Omens and Superstitions of Southern India

From a recent note on beliefs about the bull,59 I gather that “Manu enjoins a grihasta or householder to always travel with beasts which are well broken in, swift, endowed with lucky marks, and perfect in colour and form, without urging them much with the goad. Marks are accounted lucky if they appear in certain forms, and at certain spots. One of these marks is usually known as sudi in Telugu, and suli in Tamil. A sudi is nothing but a whorl or circlet of hair, a properly formed sudi being perfectly round in form, and nearly resembling the sudivalu, the chakrayudha of Vishnu, which is a short circular weapon commonly known as the discus of Vishnu. Every ox should have at least two of these circlets or twists of hair, one on the face, and one on the back, right about its centre. Two curls may occur on the face, but they should not be one above the other, in which case they are known [63]as kodē mel kodē, or umbrella above umbrella. The purchaser of such a bull, it is believed, will soon have some mishap in his house. Some, however, hold that this curl is not really so bad as it is supposed to be. If the curls are side by side, they are accounted lucky. In that case they are known as damāra suli, or double kettle-drum circlet, from the kettle-drums placed on either side of Brāhmani bulls in temple processions. It is sometimes known as the kalyāna (marriage) suli, because such a kettle-drum is often used in marriage processions. A curl on the hump is held to be a very good one, bringing prosperity to the purchaser. It is known as the kirita suli, or the crown circlet. The dewlaps should have a curl on either side, or none. A curl on only one side is described as not lucky. On the back of the animal, a curl must be perfectly round. If it is elongated, and stretches on one side, it is known as the pādai suli, or the bier circlet. Kattiri suli, or the scissor circlet, is found usually in the region of the belly, and is an unlucky sign. On the body is sometimes found the pūrān suli, the circlet named after the centipede from its supposed resemblance to it. On the legs is often found the velangu suli, or chain circlet, from its being like a chain bound round the legs. Both these are said to be bad marks, and bulls having them are invariably hard to sell. Attempts at erasure of unlucky marks are frequently noticed, for the reason that an animal with a bad mark is scarcely, if ever, sold to advantage. One of the most common and most effective ways of erasing an unlucky mark is to brand it pretty deep, so that the hair disappears, and the curl is no more observable. Animals so branded are regarded with considerable suspicion, and it is often difficult to secure purchasers for them.” [64]

The following are some of the marks on horses and cattle recorded by Mr Holmes:60

(a) Horses

1. Deobund (having control over evil spirits), also termed dēvuman or dēvumani, said by Muhammadans to represent the Prophet’s finger, and by Hindus to represent a temple bell. This mark is a ridge, one to three inches long, situated between the throat and counter along the line of the trachea. It is the most lucky mark a horse can possess. It is compared to the sun, and, therefore, when it is present, none of the evil stars can shine, and all unlucky omens are overruled.

2. Khorta-gad (peg-driver), or khila-gad, is a ridge of hair directed downwards on one or both hind-legs. It is said that no horse in the stable will be sold, so long as a horse with this mark is kept.

3. Badi (fetter), a ridge of hair directed upwards on one or both forearms on the outer side, and said to indicate that the owner of the animal will be sent to jail.

4. Thanni (teat). Teat-like projections on the sheath of the male are considered unlucky.

(b) Cattle

5. Bhashicam suli is a crown on the forehead above the line of the eyes, named after the chaplet worn by bride and bridegroom during the marriage ceremony. If the purchaser be a bachelor or widower, this mark indicates that he will marry soon. If the purchaser be a married man, he will either have the misfortune to [65]lose his wife and marry again, or the good fortune to obtain two wives.

6. Mukkanti suli. Three crowns on the forehead, arranged in the form of a triangle, said to represent the three eyes of Siva, of which the one on the forehead will, if opened, burn up all things within the range of vision.

7. Pādai suli. Two ridges of hair on the back on either side of the middle line, indicating that the purchaser will soon need a coffin.

8. Tattu suli. A crown situated on the back between the points of the hips, indicating that any business undertaken by the purchaser will fail.

