Omens and Superstitions of Southern India

2. Birds

The following story is current concerning the sacred vultures of Tirukazhukunram. The Ashtavasus, or eight gods who guard the eight points of the compass, did penance, and Siva appeared in person before them. But, becoming angry with them, he cursed them, and turned them into vultures. When they asked for forgiveness, Siva directed that they should remain at the temple of Vedagiri Iswara. One pair of these birds still survives, and come to the temple daily at noon for food. Two balls of rice cooked with ghī (clarified butter) and sugar, which have been previously offered to the deity, are placed at a particular spot on the hill. The vultures, arriving simultaneously, appropriate a ball apiece. The temple priests say that, every day, one of the birds goes on a pilgrimage to Benares, and the other to Rāmēsvaram. It is also said that the pair will never come together, if sinners are present at the temple.

When a person is ill, his family sometimes make a vow that they will ofter a few pounds of mutton to the Braāhmani kite (Haliastur indus, Garuda pakshi) on the patient’s recovery. It is believed that, should the offering be acceptable, the sick person will speedily get better, and the bird will come to demand its meat, making its presence known by sitting on a tree near the house, and crying plaintively. The shadow of a Braāhmani kite falling on a cobra is said to stupefy the snake. The Kondhs do not consider it a sin to kill this bird, which is held in veneration throughout Southern India. A Kondh will kill it for so slight an offence as carrying off his chickens.

Sacred Vultures, Tirukazhukunram.

To face p. 86.

The crow is believed to possess only one eye, which moves from socket to socket as occasion demands. The [87]belief is founded on the legend that an Asura, disguised as a crow, while Rāma was sleeping with his head on Sīta’s lap in the jungles of Dandaka, pecked at her breasts, so that blood issued therefrom. On waking, Rāma, observing the blood, and learning the cause of it, clipped a bit of straw, and, after infusing it with the Brahma astra (miraculous weapon), let it go against the crow Asura, who appealed to Rāma for mercy. Taking pity on it, Rāma told the Asura to offer one of its eyes to the weapon, and saved it from death. Since that time, crows are supposed to have only one eye. The Kondhs will not kill crows, as this would be a sin amounting to the killing of a friend. According to their legend, soon after the creation of the world, there was a family consisting of an aged man and woman, and four children, who died one after the other in quick succession. Their parents were too infirm to take the necessary steps for their cremation, so they threw the bodies away on the ground at some distance from their home. God appeared to them in their dreams one night, and promised that he would create the crow, so that it might devour the dead bodies. Some Koyis believe that hell is the abode of an iron crow, which feeds on all who go there. There is a legend in the Kavarathi Island of the Laccadives, that a Māppilla tangal (Muhammadan priest) once cursed the crows for dropping their excrement on his person, and now there is not a crow on the island.

It is believed that, if a young crow-pheasant is tied by an iron chain to a tree, the mother, as soon as she discovers the captive, will go and fetch a certain root, and by its aid break the chain, which, when it snaps, is converted into gold.

In some Kāpu (Telugu cultivator) houses, bundles of ears of rice may be seen hung up as food for sparrows, [88]which are held in esteem. The hopping of sparrows is said to resemble the gait of a person confined in fetters, and there is a legend that the Kāpus were once in chains, and the sparrows set them at liberty, and took the bondage on themselves. Native physicians prescribe the flesh and bones of cock sparrows for those who have lost their virility. The birds are cleaned, and put in a mortar, together with other medicinal ingredients. They are pounded together for several hours, so that the artificial heat produced by the operation converts the mixture into a pulpy mass, which is taken in small doses. The flesh of quails and partridges is also believed to possess remedial properties.

A west coast housewife, when she buys a fowl, goes through a mystic ritual to prevent it from getting lost. She takes it thrice round the fireplace, saying to it: “Roam over the country and the forest, and come home safe again.” Some years ago, a rumour spread through the Koyi villages that an iron cock was abroad very early in the morning, and upon the first village in which it heard one or more cocks crow it would send a pestilence, and decimate the village. In one instance, at least, this led to the immediate extermination of all the cocks in the village.

The Indian roller (Coracias indica), commonly called the blue jay, is known as pāla-pitta or milk bird, because it is supposed that, when a cow gives little milk, the yield will be increased if a few of the feathers of this bird are chopped up, and given to it along with grass.

The fat of the peacock, which moves gracefully and easily, is supposed to cure stiff joints. Peacock’s feathers are sold in the bazaar, and the burnt ashes are used as a cure for vomiting.

The deposit of white magnesite in the “Chalk Hills” of the Salem district is believed to consist of the bones [89]of the mythical bird Jatayu, which fought Rāvana, to rescue Sīta from his clutches.


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