Walking down a dirt blown road in the desert village of Chaksu, a small farming town about 35 km south of Jaipur, I easily miss the path to the top of a lonely hill where the goddess Sheetla, also known as Shitala, sits. It is the tattooed camels, humped over beside the gated entry that grab my attention and make me realize the temple’s entrance. The black and white marble stairs snake up the middle of the hill and I begin to climb them. The steps are long and wide, allowing my large 10 shoe sized feet to fit comfortably on each step. A brass banister divides the inclining walkway in half, my hand slides along it while I walk up.
Within minutes the tree line vanishes and when there are no more steps to climb I realize I am at the top. I turn my head and spread out below me like a homemade herbal quilt is the India one dreams about before going to sleep. A neatly sewn patchwork of flattened farm land, pruned out fields, and sinking low reservoirs. A river cuts through the central Rajasthani desert, along with single-laned roads that lead to tiny clusters of makeshift houses. The tiger’s eye sun, inching closer to the horizon as dusk quickly approaches, makes the green fields golden and the river to the West shine like wet paint.
At the top of the hill, in the near center of it, stands a small temple. It has a steep, octagonal roof, with four golden suns nailed under its beams facing each of the four directions. The temple is made up of marble arches, but no true walls. Pink and elaborate jali screens hold in the Devi Sheetla as she sits upon her throne, behind broken desert boulders and dried up flower petals. Under the mosaic like ceiling, intricate paintings of the colorful Hindu gods and goddesses catch my eye as I lay my head upon the pink railing to pray. There is a pink offering box to my left side and a man, maybe a priest, who stands within the temple points to it. I shake my head slowly, my black eyelashes flashing downward in guilt; I left my money on the seat of the bus. A prayer is all I can offer, so I close my eyes and pray.
Sheetla is the Hindu goddess who is widely worshipped throughout Northern India and up into Nepal and Pakistan, as the goddess of sores, ghouls, and diseases. She is the “pox-goddess,” if one is sick they turn to Sheetla. In Sanskirt, Sheetla literally means “one who cools” and she is most known for her remedial powers in curing smallpox, measles, and chicken pox. Worshippers often refer to her as ma, or mother, “mata”. Laura Desmond mentions in her lecture titled “Hindu Goddesses” that Sheetla is one of the goddesses who is most popularly worshipped in the small farming or tribal villages of India. Being worshipped by villagers, she has the power to be the “inflictor of disaster and the protector from it.” I understand now how one tiny temple, sitting alone on top of a hill in a desert town, can mean and do so much for the villagers below it. Sick villagers from below will climb the steep steps and ring the brass bell dangling over their bowing heads, calling Sheetla’s attention onto their arrival. They will then ask for her healing powers and abilities, not forgetting a few rupees or a single string of orange marigolds that they will make as an offering back to her. Sheetla must hear and grant plenty of prayers as there is a yearly fair and pilgrimage dedicated to her, known as the Sheetla Mata. In the Hindu month of Chaitra, from mid-March to April, as many as two to three thousand people crowd on top of this tiny hill to pray for their body’s own rejuvenation and good health from the goddess. A cattle fair and temporary market is set up in the concrete buildings that shoulder the temple below, that when not in use the poor are grateful for as they set up their tattered tents and shanty like homes around the beams.
Written across the white pillared beams of the temple is a repeated phrase that I try to make out with the little Hindi I know. I try to sound out the curvy loops, tracing my hand across each letter, puttering out each syllable of the script. A young Indian man comes up behind me, “slogan, goddess,” he says and points to the phrase. “What does it mean?” I ask. “Mata, Mata,” He says back. If there is one word I know in Hindi it is mother, pronounced in English like you forgot the h, the r, and the harshness of its vowels. Mata. One word every human should know despite their language or religion or landscape. Mata. I like the way it sounds. The way it slips off my tongue like any disease may slip out of the body by uttering a prayer to Sheetla. You just have to say it once and then automatically you want to say it again. Mata Mata. The west wind blows my dupatta off to the side and then grabs my muttering words, the goddess’s mantra, and spreads them into the air like a virus. Mata Mata.
Wind blows the strongest at higher elevations. Prayers need to be blown into the wind, up into the sky, to be heard by the gods. I am not sure if Sheetla heard my prayer that evening. The next day I woke up with a head dripping cold. Then again I should have known better than to pray for rain.
Mallory Garretson is a senior at St. Lawrence University, majoring in English (Creative Writing) and Environmental Studies. In India she is studying Hindu Pilgrimages and the effects of pollution on them, along with river pollution issues. Her focus of study has been Benaras/ Varanasi. She loves to run, hike in the Adirondack, write, listen to records, and take pictures on her disposable camera. Some day She would ideally like to write for National Geographic