Sitala and Smallpox

Until the last fifty years smallpox epidemics that swept through North India, were considered to be a manifestation of the goddess Sitala. Sitala ("cool one") manifests her lila (story) or khel (play or sport) in the individual human, and the disease must therefore be honored as a form of possession by the goddess. When the disease struck, the patient/recipient and the goddess were placated with cooling foods -- cold rice, plantains, yoghurt -- and with offerings of flowers and and coconuts and annointed with cooling neem tree leaves.
During the festival of Sitala in Salkia, a suburb of Calcutta, activites and foods which promote heat are banned, and images of Sitala are carried to the Hooghly river to cool her with its waters.
The practice of variolation, introduced before vaccination was perfected, involved the injection of a small amount of smallpox-infected matter into the body of the patient so that the immune system might be exposed to the disease in a controlled fashion. Unlike vaccination, which was considered a direct strike against the will of the goddess, variolation was conisdered to be a method of invoking the goddesses protection instead of violating her claim on the patient's body.

The last case of naturally-acquired smallpox was reported in Somalia in 1977, and the disease was pronounced officially extinct in 1980.

An exhibit commemorrating
the destruction of the disease
was opened in 1997 by the
World Health Organization.
Among other artifacts, the
exhibit contains a statue of Sitala.