Interestingly India has seen many folk or tribal deities from ancient and medieval eras being worshipped from time to time, especially during the time of epidemics, and other physical and natural calamities. Some of these deities, which retain their primitive aspects, are still venerated by many, and temples dedicated to them are seen spread across the rural parts of India. I have listed some of the better known tribal/folk devis that were once highly venerated in ancient and medieval India; among them some have lost their relevance over the sands of time, while few are still respected and worshipped by their faithful followers.
The story of the king of Magadha, Raja Jarasandha, is well known. The Mahabharata gives details of his stand against Vasudeva-Krsna and the Pandavas , and finally his death in the hands of Bhima.
While the face-off and fight is well known, the focus remains away from the giantess or ogress Jara who had attached the two halves of king Brihadratha’s new born baby, and had given the baby his life back. The story says that king Brihadratha had two wives but no son as heir, despite the various pujas and ritualistic sacrifices made by him. Finally rishi Candakaushika gave Brihadratha a fruit, which the two queens divided equally and each ate one half of the fruit. Soon the two queens gave birth, but one child (a son) came out in two fragments, with each queen producing two equal halves of the child’s body parts. The two halves were thrown away, which came to the notice of Jara, who then took the two halves and joined them, bringing the baby back to life. It is from this Jara that the child was named as Jara-Sandha, which when translated means ‘united by Jara.’
Interestingly, the concept of two mothers for one child is also seen in case of the Egyptian sisters Isis and Nethys who were mothers to Osiris. Ishtar and Belitsheri were also mothers to the Sumerian god Tammuz. Thus, there is a possiblity that the concept of a group motherhood as we seen in case of sapta-matrikas who are associated with Skanda -kartikeya arose from these legends.
While speaking to Brihadratha, Jara describes herself in the Mahabharata as a raksashi who can change forms (kamarupini). She is worshipped both by the royal family and the common people as ‘Grihadevi’ (the devi of households), and she describes herself as being depicted on the house and palace walls as a young woman surrounded by children. As Jara says, blessed are the households that paint her in this form on their house walls, and those that don’t are cursed with poverty and unhappiness (Mahabharata II. 18, 1-6). Raksasi Jara was worshipped in two ways: by painting or sculpting her figure along with her children on the walls of houses; or, by offering incenses, flowers, and foods to her. She was the city goddess of Magadha and a protector of children.
An iconography similar to the one that Jara who had described herself to be painted on house walls, is also seen in the depiction of Hariti , a Yakshini associated with Buddhism. Various Buddhist texts such as Mahavastu, Vinayapitaka, and even the Chinese version of the Sutrapitaka talk of Hariti, which show close iconographic and conceptual connections between the two folk deities. According to the story in Samyuktaratna-sutra of the Chinese Sutrapitaka, the Yakshini Hu-anh-shi (meaning happiness) was said to be patron deity of the kingdom of Magadha. Owing to her wishes from a previous birth the yakshini stole children from the people of Rajgir, which she used for feeding herself and her 500 sons. It is for this reason she was termed by the locals as Hariti (a thief) who asked Buddha to help them. Buddha stole Hariti’s youngest son and hid him, in order to teach Hariti a lesson, and when she came asking for his help, Buddha rebuked her for giving terrible pain to others by eating their children. A contrite Hariti asked Buddha how she would survive if she stopped stealing. Thereafter Buddha ordered all monasteries and houses to paint her figure along with the children on their walls, and offer them food. Hariti took a vow to protect all children, and thereafter survived only on a diet of pomegranates. Hariti was soon seen as the protector of women during childbirth and children. She also received bodhi from Buddha, which gave her powers to cure sick people and also fight against evil powers and black magic.
