon. Next to Lakhsmi's shrine is the side opening to the inner sanctum from which the devotee can see the main idol of Sîtalâ. If one were to continue around the next corner, the worshipper would be once again directly facing Sîtalâ's main shrine, the central focus of the temple as a whole. Since the primitive goddess of the Bhîls was first re-named Laksmî before she gained the title of Sîtalâ Mâtâ, it is perhaps relevant that Lakhsmi's murti is located where it is in relation to Sîtalâ's.

Across the fire-hearth which is obliquely before Shiva-Shankarî, along the temple's western or back wall, are further subsidiary shrines, namely, to Achanak Mâtâ, Santoshî Mâtâ, Bundî Mâtâ, Sankatâ Mâtâ,[1] and the Holy Family. The former are various manifestations of Durgâ-Pârvatî; the family portays a standard iconographic representation of Shiva, Pârvatî, Ganesha and Kârttikeya. Before the iconographic shrine of Sîtalâ and facing into the temple toward the fire pit, a free-standing shrine to Annâpûrnâ has been added since the time I first began to frequent this temple. Annâpûrnâ is the manifestation of Shiva's wife as the goddess of food. By including her shrine in Sîtalâ's Dasashvamedh temple, worshippers are able to express devotion to this popular manifestation of the goddess directly within Sîtalâ's own house of worship.

The remaining subsidiary shrines in Sîtalâ's riverside temple include one to the triad of Râma, Lakshman and Sîtâ. This is another free-standing structure with its back toward the shrine of the Santoshî, Bundî and Sankrata Mâtâs. Facing Râma, is the inevitable Hanuman shrine, this one in the eastern wall of Sîtalâ's temple. A priest attends this shrine on Tuesdays and Saturdays, the days which are sacred to Hanuman.

In the northeast corner of the temple itself, there is an enclosed sanctuary to the Vrindachal Devi, a popular local deity whose home temple is on a slight rise some fifteen kilometers from Banaras. Vrindachal is a highly revered indigenous figure whose temple is a pilgrimage destination for many of Banaras' inhabitants as well as people from throughout the adjacent areas of Uttar Pradesh. Like Sîtalâ herself, Vrindachal Devi is a prime example of an ambivalent and autonomous goddess. This kind of figure is frightening yet deeply loved for her power which the worshipper seeks to enlist toward his or her personal benefit. In the outer wall of Vrindachal's shrine in Sîtalâ's Dasashvamedh temple is a murti of Sarasvatî, the goddess of music and learning, the third `official' figure in a triad of the `high' goddesses along with Lakshmi, wife of Vishnu, and Durgâ-Pârvatî, wife of Shiva. Sarasvati's husband is the creator god Brahma. But unlike her husband, Sarasvatî possesses a degree of popular veneration. Brahma in India retains virtually none.

Then, too, beneath Sîtalâ's temple is another series of shrines. To the left of the main entrance to the temple is a small entry through which one must crawl to reach the inside. After passing through a small ante-chamber used by the priests, one comes to a stunning shrine dedicated to Dakshina Sîtalâ, said to be the mother of Sîtalâ. Facing the goddess's murti, to the left is an icon of Rarajeshwarî, the apotheosized mortal. Two smaller chambers exist further into the semi-subterranean complex - both which require ducking or crouching to gain entry. The first contains a Shiva lingam. In the second, in a recessed alcove, there is a small representation of Bhairo (Bharava), the fierce manifestation of Shiva.

Unlike the older and more grungy atmosphere of the upper level, the temple proper, with its uneven flooring, broken tiles and grills, stench of decay and presence of rodents, these interior chambers are immaculate and pristine by comparison. The flooring is smoothly polished off-white marble over which lush carpets are sometimes laid. These shrines are managed by a separate branch of the Pandey family, and the idols are frequently attired in especially rich dress and presented with an exotic range of offerings - including a lit cigarette which is placed in the mouth of Bhairo. To some degree, a competition seems to take place between the two levels of the temple over creating the more captivating ambiance.

The lower level of the temple is of course the first to flood with the rising monsoon waters of the river. Although I have not seen it (during the one monsoon season I spent in India in 1981, I was not yet aware of the concealed inner chambers; they may have in fact not yet been constructed), the engulfing waters and mud deposits mean that every movable item must be removed from the temple. When the waters finally recede, these chambers must then be solidly packed with alluvial clay - requiring a horrendous cleaning-up effort. The same of course applies to the upper temple proper as well.

