Mother (Goddess). Pox. Puffed rice (puri). Neem. Intentional infection. A little gender bending. Coconut water. Buttermilk. Chilled rice. How are these connected with latitude?

Around March/April each year, my mother would tell me to buy: a coconut, two seers (“sare”u in Kannada; approximately a litre in volume, I guess) of puri (the “u” is short, unlike in that deep-fried item!) also called bhel, a few bananas, betel leaves, areca nut, and some flowers. She would instruct me to take these to the nearby devi (Goddess) temple, offer them, have a puja performed by paying the requisite fee, and bring back the prasadam. This prasadam (puri, coconut, bananas) was distributed to everyone at home. We all partook of it with due humility.

The belief system was like this: the hot, arid summer season – in April/May, due to our latitude – was the season when poxes would generally occur. Measles, chickenpox, smallpox and so on. The poxes were considered to be a manifestation of devi in the body of the person. Notice I don’t say “infected person” or “patient”.

The occurrence of a pox in a person was not considered an infection or disease. Instead, it was a rough equivalent of “amma has come.” This construction of the phenomenon led to a very interesting cultural landscape. Let me tell you from personal experience.

When I was in class 5, I developed measles. It was during May of that year. School was closed for holidays. Itchy red spots. Immediately – and accurately – diagnosed as measles by my parents who calmly took the necessary steps in keeping with the traditional cultural patterns.

The puja was offered at the devi temple (someone else went and took care of this). On either side of the lintel of the front door, two rather thick bunches of neem twigs with lots of leaves were prominently stuck. One look at a house’s front door and you could tell that “amma had come on” someone in that household. This, in turn, set in motion other processes.

The “patient” was quarantined. In those days, it was common for menstruating women to be isolated from the rest of the family for the duration, each month. Certain rules applied – no sharing of utensils or other objects, no physical contact with anyone, rest (no hard work of any kind), and so on. The “patient” was treated as if he/she was in menstruation – the Goddess was in that person and was treated this way. Yes, the actual sex of the “patient” was immaterial to this process.

So, I was kept away from contact with anyone and anything that others used. No bathing for the duration of the measles. There was one exception to this quarantine. Little children were allowed to touch me, sit in my lap awhile, and so on. This was not only allowed, it was encouraged. This helped the child get measles at an early age and, thus, build immunity to the pox.

People who came to visit did so as if they were visiting devi in the temple. They brought offerings. Yes, you guessed it … bananas, puri, coconut (tender coconut, in this case; called eleneeru in Kannada). All considered “cooling” and “pacifying” to the devi who now manifested in my body.

The visitors were not just people we knew. Even random strangers would walk in (most of them with their little children) – always observing the rules of engagement such as washing their feet before entering my room, bringing cooling offerings, etc.

My main food was cool rice with buttermilk, puri, and eleneeru. Very little salt and spices. No medicines (antibiotics and the like) were given.

This went on for three or five days (I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was five). During this time, I did not bathe. I was given a lot of fresh neem leaves to gently caress my body wherever it itched. I was taught not to scratch, as that would cause more irritation to the skin. How patiently my parents taught me that! I followed it quite diligently, I remember. The neem leaves have anti-septic properties and are very soothing to irritated skin. They also help moisturize the skin by coating it with the oil they contain. The moment the nearby mango-grove owners came to know that there was amma in this household, they generously gave fresh neem leaves daily. It was their contribution to the process.

Everyone entering the room must have washed their feet first before entering. No footwear allowed. Only children were allowed to touch me.

On the fifth day, I had a ritualised oil bath. Very rapidly thereafter, in a few days, the itching was all gone, and life got back to normal – the usual running around in the hot sunshine with my playmates.

Notice how the home space and my personal space got modified for a time. That is what quarantine does – it imposes temporary restrictive boundaries, reducing the personal space of the living entity in question (these could be animals or plants; humans are animals, remember?). The rules of contact are the rules that govern how these temporary boundaries are treated and crossed (if at all). Much of this achieved by simply placing neem leaf bunches on the door-frame outside. A green, non-painted “POX HERE – HOUSE UNDER QUARANTINE” sign! As long as those neem leaves stayed there, the rules of quarantine applied. (Around ugadi time, often there may be neem leaves similarly displayed on door-frames; this conveys a different meaning altogether – we will talk about that another time.)

Notice also how the geography gets arranged to the benefit of the local population. The neem leaves become important symbols in the process. They not only help ease the discomfort of the person, they also signal the presence of amma in that particular household. For the duration of the pox, strangers were allowed into the house, no questions asked, so long as they adhered to the quarantine rules. They did. These quarantine rules were not written down anywhere, but were passed on orally from generation to generation. Everyone seemed to know just what the rules were. Also, the rules were put in the language of ritual – amma, puja, sacred articles, offerings, etc.

The dietary items – including the offerings – are very closely tied to the season and the environment.

All in all, a traditional medical geographic practice.

Things you can do:

  1. Ask elders in your family about how they dealt the appearance of pox when they were younger. If you can talk to more than one generation (e.g.: grandparents, parents), you are more likely to get an idea of how the rules and practices changed from one generation to the next.
  2. Enquire why these changes occurred. Was it due to changes in family structure? Changes in geography (location)? There could be a variety of reasons. Finding this out will also help you understand how your previous generations looked at this phenomenon.
  3. Would my story be common everywhere in India? Why or why not? If it were to be different, what would be different and why? This will require you to understand the geography connections. This will be even more interesting if you have friends who are from different parts of India and you can ask their elders.
  4. Speculate on why pox is associated with the Goddess and not with a male deity. Ask! I don’t know, either. I plan to ask around.
  5. Talk to a few doctors (preferably in different systems of medicine such as allopathy, homoeopathy, ayurveda, naati, unani, etc.) and find out about how their systems would approach pox.

Share your findings with us:

A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald, Student Edition, on 26 February 2015.




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