Hieun tsang in his travel records mentioned a Hariti stupa from ancient Gandhara that had been built by Ashoka (identified as the Sare-makhe-dheri in Peshawar). Her worship had also spread to Korea, China, and Japan. In China, Kwan-yin (the female Avalokitesvara) was integrated with Hariti; while in Japan Kishi-mo-jin (also called as Kariteimo- check reference section for more details on this) was an ogress who later turns into a saint (Koyaso Kwan-non/Kish-mo-jin); and the story is directly derived from Hariti’s tale. According to the Japanese story Kishi-mo-jin or Kariteimo was once an ogress (like Hariti) who kidnapped and murdered the children of others, and fed their flesh to her children. While an ogress, she took help from her 10 demon daughters (the Jūrasetsu-nyo or Jurasetsu Nyoshin) to kidnap and murder the children. To teach her a lesson Shaka Nyorai (the Historical Buddha) hides one of her children, and after failing to trace her child, Kariteimo comes to Shaka, who then makes her understand the pain and suffering that she has caused to many parents. She repents and embraces Buddhism (the Lotus Sutra) along with her daughters, and together they become the protectors of children, and defenders and guardians of their faith (Nichiren sect).
Jara and Hariti were once the figure heads of two popular sects of folk worship, both in India and outside, and the conceptual similarities between the two are well established through different archaeological artifacts and literary accounts. Hariti, who was popular mainly in north and north western parts of India, were often depicted along with her husband Pancika (Kubera) along with the playing children, and some of her reliefs from the medieval era have also been found from Bengal. From Tayapur in Mathura, a murti of Hariti was found where she is depicted with an infant on her lap and four children below her feet, while a group of children are also seen seen playing on the pedestal. Interestingly this murti was worshipped by the villagers as Gandhari, the mother of Kauravas (Bhattacharya, 1970).
Jyestha or Alakshmi
Another interesting deity who was once popularly worshipped in south India is Jyestha devi. Tondaradippodi (Bhaktanghrirenu), one among the Alwar saint (a devout Tamil Vaishnava saint), is heard lamenting in his 8th c. CE verse about how the foolish common people would worship Jyestha devi of low origin, for good health and prosperity, instead of worshipping his lord, Vishnu deva. This lament shows quite clearly that Jyestha devi was once very popular among masses, so much so that even the powerful families, including royal members, succumbed to her influence too. Hence, it is not surprising to find Jyestha devi in early temples and temple walls, even though she is no longer worshipped. The Bodhayana Grhyasutra has an entire chapter on the worship of this devi who rides a chariot pulled by lions with tigers following her, and is variously named as Jyestha, Jyaya, Nirrti, Hastimukha, Kapila-patni, and Vighnaprasada (Shama Sastri, pp. 294-296).
There is an interesting story associated with this devi in a Shiva temple in Tirupparangunram near Madurai. it is believed that a Pandyan queen of 8th c. CE had sculpted a Durga rock shrine where she had got the murti of Jyestha devi carved in half relief (Rao, 1914). However, over time, as Jyestha devi’s worship declined, the central figure of her got draped in a man’s attire, and she was then worshipped as Subhramanyam. The figure on her right with the bovine head (Jyestha devi’s son) was seen as Nandikesvara, while her daughter on her left became Subramanyam’s first wife.
These changes over time stand as evidences of changing cultural and religious practices that keep altering as per sect popularity and need of the day.
Another interesting story is associated with Jyestha devi and a Chola princess who was supposedly born with the head of a jackal. The grieving father prayed to god to change her face, and was asked in a dream to build a temple for Shiva in the Nangapuram village (Trichinopoly district) that would cure his daughter. After the king built the temple, his daughter visited it and lost her jackal face, which then became the face of the figure which we see sitting on Jyestha’s right (Rao, 1914, Plate CXXI).
Jyestha variously known as Mugadi, Kaladi, Thavvai/ Tauvai, Mudevi, kettai, and Ekaveni. It is believed that she was perhaps originally a Mother goddess associated with agricultural fertility and wealth. Her vahana is an ass and her banner emblem is that of a crow (kakadhavajasama-yukta), while her weapon is a broom. In a variation of Suprabhedagama, Jyestha is referred to as the demon Kali’s wife riding a donkey (Khararudha Kaleh patni). In India it is a common practice to hang seven chilies and a lemon from a thread and place it at the main doorway to ward off the baneful influence of Jyestha /Alakshmi.
