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A priest performs a prayer ritual in front of an idol known locally as ‘Corona Devi’, believed to safeguard people from the coronavirus, at Kamatchipuri Adhinam Temple in Coimbatore. Photo: AFP

‘She’s an angry goddess’: India’s coronavirus deities, ‘disease-curing’ shrines offer hope to desperate devotees

  • A long entrenched tradition of turning to faith in calamitous times has seen Indians flock to shrines and temples as the pandemic rages on
  • The country’s chronically underfunded health system is part of the reason, though such practices have a long history – and not everyone believes
As India reels from a devastating second wave of Covid-19, some devotees with nowhere else to turn are seeking divine intervention at temples dedicated to “coronavirus goddesses”.

Two “Corona Devi” idols – one crafted from sandalwood and the other from stone – have been consecrated at the Kamatchipuri Adhinam temple in the southern city of Coimbatore, where priests say daily prayers in a bid to alleviate people’s suffering.

Similar shrines for Covid-19 and other illnesses can be found all around the South Asian nation.


India's brutal Covid wave brings tragic scenes to small town hospital as death toll passes 250,000

India's brutal Covid wave brings tragic scenes to small town hospital as death toll passes 250,000

India has reported more than 27 million Covid-19 cases and upwards of 322,000 deaths since the pandemic began, though many observers fear the true toll could be far higher. The latest wave of infection, which began in March, has swamped hospitals and led to acute shortages of oxygen and medicines.

In states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Assam, women congregate near temples or under sacred trees to worship the coronavirus in the form of a goddess called “Corona Maa”.

They sit around in a circle and perform rituals, offering milk, coconuts, flowers and confectionery to the deity. Some chant prayers to appease her.

“We’re worshipping ‘Corona Maa’ so that our family members remain safe from the virus,” said Bimla Kumari, a resident of Patna, the state capital of Bihar. “The goddess will be pacified with worship and offerings only as she’s an angry goddess, not a benign one. Hospitals are overflowing and the government doesn’t care. So she is our only hope.”

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After worshipping “Corona Maa” under a banyan tree with her friends, Kumari said “thankfully all is good within our circle”.

There is a long entrenched tradition in India of turning to faith in calamitous times in an attempt to ease suffering.

Devotees who worship Sheetla Mata – the goddess of smallpox – believe she will protect them from the disease by slaying the demons that supposedly cause it. Believed to be a reincarnation of the fiery Hindu goddess Durga, Sheetla Mata has a 300-year-old temple dedicated to her in Gurgaon, near New Delhi.

A priest sanitises idols of Lord Shiva and Godess Parvati at a temple in Prayagraj, India. Photo: AP

Other shrines believed to cure disease are dedicated to male deities, such as Vaitheeswaran Temple in Tamil Nadu’s Mayiladuthurai town where devotees offer prayers to an incarnation of Lord Shiva known as the “god of healing”.

Mahadeva Temple in Kerala serves a similar purpose for believers who seek blessings to alleviate epilepsy and chronic asthma. In neighbouring Karnataka’s Tumkur district, cancer patients make frequent visits to the Areyuru Vaidhyanatheshwara Temple in the belief that it can heal them even without medical treatment.

Pataleshwar Temple in Muradabad, Uttar Pradesh – currently closed because of the pandemic – is ordinarily a renowned pilgrimage destinations for the sick, where visitors with skin disorders seek Lord Shiva’s divine blessings by sweeping the temple’s floors or bringing brooms as ritualistic offerings.

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Shops near the temple selling brooms routinely do brisk business at the weekends, with the sellers’ wares often returned to be sold again once they have been offered to the deity.

Elsewhere in Uttar Pradesh, a hand pump at Jagnewa Hanuman Temple produces water that many believe has healing powers, after it was said to have been touched by a saint and infused with therapeutic properties. Worshippers collect the water in glass bottles and sprinkle it over patients’ bodies in the belief that it will cure them of their ailments.

“My daughter’s chronic asthma – which remained incurable for years with modern and ayurvedic medicine – disappeared within a month of her partaking of the handpump water,” said Anant Kumar, a local resident.

These temples offer succour to their believers in times of fear, uncertainty and suffering
R. P. Mitra, University of Delhi anthropology professor

Millions of Indians put their faith in such “disease-curing” temples – though there are many others who remain sceptical of the healing claims, believing that such shrines encourage blind faith.

Harsh Bhagnani, a Mumbai-based engineer, said: “Healing temples only have a placebo effect on people fostered by superstitions and traditions. Therapies should be rooted in modern science and medicine, not mumbo-jumbo.”

Others point to India’s chronically underfunded and neglected health care system as the main reason so many people who are sick flock to these holy sites.

A Human Development Report commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme last year ranked India 155th out of 167 countries for hospital bed availability, with just five beds and 8.6 doctors per every 10,000 people.

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Yet for R. P. Mitra, an anthropology professor at the University of Delhi, ingrained cultural practices such as visiting temples and seeking help from the gods are part of “the response template for traditional Asian societies” to deal with disease epidemics.

“These temples offer succour to their believers in times of fear, uncertainty and suffering created by deadly diseases,” he said. “It can be called a supernatural complex.”

Devotees can desire to seek divine favours and still have faith in medical science as the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, Mitra said, adding that in orthodox Asian societies the health of an individual is rarely seen in isolation but rather as part of a wider ecology, religion and the cosmos.

“Be it traditional Chinese medicine or ancient therapies practised across countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal or India, religious beliefs have always been factored into traditional medicine,” he said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Coronavirus gods offer hope to faithful