Omens and Superstitions of Southern India



Magic and Magicians

It has been stated1 that sorcerers usually unite together to form a society, which may attain great influence among backward races. In Southern India there are certain castes which are summed up in the “Madras Census Report,” 1901, as “exorcists and devil-dancers,” whose most important avocation is the practice of magic. Such, for example, are the Nalkes, Paravas, and Pompadas of South Canara, who are called in whenever a bhūtha (demon) is to be propitiated, and the Pānans and Malayans of Malabar, whose magical rites are described by me in detail elsewhere.2

Concerning sorcery on the west coast, the Travancore Census Commissioner, 1901, writes as follows:—

“The forms of sorcery familiar to the people of Malabar are of three kinds:—(1) kaivisham, or poisoning food by incantations; (2) the employment of Kuttichāttan, a mysteriously-working mischievous imp; (3) setting up spirits to haunt men and their houses, and cause illness of all kinds. The most mischievous imp in Malabar demonology is an annoying quip-loving little spirit, as black as night, and about the size of a well-nourished twelve-year-old boy. Some people say that they have seen [238]him vis-à-vis, having a forelock. There are Nambūtiris (Brāhmans) in Malabar to whom these are so many missiles, which they may throw at anybody they choose. They are, like Shakespeare’s Ariel, little active bodies, and most willing slaves of the master under whom they happen to be placed. Their victims suffer from unbearable agony. Their clothes take fire; their food turns to ordure; their beverages become urine; stones fall in showers on all sides of them, but curiously not on them; and their bed becomes a bed of thorns. With all this annoying mischief, Kuttichāttan or Boy Satan does no serious harm. He oppresses and harasses, but never injures. A celebrated Brāhman of Changanacheri is said to own more than a hundred of these Chāttans. Household articles and jewelry of value may be left in the premises of homes guarded by Chāttan, and no thief dares to lay his hand on them. The invisible sentry keeps diligent watch over his master’s property, and has unchecked powers of movement in any medium. As remuneration for all these services, the Chāttan demands nothing but food, but that in a large measure. If starved, the Chāttans would not hesitate to remind the master of their power, but, if ordinarily cared for, they would be his most willing drudges. As a safeguard against the infinite power secured for the master by Kuttichāttan, it is laid down that malign acts committed through his instrumentality recoil on the prompter, who dies either childless or after frightful physical and mental agony. Another method of oppressing humanity, believed to be in the power of sorcerers, is to make men and women possessed with spirits. Here, too, women are more subject to their evil influence than men. Delayed puberty, permanent sterility, and still-births, are not uncommon ills of a devil-possessed woman. Sometimes the spirits sought to be exorcised refuse to leave the victim, unless the sorcerer promises them a habitation in his own compound (grounds), and arranges for daily offerings being given. This is agreed to as a matter of unavoidable necessity, and money and [239]lands are conferred upon the mantravādi Nambūtiri to enable him to fulfil his promise.”

Reference has been made (p. 238) to the falling of stones round those attacked by Chāttans. Hysteria, epilepsy, and other disorders, are, in Malabar, ascribed to possession by devils, who can also cause cattle disease, accidents, and misfortunes of any kind. Throwing stones on houses, and setting fire to the thatch, are supposed to be their ordinary recreations. The mere mention of the name of a certain Nambūtiri family is said to be enough to drive them away.3 A few years ago, an old Brāhman woman, in the Bellary district, complained to the police that a Sūdra woman living in her neighbourhood, and formerly employed by her as sweeper, had been throwing stones into her house for some nights. The woman admitted that she had done so, because she was advised by a Lingāyat priest that the remedy for intermittent fever, from which she was suffering, was to throw stones at an old woman, and extract some blood from her body on a new or full-moon day.

Some demons are believed to have human mistresses and concubines, and it is narrated4 that a Chetti (merchant) in the Tamil country purchased a Malabar demon from a magician for ninety rupees. But hardly a day had passed before the undutiful spirit fell in love with its new owner’s wife, and succeeded in its nefarious purpose.