9. A bullock with numerous spots over the body, like a deer, is considered very lucky.

The following quaint omen is recorded by Bishop Whitehead.61 At a certain village, when a pig is sacrificed to the village goddess Angalamman, its neck is first cut slightly, and the blood allowed to flow on to some boiled rice placed on a plantain leaf, and then the rice soaked in its own blood is given to the pig to eat. If the pig eats it, the omen is good, if not, the omen is bad; but, in any case, the pig has its head cut off by the pūjāri (priest).

If a Brāhmani kite (Haliastur indus), when flying, is seen carrying something in its beak, the omen is considered very auspicious. The sight of this bird on a Sunday morning is also auspicious, so, on this day, people may be seen throwing pieces of mutton or lumps of butter to it.62

If an owl takes refuge in a house, the building is at once deserted, the doors are closed, and the house is [66]not occupied for six months, when an expiatory sacrifice must be performed. Brāhmans are fed, and the house can only be re-entered after the proper hour has been fixed upon. This superstition only refers to a thatched house; a terraced house need not be vacated.63 Ill-luck will follow, should an owl sit on the housetop, or perch on the bough of a tree near the house. One screech forebodes death; two screeches forebode success in any approaching undertaking; three, the addition of a girl to the family by marriage; four, a disturbance; five, that the hearer will travel. Six screeches foretell the coming of guests; seven, mental distress; eight, sudden death; and nine signify favourable results. A species of owl, called pullu, is a highly dreaded bird. It is supposed to cause all kinds of illness to children, resulting in emaciation. At the sound of the screeching, children are taken into a room, to avoid its furtive and injurious gaze. Various propitiatory ceremonies are performed by specialists to secure its good-will. Amulets are worn by children as a preventive against its evil influences. To warn off the unwelcome intruder, broken pots, painted with black and white dots, are set up on housetops. In the Bellary district, the flat roofs of many houses may be seen decked with rags, fluttering from sticks, piles of broken pots, and so forth. These are to scare away owls, which, it is said, sometimes vomit up blood, and sometimes milk. If they sit on a house and bring up blood, it is bad for the inmates; if milk, good. But the risk of the vomit turning out to be blood is apparently more feared than the off chance of its proving to be milk is hoped for, and it is thought best to be on the safe side, and keep the owl at a distance.64 The Kondhs [67]believe that, if an owl hoots over the roof of a house, or on a tree close thereto, a death will occur in the family at an early date. If the bird hoots close to a village, but outside it, the death of one of the villagers will follow. For this reason, it is pelted with stones, and driven off. The waist-belt of a Koraga, whom I saw at Udipi in South Canara, was made of owl bones.

