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Omens and Superstitions of Southern India

A grāndha (palm-leaf book), describing how an enemy may be struck down, gives the following details. The head of a fowl with dark-coloured flesh is cut off. The head is then split open, and a piece of cadjan (palm-leaf), on which are written the name of the person to be injured, and the name of the star under which he was born, is stuck in the split head, which is then sewn up and the tongue stitched to the beak. The head is then inserted into a certain fruit, which is tied up with a withe of a creeper, and deposited under the enemy’s gateway.

In Malabar, a wooden figure is sometimes made, and a tuft of a woman’s hair tied on its head. It is fixed to a tree, and nails are driven into the neck and breast, to inflict hurt on an enemy. Sometimes a live frog or lizard is buried within a cocoanut shell, after nails have been stuck into its eyes and stomach. The deaths of [254]the animal and the person are supposed to take place simultaneously.28 When a Tamil woman of the Parivāram caste who commits adultery outside the caste is punished with excommunication, a mud image representing her is made, two thorns are poked into its eyes, and it is thrown away outside the village.29 At Bangalore in the Mysore province, a monthly festival is held in honour of Gurumurthi Swāmi, at which women disturbed by the spirits of drowned persons become possessed. The sufferer is dragged by the hair of the head to a tree, to which a lock of the hair is nailed. She flings herself about in a frenzy, and throws herself on the ground, leaving the lock of hair torn out by the roots fastened to the tree by the nail. Eventually the spirit goes up the tree, and the woman recovers.30 In the Madura district, women possessed by devils may be seen at the great temple at Madura every Navarātri, waiting for release.

“There are many professional exorcists, who are often the pūjāris (priests) at the shrine of the local goddess. At dead of night they question the evil spirit, and ask him who he is, why he has come there, and what he wants to induce him to go away. He answers through the mouth of the woman, who works herself up into a frenzy, and throws herself about wildly. If he will not answer, the woman is whipped with the rattan which the exorcist carries, or with a bunch of margosa (Melia Azadirachta) twigs. When he replies, his requests for offerings of certain kinds are complied with. When he is satisfied, and agrees to leave, a stone is placed on the woman’s head, and she is let go, and dashes off into darkness. The place at which the stone drops to the ground is [255]supposed to be the place where the evil spirit is content to remain, and, to keep him there, a lock of the woman’s hair is nailed with an iron nail to the nearest tree.”31

Sometimes a sorcerer makes an evil spirit take a vow that it will not trouble any one in the future, and, in return, offers to it the blood of fowls, a goat, etc. He then orders the spirit to climb a tree, and drives three large iron nails into the trunk thereof. As iron is disliked by evil spirits, the result is to confine the spirit in the tree, for it cannot descend beyond the nails. In the Telugu country, when a person is supposed to be possessed by a devil, it is often the practice to take him to some special tree, which is believed to be a favourite residence of demons, and drive a nail into the trunk. If the devil has any proper feeling, he thereupon leaves the man or woman, and takes up his abode in the tree. This ceremony is performed with certain religious rites, and involves considerable expenditure. Sometimes, devil drivers are called in, who “seat the woman in a fog of resin smoke, and work upon or beat her until she declares the supposed desires of the devil in the way of sacrifice; and, when these have been complied with, one of her hairs is put in a bottle, formally shown to the village goddess, and buried in the jungle, while iron nails are driven into the threshold of the woman’s house to prevent the devil’s return.”32

At the first menstrual ceremonies of a Pulaya girl in the Cochin State, she stands on the morning of the seventh day before some Parayas, who play on their flute and drum, to cast out the demons, if any, from her body. If she is possessed by them, she leaps with frantic [256]movements. In this case, the demon is transferred to a tree by driving a nail into the trunk, after offerings have been made.33 When an Oddē (Telugu navvy) girl reaches puberty, she is confined in a special hut, in which a piece of iron, and other things, are placed, to keep off evil spirits. In some castes, when a woman is in labour, an iron sickle is kept on the cot for a similar purpose. After delivery, she keeps iron in some form, e.g., a small crowbar, knife, or nails, in the room, and takes it about with her when she goes out. At a Nāyar funeral in Malabar, the chief mourner holds in his hand, or tucks into his waist-cloth, a piece of iron, generally a long key.34 At a marriage among the Mūsu Kammas in the Telugu country, an iron ring is tied to the milk-post. For curing sprains, it is said to be a common practice to keep near the patient a sickle, an iron measure, or any article of iron which is at hand. A ceremony, called Dwāra Pratishta, is performed by Lingāyats when the door-frame of a new house is set up, and an iron nail is driven into the frame, to prevent devils or evil spirits from entering the house. A former Rāja of Vizianagram would not allow the employment of iron in the construction of buildings in his territory, because it would inevitably be followed by smallpox or other epidemic.35

