Item Details

The Silent Killer: The Ass as Personification of Illness in North Indian Folklore

Issue: Vol 7 No. 1-3 (2013) Vol. 7, No. 1/No. 2 (Double) 2013

Journal: Religions of South Asia

Subject Areas: Religious Studies Buddhist Studies Islamic Studies

DOI: 10.1558/rosa.v7i1-3.249


Śītalā (‘the Cold One’), a mother goddess worshipped in Northern India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, is traditionally represented as a beautiful young lady riding a donkey. But the ass is a rather marginal character in both oral narratives and devotional/auspicious literature. Unlike the majority of divine mounts in classic and popular Hinduism, the animal has no proper name and is speechless. Vernacular and Sanskrit literatures do not indulge in descriptions, nor do they mention its gender. In brief, the donkey is an annihilated mythological character. In this article I will discuss the ass as a living symbol of illness. My analysis will examine narratives in Sanskrit and vernacular (Hindi, Bhojpuri and Bengali) texts where the ass is associated with goddesses of death, disease and misfortune. By reflecting on several years of fieldwork in India, I will then confute past and present readings of Śītalā as a ‘smallpox goddess’ and will explore the role of the ass as a metonym for illness. So rather than being disease per se, Śītalā is a controlling deity, a performance symbolically rendered through riding the ass. Besides shedding new light on the worship of an extremely popular goddess, this article eventually reflects on the origin of mechanisms of cultural blame and pollution originated at the convergence of the praxis and social behaviour of human and non-human animals (as well as other-than-human persons) in Northern India.

Author: Fabrizio M. Ferrari

View Original Web Page

References :

Anonymous. 2001. ‘Donkey Milk to Be Tried on Humans.’ Times of India. Lucknow, 26 September 2001, from: (accessed 24 October 2011).
Apte, V. S. 1957–1959. Revised and Enlarged Edition of Prin. V. S. Apte’s The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary, 3 vols. Poona: Prasad Prakashan.
Bandhu, Vishva (ed.). 1960–62. Atharva Veda Saṁhitā, 4 vols. Hoshiarpur: Vishveshwar-Anand Vedic Research Institute.
Bang, B. G. 1973. ‘Current Concepts of the Smallpox Goddess Sitala of West Bengal.’ Man in India 53(1): 79–104.
Berriedale Keith, A. (trans.). 1967. Taittirīya Saṃhitā, or the Veda of the Black Yajus School. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Bhattacharyya, N. N. 2000. Indian Demonology: The Inverted Pantheon. Delhi: Manohar.
Bimali, O. N., and K. L. Joshi (trans.). 2005. Vāmana purāṇa. Delhi: Parimal Publications.
Brilliant, L. 2009. ‘Sitala and Cultural Concerns.’ In L. Brilliant, The History of Smallpox Eradication. London: The Wellcome Trust Centre for the History for the History of Medicine at UCL. Podcast retrieved on from: (accessed 10 May 2013).
Bühneman, G. (ed.). 2003. The Hindu Pantheon in Nepalese Line Drawings: Two Manuscripts of the Pratiṣṭhālakṣaṇasārasamuccaya. Varanasi: Indica Books.
Burton, R. F., and F. F. Arbuthnot (trans.). 1885. The Ananga Ranga. London and Varanasi: Kama Shastra Society.
Cakrabartī, N. 1968. Br̥at Śītalā maṅgal bā Śītalār jāgaraṇ pālā. Kalikātā: Tārācānd Dās & Sons.
Caraka Saṁhitā (based on Cakrapāṇi Datta’s Āyurveda Dīpikā), 6 vols. 2011. Edited and translated by R. K. Sharma and B. Dash. Varanasi: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office.
Coburn, T. B. 1991. Encountering the Goddess. A Translation of the Devī-Māhātmiya and a Study of Its Interpretation. Albany: SUNY Press.
Dehejia, V. 1986. Yoginī Cult and Temples: A Tantric Tradition. New Delhi: National Museum.
Dimock, E. C Jr. 1969. ‘Manasā, Goddess of Snakes: The Ṣaṣṭhī Myth.’ In J. M. Kitagawa and C. H. Long (eds), Myth and Symbols: Studies in Honor of Mircea Eliade: 217–26. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Ferrari, F. M. 2010. ‘Old Rituals for New Threats: The Post-Smallpox Career of Sitala, the Cold Mother of Bengal.’ In C. Brosius and U. Hüsken (eds), Ritual Matters: 144–71. London and New York: Routledge.
— Forthcoming. Religion, Devotion and Medicine in North India: The Healing Power of Śītalā. London and New York: Bloomsbury.
Filippi, G. G. 2002. ‘Il movimento della Devī: un’epidemia di possessione collettiva.’ Annali di Ca’ Foscari 41(3): 191–210.
Goldman, R. P., and S. Sutherland Goldman (trans.). 2006. Rāmāyaṇa V: Sundara. New York: New York University Press.
Griffith, R. T. H. (trans.). 1987. Vājasaneyi Saṃhitā, or the Texts of the White Yajurveda. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.
Haksar, A. N. D. (trans.). 2006. Hitopadeśa. New York: Penguin Books.
Hopkins, D. R. 1983. The Greatest Killer: Smallpox in History. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Kinsley, D. 1997. Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahāvidyās. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Leslie, J. 1991. ‘Śrī and Jyeṣṭhā: Ambivalent Role Models for Women.’ In J. Leslie (ed.), Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women: 107–27. London: Pinter Publishers.
Miśra, B. 1958. Bhāvaprakāśah. Translated by Pandit Lalacandraji Vaidya. Delhi: Motilal Banar­sidas.
Mitra, R. (ed.). 1870–1879. Agni-Purāṇa, 3 vols. Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal.
Monier-Williams, M. 1997. Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Mukhopadhyay, S. K. 1994. Cult of Goddess Śītalā in Bengal: An Enquiry into Folk Culture. Calcutta: Firma KLM.
Müller, M. (trans.). 1966 (1890). Ṛg Veda Saṁhitā, 4 vols. Varanasi: Chowkamba Sanskrit Series Office.
Nicholas, R. 2003. Fruits of Worship: Practical Religion in Bengal. New Delhi: Chronicle Books.
OIE: Office International des Epizooties. 2009. Trypanosoma evansi infections (including surra). World Organization for Animal Health, (accessed 9 May 2012).
Olivelle, P. (trans.). 2009a. The Law Code of Manu. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Olivelle, P. (trans.). 2009b. The Pañcatantra: The Book of India’s Folk Wisdom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Parpola, A. 2004–2005. ‘The Nāsatyas, the Chariot and the Proto-Aryan Religion.’ Journal of Indological Studies 16/17: 1–63.
Parpola, A., and J. Janhunen. 2011. ‘On the Asiatic Wild Asses and their Vernacular Names.’ In T. Osada and H. Endo (eds), Linguistics, Archaeology and the Human Past. Occasional Paper 12: 59–124. Kyoto: Indus Project—Research Institute for Humanity and Nature.
Pattanaik, D. 2008. Lakshmi: The Goddess of Wealth and Fortune: An Introduction. Mumbai: Vakils, Feffer & Simons.
Pollock, S. L. (trans.). 2009. Rāmāyaṇa II: Ayodhya. New York: New York University Press.
Sbami Nirmalānanda. (1413BS). Debadebī o tānder bāhan, 7th edition. Kolkātā: Bhārat Sevāśram Saṅgha.
Shastri, J. L. (trans.). 1973. Liṅga Purāṅa, 5 vols Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Shastri, J. L., and G. V. Tagare (trans.). 1976. Bhagavata Purana. 5 vols. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Shulman, D. D. 1989. ‘Outcaste, Guardian, and Trickster: Notes on the Myth of Kāttavarāyan.’ In A. Hiltebeitel (ed.), Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees: Essays on the Guardians of Popular Hinduism: 35–67. Albany: SUNY Press.
Singh, R. P. B., and P. S. Rana. 2006. Banaras Region: A Spiritual and Cultural Guide. Varanasi: Indica Books.
Sonnerat, P. 1782. Voyage aux Indes orientales et à la Chine, (accessed 9 May 2012).
Slouber, M. J. 2005. ‘The Cult of Khaḍgarāvaṇa.’ Unpublished MA dissertation, Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies. Berkeley: University of California.
Smith, B. K. 1994. Classifying the Universe: The Ancient Indian Varṇa System and the Origin of Caste. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stewart, T. K. 1995. ‘Encountering the Smallpox Goddess: The Auspicious Song of Śītalā.’ In D. S. Lopez, Jr (ed.), Religions of India in Practice: 389–97. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Suśruta Saṁhitā, 3 vols. 2003. Translated by Kaviraj Kunjalal Bhishagratna and edited by Laxmidhar Dwivedi. Varanasi: Cowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office.
Taluqdar of Oudh. (trans.). 1980. Matsya Purāṇam. Delhi: Oriental Reprint.
Tiwari, M. N. 1996. ‘Śītalā in Indian Art and Tradition.’ Berliner Indologische Studies 9/10: 451–62.
Vāgbhaṭa’s Aṣṭāñga Hr̥dayam, 3 vols. 2011. Translated by K. R. Shrikantha Murthy. Varanasi: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office.
Visuvalingam, E. 1989. ‘Bhairava’s Royal Brahmanicide: The Problem of the Mahābrāhmaṇa.’ In A. Hiltebeitel (ed.), Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees: Essays on the Guardians of Popular Hinduism: 157–229. Albany: SUNY Press.
White, D. G. 2003. Kiss of the Yogini: ‘Tantric Sex’ in its South Asian Contexts. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Wilson, H. H. (trans.). 2006. The Vishnu Purana: A System of Hindu Mythology and Tradition, 6 vols. Cambridge: Read Country Books.
Zysk, K. G. 1993. Religious Medicine: The History and Evolution of Indian Medicine. London: Transaction.