Quite recently a woman, in order to win the affection of her husband, gave him a love-charm composed of datura in chutney. The dose proved fatal, and she was sentenced to two years’ rigorous imprisonment.5 A [240]love-philtre, said to be composed of the charred remains of a mouse and spider, was once sent to the chemical examiner to Government for analysis in a suspected case of poisoning. In connection with the dugong (Halicore dugong), which is caught in the Gulf of Manaar, Dr Annandale writes as follows6:—

“The presence of large glands in connection with the eye afford some justification for the Malay’s belief that the dugong weeps when captured. They regard the tears of the īkan dugong (dugong fish) as a powerful love-charm. Muhammadan fishermen of the Gulf of Manaar appeared to be ignorant of this usage, but told me that a ‘doctor’ once went out with them to collect the tears of a dugong, should they capture one.”

Native physicians in the Tamil country are said to prepare an unguent, into the composition of which the eye of the slender Loris (Loris gracilis), the brain of the dead offspring of a primipara, and the catamenial blood of a young virgin, enter, as an effective preparation in necromancy. The eye of the Loris is also used for making a preparation, which is believed to enable the possessor to kidnap and seduce women. The tail of a chamæleon, secured on a Sunday, is also believed to be an excellent love-charm.

A young married student at a college in Madras attributed his illness to the administration by his wife of a love-philtre containing the brains of a baby which had been exhumed after burial. Among the Tamil Paraiyans and some other classes, a first-born child, if it is a male, is buried near or even within the house, so that its corpse may not be carried away by a sorcerer, to be used in magical rites.7 If a first-born child dies, [241]a finger is sometimes cut off, lest a sorcerer should dig up the body, and extract an essence (karuvu) from the brain, wherewith to harm his enemies.8 The Rev. J. Castets informs me that he once saw a man being initiated into the mysteries of the magician’s art. The apparatus included the top of the skull of a first-born male child inscribed with Tamil characters.

A station-house police officer informed Mr S. G. Roberts that first-born children, dying in infancy, are buried near the house, lest their heads should be used in sorcery, a sort of ink or decoction (mai) being distilled from them. This ink is used for killing people at a distance, or for winning a woman’s love, or the confidence of those from whom some favour is required. In the last two cases, the ink is smeared over the eyebrows. It is believed that, if an infant’s head is used for this purpose, the mother will never have a living child. When Mr Roberts was at Salem, he had to try a case of this practice, and the Public Prosecutor informed him that it is believed that, if a hole is made in the top of the head of the infant when it is buried, it cannot be effectively used in sorcery. In the Trichinopoly district, the police brought to Mr Roberts’ notice a sorcerer’s outfit, which had been seized. There were the most frightful Tamil curses invoking devils, written backwards in “looking-glass characters” on an olai (strip of palm leaf), and a looking-glass to read them by. Spells written backwards are said to be very potent. There was also a small round tin, containing a black treacly paste with a sort of shine on it, which was said to have been obtained from the head of a dead child. There is a Tamil proverb “Kuzhi pillai, madi pillai,” meaning grave child, lap child, in reference to a belief that, the [242]quicker a first-born child is buried, the quicker is the next child conceived.

The following form of sorcery in Malabar is described by Mr Walhouse.9

“Let a sorcerer obtain the corpse of a maiden, and on a Saturday night place it at the foot of a bhuta-haunted tree on an altar, and repeat a hundred times: Om! Hrim! Hrom! O goddess of Malayāla who possessest us in a moment! Come! Come! The corpse will then be inspired by a demon, and rise up; and, if the demon be appeased with flesh and arrack (liquor), it will answer all questions put to it.”

A human bone from a burial-ground, over which powerful mantrams have been recited, if thrown into an enemy’s house, will cause his ruin. Ashes from the burial-ground on which an ass has been rolling on a Saturday or Sunday, if thrown into the house of an enemy, are said to produce severe illness, if the house is not vacated.

