City Faith – Shitala Mata Temple, Gurgaon
The goddess of fevered times.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Many of us are eagerly dreaming of the happy day when corona virus will disappear from the face of earth, and when we — newly vaccinated folks — will again be free to walk along the streets, saunter about the bazaars and visit places of curiosity.
One destination you might find a renewed interest for is the temple of Shitala Mata, in old Gurgaon in the Greater Delhi Region. The temple has been there for several years. For many, it already is a place to regularly offer their prayers. But for many others, especially hurry-hurry commuters, the sacred landmark has never been more than a fleeting sight from the car window. Current times, of course, might give them a new perspective.
The temple is dedicated to Goddess Shitala, whose name means “cool” in Sanskrit, for “she is said to give coolness to people suffering from warm foreheads,” says Anita Chawla, a home-maker who routinely visits the temple—she talked to this reporter on phone. “Shitala Mata is known since time immemorial to protect children from chechak (small pox),” she says. “She also soothes the pain of people suffering from it.”
According to the book Encyclopaedia of Hinduism by Constance Jones and James D. Ryan, the name of the goddess refers to the chill that accompanies the fever of small pox. The all-knowing Wikipedia explains that “when a demon named Jvarasura gave bacterial fever to all the children, goddess Katyayani came in the form of Shitala to purify children’s blood and to destroy the bacteria of fever in blood.”
In less extraordinary circumstances, a fevered person or their loved ones might have stopped by to offer prayers at Shitala Mata’s temple (besides getting the necessary prescription from the doctor of course!)— but such a visit is not possible in these times of 21-day lockdown. Some months ago, however, this reporter had a chance to visit the mandir. Scores of little shops offering pooja offerings of flowers and coconuts were lined up on the dusty pavement outside, along with a smattering of vegetarian dhabas. The leaf-strewn temple ground was permeated with a soothing calmness. There were pigeons, and only a few devotees, among whom a couple of men lounging under a tree. The tunnel-like corridor built some years back to control the crowd of pilgrims was empty.
Inside, in the sanctum sanctorum, stood Sheetla Mata’s idol. Draped in red silk, her sculpted golden-complexioned face looked regal and aloof as if she could see beyond the the current times. The sight was striking.
The festival, Shitala Mata Ashtmi, is celebrated annually in late March. That day no food is traditionally cooked in the kitchen of Sheetla’s devotees, says the aforementioned home-maker. The meals are prepared the night before and the “cold food” is consumed on the day of the Ashtmi. This year, it fell on 16 March.
Indeed, the close encounter that the entire world is experiencing with the coronavirus epidemic helps one to understand the appeal of legends such as that of Shitala Mata. Their pull must had been even more powerful during the centuries that preceded the invention of vaccines. Let’s pay the temple a visit when the nightmare gets over, to better appreciate its place in the faith and in the city.