A few years ago, a Native servant was charged with beating with a cane a woman who was suffering from malarial fever after her confinement, in order to drive out a devil, which was said to be the spirit of a woman who was drowned some time previously. The woman died three days after the beating, and various abrasions were found on the head and body. The sub-magistrate held [257]that the hurt was part of the ceremony, to which the husband and mother of the woman, and the woman herself, gave their consent. But, as the hurt was needlessly severe, the servant was fined twenty-five rupees, or in default five weeks’ rigorous imprisonment.

The practice of extracting or knocking out some of the teeth of a magician is widespread throughout Southern India. In connection therewith Mr R. Morris writes to me as follows:—

“A sorcerer’s spells depend for their efficacy upon the distinctness with which they are pronounced. The words uttered by a man, some or all of whose front teeth are damaged, are not so clear and distinct as those of a man whose teeth are intact. Consequently, if a sorcerer’s front teeth are smashed, he is ruined as a sorcerer. And, if the front teeth of his corpse are broken or extracted, his ghost is prevented from bewitching people. It is necessary to mutilate a corpse, in order to prevent the ghost doing what the live man unmutilated could have done. For example, when a man is murdered, he is hamstrung, to prevent the ghost from following in pursuit.”

In connection with sorcery among the Oriyas, Mr S. P. Rice tells us36 that a girl was suffering from mental disease, and believed to be possessed by a devil. She declared that she was bewitched by a certain man, who had to be cured of his power over her. Accordingly, the friends and relatives of the girl went to this man’s house, dragged him out into the road, laid him on his back, and sat on his chest. They then proceeded to extract two of his front teeth with a hammer and pincers. Mr Rice adds that it does not appear how the cure was to work—whether the operators thought that words of cursing or magic, coming through the orifice of the teeth, [258]would be mumbled, and thus lose some of their incisive force, and therefore of their power for evil, or whether it was thought that the devil wanted room to fly out. Attacks upon supposed sorcerers are said to be not uncommon in the Jeypore Agency. In one instance, a wizard’s front teeth were pulled out by the local blacksmith, to render him unable to pronounce his spells with the distinctness requisite to real efficiency.37 In the Vizagapatam district, where a village was supposed to contain a witch, a Dāsari (religious mendicant) was called upon to examine his books, and name the person. He fixed on some wretched woman, whose front teeth were knocked out, and her mouth filled with filth. She was then beaten with a switch made from the castor-oil plant. A few years ago, a woman in the North Arcot district was suffering from severe pain in the abdomen, and she and her husband were made to believe that she was possessed by a devil, which a Bairāgi (religious mendicant) offered to expel. His treatment went on for some days, and the final operations were conducted by the side of a pond. The Bairāgi repeated mantrams, while the woman was seated opposite him. Suddenly she grew violently excited, and possessed by the deity Muniswara. She pulled the Bairāgi backwards by his hair, and cried out, “Break his teeth.” She then opened his mouth by pulling up the upper lip, and her husband took a small stone, and broke some of the incisor teeth. The woman continued to cry out, “He is chanting mantrams; pour water into his mouth, and stop his breathing.” A third party brought water, and the woman’s husband poured it into the Bairāgi’s mouth. A struggle ensued, and the woman called out, “I am losing my life; he is chanting; the mantram is in his throat; he is binding me by his [259]spell; put a stick into his throat.” The third party then brought the Bairāgi’s curved stick (yōgathandam), which the husband thrust into the Bairāgi’s mouth, with the result that he died. The woman was sent to a lunatic asylum, and her husband, as there was no previous intention to cause death, and he was evidently under the influence of blind superstition, received only four and a half months’ imprisonment. In a further case which occurred in the North Arcot district, a man was believed to have great power over animals, of which he openly boasted, threatening to destroy all the cattle of one of his neighbours. This man and his friends believed that they could deprive the sorcerer of his power for evil by drawing all his teeth, which they proceeded to do with fatal results. In the Kistna district, a Māla weaver was suspected of practising sorcery by destroying men with devils, and bringing cholera and other diseases. He was met by certain villagers, and asked for tobacco. While he stopped to get the tobacco out, he was seized and thrown on the ground. His hands were tied behind his back, and his legs bound fast with his waist-cloth. One man sat on his legs, another on his waist, and a third held his head down by the kudumi (hair-knot). His mouth was forced open with a pair of large pincers, and a piece of stick was thrust between the teeth to prevent the mouth closing. One of the assistants got a stone as big as a man’s fist, and with it struck the sorcerer’s upper and lower teeth several times until they were loosened. Then nine teeth were pulled out with the pincers. A quantity of milk-hedge (Euphorbia) juice was poured on the bleeding gums, and the unfortunate man was left lying on his back, to free himself from his bonds as best he could.38 In the Tamil country, the [260]Vekkil Tottiyans are supposed to be able to control certain evil spirits, and cause them to possess a man. It is believed, however, that they are deprived of their power as soon as they lose one of their teeth.