From Malabar, a correspondent writes as follows:—

“I came across a funny thing in an embankment in a rice-field. The tender part of a young cocoanut branch had been cut into three strips, and the strips fastened one into the other in the form of a triangle. At the apex a reed was stuck, and along the base and sides small flowers, so that the thing looked like a ship in full sail. My inspector informed me, with many blushes, that it contained a devil, which the sorcerer of a neighbouring village had cut out of a young girl. Mrs Bishop, in her book on Korea, mentions that the Koreans do exactly the same thing, but, in Korea, the devil’s prison is laid by the wayside, and is carefully stepped over by every passer-by, whereas the one I saw was carefully avoided by my peons (orderlies) and others.”

In the Godāvari district, Mr H. Tyler came across the [243]burning funeral pyre of a Koyi girl, who had died of syphilis. Across a neighbouring path leading to the Koyi village was a basket fish-trap containing grass, and on each side thorny twigs, which were intended to catch the malign spirit of the dead girl, and prevent it from entering the village. The twigs and trap containing the spirit were to be burnt on the following day. By the Dōmbs of Vizagapatam, the souls of the dead are believed to roam about, so as to cause all possible harm to mankind, and also to protect them against the attacks of witches. A place is prepared for the Dūma in the door-hinge, or a fishing-net, wherein he lives, is placed over the door. The witches must count all the knots of the net, before they can enter the house.10

At cross-roads in the Bellary district, geometric patterns are sometimes made at night by people suffering from disease, in the belief that the affliction will pass to the person who first treads on the charm.11

“At cross-roads in the South Arcot district may be sometimes seen pieces of broken pot, saffron (turmeric), etc. These are traces of the following method of getting rid of an obstinate disease. A new pot is washed clean, and filled with a number of objects (the prescription differs in different localities), such as turmeric, coloured grains of rice, chillies, cotton-seed, and so forth, and sometimes a light made of a few threads dipped in a little dish of oil, and taken at dead of night to the cross-roads, and broken there. The disease will then disappear. In some places it is believed that it passes to the first person who sees the débris of the ceremony the next morning, and the performer has to be careful to carry it out unknown to his neighbours, or the consequences are unpleasant for him.”12


Some Valaiyans, Paraiyans, and Kallans, on the occasion of a death in the family, place a pot filled with dung or water, a broomstick, and a firebrand, at some place where three roads meet, or in front of the house, to prevent the ghost from returning.13 When a Paraiyan man dies, camphor is burnt, not at the house, but at the junction of three lanes.

In the Godāvari district, a sorcerer known as the Ejjugadu (male physician) is believed, out of spite or in return for payment, to kill another by invoking the gods. He goes to a green tree, and there spreads muggu or chunam (lime) powder, and places an effigy of the intended victim thereon. He also places a bow and arrow there, recites certain spells, and calls on the gods. The victim is said to die in a couple of days. But, if he understands that the Ejjugadu has thus invoked the gods, he may inform another Ejjugadu, who will carry out similar operations under another tree. His bow and arrow will go to those of the first Ejjugadu, and the two bows and arrows will fight as long as the spell remains. The man will then be safe.

Writing concerning the nomad Yerukalas, Mr F. Fawcett says14 that “the warlock takes the possessed one by night to the outskirts of the village, and makes a figure on the ground with powdered rice, powders of various colours, and powdered charcoal. Balls of the powders, half cocoanut shells, betel, four-anna pieces, and oil lamps, are placed on the hands, legs, and abdomen. A little heap of boiled rice is placed near the feet, and curds and vegetables are set on the top of it, with limes placed here and there. The subject of the incantation sits near the head, while the magician mutters mantrams. A he-goat is then [245]sacrificed. Its head is placed near the foot of the figure, and benzoin and camphor are waved. A little grain is scattered about the figure to appease the evil spirits. Some arrack is poured into a cup, which is placed on the body of the figure, and the bottle which contained it is left on the head. The limes are cut in two, and two cocoanuts are broken. The patient then walks by the left side of the figure to its legs, takes one step to the right towards the head, and one step to the left towards the feet, and walks straight home without looking back.”

