Omens and Superstitions of Southern India



Animal Superstitions


1. Mammals

There is a belief that the urine of a wild monkey (langūr) called kondamuccha, which it discharges in a thick stream, possesses the power of curing rheumatic pains, if applied to the affected part with a mixture of garlic. Some of the poorer classes in the villages of Kurnool obtain a sale even for stones on which this monkey has urinated, and hill people suffering from chronic fever sometimes drink its blood.1 I am informed by Mr A. Ff. Martin, that he has seen a Muduvar on the Travancore hills much pulled down by fever seize an expiring black monkey (Semnopithecus johni), and suck the blood from its jugular vein. Childless Muduvar couples are dieted to make them fruitful, the principal diet for the man being plenty of black monkey. The flesh of the black monkey (Nīlgiri langūr) is sold in the Nīlgiri bazaars as a cure for whooping-cough. When Savara (hill tribe in Ganjam) children are seriously ill and emaciated, offerings are said by Mr G. V. Ramamurthi Pantulu to be made to monkeys, not in the belief that the illness is caused by them, but because the sick child, in its wasted condition, has the attenuated figure of these animals. The offerings consist of rice and [74]other articles of food, which are placed in baskets suspended from branches of trees in the jungle.

Some years ago, a drinking fountain was erected at the Madras Museum, in which the water issued from the mouth of a lion. It entirely failed in its object, as the Native visitors would not use it, because the animal was represented in the act of vomiting.

I am informed by Mr C. Hayavadana Rao that the Bēpāris, who are traders and carriers between the hills and plains in the Vizagapatam Agency tracts, regard themselves as immune from the attacks of tigers, if they take certain precautions. Most of them have to pass through places infested with these beasts, and their favourite method of keeping them off is as follows. As soon as they encamp at a place, they level a square bit of ground, and light fires in it, round which they pass the night. It is their firm belief that the tiger will not enter the square, from fear lest it should become blind, and eventually be shot. Mr Hayavadana Rao was once travelling towards Malkangiri from Jeypore, when he fell in with a party of Bēpāris thus encamped. At that time the villages about Malkangiri were being ravaged by a notorious man-eater. In connection with man-eating tigers, Mr S. M. Fraser narrates2 that, in Mysore, a man-eater was said to have attacked parties bearing corpses to the burning-ground.

“The acquisition,” he writes, “of such a curious taste may perhaps be explained by the following passage in a letter from the Amildar. It is a custom among the villagers here not to burn or bury the dead bodies of pregnant females, but to expose them in the neighbouring jungles to be eaten by vultures and wild beasts. The body is tied to a tree, in a sitting posture, and a pot of water is [75]put close by. Not long ago some cowherd boys came across the dead body of a woman tied to a tree, and noticed the foot-prints of a tiger round it, but the body was untouched. The boys cut the rope binding the body, which fell to the ground, and the next day the corpse was found eaten away by the tiger.”

The village of Hulikal, or tiger’s stone, on the Nīlgiris is so called because in it a Badaga once killed a notorious man-eater. The spot where the beast was buried is shown near the Pillaiyar (Ganēsa) temple, and is marked by three stones. It is said that there was formerly a stone image of the slain tiger thereabouts.3 When a tiger enters the dwelling of a Savara (hill tribe in Ganjam) and carries off an inmate, the village is said to be deserted, and sacrifices are offered to some spirits by the inhabitants. It is noted by Mr F. Fawcett4 that the Savaras have names for numerals up to twelve only. This is accounted for by a story that, long ago, some Savaras were measuring grain in a field, and, when they had completed twelve measures, a tiger pounced on them, and devoured them. So, ever after, they have not dared to have a numeral above twelve for fear of a tiger repeating the performance. In the Vizagapatam district, a ballad is sung by the Dāsaris (a mendicant caste) about the goddess Yerakamma, who is reputed to have been the child of Dāsari parents, and to have had the possession of second sight foretold by a Yerukala fortune-teller. She eventually married, and one day begged her husband not to go to his field, as she was sure he would be killed by a tiger if he did. He went notwithstanding, and was slain as she had foreseen. She killed herself by committing sati (suttee, or burning [76]of the living widow) on the spot where her shrine still stands. The Muduvars are said by Mr Martin to share with other jungle folk the belief that, if any animal is killed by a tiger or leopard so as to lie north and south, it will not be eaten by the beast of prey. Nor will it be revisited, so that sitting over a “kill” which has fallen north and south, in the hope of getting a shot at the returning tiger or leopard, is a useless proceeding. The Billava toddy-drawers believe that, if the spathe of the palm tree is beaten with the bone of a buffalo which has been killed by a tiger, the yield of toddy will, if the bone has not touched the ground, be greater than if an ordinary bone is used.

