Oladevi folk deity and wife of the demon May, is the goddess of cholera. She is also known as Olaichandi, Olabibi and Bibima. In the past, cholera outbreaks were endemic and virulent. Believing that supernatural aid would safeguard them from cholera, rural people used to worship Oladevi.
Oladevi was worshipped by all communities, irrespective of religion or caste. But there were some differences among the communities regarding how she was imaged and worshipped. In the Hindu majority areas, she resembled Laksmi and saraswati, had a deep yellow skin and was clad in a blue sari. She was also adorned with ornaments. She was represented with extended hands, standing at times, at others, seated with a child in her lap. While most Hindu deities have a vahana or mount, Oladevi has none. In the Muslim majority areas she was called Olabibi or Bibimathe term bibi (Muslim gentlewoman) suggesting the Muslim influence. Olabibi resembled a beautiful teenaged girl from a Muslim aristocratic family. Instead of a sari, she wore a loose garment, pajama, cap, an odna or scarf and ornaments. On her feet she wore nagra shoes and sometimes also socks. In one hand she held a staff to remove the difficulties of those who prayed for her help.
Oladevi was worshipped alone or in association with six other deities: Jholabibi, Ajgaibibi, Chandbibi, Bahadabibi, Jhetunebibi and Asanbibi. It is believed by some people that these seven deities are transmogrifications of vedic deities, such as Brahmi, Maheshvari, Vaisnavi, Varahi, Indrani etc. Their collective worship is thought to have been in vogue even in prehistoric times as a terracotta relic found at Mohenjodaro shows the image of seven women standing together.
Oladevi's puja would be performed under a tree among the huts. Among Hindus, her regular worship was on Saturdays or Tuesdays with offerings of vegetarian food. Any one from any community, including women, could conduct this worship. In areas where the Hadi or Dom were predominant, her worship was conducted by them. In Muslim majority areas she was given offerings as Olabibi or Bibima.
There were three forms of worship for Oladevi: Regular puja, vrata puja, and pujas during cholera epidemics. Unlike the regular puja which was held on Saturdays and Tuesdays, a vrata puja could be held on any day, without much ceremony. In the event of a cholera epidemic, the villagers would collectively worship her under the leadership of the village head.
As Oladevi is a non-communal deity, Hindus and Muslims together make offerings to her. They do not refuse to accept offerings even from a low caste priest. These offerings are very ordinary, such as sweets, betel leaves and areca nuts or unboiled rice and cane sugar. There is no particular hymn for this worship although some Hindu priests invoked her by calling, Eso Ma Oladevi, Behul Radhir jhi (Come, Mother Oladevi, daughter of Behul Radhi.) At one time Oladevi used to be worshipped in the rural areas of west bengal and Bangladesh. However, with the growth of modern education and medicine, her importance has greatly diminished. [Paresh Chandra Mandal]