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Omens and Superstitions of Southern India

[Contents]

III

The Evil Eye

The objection which a high caste Brāhman has to being seen by a low caste man when he is eating his food is based on a belief allied to that of the evil eye. The Brāhmanical theory of vision, as propounded in the sacred writings, and understood by orthodox pandits, corresponds with the old corpuscular theory. The low caste man being in every respect inferior to the Brāhman, the matter or subtle substance proceeding from his eye, and mixing with the objects seen by him, must of necessity be inferior and bad. So food, which is seen by a low caste man, in virtue of the radii perniciosi which it has received, will contaminate the Brāhman. This, it has been pointed out,1 is “a good illustration of the theory propounded by Mr E. S. Hartland at the York meeting of the British Association (1906), that both magic and religion, in their earliest forms, are based on the conception of a transmissible personality, the mana of the Melanesian races.”

A friend once rode accidentally into a weaver’s feast, and threw his shadow on their food, and trouble arose in consequence. On one occasion, when I was in camp at Coimbatore, the Oddēs (navvies) being afraid of my evil eye, refused to fire a new kiln of bricks for the new [110]club chambers, until I had taken my departure. On another occasion, I caught hold of a ladle, to show my friend Dr Rivers what were the fragrant contents of a pot, in which an Oddē woman was cooking the evening meal. On returning from a walk, we heard a great noise proceeding from the Oddē men who had meanwhile returned from work, and found the woman seated apart on a rock, and sobbing. She had been excommunicated, not because I touched the ladle, but because she had afterwards touched the pot. After much arbitration, I paid up the necessary fine, and she was received back into her caste.

The following passage occurred in an official document, which was sent to Sir M. E. Grant Duff, when he was Governor of Madras.2 The writer was Mr Andrew, C.S.

“Sir C. Trevelyan visited Walajapet many years ago. When there, he naturally asked to see the cloths, carpets, etc. (which are manufactured there). Soon after (owing to the railway of course), trade began to diminish, and to this day, I hear that even the well-to-do traders think it was owing to the visit, as they believe that, if a great man takes particular notice of a person or place, ill-luck will follow. A month ago, I was walking near Ranipet, and stopped for a minute to notice a good native house, and asked whose it was, etc. A few hours after, the house took fire (the owner, after his prayers upstairs, had left a light in his room), and the people in the town think that the fire was caused by my having noticed the house. So, when His Excellency drove through Walajapet last July, the bazaar people did not show their best cloths, fearing ill-luck would follow, but also because they thought he would introduce their trade in carpets, etc., into the Central Jail, Vellore, and so ruin them.”

[111]

In villages, strangers are not allowed to be present, when the cows are milked. Sudden failure of milk, or blood-stained milk, are attributed to the evil eye, to remove the influence of which the owner of the affected cow resorts to the magician. When the hill Kondhs are threshing the crop, strangers may not look on the crop, or speak to them, lest their evil eye should be cast on them. If a stranger is seen approaching the threshing-floor, the Kondhs keep him off by signalling with their hands, without speaking.

In Malabar, a mantram, which is said to be effective against the potency of the evil eye, runs as follows:—“Salutation to thee, O God! Even as the moon wanes in its brightness at the sight of the sun, even as the bird chakora (crow-pheasant) disappears at the sight of the moon, even as the great Vasuki (king of serpents) vanishes at the sight of the chakora, even as the poison vanishes from his head, so may the potency of his evil eye vanish with thy aid.”3 In Malabar, fear of the evil eye is very general. At the corner of the upper storey of almost every Nāyar house near a road or path is suspended some object, often a doll-like hideous creature, on which the eye of the passers-by may rest.4

“A crop,” Mr Logan writes,5 “is being raised in a garden visible from the road. The vegetables will never reach maturity, unless a bogey of some sort is set up in their midst. A cow will stop giving milk, unless a conch (Turbinella rapa) shell is tied conspicuously about her horns. [Māppilla cart-drivers tie black ropes round the neck, or across the faces of their bullocks.] When a [112]house or shop is being built, there surely is to be found exposed in some conspicuous position an image, sometimes of extreme indecency, a pot covered with cabalistic signs, a prickly branch of cactus, or what not, to catch the evil eye of passers-by, and divert their attention from the important work in hand.”

Many of the carved wooden images recall forcibly to mind the Horatian satire:—“Olim truncus eram.... Obscenoque ruber porrectus ab inguine palus.

For the following note on the evil eye in Malabar, I am indebted to Mr S. Appadorai Iyer.