I once received an application for half a pound of tiger’s fat, presumably for medicinal purposes. The bones of tigers and leopards ground into powder, and mixed with their fat, gingelly (Sesamum) oil, and a finely powdered blue stone, make an ointment for the cure of syphilitic sores. The bones of a leopard or hyæna, ground into powder and made into a paste with ox-gall and musk, are said to be a useful ointment for application to rheumatic joints. The addition of the fat of tigers or leopards makes the ointment more effective. I am told that when, on one occasion, a European shot a tiger, the Natives were so keen on securing some of the fat, that the shikāris (hunters) came to him to decide as to the proper distribution among themselves and the camp servants.

The leopard is looked upon as in some way sacred by the hill Kondhs. They object to a dead leopard being carried through their villages, and oaths are taken on a leopard’s skin.

Writing in 1873, Dr Francis Day states5 that “at [77]Cannanore (in Malabar), the Rājah’s cat appears to be exercising a deleterious influence on one branch at least of the fishing, viz., that for sharks. It appears that, in olden times, one fish daily was taken from each boat as a perquisite for the Rājah’s cat, or the poocha meen (cat-fish) collection. The cats apparently have not augmented so much as the fishing boats, so this has been converted into a money payment of two pies a day on each successful boat.”

In connection with cats, there is a tradition that a Jōgi (Telugu mendicant) bridegroom, before tying the bottu (marriage badge) on his bride’s neck, had to tie it by means of a string dyed with turmeric round the neck of a female cat. People sometimes object to the catching of cats by Jōgis for food, as the detachment of a single hair from the body of a cat is considered a heinous offence. To overcome the objection, the Jōgi says that he wants the animal for a marriage ceremony. On one occasion, I saw a Mādiga (Telugu Pariah) carrying home a bag full of kittens, which he said he was going to eat. Some time ago, some prisoners, who called themselves Billaikāvus (cat-eaters), were confined in the Vizagapatam jail. I am informed that these people are Māla Paidis, who eat cat flesh.

The gun with which a wolf has been shot falls under some evil influence, and it is said not to shoot straight afterwards. Hence some shikāris (hunters) will not shoot at a wolf.

The hyæna is believed to beat to death, or strangle with its tail, those whom it seizes. The head of a hyæna is sometimes buried in cattle-sheds, to prevent cattle disease. Its incisor teeth are tied round the loins of a woman in labour, to lessen the pains.6 [78]

There is a belief that, when a bear seizes a man, it tickles him to death.7 Bears are supposed, owing to the multilobulated external appearance of the kidneys, to gain an additional pair of these organs every year of their life. They are believed to collect ripe wood-apples (Feronia elephantum) during the season, and store them in a secure place in the forest. After a large quantity has been collected, they remove the rind, and heap together all the pulp. They then bring honey and the petals of sweet-smelling flowers, put them on the heap of pulp, thresh them with their feet and sticks in their hands, and, when the whole has become a consistent mass, feast on it. The Vēdans (hunters) watch them when so engaged, drive them off, and rob them of their feast, which they carry off, and sell as karadi panchamritham, or bear delicacy made of five ingredients. The ordinary ingredients of panchamritham are slices of plantain (banana) fruits, jaggery (crude sugar) or sugar, cocoanut scrapings, ghī (clarified butter), honey, and cardamom seeds.

It is believed that the flesh or blood of some animals, which have certain organs largely developed, will cure disease of corresponding organs in the human subject. Thus, the flesh of the jackal, which is credited with the possession of very powerful lungs, is said to be a remedy for asthma.

By the jungle Paliyans of the Palni hills, the following device is adopted to protect themselves from the attacks of wild animals, the leopard in particular. Four jackals’ tails are planted in four different spots, chosen so as to include the area in which they wish to be safe from the brute. Even if a leopard entered the magic square, [79]it could do the Paliyan no harm, as its mouth is locked.8

There is a belief that the urine of wild dogs (Cyon dukhunensis) is extremely acrid, and that they sprinkle with it the bushes through which they drive their prey (deer and wild pigs), and then rush upon the latter, when blinded by the pungent fluid. According to another version, they jerk the urine into their victim’s eyes with their tails.

The Koyis of the Godāvari district are said by the Rev. J. Cain9 to hold in reverence the Pāndava brothers, Arjuna and Bhīma, and claim descent from the latter by his marriage with a wild woman of the woods. The wild dogs or dhols are regarded as the dūtas or messengers of the brothers, and they would on no account kill a dhol, even though it should attack their favourite calf. They even regard it as imprudent to interfere with these dūtas, when they wish to feast upon their cattle. The long black beetles, which appear in large numbers at the beginning of the hot weather, are called by the Koyis the Pāndava flock of goats.

