City Faith – Sheetla Mata Mandir, Gurgaon
Goddess of smallpox.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
On Mondays, Sheetla Mata Mandir in Gurgaon, in Greater Delhi Region, attracts the biggest crowd in the week — or at least it used to be so in the BC (before corona) era.
Too often, the so-called Millennium City’s flashy post-2000 amenities take the attention away from its rootedness to history and faith. The aforementioned temple is a combination of both these elements. While the building is modern, its origins and traditions go back much further in time. These days, as the world is shaken by a pandemic whose end is nowhere in sight, the shrine of a goddess said to cure smallpox and other fevered diseases takes a new relevance. In fact, this temple was featured in these pages during the early days of the coronavirus, to help understand the appeal of legends such as that of Sheetla Mata.
But how did Gurgaon become such an important destination for Sheetla Mata pilgrims? Not much is known about that. And yet, long before people from around the country started coming here to shape their working lives, many would already visit to pray for the recovery of their ailing children.
Some crucial information on the origins of the pilgrimage can be found in a government-issued document called the Haryana District Gazetteers, shared to The Delhi Walla by scholar Nisha Rani Jain who lives in Sector 14. According to the Gazetteer’s most recent 1983 edition, the story goes back to the ancient age of Mahabharata.
Kirpai — who would later be known as Mata Masani, and then Sheetla Mata — was the wife of Dronacharya, the Guru, or sage, after whom Gurgaon gets its name. She used to live in a village called Keshopur, in the modern-day Delhi region, and was known to care for diseased children. The Guru lived in what is now Gurgaon and would daily visit his wife in Keshopur. Once, he found himself unable to visit for several days and Kirpai, unable to bear the separation, burnt herself to death. A temple was built in her honor in Keshopur.
Three centuries ago, says the Gazetteer, the goddess appeared in the dreams of Chaudhry Singh Ram, “a fief holder of village Gurgaon.” Expressing a wish to move to his village, she asked him to build a shrine for her in the north of Gurgaon. He promptly carried out her wish.
The belief in the goddess’s healing powers were further intensified during the late Mughal era, when Begum Samru’s child was said to be cured of smallpox after being “consecrated in the prescribed manner before the Goddess Masani.”
And so, over the years, Gurgaon became home to the deity. The temple was rebuilt since. On Saturday, the first day of Navratri, the shrine drew 5.000 devotees. It pulls the most crowd during Chaitra, the first month of the Hindu calendar. It is set to fall in late March, in time to mark the first anniversary of the coronavirus-triggered lockdown.
The legend of healing