Sheetaladevi: The Smallpox Goddess (recto); Durga (verso)

Cleveland Museum of Art

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The image on the left depicts Sheetaladevi, also called Sheetala Ma or Sitala Ma. She is one of many popular mother goddesses in folk Hindu practice. Some see her as an aspect of Hariti, a Hindu and Buddhist mother goddess. Notably, in this representation, she has four arms, rather than the two that Hariti usually has. She is not carrying a baby, as Hariti usually does. The goddess sits in lalitasana, a common seated posture for Hindu deities. Her vahana, or vehicle, is a donkey, considered an inauspicious animal in South Asia. Sitala Maa normally carries a broom to either infect or sweep away illness, and a jug of water to wash away illness and nourish the sick. Her name literally means “the one who cools,” and she is associated with the cool relief of a breaking fever. According to Ayurvedic medicine, patients who have smallpox and other ailments should eat energetically cooling foods. This painting is an example of the Kalighat school, a popular 19th century school of art that emerged from the Kalighat temple in Calcutta.

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