At a sale of cattle, the vendor sometimes takes a small quantity of straw in his hand, and, putting some cow-dung on it, presents it to the purchaser.10 The five products of the cow, known as pānchagavyam—milk, curds, butter, urine, and fæces—are taken by Hindus to remove pollution from confinement, a voyage across the seas, and other causes. It is on record11 that the Tanjore Nayakar, having betrayed Madura and suffered for it, was told by his Brāhman advisers that he had better [80]be born again. So a colossal cow was cast in bronze, and the Nayakar shut up inside. The wife of his Brāhman guru (religious preceptor) received him in her arms, rocked him on her knees, and caressed him on her breast, and he tried to cry like a baby. It is recorded by Frazer12 that, when a Hindu child’s horoscope portends misfortune or crime, he is born again from a cow thus. Being dressed in scarlet, and tied on a new sieve, he is passed between the hind-legs of a cow forward through the fore-legs, and again in the reverse direction, to simulate birth. The ordinary birth ceremonies are then gone through, and the father smells his son as a cow smells her calf.

Tradition runs to the effect that, at the time of the separation of Rāmēsvaram island from the mainland, the cows became prisoners thereon. Not being able, like the cows of Cape Cod, which are fed on herrings’ heads, to adapt themselves to a fish diet, they became gradually converted into diminutive metamorphosed cows, which may still be seen grazing on the shore. The legend is based on the fancied resemblance of the horned coffer-fishes (Ostracion cornutus), which are frequently caught by the fishermen, to cattle. Portions of the skulls of cats and dogs, which are sometimes picked up on the beach, also bear a rude resemblance to the skull of a cow, the horns being represented by the zygoma.

A story is told at Cochin that the beautiful blue and white tiles from Canton, which adorn the floor of the synagogue of the White Jews, were originally intended for the Durbar hall of a former Rāja of Cochin. But a wily Jew declared that bullock’s blood must have been used in the preparation of the glaze, and offered to take [81]them off the hands of the Rāja, who was only too glad to get rid of them.

The afterbirths (placentæ) of cattle are tied to a tree which yields a milky juice, in the belief that the cow will thereby give a better yield of milk.

There is a custom among the Tellis (Oriya oil-pressers) that, if a cow dies with a rope round its neck, or on the spot where it is tethered, the family is under pollution until purification has been effected by means of a pilgrimage, or by bathing in a sacred river. The Holodia section of the Tellis will not rear male calves, and do not castrate their bulls. Male calves are disposed of by sale as speedily as possible.

If the jungle Paliyans of Tinnevelly come across the carcase of a cow or buffalo near a stream, they will not go near it for a long time. They absolutely refuse to touch leather, and one of them declined to carry my camera box, because he detected that it had a leather strap.

The Bākudas of South Canara will not carry a bedstead, unless the legs are first taken off, and it is said that this objection rests upon the supposed resemblances between the four-legged cot and the four-legged ox. In like manner, the Koragas have a curious prejudice against carrying any four-legged animal, dead or alive. This extends to anything with four legs, such as a chair, table, etc., which they cannot be prevailed on to lift, unless one leg is removed. As they work as coolies, this is said sometimes to cause inconvenience.13

Among the Sembaliguda Gadabas of Vizagapatam, there is a belief that a piece of wild buffalo horn, buried in the ground of the village, will avert or cure cattle disease.14

The jungle Kādirs believe that their gods occasionally [82]reside in the body of a “bison” (Bos gaurus), and have been known to worship a bull shot by a sportsman.

The goddess Gāngadēvi is worshipped by the Kēvutos (fishing caste) of Ganjam at the Dasara festival, and goats are sacrificed in her honour. In the neighbourhood of the Chilka lake, the goats are not sacrificed, but set at liberty, and allowed to graze on the Kālikadēvi hill. There is a belief that animals thus dedicated to the goddess do not putrify when they die, but dry up.

The Tiyans (toddy-drawers) of Malabar carry, tucked into the waist-cloth, a bone loaded with lead at both ends, which is used for tapping the flower-stalk of the palm tree to bring out the juice. A man once refused to sell one of these bones to Mr F. Fawcett at any price, as it was the femur of a sāmbar (Cervus unicolor), which possessed such virtue that it would fetch juice out of any tree. Deer’s horn, ground into a fine paste, is said to be an excellent balm for pains and swellings. It is sometimes made into a powder, which is mixed with milk or honey, and produces a potion which is supposed to aid the growth of stunted women.15

A Yānādi shikāri (hunter) has been known, when skinning a black buck (antelope) shot by a European, to cut out the testicles, and wrap them up in his loin-cloth, to be subsequently taken as an aphrodisiac. Antelope horn, when powdered and burnt, is said to drive away mosquitoes, and keep scorpions away. A paste made with antelope horn is used as an external application for sore throat. Antelope and chinkāra (Indian gazelle) horns, if kept in grain baskets, are said to prevent weevils from attacking the grain.