Should a crow come near the house, and caw in its usual rapid raucous tones, it means that calamity is impending. But, should the bird indulge in its peculiar prolonged guttural note, happiness will ensue. If a crow keeps on cawing incessantly at a house, it is believed to foretell the coming of a guest. The belief is so strong that some housewives prepare more food than is required for the family. There is also an insect called virunthoo poochee, or guest insect. If crows are seen fighting in front of a house, news of a death will shortly be heard. In some places, if a crow enters a house, it must be vacated for not less than three months, and, before it can be re-occupied, a purification ceremony must be performed, and a number of Brāhmans fed. Among the poorer classes, who are unable to incur this expense, it is not uncommon to allow a house which has been thus polluted to fall into ruins.65 In Malabar, there is a belief that ill-luck will result if, on certain days, a crow soils one’s person or clothes. The evil can only be removed by bathing with the clothes on, and propitiating Brāhmans. On other days, the omen is a lucky one. On srādh (memorial) days, pindams (balls of cooked rice) are offered to the crows. If they do not touch them, the ceremony is believed not to have been properly performed, and the wishes of the dead man are not satisfied. If the crows, after repeated trials, fail to eat the rice, the celebrant makes up his mind [68]to satisfy these wishes, and the crows are then supposed to relish the balls. On one occasion, my Brāhman assistant was in camp with me on the Palni hills, the higher altitudes of which are uninhabited by crows, and he had perforce to march down to the plains, in order to perform the annual ceremony in memory of his deceased father. On another occasion, a Brāhman who was staying on the Palni hills telegraphed to the village of Periakulam for two crows, which duly arrived confined in a cage. The srādh ceremony was performed, and the birds were then set at liberty. On the last day of the death ceremonies of the Oddēs (navvies), some rice is cooked, and placed on an arka (Calotropis gigantea) leaf as an offering to the crows. The arka plant, which grows luxuriantly on waste lands, is, it may be noted, used by Brāhmans for the propitiation of rishis (sages) and pithrus (ancestors).66 For seven days after the death of a Paniyan of Malabar, a little rice gruel is placed near the grave by the Chemmi (priest), who claps his hands as a signal to the evil spirits in the vicinity, who, in the shape of a pair of crows, are supposed to partake of the food, which is hence called kāka conji, or crow’s gruel. On the third day after the death of a Bēdar (Canarese cultivator), a woman brings to the graveside some luxuries in the way of food, which is mixed up in a winnowing tray into three portions, and placed in front of three stones set over the head, abdomen, and legs of the deceased, for crows to partake of. On the sixth day after the death of a Korava, the chief mourner kills a fowl, and mixes its blood with rice. This he places, with betel leaves and areca nuts, near the grave. If it is carried off by crows, everything is considered to have been settled satisfactorily. When a jungle Urāli has been excommunicated from his caste, he must kill a sheep or [69]goat before the elders, and mark his forehead with its blood. He then gives a feast to the assembly, and puts part of the food on the roof of his house. If the crows eat it, he is received back into the caste. A native clerk some time ago took leave in anticipation of sanction, on receipt of news of a death in his family at a distant town. His excuse was that his elder brother had, on learning that his son had seen two crows in coitu, sent him a post-card stating that the son was dead. The boy turned out to be alive, but the card, it was explained, was sent owing to a superstitious belief that, if a person sees two crows engaged in sexual congress, he will die unless one of his relations sheds tears. To avert this catastrophe, false news as to the death are sent by post or telegraph, and subsequently corrected by a letter or telegram announcing that the individual is alive. A white (albino) crow, which made its appearance in the city of Madras a few years ago, caused considerable interest among the residents of the locality, as it was regarded as a very good omen.

Among some classes in Mysore, there is a belief that, if a death occurs in a house on Tuesday or Friday, another death will speedily follow unless a fowl is tied to one corner of the bier. The fowl is buried with the corpse. Those castes which do not eat fowls replace it by the bolt of the door.67 Among the Tamils, if a burial takes place on a Saturday, a fowl must be buried or burnt, or another death will shortly occur in the family. There is a Tamil proverb that a Saturday corpse will not go alone. When a fowl is sacrificed to the deity by the jungle Paliyans of the Palni hills, the head ought to be severed at one blow, as this is a sign of the satisfaction of the god for the past, and of protection for the future. Should the head still hang, this would be a bad omen, foreboding calamities for the [70]ensuing year.68 An interesting rite in connection with pregnancy ceremonies among the Oddēs (navvies) is the presentation of a fowl or two to the pregnant woman by her maternal uncle. The birds are tended with great care, and, if they lay eggs abundantly, it is a sign that the woman will be prolific.

By some it is considered unlucky to keep pigeons about a dwelling-house, as they are believed, on account of their habit of standing on one leg, to lead to poverty. The temple or blue-rock pigeon is greatly venerated by Natives, who consider themselves highly favoured if the birds build in their houses. Should a death occur in a house where there are tame pigeons, all the birds will, it is said, at the time of the funeral, circle thrice round the loft, and leave the locality for ever. House sparrows are supposed to possess a similar characteristic, but, before quitting the house of mourning, they will pull every straw out of their nests. Sparrows are credited with bringing good luck to the house in which they build their nests. For this purpose, when a house is under construction, holes are left in the walls or ceiling, or earthen pots are hung on the walls by means of nails, as an attractive site for nesting. One method of attracting sparrows to a house is to make a noise with rupees as in the act of counting out coins.

