Sitala, Babalú’s Cousin in South Asia

I was recently in India for my job, and it turns out that there is a goddess in South Asia who resembles Babalú-Ayé and his mother Nanú in many details. Her name is Sitala, and a bit of quick research points to remarkable parallels.

Sitala means “Cool One” in Sanskrit, and she is imagined as the antidote to the burning fevers associated with smallpox and the dry season, when she is worshipped most commonly, again just like Babalú. In fact, in some stories and in some places, she must only be offered cool foods, just as only cool foods are given to the ancestors in oricha religion. 

She, too, has many names. She is called Shitala, Shitala-Ma (Mother), or Shitala-Devi (goddess).  Just as Babalú-Ayé means “Father, Lord of the World” and thought to rule the Earth, Sitala is sometimes called Jagrani, meaning “Queen of the Earth.” She may also be referred to as the Queen of Disease (Roga Raja), Lord of Pestilence (Vyadhi Pati), or Mother of Poxes (Basenta Raya). (These last titles come from Proggya Ghatak’s 2013 article “The Sitala Saga.”)

Just as Babá has different roads or avatars that reflect different illnesses and epidemics, Sitala is joined by a small pantheon of other disease deities: Jvarasura, the fever demon; Oladevi, the cholera goddess,; Ghentu-debata, the god of skin diseases; and Raktabati, the goddess of blood infections and the sixty-four epidemics.

Sitala’s iconography also resembles Babalú’s in many important ways. Both carry brooms to sweep away illness or spread it, as necessary. Sitala carries a vessel filled with beans, which her followers understand to be symbols of the germs she can spread, just as Babalú receives offerings of beans, which are called by the same name in Cuban Spanish as sores. She also carries herbs famed for healing skin diseases, in the same way that Babalú is strongly associated with the healing power of the herb cundeamor that is used to fight an array of diseases. Sitala wears a red sari, just as Babalú is associated with red, the quintessential color that denotes heat.

Even more incredible is the similarity in their mythologies. Like Babalú, Sitala is mistreated by the other gods and infects them. Sitala sets off the kingdom of Indra but presents herself as a crone. She is greeted with disrespect by the other deities, and so she orders the Fever Demon to possess the bodies of the gods. After the fever come the pox that cover their bodies. Shiva then reveals that their illness is caused by the “wrath of Sitala.” So they understand her in a new way and worship her. (This narrative comes from page 70 of Fruits of Worship: Practical Religion in Bengal
 By Ralph W. Nicholas.) See the similar story of Babalú here.  

There are other stories where she spreads her illnesses through her beans and then demands that people honor her far and wide. Similarly in some places, she is seen as a giver of good fortune, just as Babalú sometimes bestows wealth on his devotees.

These many parallels are remarkable precisely because they are so extensive, and they do raise questions that I find hard to answer: Did these similar divine expressions emerge independently from some shared layer deep in the human psyche? Was there some shared point of origin for these traditions in the distant past? Or is there some way that people in different cultures experience the arbitrary cruelty and burning pain of smallpox and similar epidemics that leads them to express these experiences through similar stories and images? While I cannot answer these questions, I can attest to the power of these images to express and contain one aspect of our shared human experience: No matter how grand our resumes, how big our families, or how generous our paychecks, we all carry some inescapable and painful place within us. This lived experience certainly transcends culture, time, and place, and reflecting on Babalú's stories can help us draw closer to it. 

Special thanks to Lina Vincent Sunish for introducing me to Sitala-Ma and for sharing this watercolor from the Wellcome Library.


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