Accepted Paper:

Medical knowledge in a Bengali ritual manual. A note on snuhī in Picchilātantra.  


Fabrizio Ferrari (University of Chester)

Paper short abstract:

Picchilātantra is a short Śākta tantra mostly dealing with yantra and mantra. In a section on Śītalādevī, the worship of snuhī (Euphorbia) is recommended to protect from poxes. The paper discusses the intersection of medical and ritual knowledge in premodern Bengali culture.

Paper long abstract:

The paper discusses premodern medical knowledge in Bengal in relation to pox fevers and the worship of Śītalā. Moving from an analysis of Picchilātantra, a short Śākta ritual tract dated c. late sixteenth century and dealing with magic, I discuss remedies against various forms of tumours, swellings and ulcers. In particular, the therapeutic use of snuhī (various plants of the Euphorbia genus), known as the Indian spurge tree or oleander spurge, will be examined. The plant is attested since the first centuries CE in the materia medica of Carakasaṃhitā and Suśrutasaṃhitā where its latex is used against eruptions and ulcers. The inclusion of snuhī in a relatively late Tantra praising Śītalā (a remover of poxes) and Bengali deities such as Jvarāsur (the fever demon), Raktābatī (goddess of blood infections) and Gheṇṭukarṇa (god of itches and skin diseases), but also the ominous ass (gardabha), a beast of burden traditionally carrying deities and demons associated with fevers and poxes, permits to assess the way in which ritual and scientific texts have exchanged knowledge by means of religious narratives. The location of this episode at the cusp of medieval and modern Bengal is of particular interest as it informs our understanding of later policies for the control of epidemics in colonial Bengal.

Panel P24
Secular knowledge systems in early modern literary cultures