The Kondhs of Ganjam believe that they can transform themselves into tigers or snakes, half the soul leaving the body and becoming changed into one of these animals, either to kill an enemy, or to satisfy hunger by having a good feed on cattle. During this period they are said to feel dull and listless, and, if a tiger is killed in the forest, they will die at the same time. Mr Fawcett informs me that the Kondhs believe that the soul wanders during sleep. On one occasion, a dispute arose owing to a man discovering that another Kondh, whose spirit used to wander about in the guise of a tiger, ate up his soul, and he fell ill. Like the Kondhs, some Paniyans of Malabar are believed to be gifted with the power of changing themselves into animals. There is a belief that, if they wish to secure a woman whom they lust after, one of the men gifted with the special power goes to the house at night with a hollow bamboo, and goes round it three times. The woman then comes out, and the man, changing himself into a bull or dog, works his wicked will. The woman is said to die in the course of a few days. For assuming the disguise of an animal, the following formulæ are said39 to be effective:—

1. Take the head of a dog and burn it, and plant on it a vellakuthi plant. Burn camphor and frankincense, and adore it. Then pluck the root, mix it with the milk of a dog, and the bones of a cat. A mark made with the mixture on the forehead will enable a person to assume the form of any animal he thinks of. [261]

2. Worship with a lighted wick and incense before a stick of the malankara plant. Then chant the Sakti mantram one hundred and one times. Watch carefully which way the stick inclines. Proceed to the south of the stick, and pluck the whiskers of a live tiger. Make with them a ball of the veerali silk, string it with silk, and enclose it within the ear. Stand on the palms of the hand to attain the disguise of a tiger, and, with the stick in hand, think of a cat, white bull, or any other animal. Then you will appear as such in the eyes of others.

The name Chedipe (prostitute) is applied to sorceresses in the Godāvari district. The Chedipe is believed to ride on a tiger at night over the boundaries of seven villages, and return home at early morn. When she does not like a man, she goes to him bare-bodied at dead of night, the closed doors of the house in which he is sleeping opening before her. She sucks his blood by putting his toe in her mouth. He will then lie like a corpse. Next morning he feels uneasy and intoxicated, as if he had taken ganja, and remains in this condition all day. If he does not take medicine from some one skilled in the treatment of such cases, it is said that he will die. If he is properly treated, he will recover in about ten days. If he makes no effort to get cured, the Chedipe will molest him again, and, becoming gradually emaciated, he will die. When a Chedipe enters a house, all those who are awake will become insensible, those who are seated falling down as if they had taken a soporific drug. Sometimes she drags out the tongue of the intended victim, who will die at once. At other times, slight abrasions will be found on the skin of the victim, and, when the Chedipe puts pieces of stick thereon, they burn as if burnt by fire. Sometimes she will find him behind a bush, and, undressing there, will [262]fall on any passer-by in the jungle, assuming the form of a tiger with one of the legs in human form. When thus disguised, she is called Marulupuli (enchanting tiger). If the man is a brave fellow, and tries to kill the Chedipe with any instrument he may have with him, she will run away; and, if any man belonging to her village detects her mischief, she will assume her real form, and say blandly that she is only digging roots. The above story was obtained by a Native official when he visited a Koyi village, where he was told that a man had been sentenced to several years’ imprisonment for being one of a gang who had murdered a Chedipe for being a sorceress.