There are experts who are able to interpret the significance of the chirping of lizards, which, inter alia, foretells the approach of a case of snake-bite, and whether the patient will die or not. The fall of a lizard on different parts of the body is often taken as an omen for good or evil, according as it alights on the right or left side, hand or foot, head or shoulders. A Native of Cochin foretold from the chirping of a lizard that a robbery would take [71]place at a certain temple. In accordance with the prophecy, the temple jewels were looted, and the prophet was sent to prison under suspicion of being an accomplice of the thieves, but subsequently released. The hook-swinging ceremony is said69 to be sometimes performed after the consent of the goddess has been obtained. If a lizard is heard chirping on the right, it is regarded as a sign of her consent. It is believed that the man who is swung suffers no pain if the cause is a good one, but excruciating agony if it is a bad one.

If an “iguana” (Varanus) enters a house, misfortune is certain to occur within a year, unless the house is shut up for six months. The appearance of a tortoise in a house, or in a field which is being ploughed, is inauspicious. In the Cuddapah district, a cultivator applied for remission of rent, because one of his fields had been left waste owing to a tortoise making its appearance in it. If, under these circumstances, the field had been cultivated, the man, his wife, or his cattle, would have died. It was pointed out that, as the tortoise was one of Vishnu’s incarnations, it should have been considered as an honour that the animal visited the field; but the reply was that a tortoise would be honoured in the water, but not on the land.70

The sight of two snakes coiled round each other in sexual congress is considered to portend some great evil. The presence of a rat-snake (Zamenis mucosus) in a house at night is believed to bring good fortune to the inmates. Its evil influence is in its tail, a blow from which will cause a limb to shrink in size and waste away.

In a valley named Rapuri Kanama in the Cuddapah district, there is a pond near a Siva temple to Gundheswara. [72]Those desirous of getting children, wealth, etc., should go there with a pure heart, bathe in the pond, and then worship at the temple. After this, they should take a wild pine-apple leaf, and place it on the border of the pond. If their wishes are to be granted, a crab rises from the water, and bites the leaf in two. If their wishes will not be granted, the crab rises, but leaves the leaf untouched. If, however, the person has not approached the pond with a pure heart, he will be set upon by a swarm of bees, which live in the vicinity, and will be driven off.71

If the nest of a clay-building insect is found in a house, the birth of a child is foretold; if a mud nest, of a male child; if a nest made of jungle lac, of a girl.72 [73]

1 “Gazetteer of the Nilgiris,” 1908, i. 338.

2 Bishop Whitehead, Madras Museum Bull., 1907, No. 3, v. 134.

3 Madras Museum Bull., 1907, No. 3, v. 139–40.

4 Malabar, 1887, i. 177–8.

5 Used as a fly-flapper (chamara).

6 “Malabar and its Folk,” Madras, 2nd edition, 99–100.

7 N. Sunkuni Wariar, “Ind. Ant.,” 1892, xxi. 96.

8 K. Srikantaliar, “Ind. Ant.,” 1892, xxi. 193.

9 M. N. Venkataswami, “Ind. Ant.,” 1905, xxxiv. 176.

10 “Gazetteer of the Godāvari District,” 1907, i. 66.

11 “Note on the Koravas,” 1908.

12 M. J. Walhouse, “Ind. Ant.,” 1881, x. 366.

13 “Manual of the Cuddapah District,” 1875, 293.

14 “Gazetteer of the Godāvari District,” 1907, i. 47.