In Malabar, Mr Govinda Nambiar writes,15 “when a village doctor attending a sick person finds that the malady is unknown to him, or will not yield to his remedies, he calls in the astrologer, and subsequently the exorcist, to expel the demon or demons which have possessed the sick man. If the devils will not yield to ordinary remedies administered by his disciples, the mantravādi himself comes, and a devil dance is appointed to be held on a certain day. Thereat various figures of mystic device are traced on the ground, and in their midst a huge and frightful form representing the demon. Sometimes an effigy is constructed out of cooked and coloured rice. The patient is seated near the head of the figure, and opposite sits the magician adorned with bundles of sticks tied over the joints of his body, tails, and skins of animals, etc. Verses are chanted, and sometimes cocks are sacrificed, and the blood is sprinkled on the demon’s effigy. Amidst the beating of drums and blowing of pipes, the magician enters upon his diabolical dance, and, in the midst of his paroxysm, may even bite live cocks, and suck with ferocity the hot blood.”

When a Malayan exorcist is engaged in propitiating a demon, a fowl is sometimes waved before him, and [246]decapitated. He puts the neck in his mouth, and sucks the blood. By the Tiyans of Malabar a number of evil spirits are supposed to devote their attention to a pregnant woman, and to suck the blood of the child in utero, and of the mother. In the process of expelling them, the woman lies on the ground and kicks. A cock is thrust into her hand, and she bites it, and drinks its blood.

It is noted by Mr L. K. Anantha Krishna Iyer that by the Thanda Pulayans of the west coast “a ceremony called urasikotukkuka is performed with the object of getting rid of a devil, with which a person is possessed. At a place far distant from the hut, a leaf, on which the blood of a fowl has been made to fall, is spread on the ground. On a smaller leaf, chunam and turmeric are placed. The person who first sets eyes on these becomes possessed by the devil, and sets free the individual who was previously under its influence. The Thanda Pulayans also practise maranakriyas, or sacrifices to demons, to bring about the death of an enemy. Sometimes affliction is supposed to be brought about by the enmity of those who have got incantations written on a palm leaf, and buried in the ground near a house by the side of a well. A sorcerer is called in to counteract the evil charm, which he digs up and destroys.”

In a note on the Paraiyas of Travancore,16 the Rev. S. Mateer writes that Sūdras and Shānars17 frequently employ the Paraiya devil-dancers and sorcerers to search for and dig out magical charms buried in the earth by enemies, and counteract their enchantments.

A form of sorcery in Malabar called marana (destruction) [247]is said by Mr Fawcett18 to be carried out in the following manner:—

“A figure representing the enemy to be destroyed is drawn on a small plate of metal (gold by preference), and to it some mystic diagrams are added. It is then addressed with a statement that bodily injury, or the death of the person, shall take place at a certain time. This little sheet is wrapped up in another metal sheet or leaf (of gold if possible), and buried in some place which the person to be injured or destroyed is in the habit of passing. Should he pass over the place, it is supposed that the charm will take effect at the time named.”

One favourite tantra of the South Indian sorcerer is said19 to consist of “what is popularly known in Tamil as pavai, that is to say, a doll made of some plastic substance, such as clay or wheat-flour. A crude representation of the intended victim is obtained by moulding a quantity of the material, and a nail or pin is driven into it at a spot corresponding to the limb or organ that is intended to be affected.20 For instance, if there is to be paralysis of the right arm, the pin is stuck into the right arm of the image; if madness is to result, it is driven into the head, and so on, appropriate mantras being chanted over the image, which is buried at midnight in a neighbouring cremation ground. So long as the pavai is underground, the victim will grow from bad to worse, and may finally succumb, if steps are not taken in time. Sometimes, instead of a doll being used, the corpse of a child recently buried is dug out of the ground, and re-interred after being similarly treated. The only remedy consists in another sorcerer being called in for the purpose of digging out the pavai. Various are the [248]methods he adopts for discovering the place where the doll is buried, one of them being very similar to what is known as crystal-gazing. A small quantity of a specially prepared thick black fluid is placed on the palm of a third person, and the magician professes to find out every circumstance connected with the case of his client’s mental or physical condition by attentively looking at it. The place of the doll’s burial is spotted with remarkable precision, the nail or pin extracted, and the patient is restored to his normal condition as by a miracle.”

