Parnashavari or Parnashabari is a goddess who is believed to cure illness, especially contagious diseases and epidemics. She is also associated with the forest, specifically healing herbs, as well as hunting and foraging. Originally associated with the Shavari or Sabara indigenous community of central and east India, her name is derived from the Sanskrit parna, meaning ‘leaf’, and sabari, which refers to a Sabara woman. Believed to be first worshipped as a folk deity, she was eventually absorbed into the Buddhist pantheon as a minor goddess, both by the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions.
Parnashavari is typically depicted with yellow or green skin, and wearing a leaf-skirt, which takes the form of semi-precious and precious stones in metal sculptures. In her yellow form, — an emanation of Akshobhya — she has three faces, three eyes, fangs and six arms, holding a vajra, a hatchet and a noose, along with a cluster of leaves and flowers. Some depictions show her with a bow and arrow. The principal left hand is sometimes depicted in the tarjani mudra, the hand clenched with the forefinger extended outwards in a threatening gesture. Her green form is considered an emanation of Amoghasiddhi. She is sometimes depicted in the pratyalidha posture, trampling a figure — a personification of disease — under her foot. In some texts, this figure is also considered her vahana or mount.
The earliest mentions of the goddess appear in Buddhist texts including the fifth–eleventh century Sadhanamala texts, the Hevajra Tantra, the Candamaharosana Tantra, amongst others. Visual depictions of the goddess appear on tenth and eleventh century Pala period stone sculptures and bronze statues found in eastern India, including present-day regions of West Bengal, Odisha and Bihar, as well as in parts of Bangladesh. With the decline of Buddhism in this region during the twelfth century, worship of the goddess became less prominent and was replaced by that of Shitala, a contemporary indigenous Hindu goddess associated with contagious diseases and with similar powers of health and healing.
Although sometimes considered a semi-peaceful deity, in certain texts Parnashavari is also referred to as wrathful towards diseases. The latter depiction of Parnashavari became popular in depictions of the goddess in paintings and sculpture emerging in Nepal and Tibet from the twelfth century onwards. Parnashavari continues to be worshipped in parts of the Himalayan region, where she is invoked to eradicate epidemics and diseases.
“Buddhist Deity: Parnashavari.” Himalayan Art Resources. Accessed 20 January 2023. https://www.himalayanart.org/search/set.cfm?setID=516.
“Forest Goddess Parnashavari.” Rubin Museum. Accessed 20 January 2023. https://collection.rubinmuseum.org/objects/2013/forest-goddess-parnashavari.
Gautami Raju, “The portrayal of the Buddhist healing goddess Parnasabari.” Critical Collective. Accessed 20 January 2023. https://criticalcollective.in/pdf/The_portrayal_of_the_Buddhist_healing_goddess_Parnasabari.pdf.
Miranda Shaw, “Buddhist Goddesses of India.” Princeton, Oxford; Princeton University Press (2006), pp. 188-196.