15 M. J. Walhouse, “Ind. Ant.,” 1876, v. 21.

16 India, Trübner, Oriental Series, 1888, i. 182.

17 Rev. S. Mateer, “Native Life in Travancore,” 1883, 330–52.

18 M. J. Walhouse, Journ. Anthrop. Inst., 1874, iv. 373.

19 Voyage to the East Indies, 1777 and 1781.

20 Rev. J. A. Sharrock, “South Indian Missions,” 1910, 9.

21 See Emma Rosenbusch (Mrs Clough), “While sewing Sandals, or Tales of a Telugu Pariah Tribe.”

22 L. K. Anantha Krishna Iyer, “The Cochin Tribes and Castes,” 1909, i. 114.

23 “Ind. Ant.,” 1873, ii. 65.

24 F. Fawcett, “Note on the Koravas,” 1908.

25 S. P. Rice, “Occasional Essays on Native South Indian Life,” 1901, 95–6.

26 Jeypore, Breklum, 1901.

27 F. Fawcett, “Note on the Koravas,” 1908.

28 Fire-walking, see Thurston, “Ethnographic Notes in Southern India,” 1907, 471–86.

29 Udaya is one of the divisions of the Badagas, which ranks as superior to the other divisions.

30 Koyis, see Cain, Madras Christian College Magazine (old series), v. 352–9, and vi. 274–80; also “Ind. Ant.,” v., 1876, and viii., 1879.

31 “Gazetteer of the South Arcot District,” 1906, i. 98.

32 Madras Museum Bull., 1907, No. 3, v. 166.

33 “Manual of the Cuddapah District,” 1875, 291.

34 The Holeyas were formerly agrestic serfs.

35 “Ind. Ant.,” 1873, ii. 66.

36 Earth-eating (geophagy), see my “Ethnographic Notes in Southern India,” 1907, 552–4.

37 Letters from Malabar, Translation, Madras, 1862.

38 F. Fawcett, “Note on the Koravas,” 1908.

39 “Manual of the Cuddapah District,” 1875, 288.

40 Ibid., 285.

41 M. Paupa Rao Naidu, “The Criminal Tribes of India,” Madras, 1907, No. 3.

42 T. M. Natesa Sastri, Calcutta Review, 1905, cxxi. 501.

43 “Notes on the Criminal Classes of the Madras Presidency,” 1892, 90.

44 “Malabar and its Folk,” Madras, 2nd. ed., 58–9.

45 Letters from Madras, 1843.

46 “Hindu Feasts, Fasts, and Ceremonies,” Madras, 1903, 32–3.

47 Madras Weekly Mail, 15th October, 1908.

48 Rev. E. W. Thompson, “The Last Siege of Seringapatam,” 1907.

49 “An Indian Olio,” 98.

50 Manual of the North Arcot District” 1895, i. 223–4.

51 S. M. Natesa Sastri, “Ind. Ant.,” 1889, xviii. 287.

52 Rev. J. Cain, “Ind. Ant.,” 1875, iv. 198.

53 F. Fawcett, “Note on the Koravas,” 1908.

54 “Ind. Ant.,” 1876, v. 358.

55 “Manual of the Ganjam District,” 1882, 71–2.

56 “Gazetteer of the Bellary District,” 1904, i. 61.

57 Madras Agricult. Bull., 1900, ii. No. 42.

58 Madras Dioc. Mag., 1908.

59 Madras Weekly Mail, 7th October 1909.

60 Loc. cit.

61 Madras Museum Bull., 1907, v., No. 3, 173.

62 Many of the bird superstitions here recorded were published in an article in the Madras Mail.

63 “Manual of the Cuddapah District,” 1875, 293.

64 “Gazetteer of the Bellary District,” 1904, i. 61.

65 “Manual of the Cuddapah District,” 1875, 293.

66 See Thurston, “Ethnographic Notes in Southern India,” 1907, 44–7.

67 J. S. F. Mackenzie, “Ind. Ant.,” 1873, ii., 68.

68 Rev. F. Dahmen, “Anthropos,” 1908, iii. 28.

69 Rev. M. Phillips, “Evolution of Hinduism,” 1903, 123.

70 “Manual of the Cuddapah District,” 1875, 292.

71 “Manual of the Cuddapah District,” 1875, 288.

72 “Gazetteer of the Tanjore District,” 1906, i. 66.

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