The advent of Covid-19 and the novel coronavirus has revived recollections of previous epidemics, with the abiding historical memories of how they spread among the populace, causing many deaths and bringing lives to a standstill. Just as governments are struggling to contain the pandemic today, so did administrators from an earlier era, sometimes with dreadful consequences.

A few months ago, I was researching the Chapekar brothers of Pune, who shot dead Walter Rand in 1897, a British official responsible for controlling the spread of plague in Pune. The brothers were convinced he had mismanaged the containment by defiling orthodox homes and insulting women. In this context, I came across a beautifully shot 1979 Marathi film called 22 June 1897, co-written by Shankar Nag and directed by Jayoo and Nachiket Patwardhan.

What intrigued me was when a town-crier in the film announces the imposition of the Epidemic Diseases Act on Pune. The announcement, in Marathi: “In the great city of Pune, the plague epidemic is raging and the Epidemic Diseases Act will be observed”. The crier speaks in Marathi, but he uses the English name – “plague cha roga”’ – for the disease in question, which surprised me.

This threw up other semiotic queries – did the disease have local names? A Google search confirmed that “plague” was indeed the Marathi word, though it did throw up other options too (चट्ठा, घातक साथीचा रोग, चट्ठा पडलेली ती वस्तू, पीडित, घातक साथीचा रोग,ग्रंथिज्वर, चट्ठापडलेलीतीवस्तू).

In Bangalore, several ”Plague Amma”’ temples had sprung up during the 1897 epidemic, the same one that had engulfed Pune. Was there a Kannada word for plague? The disease was called pidugu (ಪಿಡುಗು) or kaadu (ಕಾಡು) in Kannada, but the shrines had again chosen the English parlance. One temple had even constructed a marriage hall named after the Plague Amma.

Plague Mariamman temples are also found in Coimbatore, which too has witnessed several epidemics. “Mari” in Tamil means “rain”, and the usage of the prefix perhaps pointed to the hope that the arrival of the rains would quell the spread of the disease, since it struck in the hot months. But as in Marathi and Kannada, though ‘plague’ was the preferred word for the scourge in Tamil, there were Tamil equivalents – vaathaigal (வாதைகள்) and kollai noi (கொள்ளை நோய்).

The connection between the disease and the worship of a female goddess believed to hold the cure is older than the shrines themselves, all of which were built about 100 years ago.

Divine associations

While in the past 150 years it was the plague that afflicted much of the population in the country, in earlier times, it was smallpox that was a more common disease. In attempting to trace the earliest instance of smallpox in India, the anthropologist Ralph Nicholas points to the works of Charaka and Sushruta, and the word “masurika”. Nicholas states that the term comes from “masura”, the popular lentil, owing to the similarity between the eruption of the pustules and the appearance of the pulse.

Agricultural scientist YL Nene has written that the Rig Veda contains a reference to a disease named “shipada”, and that prayers were offered to rivers to keep humans free from this disease. “Simida”, another word, appears in the same verse, which, according to Ralph Griffith, is a female demon and the disease is therefore attributed to her malevolence. The Apte Sanskrit dictionary indicates that “shipa” could mean skin, and it is likely that shipada is a reference to smallpox.

Clearly, the attribution of a disease to divine wrath has historical precedent, and the arrival of an epidemic almost always resulted in prayers being offered to the goddess. It is in this historical practice that the worship of Mariamma is rooted. When the plague made its appearance on Indian soil, the goddess now began to be propitiated for this affliction in addition to small pox.

Worshipping a goddess as a cure was a practice prevalent across India. Beyond the south, the worship of Sitala Devi was widely common. The origin of this goddess remains a mystery, though puranic and tantric texts mention her name and a detailed reference to her is found in Bhava-prakasha, an early 16th century medical text compiled by Bhava Misra, who, in the words of Nicholson, “greatly elaborated the discussion on smallpox”.

In images, the goddess Sitala Devi is often shown riding a donkey, with a broom in one hand and a fan in the other. Images of this sort have been found in Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Bengal, a spread of more than 1,000 miles. There is also a close connection between Sitala and Varanasi (Kashi), where a prominent ghat is named after her. Misra also quotes a hymn to Sitala from the “Kashi Khanda” of the Skanda Purana.

Before Bhava Misra, references to smallpox have also been found in the Ashtangahrudaya Samhita of Vagbatta, a physician writing in the early 7th century CE, who believed it to be a fatal disease. The Nidana of Madhavakara, written a century later, included an extensive chapter on “masurika”, and considered smallpox, chickenpox, and measles together.

The coolest one

This text also contains a 16th-century interpolation on “The Pathology of Sitala”, which identifies Sitala as the cause of the disease. Prior to this, a 12th century commentary by Dandalika on Susruta identifies “sitalika” as being the common term for “masurika”.

“Sitalika” means the “cool one”, being derived as it is from “sheetal”, which means “cool”, and this is understood as having to do with the treatment for the fever that accompanies smallpox, which needs to be brought down through “cooling off”.

In the 16th century, Raghunandan Bhattacharya of Bengal declared that the eighth lunar day of the dark fortnight of Phalguna would be observed as “Sitalashtami”. Given the association of this time period with death and inauspiciousness, it is an indicator of what smallpox meant to medieval societies.

Early modern Bengal also had more than a passing connection with Sitala Devi. The first poem to her in Bangla is dated to 1690, the year in which Kolkata was founded. Between 1750 and 1770, six more compositions appear to have been written, the most popular one being Sitala Mangal by Nityananda Chakravarti. An excerpt:

White-bodied one, mounted on an ass, in your two
hands a broom and a full pot.
To mitigate fever, you asperse, from the full pot,
with the full broom, the water of immortality.

Literature around diseases and epidemics wasn’t restricted to Bengal. Tamil in fact developed a subaltern literature around the plague during the first quarter of the 20th century. Almost all songs used the English word; Plague Sindhu, by Anthony Muthu Pillai, published in 1924, was a compendium of 46 songs that provided details on the plague. There have been several Hindi worksMaila Anchal by Phanishwarnath Renu and Kulli Bhat by Suryakant Tripathi “Nirala” being just two – that have revolved around the “mahamari”, the term for epidemic in Hindi-speaking parts of the country.

Given that we will be living with the coronavirus and Covid-19 for some time now, it might be reasonable to conclude that these words will find their way into the Indian linguistic sphere in their current form, just as “plague” did over 100 years ago.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.