The description of Jyestha devi as found in various texts (Surprabhedagama, Vishnudharmattora) show the devi as two armed, with sagging lips and a long nose, and pendulous breasts and flabby stomach. Her right hand may be in abhaya mudra or she maybe holding a blue lotus in her right hand while her left hand rests on the seat. Her hair is tied up in knot and she is seen wearing a crown. She is accompanied by her children (kanyaputramvita). Her two armed bejewelled son with the head of a bull sits on her right, holding a rope (left hand) and a danda (right hand). On her left sits her daughter named as Agnimatha. She is young, wears many ornaments and dons a red garment, wears a karanda mukuta, and in her right hand carries a blue lotus.
It was said that when Jyestha or Alakshmi entered a household, she brought with her “jealousy and malice in her trail. Brothers fell out with each other, families and their male lineages (kula) faced ruin and destruction” (Chakrabarty, 2000, p. 227). The devi is associated with poverty and unhappiness, and since fights and arguments follow her wherever she goes, she is also known as Kalahapriya.
Jyestha devi, Kailashnathar temple in Kanchipuram
According to Lingapurana, Jyestha devi had come out of the ocean during the second churning of samudramanthan just after the halaahal poison, and she was married off to muni Duhsaha (alternately rishi Kapila). The muni realised soon after his marriage that his wife wasn’t interested in hearing his songs and prayers in praise of Vishnu and Shiva, and she was also averse to good deeds. On hearing this, Markendeya advised Duhsaha to humour his wife by taking her to places where inauspicious things took place. However, Duhsaha decided to free himself by asking her to take care and sustain herself by oblations from women, until he comes back from Rasatala-loka (netherlands), which he never did. When she approached Vishnu for help, he advised her to visit his exclusive followers for sustenance, thus suggesting Vaishnavites and women should worship her.
There is an interesting puja associated with Alakshmi known as Alakshmi bidey (getting rid of the Alakshmi) during the Dipanwita Lakshmi puja, which takes place on the day of Kali puja. Many Bengalis from West Bengal perform Lakshmi puja on the day of Kali puja, when both the devis are greeted (boron kora) with series of oil lamps. However, it is believed that Alakshmi came out of the ocean before Lakshmi; hence, she is the elder sister of Lakshmi, so must be worshipped first, and then removed (as she symbolises unhappiness) before preparing the seat for Lakshmi. On the day after Bhoot Chaturdashi or Narak chaturdashi, the women of the house wake up much before sunrise and start preparing for the Alakshmi bidey and Lakshmi puja. Two crude symbolic feminine figures are made at that time: one of Alakshmi using cowdung, and one of Lakshmi using alo chaal (a type of rice grain). The figure of Lakshmi would be then kept on a banana stem, and a tulsi leaf and flower are placed along with it, which is then kept aside somewhere inside the house. Once the Lakshmi figure is made and kept aside, the figure of Alakshmi is made with cowdung in the open space under the still dark sky; and decorated with torn clothes, torn hair, and sindoor, and placed on a banana stem. Next a flower and batasha are offered to her, incense sticks and a lamp are lighted to welcome her home. After the boron or welcome, the banana stem holding the Alakshmi is then carried out of the house accompanied with the beating of winnowing fans and discarded under any tree. At the same time all the collected garbage (the entire house is thoroughly scrubbed and cleaned on bhoot chaturdashi night) are burned as a bonfire, symbolising the removal of all that is inauspicious for the household. After disposing off the Alakshmi, the women then head for the nearest pond to take a bath without turning back to look at the discarded figure of Alakshmi. Once bathed and back home, the women light many diyas, light incense sticks, and give dhuna. The house is sprinkled with Ganga jal, conch shells are blown, and the women place the Lakshmi figure in the puja-sthan, while singing songs in praise of the devi. Devi Lakshmi is now ready to take her puja, as the ritual of ‘Aakshmi bidey’ has been completed and the house is now pure. After the completion of this ritual, the women of the house however do not go back to sleep or rest; they start with cleaning the courtyard once again, putting alpona all across the house, and making further puja arrangements required for the Dipanwita Lakshmi pujo.
