When in doubt and fear, India has never shied away from resorting to faith. Several anthropological and cultural researchers have also rightfully pointed out that religion as an institution is driven by the presence of fear and uncertainty in human civilisations from time immemorial.
As an act of collective coping, Indians, particularly Hindus living in rural regions have developed an affinity to give their faith a physical form by creating ‘fever goddesses’. While nameless epidemics raged through these vulnerable regions, the residents of several villages have come together to build crowd-funded local shrines dedicated to the disease which they believe is the manifestation of their god’s anger.
It was only a rite of passage that in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, villages from the far South in Tamil Nadu all the way up to the north in Uttar Pradesh began building local shrines dedicated to Corona Devi, a goddess birthed by humans to avenge the demonic disease.
The Justinian plague of Rome that reached our shores through trade routes obliterated rural Indian towns that were caught off-guard and ended up killing anywhere between 25 to 100 million people. The mass hysteria caused by the unfathomable amount of pain, grief and fear led the people to create Hariti, India’s first ‘epidemic goddess’.
The demoness turned goddess was initially a product of Buddhist believers who were convinced that it would only take Hariti’s rebirth would protect the people from falling prey to fatal disease.
While a new wave fueled by newer variants of the plague continued to rummage uninformed and over-populated Indian towns, ‘fever goddesses’ began to grow wildly popular as a means of escapism for those who suffered under the chokehold of the contagion.
The Mariamman Cult of Southern India
A fierce and untamed presence in the face of epidemics, Mariamman was South India’s (predominantly Tamil Nadu) wildly popular contribution to the growing cult of contagion goddesses. Mari meaning pox and transformation, this goddess’ presence was one that never dwindled post the eradication of the disease as seen in other epidemics.
Mariamman’s iconography embodies her healing powers. When she isn’t fighting a life-threatening disease for her mortals, Mariamman is viewed to annihilate evil in all forms. From drought-ridden towns to infertility curses and deadly diseases, various avatars of the Mariamman figure began to sprout up in parts of sub-urban Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in the following decades.
Corona Devi and Her Celestial Counterparts
While the country was still trying to make sense of tackling the then emerging first wave of COVID-19 in 2020, preparations were already underway to create a new deity dedicated to the disease. An ethereal looking goddess created out of polystyrene was placed next to Plague Amma in a temple in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu.
Soon in another village in Northern Karnataka named Hulikere, village elders decided it was best to replicate the goddess and placate her with offerings to alleviate the impact of the virus on its people. A temple for Coronamma was soon erected. The goddess was then pampered with timely offerings, songs and chants sung in her praise and for her mercy, taken on a chariot ride across the village and finally left outside the border of the village in a genuine attempt to rid the village of the disease’s presence.
Corona Devi temples became common in multiple states in the North too and the goddesses’ iconography is both topical and is seen dutifully following COVID appropriate behaviour. The masked goddess is seen annihilating the virus with her mighty weapon and the temples following the pandemic-induced restrictions, also curbed the crowding of worshippers.
A Goddess For Every Cure
Whether science and technology manage to make a breakthrough or not, faith has never failed to offer respite, however temporary that may be for uninformed believers. The presence of such epidemic goddesses indicates the unending fears and anxieties of rural citizens who lack the education and resources to cope better with the illnesses and adversities of our times.
However, it is fascinating to know that these ancient practices have not lost their charm in this digital age. Innovators in rural areas have also adopted religion as a means to educate people about illnesses. For instance, a shrine in rural Karnataka was erected after several villagers succumbed to AIDS. Named after the disease, the AIDSamma temple doubles as a resource and educational centre that proliferates awareness while revering the goddess, staying true to the religious sentiments of the locals.
Illnesses are not the only thing that calls for divine intervention, the dystopia developing in Indian cities also involve the rise of a vehicular traffic epidemic. True to its case, Bengaluru, one of the country’s most traffic-congested cities has a temple dedicated to a goddess who seemingly performs the task that the traffic authorities in the city have apparently failed to accomplish.
Traffic Circle Amman temple witnesses a throng of new vehicles that queue up outside to receive the goddess’ blessings before venturing the maelstrom that is Bengaluru traffic.
It is unique to India’s historical tradition to mark periods of tumult with myth, folklore, and even with the creation of celestial characters. While medicine and treatment actually provide a definitive relief from the suffering, it is authentic to India’s cultural identity to root its fear and faith alike in a higher power.
Whether this works or not cannot be proven and you could go back and forth for years trying to change people’s minds either way. The best thing to do is to sit back, witness this for what it is, and wonder. For the goddess indeed works in mysterious ways.
If you enjoyed reading this, we also suggest: