Friday, May 15, 2009

Sheetala Mata of Yore. Or Jyestha Devi of Zeethyaar.

Pierre Sonnerat (1748-1814), a French naturalist and explorer, between 1769 and 1781 traveled deep into southeast Asia and documented the religious practices, sciences, arts (and birds) of the places he visited.

In 1782 the account of his travels was published in two volumes under the title (french) 'Voyage aux Indes Orientales et a la Chine, fait par ordre du roi, depuis 1774 jusqu'en 1781. Dans lequel on traite des mœurs de la religion, des sciences & des arts des Indiens, des Chinois, des Pégouins & des Madégasses' ( Journey to the East Indies and China, Undertaken at the King's Command, from 1774 until 1781: In Which the Religious Mores, Sciences, and Arts of the Indians, the Chinese, the Pegouins, and the Madegasse are Discussed. )

Volume 1 was completely dedicated to India and Volume 2 covered the far east including China, Burma, Madagascar, the Maldives, Mauritius, Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), Indonesia, and the Philippines.Volume 1 has some wonderful illustrations of Hindu deities (probably based on original bronze works)and Volume 2 had lot of illustrations of 'new' birds.

The book is available for free download at Google Books (Vol 1, Vol 2

A finer and more detailed copy of these  books was recently made available at the The World Digital Library - A UN funded project that let's you browse the various cultures of the entire world, region by region, using many such scholarly old books. [You can check out Pierre Sonnerat's work here]

As I browsed through the book, looking at masterly work of art, quite a few of the images turned out to be too tricky to identity the god depicted.

A post on my other blog details some of these interesting images and includes a slideshow of rest of the images of Hindu Gods from the old book.


The image on left, depicting an ancient goddess that the book captioned as Mou Devi, proved to be the most difficult and certainly the most interesting illustration of the set. It's trail, much to my delight, led me to an ancient goddess temple in Kashmir, simply called Zeethyaar - located somewhere between hills of Shankaracharya and Mughal garden of Chasma Shahi. .

As I looked at the image of Mou Devi, I thought maybe it's the goddess of measles or smallpox. But that's Sheetala.

The french cation 'déesse de la Discorde et de la Misere' translates (thanks to google) as 'goddess of discord and misery'

Has to be Sheetala of North, Harita/Hariti - 'the green one' - the goddess of smallpox from Gandhara art Kushan dynasty, the demon goddess  of 500 children who was reformed by Buddha.

Mou Devi, who is this goddess - the one riding a donkey, and carrying a crow banner, the one not particularly 'beautiful' ?

Pierre Sonnerat, in his book, (again) mentions Moudevi and 'Churing of Sea' and (in this version) how it produced three goddesses - Saraswati (claimed by Brahma), Laxmi (claimed by Vishnu) and Moudevi (unclaimed).

Southey's Common-place book added that Moudevi is often represented green.

 A book called 'Roles and Rituals for Hindu women' by Julia Leslie (1992), that in details mentions a goddess named Jyestha, offered final clues.
 Jyestha is often in Tamil called Kakkaikkodiyal (crow-bannered) the one who ride a donkey (Khararudha). Crow is the bringer of bad luck and femine. And the goddess often carries a broom.

In some parts of India, particularly North(in south as Mariamman?), she is identified as Sitla or Sheetala (Aha!) who also carries a broom and rides a donkey.

(Julia Leslie wrote her book, ''In none of the images at my disposal is Jyestha shown with a 'vehicle' or mount". 1992, internet was in infancy. )

So who is Jyestha ' Elder' - 'Misfortune'?

The story , most of them lead to Sagar Manthan or Churning of the  Sea. Apparently, she was the second thing that came out of the sea, just after poison, and finds herself unwanted as she is inauspicious. According to another story, she is in fact Mohini, the female seductress form of Vishnu who saves the Amrit (elixir) from Asuras (demons).

Religions de l'antiquité, tr. refondu completé et dévelopé par J.D. Guigniaut [and others] by Georg Friedrich Creuzer, published 1825, (french had a lot to say about Moudevi) also talked about 'Moudevi' and gave her alternate name as "Mahadevi and "Bhoudevi", born of churning of sea, second wife of Vishnu.