The deliberate strategy of including as many other deities from the Hindu pantheon as possible within any given shrine is typical throughout India. It becomes a means not only of attracting more worshippers in a polytheistic milieu but also and especially of legitimating the central figure in a house of worship. In Sîtalâ's case, despite the elimination of her original rationale upon which her worship was based, namely, the avoidance of or cure from smallpox, by linking the deity with all the other chief manifestations of Devi, both pan-national (Durgâ, Kâlî, Pârvatî, Annâpûrnâ, Laksmî, Sarasvatî, Sîtâ) and regional or local (Vrindachal Devi, Rarajeshvari), the continuance of the goddess's own cult is assured. Likewise, the strong emphasis on Shaivite iconography within her Dasashvamedh temple (the Dasashvamedeshvar lingam, Ganeshwar, Shiva-Shankarî, the Holy Family) keeps this temple firmly connected to the Shiva bias of the city as a whole. The inclusion of the prominent shrine to Rama, his brother and wife as well as another to Hanuman touches on the popularity of the Ramayana and the ubiquitousness of its cult throughout northern India. The expansion of venerational proliferation in a Hindu temple may be organic and stretch over long periods of time, but it is no less a deliberate strategy by which to continue and increase devotional attendance. This process is fully observable in Sîtalâ's Dasashvamedh mandir.

Another development which augments the continued viability of Sîtalâ's Dasashvamedh cult is situational. Following a Hindu wedding ceremony, it is customary on the first day of the marriage for the bridal couple to honour the Ganges river. In Banaras, since this rite frequently if not invariably takes place at the Dasashvamedh Ghât, the custom has also developed in which the newly married husband and wife come next to Sîtalâ's temple for a concluding blessing. During the Hindu marriage season, encountering such couples before the goddess's shrine becomes a common occurrence.

Nevertheless, Sîtalâ remains a popular figure to whom prayer and petition are made for healings and disease curing of all kinds. Despite the cessation of smallpox itself, there are countless other illnesses which the goddess is beseeched on a regular basis to remove from the sufferer. During the kite-flying season in Banaras, almost on a daily basis young boys fall to their death from the rooftops. Those who do not die will at least incur broken bones, and I have seen families with their injured sons in the temple performing elaborate and expensive rites for their child's recovery.

Any Hindu with the proper funding can commission a ceremony of thanksgiving or one for special intervention in a temple. Because of its central situation and commensurate size, the Sîtalâ mandir is also able to generate income in this manner. Its location makes it a popular gathering point. Musical performances sometimes occur here, and I have seen various bands of transvestites who roam throughout the subcontinent come to Sîtalâ's temple to dance and entertain and often entranced audience. While blood sacrifice is generally eschewed in mainstream Hinduism - exceptions being at the Kâlîghat temple in Calcutta or remote Matrika shrines in the Kathmandu Valley, Sîtalâ is one of those goddess who welcomes the `cooling' qualities of blood. While I have not seen sacrifice at the temple itself, I have observed kid goats tethered before Vrindachal Devi's shrine for several days proceeding what was obviously to culminate in sacrifice. In all these diverse manners, therefore, the Dasashvamedh cult of Sîtalâ manages, as likewise does the goddess's worship elsewhere, to maintain its viability and attractiveness by catering to the full range of Hindu expression and adapting to changing circumstances. As with most Hindu centres of worship, this is a capitalistic enterprise, and the survivability of the family which depends upon it, as well as surrounding flower merchants, vendours of various religious paraphernalia and a perpetual contingent of beggars, is contingent upon renewable marketing skills which Sîtalâ's temple staff must maintain. Consequently, the major Hindu festivals are celebrated elaborately: the temple is profusely decorated with flowers and lights and a great array of food offerings are spread before the goddess's shrine. These are later dispensed to the worshippers in the form of prasad.

A curious feature of the Dasashvamedh venue, however, relates to the monsoon season and the rise of the river during the summer months. In Sîtalâ's cult, the goddess likes to be cooled by water - especially during the traditional time when the plague of smallpox had been at its worst. For the Banaras cult, the river performs this rite automatically. As the waters rise, access to the temple is eventually only possible by crossing a series of skiffs fastened together as a bridging chain. However, once the temple itself becomes inundated, it is closed for worship which is no longer possible until the waters later recede and the laborious process of clearing the edifice of solid mud is completed. In Banaras, the monsoon season impinges directly upon the fabric of life of its peoples, and the cult and practice of Sîtalâ worship is no exception to the overall disruption that comes at this time.