“It is not the eye alone that commits the mischief, but also the mind and tongue. Man is said to do good or evil through the mind, word and deed, i.e., manasa, vācha, and karmana. When a new house is being constructed, or a vegetable garden or rice-field are in a flourishing condition, the following precautions are taken to ward off the evil eye:—

”(a) In Buildings

“1. A pot with black and white marks on it is suspended mouth downwards.

“2. A wooden figure of a monkey, with pendulous testicles, is suspended.

“3. The figure of a Malayāli woman, with protuberant breasts, is suspended.

”(b) In Gardens and Fields

“1. A straw figure, covered with black cloth daubed with black and white dots, is placed on a long pole. If the figure represents a male, it has pendent testicles, and, if a female, well developed breasts. Sometimes, male and female figures are placed together in an embracing posture. [113]

“2. Pots, as described above, are placed on bamboo poles.

Evil Eye Figures, Malabar.

To face page 112.

“3. A portion of the skull of a bull, with horns attached, is set up on a long pole.

“The figures, pots, and skulls, are primarily intended to scare away crows, stray cattle, and other marauders, and secondly to ward off the evil eye. Instances are quoted, in which handsome buildings have fallen down, and ripe fruits and grain crops have withered through the influence of the eye, which has also been held responsible for the bursting of a woman’s breasts.”

In Madras, human figures, made of broken bricks and mortar, are kept permanently in the front of the upstairs verandah. Some years ago, Sir George Birdwood recorded the flogging, by order of the Police Magistrate of Black Town (now George Town), Madras, of a Hindu boy for exhibiting an indecent figure in public view. What he had explicitly done was to set up, in accordance with universal custom, a phallic image before a house that was in course of erection by a Hindu gentleman, who was first tried under the indictment, but was acquitted, he, the owner, not having been the person who had actually exhibited the image.6

Monstrous Priapi, made in straw, with painted clay pots for heads, pots smeared with chunam (lime) and studded with black dots, or palmyra palm fruits coated with chunam, may often be seen set up in the fields, to guard the ripening crop. In a note on the Tamil Paraiyans, the Rev A. C. Clayton writes as follows:7

“Charms, in the form of metal cylinders, are worn to avoid the baneful influence of the evil eye. To prevent [114]this from affecting the crops, Paraiyans put up scarecrows in their fields. These are usually small broken earthen pots, whitewashed or covered with spots of whitewash, or even adorned with huge clay noses and ears, and made into grotesque faces. For the same reason, more elaborate figures, made of mud and twigs in human shape, are sometimes set up.”

The indecent figures carved on temple cars, are intended to avert the evil eye. During temple or marriage processions, two huge human figures, male and female, made of bamboo wicker-work, are carried in front for the same purpose. At the buffalo races in South Canara, which take place when the first crop has been gathered, there is a procession, which is sometimes headed by two dolls represented in coitu borne on a man’s head. At a race meeting near Mangalore, one of the devil-dancers had the genitalia represented by a long piece of cloth and enormous testicles.

Sometimes, in case of illness, a figure is made of rice-flour paste, and copper coins are stuck on the head, hands, and abdomen thereof. It is waved in front of the sick person, taken to a place where three roads or paths meet, and left there. At other times, a hole is made in a gourd (Benincasa cerifera or Lagenaria vulgaris), which is filled with turmeric and chunam, and waved round the patient. It is then taken to a place where three roads meet, and broken.

Evil Eye Figures Set Up in Fields.

To face p. 114.

At a ceremony performed in Travancore when epidemic disease prevails, an image of Bhadrakāli is drawn on the ground with powders of five colours, white, yellow, black, green, and red. At night, songs are sung in praise of that deity by a Tīyattunni and his followers. A member of the troupe then plays the part of Bhadrakāli in the act of murdering the demon Darika, and, in conclusion, waves [115]a torch before the inmates of the house, to ward off the evil eye, which is the most important item in the whole ceremony. The torch is believed to be given by Siva, who is worshipped before the light is waved.

In cases of smallpox, a bunch of nīm (Melia Azadirachta) is sometimes moved from the head to the feet of the sick person, with certain incantations, and then twisted and thrown away.

The sudden illness of children is often attributed to the evil eye. In such cases, the following remedies are considered efficacious:—

(1) A few sticks from a new unused broom are set fire to, waved several times round the child, and placed in a corner. With some of the ashes the mother makes a mark on the child’s forehead. If the broom burns to ashes without making a noise, the women cry: “Look at it. It burns without the slightest noise. The creature’s eyes are really very bad.” Abuse is then heaped on the person whose eyes are supposed to have an evil influence.

