India’s ‘celestial epidemiologists’ have been helping people tackle pandemics for centuries

Hindus in India have had a helping hand – several in fact – when it comes to fighting deadly contagions like Covid-19: multi-armed goddesses co-opted to help contain and kill pestilence.

Collectively known as “Amman,” or the Divine Mother, the goddesses of contagion – and it always goddesses, not gods – have been called on for their services before. They have been deployed in many of the deadly pandemics India has experienced from ancient times until the the modern age.

In conducting my fieldwork as a cultural anthropologist who studies religion, I have seen small shrines all over India dedicated to these goddesses of contagion, often in rural, forested areas outside village and town limits.

The goddesses act as “celestial epidemiologists” curing illness. But if angered they can also inflict disease such as poxes, plagues, sores, fevers, tuberculosis and malaria. They are both poison and cure.

Blowing hot and cold

One of the first images of a contagion goddess recorded is of the demon-turned-goddess Hariti, carved and worshipped during the deadly Justinian plague of Rome that came to India via trade routes, killing between 25 to 100 million people globally. In the late 19th century, my hometown of Bangalore suffered an epidemic of bubonic plague, which required the services of a contagion goddess. British…

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