But, Julia Leslie, in her book, did not link Moudevi with Jyestha. In fact, the name 'Moudevi' is not mentioned. Julia Leslie also mentions Lingapurana according to which Jyestha, the first one born from Sagar Manthan and married off to a hermit who couldn't control her unreligious beliefs that make her, feel at ease among "the false mendicant (bhksubimba), the naked Jain monk (ksapanka), and the Buddhist (bauddha)."

According to some other traditions, Jyestha was taken-in by Eshwara (Shiva).

As I read about Jyestha and Eshwara, I remembered the Zeethyar temple of Srinagar that I visited in the summer of year 2008. The place, picturesque spot surrounded by hills, has a spring dedicated to Zeestha Devi. here also the story of her origin mentions churning of the sea.

The temple, where meat (particularly goat liver) offerings are still the norm, is situated at  the foothills of Zabarwan in the vicinity (a mile) of famous Shankaracharya Hill spot of Shiv temple dedicated to Jyesthesvara. [Connection between two spots discussed in a previous post]


[ Images on the left: 1. An old photograph of Zeethyar showing a pandit standing next to the holy spring. The place now has a small temple in the middle of the spring(image 2), just like the one at Khir Bhawani, but the idol of Zeestha Devi, is certainly of recent date with a modern convention hindu look given to the goddess]


As I tried to look for stories and lores (thursday is her day) linking Smallpox and goddess at Zeethyar temple, the trail instead lead to another Goddess, the one seated at Hari Parbat.

Sir Walter Roper Lawrence (1857-1940), in his book  "The Valley of Kashmir" (1895), documented the curious custom of Kashmiri Pundits regarding Smallpox treatment. He wrote:
It is a sad fact that the occurrence of smallpox has become one of the accepted customs of Kashmir, and the Hindus have regular ceremonies which must be observed when the disease attacks their families. When it appears that a child is sick with the smallpox, the first thing to be done is to sew rupees into his headdress. He is then placed in a separate room, and is surrounded by clay toys of horses, elephants, palankins, fans and sugar-cakes, water-chestnuts and shells. Until the pustules are developed the child is kept on rice and curd, and no salt may be given to the child or used by the mother or wet-nurse. A little fish or a piece of meat is always hung up in the sick room chhai ratan*, but while the smallpox lasts no meat may be eaten and no prayers may be repeated in the house. When the disease abates the rupees are taken out of the headdress, and are spent on rice boiled in milk, which is distributed to relations and friends. The room is cleaned and the toys and a plate full of rice are flung into the river. If the smallpox is very severe, Sitla Mata, the smallpox deity, must be propitiated, and offerings of sheep, goats, horses or donkeys, and eyes of gold or silver are made to her priests on Hari-Parbat. Forty days after the smallpox first makes its appearance chat jihun**, rice boiled in milk is again distributed to relations and neighbours.
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*chhai ratan: Sh'ai Ra'tin (act of picking the sick spot) or is that Jaay'e Ratin (to pick a spot)
**chat jihun: Tchath'ji'hun (one who reached forty) 
Shoe'til (word usually among Pandits) / Sho'e'tij(word usually among Muslims): Smallpox
Shoe'til 'musil - the disfiguring marks left by Smallpox

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I was 12 when I got my bout of Chicken pox - Mata, as it is called universally in North. Sure enough, I was confined to a  corner of a room, an entire corner, a rare luxury as we only had two rooms for the family of seven. Then on the fortieth day, Khir - rice prepared in sweet milk - was prepared and distributed to the neighbors.

After I read about those Smallpox rituals mentioned by Walter Roper Lawrence, I talked around...but everyone instantaneously only recalled the Khir part. The practice of dead fish or meat being hung in the room, now certainly forgotten. Practice of feeding Shooshnaer (windpipe of sheep or goat), liver and heart of sheep to eagles at Hari Parbat is still acceptable, albeit often debated. However, no one associates the practice and the place with Smallpox - a disease whose governing goddess in her time was all power because of the death and destruction that she could bring, a disease so black that people would curse it upon their enemies.

1 comment:

  1. Sheetla Mata sthapna is on the other side of Hariparbat. Again in the form of slab anointed with Sindoor. A hundred feet climb just opposite RAM mandir.
    Shiva Jyeshtesha appart from Shankracharya has a temple in Narannag complex.

    ReplyDelete

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