Omens and Superstitions of Southern India

A few years ago, a Zamindar (landowner) in the [269]Godāvari district engaged a Muhammadan to exorcise a devil which haunted his house. The latter, explaining that the devil was a female and fond of jewelry, induced the Zamindar to leave a large quantity of jewels in a locked receptacle in a certain room, to which only the exorcist, and of course the devil, had access. The latter, it was supposed, would be gratified by the loan of the jewels, and would cease from troubling. The exorcist managed to open the receptacle and steal the jewels, and, such was the faith of his employer, that the offence was not suspected until a police inspector seized Rs. 27,000 worth of jewels in Vizagapatam on suspicion, and they were with difficulty traced to their source.

In a note on wonder-working in India, the Rev. J. Sharrock narrates the following incident.

“A Sanyāsi (ascetic) was ordered with contempt from the house of a rich Zemindar. Thereupon, the former threatened to curse his house by despatching a devil to take possession of it that very night. On one of the doors of the inner courtyard he made a number of magical passes, and then left the house in high dudgeon. As soon as it grew dark, the devil appeared on the door in flickering flames of phosphorus, and almost frightened the Zemindar and the other inmates out of their five senses. Wild with terror, they fled to the Sanyāsi, and begged and entreated him to come and exorcise the devil. Of course he refused, and of course they pressed him with greater and greater presents till he was satisfied. Then he came with kungkuma (a mixture of turmeric, alum, and lime-juice), and rubbed the fiery demon off with the usual recitation of mantras. During the rest of his stay, the Sanyāsi was treated with the most profound respect, while his sishyas (disciples) received the choicest food and fruits that could be obtained.”


The following cases are called from the annual reports of the Chemical Examiner to the Government of Madras, in further illustration of the practices of pseudo-magicians.

(a) A wizard came to a village, in order to exorcise a devil which possessed a certain woman. He was treated like a prince, and was given the only room in the house, while the family turned out into the hall. He lived there for several days, and then commenced his ceremonies. He drew the figure of a lotus on the floor, made the woman sit down, and commenced to twist her hair with his wand. When she cried out, he sent her out of the room, saying she was unworthy to sit on the lotus figure, but promising nevertheless to exorcise the devil without her being present. He found a half-witted man in the village, drugged him with ganja, brought him to the house, and performed his ceremonies on this man, who, on becoming intoxicated with the drug, began to get boisterous. The wizard tied him up with a rope, because he had become possessed of the devil that had possessed the woman. The man was subsequently traced by his relatives, found in an unconscious state, and taken to hospital. The wizard got rigorous imprisonment.

(b) Some jewels were lost, and a mantrakāra (dealer in magical spells) was called in to detect the thief. The magician erected a screen, behind which he lit a lamp, and did other things to impress the crowd with the importance of his mantrams. To the assembly he distributed betel-leaf patties containing a white powder, said to be holy ashes, and the effect of it on the suspected individuals, who formed part of the crowd, is said to have been instantaneous. So magical was the effect of this powder in detecting the thief, that the unfortunate man ultimately vomited blood. When the people remonstrated with the magician for the severity of his magic, he [271]administered to the sufferer an antidote of solution of cow-dung and the juice of some leaf. The holy ashes were found to contain corrosive sublimate, and the magician got eighteen months’ rigorous imprisonment.

I may conclude with a reference to an interesting note on the Jesuits of the Madura Mission in the middle of the seventeenth century by the Rev. J. S. Chandler, who writes as follows:—

“Dr Nobili lodged in an incommodious hut, and celebrated mass in another hut. The older he got, the more he added to the austerity of his life. The Pandārams47 (non-Brāhman priests) made a new attempt against his life. One fine day they held a council as to the death he should die, and decided on magic. They summoned the most famous magician of the kingdom. Every one knew of it. When the day came, the magician presented himself, followed by a crowd, all alert to witness the vengeance of their gods. He insolently arranged his machines, and then described circles in the air. Dr Nobili regarded him with a composed air. Soon the ceremonies became more noisy. The features of the magician became decomposed, his eyes inflamed, his face contracted like that of one possessed; he ground his teeth, howled, and struck the ground with his feet, hands, and forehead. Dr Nobili asked what comedy he was pretending to play. Then he recited magical sentences. Dr Nobili begged him to spare his throat. The magician said ‘You have laughed, now die,’ and threw a black powder into the air, at the same time looking at his victim, to see him fall at his feet, and then ... skedaddled from the jeers of the crowd. Dr Nobili addressed the crowd, and from that time they regarded him as more than human.”

