Prayers to Plague
By Aparna Datta
On Friday mornings, a remote corner of Thyagarajanagar in
south-west Bangalore takes on a special significance. Scores
of women make their offering to the deity at the Raja Rajeshwari
or Plague Amma temple.
One has heard of goddesses for cholera or small-pox and HIV-AIDS
in other parts of India, but this is perhaps the only temple
in the world to be dedicated to the goddess of plague. How
did ‘Pilague-amma’ find a congenial abode in Bangalore?
Legend has it the Mother’s blessings cured thousands
of inhabitants of Blackpalli, what we now know as Shivajinagar,
from the scourge of the plague. That’s why thousands
of devotees throng St Mary’s Basilica in Shivajinagar
during the annual St Mary’s Feast. A hundred years on,
memories of the holocaust have dimmed, but the temple survives
to tell the tale, as much as the church-lore does at St Mary’s.
The Plague in Bangalore was, in a way, transmitted through
the railways. The ‘Karnataka State Gazetteer’
edited by Suryanath Kamath, records that a butler of a railway
officer brought the infection from Hubli and died on August
15, 1898. It became an epidemic that spread to the Palace
area, Balepet, Ulsoor, Lalbagh and was concentrated in Blackpalli
in the Cantonment area. The death toll peaked in November
1898, but sporadic outbreaks continued up to the turn of the
century. It actually resulted in a decline in population in
Bangalore to the tune of 25 per cent – over 30,000 people
left the old city in a year.
Then the government took over. A chief plague office was
appointed to head anti-plague operations. The city was divided
into four wards and prizes were awarded to those who killed
rodents. People were asked to vacate their houses in the city
and live in segregation camps. Dis-infection was undertaken.
Check-posts were created at railway stations and along arterial
roads leading to the city. Passengers coming from infected
places had to be dis-infected when they alighted.
Things got so systematic that telephone lines were laid and
used on a wide scale in the city to coordinate anti-plague
The epidemic, it turned out, provided an impetus to the development
of Bangalore. New amenities, like sanitation and health facilities,
New extensions like Malleswaram and Basavangudi were created.
Hotels were opened to feed the Cantonment officers, whose
families were sent back home. The drainage system improved
and houses that were left deserted after deaths were demolished,
thereby reducing congestion. Regulations were issued for building
new houses with proper facilities for sanitation and ventilation.
The city came to have a health officer from 1898, and in 1900,
the Victoria Hospital was inaugurated by Lord Curzon, the
The misery caused by the deaths, segregation and other measures
made a strong impact, however, and left its mark on the psyche
of the people, turning them anti-government. Yet, the growth
and development of modern Bangalore can actually be traced
back to the defining event of the plague.
Today, the Plague Amma temple has a new lease of life with
the additional appellation of Raja Rajeshwari. Devotees continue
to worship the goddess, and pooja has been offered at the
temple without a break these last hundred years. In its own
way, the temple remains a monument to sanitation and hygiene
with much contemporary relevance.
Going by what’s happening around the city today, who
knows when the goddess may need to be appeased again…
The advent of Naale Baa
In 1898-99, a plague struck Bangalore, and carried off about
3500 people in the old Mysore State. It was a major catastrophe
that changed the face of Bangalore. Maya Jayapal, in her book
Bangalore – The Story of a City, writes that the temple
was set up to propitiate the grama devatha or village deity,
for many believed that it was the wrath of the goddess that
brought about scourges such as the plague. In an attempt to
divert the attention of the goddess, people would write on
the doors of their houses, ‘Plague Amma, naale baa (Plague
Amma, come tomorrow).
© Aparna Datta
Published in Bangalore Times / Times
of India, October 6, 1998