In the Vizagapatam district, the people believe that a witch, when she wishes to revenge herself on any man, climbs at night to the top of his house, and, making a hole through the roof, drops a thread down till the end of it touches the body of the sleeping man. Then she sucks at the other end, and draws up all the blood out of his body. Witches are said to be able to remove all the bones out of a man’s body, or to deposit a fish, ball of hair, or rags in his stomach. The town of Jeypore was once said to be haunted by a ghost. It was described as a woman, who paraded the town at midnight in a state of nudity, and from her mouth proceeded flames of fire. She sucked the blood of any loose cattle she found about, and, in the same way, revenged herself on any man who had insulted her.40

I am informed by Mr G. F. Paddison that, in cases of sickness among the Savaras of Vizagapatam, a buffalo is tied up near the door of the house. Herbs and rice in small platters, and a little brass vessel containing toddy, balls of rice, flowers, and medicine, are brought [263]with a bow and arrow. The arrow is thicker at the basal end than towards the tip. The narrow part goes, when shot, through a hole in front of the bow, which is too small to allow of the passage of the rest of the arrow. A Bēju (wise woman) pours some toddy over the herbs and rice, and daubs the patient over the forehead, breasts, stomach, and back. She croons out a long incantation to the goddess, stopping at intervals to call out “Daru,” to attract the attention of the goddess. She then takes the bow and arrow, and shoots twice into the air, and, standing behind the kneeling patient, shoots balls of medicine stuck on the tip of the arrow at her. The construction of the arrow is such that the balls are dislodged from its tip. The patient is thus shot at all over the body, which is bruised by the impact of the medicine balls. Afterwards the Bēju shoots one or two balls at the buffalo, which is taken to a path forming the village boundary, and killed with a tangi (axe). The patient is then daubed with the blood of the buffalo, rice, and toddy, and a feast concludes the ceremonial. Mr Paddison once gave some medicine to the Porojas of Vizagapatam during an epidemic of cholera in a village. They took it eagerly, but, as he was going away, asked whether it would not be a quicker cure to put the witch in the next village, who had brought on the cholera, into jail. In the Koraput tāluk of Vizagapatam, a wizard once had a reputation for possessing the power of transplanting trees, and it was believed that, if a man displeased him, his trees were moved in the night, and planted in some one else’s grounds.

It is recorded41 by the Rev. J. Cain that the Koyis of the Godāvari district “assert that the death of every one is caused by the machinations of a sorcerer, instigated thereto [264]by an enemy of the deceased, or of the deceased’s friends. So, in former years, inquiry was always made as to the person likely to have been at such enmity with the deceased as to wish for his death; and, having settled upon a suspicious individual, the friends of the deceased used to carry the corpse to the accused, and call upon him to clear himself by undergoing the ordeal of dipping his hands in boiling oil or water.42 Within the last two years, I have known of people running away from their village because of their having been accused of having procured by means of a wizard the death of some one with whom they were at enmity about a plot of land.”

According to another account,43 “some male member of the family of the deceased throws coloured rice over the corpse as it lies on the bed, pronouncing as he does so the names of all the known sorcerers who live in the neighbourhood. It is even now solemnly asserted that, when the name of the wizard responsible for the death is pronounced, the bed gets up, and moves towards the house or village where he resides.”

The Rev. J. Cain44 once saw a magician at work in the Godāvari district, “discovering the cause of the sickness which had laid prostrate a strong Koyi man. He had in his hand a leaf from an old palmyra leaf book, and, as he walked round and round the patient, he pretended to be reading. Then he took up a small stick, and drew a number of lines on the ground, after which he danced and sang round and round the sick man, who sat looking at him, evidently much impressed with his performance. Suddenly he made a dart at the man, and, stooping down, [265]bit him severely in two or three places in the back. Then, rushing to the front, he produced a few grains, which he said he had found in the man’s back, and which were evidently the cause of the sickness.”

In another case, a young Koyi was employed to teach a few children in his village, but ere long he was attacked by a strange disease, which no medicine could cure. As a last resource, a magician was called in, who declared the illness to have been brought on by a demoness at the instigation of some enemy, who was envious of the money which the lad had received for teaching. The magician produced a little silver, which he declared to be a sure sign that the sickness was connected with the silver money he was receiving for teaching.