(2) Some chillies, salt, human hair, nail-cuttings, and finely powered earth from the pit of the door-post are mixed together, waved three times in front of the child, and thrown onto the fire. Woe betide the possessor of the evil eye, if no pungent, suffocating smell arises when it is burning.

(3) A piece of burning camphor is waved in front of the child.

(4) Balls of cooked rice, painted red, black, and white (with curds), are waved before the child.

Loss of appetite in children is attributed by mothers to the visit of a supposed evil person to the house. On that person appearing again, the mother will take a little sand or dust from under the visitor’s foot, whirl it round the head of the child, and throw it on the hearth. If the suspected [116]person is not likely to turn up again, a handful of cotton-seed, chillies, and dust from the middle of the street, is whirled round the child’s head, and thrown on the hearth. If the chillies produce a strong smell, the evil eye has been averted. If they do not do so, the suspect is roundly abused by the mother, and never again admitted to the house.

Matrons make the faces of children ugly by painting two or three black dots on the chin and cheeks, and painting the eyelids black with lamp-black paste. It is a good thing to frighten any one who expresses admiration of one’s belongings. For example, if a friend praises your son’s eyes, you should say to him, “Look out! There is a snake at your feet.” If he is frightened, the evil eye has been averted. It is said8 that “you will cause mortal offence to a Hindu lady, should you remark of her child ‘What a nice baby you have,’ or ‘How baby has grown since I saw him last.’ She makes it a rule to speak deprecatingly of her child, and represents it as the victim of non-existent ailments, so that your evil eye shall not affect it. But, should she become aware that, in spite of her precautions, you have defiled it with your admiration, she will lose no time in counteracting the effect of drishtidosham. One of the simplest methods adopted for this purpose is to take a small quantity of chillies and salt in the closed palm, and throw it into the fire, after waving it thrice round the head of the child, to the accompaniment of incantations. If no pungent odour is apparent, it is an indication that the dosham has been averted.”

At the Sakalathi festival of the Badagas of the Nīlgiris, a cake is made, on which are placed a little rice and butter. Three wicks steeped in castor-oil are put in [117]it, and lighted. The cake is then waved round the heads of all the children of the house, taken to a field, and thrown thereon with the words “Sakalathi has come.” At the Sūppidi ceremony, which every Nāttukōttai Chetti (Tamil banker) youth has to perform before marriage, the young man goes to the temple. On his return home, and at the entrance of Nāttukōttai houses which he passes, rice-lamps are waved before him.

The custom of making a “wave offering”9 at puberty and marriage ceremonies is very widespread. Thus, when a Tangalān Paraiyan girl attains puberty, she is bathed on the ninth day, and ten small lamps of flour paste, called drishti māvu vilakku, are put on a sieve, and waved before her. Then coloured water (ārati or ālām,) and burning camphor, are waved in front of her. At the puberty ceremonies of the Tamil Maravans, the girl comes out of seclusion on the sixteenth day, bathes, and returns to her house. At the threshold, her future husband’s sister is standing, and averts the evil eye by waving betel leaves, plantains, cooked flour paste, a vessel filled with water, and an iron measure containing rice with a style stuck in it.

At a Palli (Tamil cultivator) wedding, water coloured with turmeric and chunam (ārati) is waved round the bride and bridegroom. Later on, when the bride is about to enter the home of the bridegroom, coloured water and a cocoanut are waved in front of the newly married couple. At a marriage among the Pallans (Tamil cultivators), when the contracting couple sit on the dais, coloured water, or balls of coloured rice with lighted wicks, are waved round them. Water is poured into their hands from a vessel, and sprinkled over their heads. The vessel is then waved before them. During a Kōliyan [118](Tamil weaver) wedding coloured water, into which leaves of Bauhinia variegata are thrown, are waved. At a marriage among the Khatris (weavers), when the bridegroom arrives at the house of the bride, her mother comes out, and waves coloured water, and washes his eyes with water. At a Tangalān Paraiyan wedding, during a ceremony for removing the evil eye, a pīpal (Ficus religiosa) leaf is held over the foreheads of the bridal couple, with its tail downwards, and all the close relations pour milk over it, so that it trickles over their faces. During a marriage among the Sembadavans (Tamil fishermen), the bride and bridegroom go through a ceremony called sige kazhippu, with the object of warding off the evil eye, which consists in pouring a few drops of milk on their foreheads from a fig or betel leaf. At a Kāpu (Telugu cultivator) wedding, the Ganga idol, which is kept in the custody of a Tsākala (washerman), is brought to the marriage house. At the entrance thereto, red-coloured food, coloured water, and incense, are waved before it. During a marriage among the Balijas (Telugu traders), the bridegroom is stopped at the entrance to the room in which the marriage pots are kept by a number of married women, and has to pay a small sum for the ārati (coloured water), which is waved by the women. At a Bilimagga (weaver) wedding in South Canara, the bridegroom’s father waves incense in front of a cot and brass vessel, and lights and ārati water are waved before the bridegroom.