In the years of frequenting the Dasashvamedh temple of Sîtalâ, I have on occasion come across the priests in the act of cleaning and redressing the goddess's idol. Sometimes this occurs in the evening before the main arti or fire-worshiping ceremony in which the temple bells are rung while oil and/or camphour lamps are waved before the goddess's image as well as before the other murtis belonging to the temple complex. More generally, the goddess's idol is redressed during the noon hour.

When I have chanced to see the re-clothing of the goddess, I have been surprised to realise that the `face' of the deity that one encounters during usual worship is simply a silver mask that I have occasionally seen unceremoniously cast to the side during the cleaning process. Beneath the elaborate silk cloth on which Sîtalâ's mask is attached is an ancient, roughly hewn, black - perhaps obsidian - rectangular stone. Although it is difficult to discern, the stone carvings appear to include three sections: the goddess herself in the centre - perhaps astride her donkey - with two flanking figures to each side.

It is likely that most Devi shrines in India are centred on a sacred stone as the locus for their respective cult numinosity. Normally, the doors to the inner sanctum are shut during the re-dressing ceremony - such as occurs in Calcutta's Kâlîghat temple. Otherwise, a curtain is drawn to screen the goddess from public view. The structure of Sîtalâ's Dasashvamedh temple, however, does not easily allow either possibility, and so the cleaning and redressing rites are done more openly as well as casually. Since the Pandey family has been most amenable to allowing me to take photographs within their temple, I asked if it were possible to get one of the goddess's stone itself. To my surprise, they said yes and told me the best time to come for this. They even offered to take the photo for me from directly before the sacred rock. At the last moment, reflexively, the Pandey photographer son placed a large yellow malla over the stone. A few days later, after further reflection, I was asked to keep the photograph only for myself and not let anyone else see it. They had realised that it would not be proper for non-devotees to see the goddess `naked' as they put it. Although my wish had been to convey to Westerners the dynamic of resident numinosity within Hindu and pagan veneration which is often masked through layering façades and intricate metaphors, I have felt obliged to honour the Pandey request and not show the photograph which they had so graciously taken for me.


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In the nearly two decades that I have been participating as a sociologist in Sîtalâ's Dasashvamedh cult, I have been afforded a unique opportunity to understand veneration as a living, indigenous reality. Vernacular Hinduism differs from re-constructed and re-claimed Western religiosities through its unbroken continuity of authenticity. I have learned to feel that the re-aspiring Westerner in his or her quest to penetrate forgotten forms of worship can greatly benefit by accessing the regional practices of adoration found in the East and among the other native peoples throughout the world who have managed to resist a total abandonment to the mind-set of secularisation. In the current shift from modern reductionistic to postmodern pluralistic thought, the marginalised `voice' of the geographic and tangible sacred might begin once again to be `heard' as a player within the forum of central human concerns. My experiences with the smallpox goddess of fever have helped me toward a fuller understanding not only of the mystery of deity but also of the impact and interaction between a viable recognition of deity and humanity.

Sîtalâ is an unmitigated goddess. In her usual iconographic depiction, the goddess's exaggerated smile is the distorted smile of delirium itself. One prays to Sîtalâ to keep the calamitous seizure at bay but likewise, if the goddess deigns otherwise, to let her possession be then an informative learning and enrapturing experience of divine frenzy. In her ambivalence, Sîtalâ promises or embodies both safety and excess, normalcy and danger. Like any true deity, she is beyond our capacity for full comprehension. She remains inscrutable, and as such, she is both feared and revered. Her very ambivalence becomes her power - here, the power of raw, naked uncertainty. This is indeed a far cry from our Western citadels of New Age security or early Wordsworthian and English domesticated nature. Sîtalâ's smile masks an abyss of sheer terror as well as the pinnacles of ecstatic delight. But as this ambivalent and multi-layered being, she offers a full range of possibility or choice to those who countenance her: the middle course of daily sociability and/or the reckless, soaring dreams of unbridled human imagination.