The following form of sorcery resorted to in Malabar in compassing the discomfiture of an enemy is recorded by Mr Walhouse.21

“Make an image of wax in the form of your enemy; take it in your right hand at night, and hold your chain of beads in your left hand. Then burn the image with due rites, and it shall slay your enemy in a fortnight. Or a figure representing an enemy, with his name and date of his birth inscribed on it, is carved out of Strychnos Nux-vomica wood. A mantram is recited, a fowl offered up, and the figure buried in glowing rice-husk embers. Or, again, some earth from a spot where an enemy has urinated, saliva expectorated by him, and a small tuft of hair, are placed inside a tender cocoanut, and enclosed in a piece of Strychnos Nux-vomica. The cocoanut is pierced with twenty-one nails and buried, and a fowl sacrificed.”

A police inspector, when visiting a village a few years ago, was told by one of the villagers that a man was going to bury two wax dolls, in order to cause his death. The inspector accordingly went to the house of the suspected enemy, where he found the two dolls, and some books on witchcraft.

Figure Washed Ashore at Calicut.

To face p. 249.

The Native servant of a friend in Madras found buried [249]in a corner of his master’s garden the image of a human figure, which had been deposited there by an enemy who wished to injure him. The figure was made of flour, mixed with “walking foot earth,” i.e., earth from the ground, which the servant had walked over. Nails, fourteen in number, had been driven into the head, neck, and each shoulder, elbow, wrist, hip, knee, and ankle. Buried with the figure were fourteen eggs, limes, and balls of camphor, and a scrap of paper bearing the age of the servant, and the names of his father and mother. A Muhammadan fortune-teller advised the servant to burn the image, so at midnight he made an offering of a sheep, camphor, betel nuts, and cocoanuts, and performed the cremation ceremony.

In 1903, a life-size nude female human figure with feet everted and directed backwards, carved out of the soft wood of Alstonia scholaris, was washed ashore at Calicut in Malabar. Long nails had been driven in all over the head, body, and limbs, and a large square hole cut out above the navel. Inscriptions in Arabic characters were scrawled over it. By a coincidence, the corpse of a man was washed ashore close to the figure. Possibly it represented the figure of a woman who was possessed by an evil spirit, which was attached to it by a nail between the legs before it was cast into the sea, and was made on the Laccadive islands,22 some of the residents on which are notorious necromancers. It has been suggested23 that the figure may represent some notorious witch; that the nails were driven into it, and the mutilation made in order to injure her, and the spells added to destroy her magical powers; finally, that the image was cast into the sea as a means of getting rid of the [250]sorceress. There is a tradition that the goddess Bhagavati, who is worshipped at Kodungallur in Malabar, was rescued by a fisherman when she was shut up in a jar, and thrown into the sea by a great magician. The Lingadars of the Kistna district are said24 to have made a specialty of bottling evil spirits, and casting the bottles away in some place where no one is likely to come across them, and liberate them.

A few years ago, another wooden representation of a human being was washed ashore at Calicut. The figure is 11 inches in height. The arms are bent on the chest, and the palms of the hands are placed together as in the act of saluting. A square cavity, closed by a wooden lid, has been cut out of the abdomen, and contains apparently tobacco, ganja (Indian hemp), and hair. An iron bar has been driven from the back of the head through the body, and terminates in the abdominal cavity. A sharp cutting instrument has been driven into the chest and back in twelve places.

A life-size female figure, rudely scratched on a plank of wood, with Arabic inscriptions scrawled on it, and riddled with nails, was washed ashore on the beach at Tellicherry in Malabar. In the same district, a friend once picked up on the shore at Cannanore a wooden figure about 6 inches high, riddled with nails. His wife’s ayah implored him to get rid of it, as it would bring nothing but misfortune. He accordingly made a present of it to a recently married friend, whose subsequent career was characterised by a long series of strokes of bad luck, which his wife attributed entirely to the possession of the dreadful image.