A riot took place, in 1900, at the village of Korravanivasala in the Vizagapatam district, under the following strange circumstances. A Konda Dora (hill cultivator caste) named Korra Mallayya pretended that he was inspired, and gradually gathered round him a camp of four or five thousand people from various places. At first his proceedings were harmless enough, but at last he gave out that he was a reincarnation of one of the five Pāndava brothers, the heroes of the Mahābhārata, who are worshipped by the Konda Doras.45 He further announced that his infant son was the god Krishna; that he would drive out the English, and rule the country himself; and that, to effect this, he would arm his followers with bamboos, which would be turned by magic into guns, and would change the weapons of the authorities into water. Bamboos were cut, and rudely fashioned to resemble guns, and, armed with these, the camp was drilled by the Swāmi (god), as Mallayya had come to [266]be called. The assembly next sent word that they were going to loot Pāchipenta, and, when two constables came to see how matters stood, the fanatics fell upon them, and beat them to death. The local police endeavoured to recover the bodies, but, owing to the threatening attitude of the Swāmi’s followers, had to abandon the attempt. The district magistrate then went to the place in person, collected reserve police from various places, and rushed the camp to arrest the Swāmi and the other leaders of the movement. The police were resisted by the mob, and obliged to fire. Eleven of the rioters were killed, others wounded or arrested, and the rest dispersed. Sixty of them were tried for rioting, and three, including the Swāmi, for murdering the constables. Of the latter, the Swāmi died in jail, and the other two were hanged. The Swāmi’s son, the god Krishna, also died, and all trouble ended.

A Kāpu (Telugu cultivator) in the Cuddapah district once pretended to have received certain maxims direct from the Supreme Being, and forewarned his neighbours that he would fall into a trance, which actually occurred, and lasted for three days. On his recovery, he stated that his spirit had been during this time in heaven, learning the principles of the Advaita religion from a company of angels. One of his peculiarities was that he went about naked, because, when once engaged in separating two bullocks which were fighting, his cloth tumbled down, after which he never put it on again. This eccentric person is said to have pulled a handful of maggots from the body of a dead dog, to have put them into his mouth, and to have spat them out again as grains of rice. A shrine was built over his grave.46

A few years ago, a Muhammadan fakir undertook to drive away the plague in Bellary. Incantations were [267]performed over a black goat, which was sacrificed at a spot where several roads met. A considerable sum of money was collected, and the poor were fed. But the plague was not stayed.

On one occasion, an old woman hearing that her only son was dangerously ill, sought the aid of a magician, who proceeded to utter mantrams, to counteract the evil influences which were at work. While this was being done, an accomplice of the magician turned up, and, declaring that he was a policeman, threatened to charge the two with sorcery if they did not pay him a certain sum of money. The woman paid up, but discovered later on that she had been hoaxed.

Two men were, some years ago, sentenced to rigorous imprisonment under the following circumstances. A lady, who was suffering from illness, asked a man who claimed to be a magician to cure her. He came with his confederate, and told the patient to place nine sovereigns on a clay image. This sum not being forthcoming, a few rupees and a piece of a gold necklace were accepted. These were deposited on the image, and it was placed in a tin box, which was locked up, one of the men retaining the key. On the following day the two men returned, and the rupees and piece of gold were placed on a fresh image. Becoming inspired by the god, one of the men announced that the patient must give a gold bangle off her wrist, if she wished to be cured quickly. The bangle was given up, and placed on the image, which was then converted into a ball containing the various articles within it. The patient was then directed to look at various corners of the room, and repeat a formula. The image was placed in a box, and locked up as before, and the men retired, promising to return next day. This they failed to do, and the lady, becoming suspicious, broke [268]open the box, in which the image was found, but the money and ornaments were missing.

A case relating to the supposed guarding of treasure by an evil spirit came before the Court in the Coimbatore district in 1908. Two Valluvans (Tamil astrologers) were staying in a village, where they were foretelling events. They went to the house of an old woman, and, while telling her fortune, announced that there was a devil in the house guarding treasure, and promised to drive it out, if twenty rupees were given to them. The woman borrowed the money, and presented it to them. In the evening the Valluvans went into the kitchen, and shut the door. Certain ceremonies are said to have been performed, at the conclusion of which the woman and her son entered the room, and, in the light of a flickering torch, were shown a pit, in which there was a copper pot, apparently full of gold sovereigns. One of the astrologers feigned a sudden attack from the devil, and fell down as if unconscious. The other pushed the people of the house outside the door, and again shut it. Eventually the men came out, and announced that the devil was a ferocious one, and would not depart till a wick from an Erode paradēsi was lighted before it, for obtaining which a hundred rupees were required. If the devil was not thus propitiated, it would, they said, kill the people of the house sooner or later. The old woman borrowed the sum required, and her son and the two astrologers went to Karur to take the train to Erode, to meet the paradēsi. At Karur the two men took tickets for different places, and the son, becoming suspicious, informed the police, who arrested them. On them were found some circular pieces of card covered with gold tinsel.


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