Embedded within Euro-linguistic culture, however, is a fundamental but collectively forgotten double ambivalency: the ambivalence between `good' and `bad' and the ambivalence between reality and oblivion. Sîtalâ may be a goddess `on the edge', but she is divine inasmuch as she embodies the positive and the negative of creation, the polar components of reality. Our Indo-European and even Levantine mythic heritage, however, also comprehends a dynamic between positive-negative creation and absolute nothingness. In the mythological register, the requirements of metaphor dictate that the empty cosmic abyss can only be represented through the images and symbols taken from creation itself, whether positive or negative. It is for this reason that not all goddess personifications can be `reducible' to some archetype of `The Goddess'. My own investigations have uncovered that some goddesses essentially represent the anti-mother, the personification of absolute chaos or emptiness which seeks the full annihilation of all creation, both the positive and the negative, the feminine and masculine, the luminous and the dark, the spiritual and the physical.[2] Such anti-goddess prototypes are to be found in the figures of the Vedic Aditi, the Anatolian Magna Mater, the Akkadian Ishtar or the Canaanite Asherah among others. The point is that symbols carry hidden, latent baggage, and without an understanding of the invisible implications retained by a metaphor, its use as a worshipped or thought-shaping device may have unforeseen and unwanted consequences for the unwary.

Sîtalâ, as originally a pre-Aryan deity of the Bhîls, descends from a different mythological register - as do such other ambivalent Hindu goddesses like Kâlî or Châmundâ. Even Shiva himself retains pre-Indo-European elements despite his primary development from the Vedic gods of Indra, Rudra and Agni. But inasmuch as Sîtalâ and other indigenous figures have been adopted by Hindu peoples, they may be interpreted - or used - as divinely ambivalent deities rather than oppositional/subversive anti-gods. Sîtalâ's immense power - and hence the durability of her cult - may in fact be a result from the goddess's close proximity to both ambivalences: the positive-negative ambivalence and the pleorama-nihilation ambivalence. But like the earth-mother Gaia herself who comes next after Chaos first came into being, Sîtalâ in practice and cult would appear to represent the terra mater who is both gateway and barricade between us and utter oblivion. She allows what we may wish, but she also protects us from the potentially inundative terrors of ultimate and abysmal incomprehensibility.

During the Winchester Ambivalent Goddesses colloquium, one question which was repeated raised was that of the Goddess as role-model. In particular, the Virgin Mary was seen as incommensurate with contemporary feminist agendas of empowerment and rectifying change. As a female prototype who is a passive vehicle, the Virgin Mary's chief claim to fame is seen to be that of the bereaved mother. In contemporary goddess spirituality, the Goddess is often spoken of more broadly and encompassingly as virgin maiden, mother and crone. The crone is generally understood as the terrifying aspect of the Goddess, she who takes us into death, she who has the power to disempower. Since for me, however, the colloquium followed by one day an event in which a friend's daughter and granddaughter were killed in a freak auto accident (the maiden and mother), while during the colloquium itself I learned of the death of two additional people, both dear friends - a fragile lady in her eighties in the Provence and a vibrantly young lady in her seventies in the San Francisco Bay Area, I became aware that the Goddess and her crone aspect in particular are also representations of the vulnerability and ephemerality of human life.

Consequently, I deeply question the use of deity prototypes necessarily as human role models - at least as their primary function. Instead, and as Sîtalâ makes abundantly clear, gods and goddesses represent or even constitute numinous configurations which we can use or not as we so choose. Sîtalâ and other deities serve as portals to the holy. Different figures speak to us differently and selectively. Not all of us can see or approach a figure in the same way. Moreover, and depending on our circumstances and situation, we must be selective concerning toward which figure or figures we devote our attention. If it is a role model we seek, we have instead the full historical register to provide a diversified range of heroines and heroes to fulfill this function. But when we wish to access the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of devotional perception, we have the religious and mythological registers from which to make our choices. An highly ambivalent goddess such as Sîtalâ, still worshipped despite the eradication of the smallpox fever with which she was originally associated, is one such viably numinous focus who remains alive and well in northern India. A goddess of fear and reverence, she also exemplifies the third ingredient, that of wonder, which together with dread and respect constitutes what is at the heart of the religious experience, namely, the feeling of awe. In my understanding, ambivalence is not to be sought as a model for behaviour, but it can be used as a kind of power tap possibly for reified results but at least definitely as a metaphor for the experiential dimension leading to perceptual change.




[1] These Mâtâ names are approximations of designations the Pandey priests have given me. They all appear to be aspects of, or related to the cult of, Durgâ: Achanak has a separate shrine; the remaining three are grouped together in a recessed shrine of their own. Sankatâ duplicates the popular Sankatâ whose temple is near the Manikarnika Ghât; Santoshî means `satisfied, contented'; and Bundî from `arrow' refers to `she who pierces' or `she who reaches her aim unfailingly'.

[2] Vide my The Divine versus the Asurian: An Interpretation of Indo-European Cult and Myth, (Bethesda, Maryland: International Scholars Publications, 1996).