Mr Chandler narrates further that48 “a Jōgi (sorcerer [272]and exorcist) lost in public opinion by pretending to perform a miracle in imitation of a previous Jōgi, by making a stone bull eat. A quantity of rice and other grains was served to the figure, but the vahānam (vehicle) of Rudra was not hungry. The Jōgi made many grimaces, threatened, and even employed a rattan cane, but the bull remained motionless. Not so the spectators, who overwhelmed the Jōgi with blows, and he was only saved by his friends, conducted to the frontier by soldiers, and forbidden ever again to enter the kingdom.” [273]

1 A. C. Haddon, “Magic and Fetishism” (Religions, ancient and modern), 1906, 51.

2 See the articles devoted to these castes in my “Castes and Tribes of Southern India,” 1909.

3 B. Govinda Nambiar, Indian Review, May, 1900.

4 M. J. Walhouse, “Ind. Ant.,” 1876, v. 22.

5 “Report of the Chemical Examiner, Madras,” 1908, 5.

6 Journ. and Proc. Asiat. Soc., Bengal, 1905, i. No. 9.

7 Rev. A. C. Clayton, Madras Museum Bull., 1906, v., No. 2, 82.

8 Cf. odi cult, 228–9.

9 “Ind. Ant.,” 1876, v. 22.

10 Gloyer, Jeypore, Breklum, 1901.

11 “Gazetteer of the Bellary District,” 1904, i. 60.

12 “Gazetteer of the South Arcot District,” 1906, i. 93.

13 “Gazetteer of the Tanjore District,” 1906, i. 76.

14 Journ. Anthrop. Soc., Bombay, ii. 1890, 282–5.

15 Indian Review, May, 1900.

16 Journ. Royal Asiat. Soc., 1884, xvi. 185–6.

17 For a detailed account of demonolatry among the Shānans, I would refer the reader to the Rev. R. (afterwards Bishop) Caldwell’s now scarce “Tinnevelly Shānans,” 1849.

18 Madras Museum Bull., 1900, iii., No. 1, 51.

19 Madras Mail, 18th November, 1905.

20 An example of so-called homœopathic magic. See Haddon, “Magic and Fetishism” (Religions ancient and modern), 1906, 19–22.

21 “Ind. Ant.,” 1876, v. 22.

22 Laccadiveans come to the Malabar coast in sailing-boats.

23 Nature, 18th October, 1906.

24 Madras Mail, 18th November, 1905.

25 F. Fawcett, Madras Museum Bull., 1901, iii., No. 3, 317.

26 Madras Mail, 19th November, 1897.

27 In like manner, the chief mourner at the funeral among many castes, after breaking a water-pot at the graveside, retires without looking back.

28 F. Fawcett, Madras Museum Bull., 1900, iii., No. 1, 51.

29 “Gazetteer of the Madura District,” 1906, i. 103.

30 F. Fawcett, Journ. Anthrop. Soc., Bombay, i. 533–5.

31 “Gazetteer of the Madura District,” 1906, i. 87.

32 “Gazetteer of the Vizagapatam District,” 1907, i. 73.

33 L. K. Anantha Krishna Iyer, “The Cochin Tribes and Castes,” 1909, i. 99.

34 F. Fawcett, Madras Museum Bull., 1901, iii., No. 3, 247.

35 M. J. Walhouse, “Ind. Ant.” 1881, x. 364.

36 “Occasional Essays on Native South Indian Life,” 1901, 70–1.

37 “Gazetteer of the Vizagapatam District,” 1907, i. 205.

38 H. J. Stokes, “Ind. Ant.,” 1876, v. 355–6.

39 L. K. Anantha Krishna Iyer, “The Cochin Tribes and Castes,” 1909, i. 167.

40 “Gazetteer of the Vizagapatam District,” 1907, i. 73.

41 “Ind. Ant.,” 1876, v. 358.

42 Trial by Ordeal, see my “Ethnographic Notes in Southern India,” 1907, 407–32.

43 “Gazetteer of the Godāvari District,” 1907, i. 64.

44 Madras Christ. Coll. Mag., 1887–8, v. 355.

45 At times of census, the Konda Doras have returned themselves as Pāndava kulam, or Pāndava caste.

46 “Manual of the Cuddapah District,” 1875, 290–1.

47 Some Pandārams are managers of Siva temples.

48 “A Madura Missionary, John Eddy Chandler: a Sketch of his Life,” Boston.

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