At a royal marriage in Travancore, in 1906, a bevy of Nāyar maidens, quaintly dressed, walked in front of the Rāni’s palanquin. They were intended as Drishti Pariharam, to ward off the evil eye.

Impression of Hand on Wall of House.

To face p. 119.

Sometimes, in Malabar, when a person is believed to be under the influence of a devil or the evil eye, salt, [119]chillies, tamarinds, oil, mustard, cocoanut, and a few pice (copper coins), are placed in a vessel, waved round the head of the affected individual, and given to a Nāyādi,10 whose curse is asked for. There is this peculiarity about a Nāyādi’s curse, that it always has the opposite effect. Hence, when he is asked to curse one who has given him alms, he complies by invoking misery and evil upon him. The terms used by him for such invocations are attupo or mutinjupo (to perish), adimondupo (to be a slave), etc.11

During one of my tours, a gang of Yerukalas absolutely refused to sit on a chair, and I had perforce to measure their heads while they squatted on the ground. To get rid of my evil influence, they subsequently went through the ceremony of waving red-coloured water and sacrificing fowls.

During a marriage among the Mādigas (Telugu Pariahs), a sheep or goat is sacrificed to the marriage pots. The sacrificer dips his hand in the blood of the animal, and impresses the blood on his palms on the wall near the door leading to the room in which the pots are kept. This is said to avert the evil eye. Among the Telugu Mālas, a few days before a wedding, two marks are made, one on each side of the door, with oil and charcoal, for the same purpose. At Kadūr, in the Mysore Province, I once saw impressions of the hand on the walls of Brāhman houses. Impressions in red paint of a hand with outspread fingers may be seen on the walls of mosques and Muhammadan buildings.12

When cholera, or other epidemic disease, breaks out, [120]Muhammadans leave the imprint of the hand dipped in sandal paste on the door. When a Tamil Paraiyan dies, an impression of the dead man’s palm is sometimes taken in cow-dung, and stuck on the wall.13

The failure of a criminal expedition of the Koravas is said by Mr F. Fawcett,14 to be “generally attributed to the evil eye, or the evil tongue, whose bad effects are evinced in many ways. If the excursion has been for house-breaking, the house-breaking implement is often soldered at its sharp end with panchalokam (five metals), to counteract the effect of the evil eye. The evil tongue is a frequent cause of failure. It consists in talking evil of others, or harping on probable misfortunes. There are various ways of removing its unhappy effects. A mud figure of a man is made on the ground, and thorns are placed over the mouth. This is the man with the evil tongue. Those who have suffered walk round it, crying out and beating their mouths; the greater the noise, the better the effect. Cutting the neck of a fowl half through and allowing it to flutter about, or inserting a red hot splinter in its anus to madden it with pain, are considered to be effective, while, if a cock should crow after its neck has been cut, calamities are averted.” [121]


1 Nature, 18th October, 1906.

2 Grant Duff, “Notes from an Indian Diary, 1881–1886.”

3 L. K. Anantha Krishna Iyer, “The Cochin Tribes and Castes,” 1909, i. 166.

4 F. Fawcett, Madras Museum Bull., 1901, iii., No 3, 309.

5 Malabar, 1887, i. 175.

6 D’Alviella, “The Migration of Symbols,” 1894, introduction; and Times (London), 3rd September, 1891.

7 Madras Museum Bull., 1906, v., No. 2, 86–7.

8 Madras Mail, 26th January, 1906.

9 Leviticus, viii. 29.

10 The Nāyādis are a polluting class, whose approach within 300 feet is said to contaminate a Brāhman.

11 L. K. Anantha Krishna Iyer, “The Cochin Tribes and Castes,” 1909, i. 55–6.

12 M. J. Walhouse, Journ. Anthrop. Inst., 1890, xix. 56.

13 “Gazetteer of the Tanjore District,” 1906, i. 89.

14 “Note on the Koravas,” 1908.


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