Jyestha completely disappeared from South Indian temple worship scenario from around 10th c. CE; however the place lost there was regained by her in another form known as Sitala devi, in the eastern and western parts of India. Sitala is also similar to Hariti, in terms of her iconography and other aspects. Sitala rides a donkey, and carries a broom (to spread and also dust-off germs), a pot (holds germs), and a pitcher (cooling waters that help to heal), while crowned with a winnowing-fan. Sometimes, she is also shown as carrying neem leaves (Azadirachta indica) because of their medicinal properties. While Sitala is born of ashes and tends to cool, when faced with irreverence or is angered, she can heat up others, meaning transfer the small pox virus to them. Sitala, thus can be both benevolent and dangerous, and her traits are summed up as:
- Devi of epidemics such as small pox, cholera etc (both the cause and remedy)
- Protector of children (when associated with Sashti and worshipped as Sitala Sashthi on the 6th day after the birth of a child or on the 6th day of many lunar fortnights)
- Bestows good luck to those who worship and revere her
As per the Devi Mahatya, a demon named Jvarasura (giver of fever; jvara means fever in Sanskrit) caused fever and sickness to the children. It was then that devi Katyayani took the form of Sitala to purify the blood of children and destroy the germs. Sitala is often worshipped along with Oladevi (devi of cholera) and is depicted along with Jvarasura, Ghentu-debata (the god of skin diseases), and Raktabati (the devi of blood infections). Sitala devi is till revered in many parts of West Bengal as evident from the number of temples extant across the state.
In Bengal worship of Mothers has been widely prevalent from pre-historic times. While being seen primarily as protector of children, they are also associated with other functions. Dhelai-chandi is worshipped as a protector of children and it is believed that she resides in sacred groves, and rags are tied to such tree branches for safe guarding of the new-born. Vanadurga is also worshipped as protector of children in many parts of Bengal, which are now in Bangladesh.
The ancients (paleolithic, and it intensified during neolithic as agriculture developed) seeing that women knew how to produce children, firmly believed that they also caused the fruits to multiply and crops to flourish. So whatever is planted or sowed by a woman with a child or a pregnant woman will grow much like the child in her womb grows. Thus, Mother Goddesses were symbols of Creation, the producer of life, which is the Female Principle (Sakti in later period concepts). When the hunter-gatherers slowly changed to agricultural communities, the image of the life producing Mother also got extended to the vegetable world (sakambari concept pf the devi which we read in later texts). The Mother Goddess symbolising fertility that helped to increase the progeny (of the hunter-gatherer clans) then got extended to include the Mother Earth (Bhudevi), who symbolized the Earth’s womb, which produced crops (later agricultural communities). It is for this reason, we find that in all ancient civilisations/cultures the earth spirit is feminine, a devi (Bhu-devi as in the Indic religions), and the deities associated with agriculture are also primarily devis. From this concept of fertility associated with women, also gave rise to the concept of the Mother Goddess as the protectors of children. Being a life-giver and a protector, therefore the Mother Goddess cannot forsake her children in youth or old age. She is also the protector during their sicknesses and illnesses, and it is for this reason the devi concept also got associated with various kinds of diseases. Thus, the Mother Goddess or the Feminine Principle or Sakti is a composite deity, who reflected various aspects of human lives, as they progressed culturally. As the concepts further developed, the attributes and functions also matured, and in the process the various attributes of the Mother Goddess got diversified, personalised, and deified into the various devis that we see above.
pdf of Srinivasacharya (editor) can be downloaded from archives.org
pdf of Srinivasacharya and Shama Sastri can be downloaded from VedicGranth.org
Dipesh Chakrabarty, 2000. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
Tracy Pintchman 2005. Guests at God’s Wedding: Celebrating Kartik among the Women of Benares. State university of New York Press, Albany.
Mahabharata (in various languages are available on archive.org)
chapter on “Alakshmi” (pp 618-626) available at
Proggya Ghatak. Sitala
TNG. Rao, (1914). Elements of Hindu Iconography, Vol 1-part II.
Dowson, John (1820–1881). A classical dictionary of Hindu mythology and religion, geography, history, and literature. London: Trübner, 1879.
available at archive.org