The Gadabas of Vizagapatam will not touch a horse, as they are palanquin-bearers, and have the same objection [83]to the rival animal that a cab-driver has to a motor-car. In South Canara, none but the lowest Pariah will rub a horse down. If a Malai Vellāla of Coimbatore touches one of these animals, he has to perform a religious ceremonial for the purpose of purification.

The members of the elephant sept of the Oriya Haddis, when they see the foot-prints of an elephant, take some of the dust from the spot, and make a mark on the forehead with it. They also draw the figure of an elephant, and worship it, when they perform srādh and other ceremonies. Wild elephants are said to be held in veneration by the jungle Kādirs, whereas tame ones are believed to have lost the divine element.16

When cholera breaks out in a Kondh village, all males and females smear their bodies from head to foot with pig’s fat liquefied by heat, and continue to do so until a few days after the disappearance of the dread disease. During this time they do not bathe, lest the smell of the fat should be washed away.

Some women rub the blood of the small garden-bat, which has well-developed ears, into the artificially dilated lobes of their ears, so as to strengthen them. The wings of bats are highly prized as a hairwash. They are crushed, and mixed with cocoanut oil, and other ingredients. The mixture is kept underground in a closed vessel for three months, and then used to prevent the hair from falling out or turning grey.17 The Paniyans of Malabar are said to eat land-crabs for a similar purpose.

The common striped or palm-squirrel (Sciurus palmarum) was, according to a legend, employed by Rāma to assist the army of monkeys in the construction of the bridge to connect Rāmēsvaram island with Ceylon, whither Rāvana [84]had carried off his wife Sīta. The squirrel helped the monkeys by rolling in the sand on the shore, so as to collect it in its hairy coat, and then depositing it between the piled up stones, so as to cement them together. Seeing it fatigued by its labours, Rāma sympathetically stroked its back with the three middle fingers of his right hand, marks of which still persist in the squirrels at the present day. There is a further legend that, once upon a time, one of the gods, having compassion on the toddy-drawers because their life was a hard one, and because they were constantly exposed to danger, left at the foot of a palmyra tree some charmed water, the value of which was that it saved from injury any one falling from a height. A toddy-drawer, however, got drunk, and, forgetting to drink the elixir, went home. When he returned, he found that a squirrel had drunk it, and vowed vengeance on it. And that is why every toddy-drawer will always kill a squirrel, and also why the squirrel, from whatever height it may fall, comes to no harm.18 In a note on the Pariah caste in Travancore, the Rev. S. Mateer narrates19 a legend that the Shānāns (Tamil toddy-drawers) are descended from Adi, the daughter of a Pariah woman at Karuvur, who taught them to climb the palm tree, and prepared a medicine which would protect them from falling from the high trees. The squirrels also ate some of it, and enjoy a similar immunity. There is a Tamil proverb that, if you desire to climb trees, you must be a Shānān. The story was told by Bishop Caldwell of a Shānān who was sitting upon a leaf-stalk at the top of a palmyra palm in a high wind, when the stalk gave way, and he came down to the ground quite safely, sitting on the [85]leaf, which served the purpose of a natural parachute. Woodpeckers are called Shānāra kurivi by bird-catchers, because they climb trees like Shānāns.

There is a legend that, before the Kāliyūga began, the Pāndavas lived on the Nīlgiris. A kind of edible truffle (Mylitta lapidescens) is known as little man’s bread on these hills. The Badaga legendary name for it is Pāndva-unna-buthi, or dwarf bundle of food,20 i.e., food of the dwarfs, who are supposed to have built the pāndu kūlis or kistvaens. Being so small, they called in the black-naped hare (Lepus nigricollis) to plough their fields. The black patches on their necks are the inherited mark of the yoke. The blood of the hare is administered to children suffering from cough.

Brāmans use a porcupine quill for parting their wives’ hair in a ceremony connected with the period of gestation known as sīmantam. It is said21 that among the Nāmbūtiri Brāhmans, the quill should have three white marks on it. The quills of porcupines are sold by Jōgis (Telugu mendicants) to goldsmiths, for use as brushes.

There is a tradition among the fishing folk of Rāmēsvaram island that a box of money was once found in the stomach of a dugong (Halicore dugong), and an official is consequently invited to be present at the examination of the stomach contents, so that the possessors of the carcase may not be punished under the Treasure Trove Act for concealing treasure. The fat of the dugong is believed to be efficacious in the treatment of dysentery, and is administered in the form of sweetmeats, or used instead of ghī (clarified butter) in the preparation of food. [86]


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