Sometimes, in Malabar, “a mantram is written on the stem of the kaitha plant, on which is also drawn a figure [251]representing the person to be injured. A hole is bored to represent the navel. The mantram is repeated, and at each repetition a certain thorn (kāramullu) is stuck into the limbs of the figure. The name of the person, and of the star under which he was born, are written on a piece of cadjan, which is stuck into the navel. The thorns are removed, and replaced twenty-one times. Two magic circles are drawn below the nipples of the figure. The stem is then hung up in the smoke of the kitchen. A pot of toddy, and some other accessories, are procured, and with them the warlock performs certain rites. He then moves three steps backwards, and shouts aloud thrice, fixing in the thorns again, and thinking all the while of the particular mischief with which he will afflict the person to be injured. When all this has been done, the person whose figure has been drawn on the stem, and pricked with thorns, feels pain.”25

The following variant of the above rite has been described26:—

“A block of lead is moulded into the effigy of a man about a span in length. The stomach is opened, and the name and star of the intended victim are inscribed along with a charm on a lead plate, and placed therein. The effigy is laid recumbent on a plantain leaf, on which a little water mixed with sandal has first been sprinkled, and the smoke of an extinguished wick is passed thrice over it. Then nine little square pieces of plantain leaf (or leaves of Strychnos Nux-vomica) are placed round the effigy, and in each square some rice-flour, and chouflower petals. Beside the effigy are shells holding toddy and arrack (liquor), a burning lamp, and several little wicks. One of the wicks is lighted, and the flame passed thrice over the collection. Nine wicks are lighted, [252]and put on the nine squares. The charm inscribed on the lead plate is at this stage repeated fervently in an undertone no less than twenty-one times. This preamble, or one closely resembling it, is generally the beginning of the mantravādi’s programme. The rest of it is guided by the special circumstances of each case. Let us suppose that the wizard, having a victim in view, wishes the latter to be afflicted with burning pains and insufferable heat all over his body. The following is the ceremony he would perform. Thinking of the victim, he drives a thorn of Canthium parviflorum into the effigy, and then, folding up the collection detailed above in the plantain leaf, he proceeds to a tank or pool, and immerses himself up to the neck. He places the bundle on the surface of the water—he tells you it will float despite the lead—and, calling for a cock, cuts off its head, permitting the blood and the head to fall on the bundle. He presses the bundle down into the water, and submerges himself at the same time. Coming to the surface, he goes ashore, whistling thrice, and being very careful not to look behind him. Within twenty-one days, the charm will take effect. In order to induce a boil or tumour to appear in a victim’s foot, the mantravādi inscribes a certain charm on a sheet of lead, and stuffs the plate into a frog’s mouth, repeats another charm, and blows into the batrachian’s mouth, which is then stitched up, after which the creature is bound with twenty-one coils of string. The frog is next set down on a plantain leaf, the ritual already described with the squares, toddy, etc., is performed, the frog is wrapped up together with the various substances in the leaf, and buried at some spot where two or more roads meet, and which the victim is likely to pass. Should he cross the fateful spot, he will suddenly become conscious of a feeling in his foot, as though a thorn had pricked him. From that moment dates the beginning of a week of intense agony. His foot swells, fever sets in, he has pains all over his body, and for seven days existence is intolerable. The cherukaladi is another form of odi [253]mantram, and the manner in which it is performed is extremely interesting. The wizard takes three balls of rice, blackens one, reddens another, and passes through the third a young yetah fish (Bagarius yarrellii), after having put down its throat seven green chillies, seven grains of raw rice, and as many of pepper. In the carapace of a crab some toddy, and in the valve of a particular kind of mussel, some arrack is placed. The sorcerer conveys all these things to a hill built by termites (white-ants). The crown of the hill is knocked off, and the substances are thrown in. Walking round the mound thrice, the magician recites a charm, and comes away without looking over his shoulder.27 Within a very short time, similar effects are produced as those resulting from the previously described form of sorcery.”

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