Omens and Superstitions of Southern India




Mantrams, or consecrated formulæ, are supposed to be very powerful, and by their aid even gods can be brought under control. They are, inter alia, believed to be efficacious in curing disease, in protecting children against devils, and women against miscarriage, in promoting development of the breasts, in bringing offspring to barren women, in warding off misfortune consequent on marriage with a girl who has an unlucky mark, in keeping wild pigs from the fields, and warding off cattle disease. For the last purpose, the magical formula is carved on a stone pillar, which is set up in the village. They are divided into four classes, viz., mantrasara, or the real essence of magic; yantrasara, or the science of cabalistic figures; prayogasara, or the method of using these for the attainment of any object; tantrasara, or the science of symbolical acts with or without words.

Mantrasara includes all mantrams, with their efficacy for good and evil, and the methods of learning and reciting them with the aid of a guru (spiritual preceptor). They are said to be effective only when the individual who resorts to them is pure in mind and body. This can be attained by the recitation of ajapagayithri (216,000 inhalations and exhalations in twenty-four hours). These have to be divided among the deities Ganēsa, Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra, Jīvathma, Paramathma, and the guru, [181]in the proportion of 600, 6000, 6000, 6000, 1000, 1000, 1000. A man can only become learned in mantrams (mantravādi) by the regular performance of the recognised ceremonial, by proper recital of the mantrams, by burning the sacred fire, and by taking food. A Lambādi has been seen repeating mantrams over his patients, and touching their heads at the same time with a book, which was a small edition of the Telugu translation of St John’s gospel. Neither the physician nor the patient could read, and had no idea of the contents of the book.1 It is noted by the Abbé Dubois,2 that one of the principal reasons why so little confidence is placed in European doctors by Hindus is that, when administering their remedies, they recite neither mantrams nor prayers.

Yantrasara includes all cabalistic figures, the method of drawing and using them, and the objects to be attained by them. They are usually drawn on thin plates of gold, silver, copper, or lead. The efficacy of the figures, when drawn on gold, will, it is said, last for a century, while those drawn on the less precious metals will only be effective for six months or a year. Leaden plates are used when the yantrams are to be buried underground. The figures should possess the symbols of life, the eyes, tongue, eight cardinal points of the compass, and the five elements.

Prayogasara includes attraction or summoning by enchantment, driving out evil spirits, stupefaction, tempting or bringing a deity or evil spirits under control, and enticement for love, destruction, and the separation of friends.

The following are examples of cases in which a [182]European, who, having been trained by a guru, was well versed in the theory and practice of native magic, was called in to administer to Natives, who were under the spell of devils. In the first case, a Telugu girl, about seventeen years old, had been for some time possessed by her sister’s husband, under whose influence she used to eat abnormal quantities of food, tear off her clothes, and use indecent language in a voice other than her own. When the European arrived in her room, the devil, speaking through the girl, threatened to kill her, or the European, or the individual who put it into her. Under the spell of a suitable mantram, the devil departed, and its return was prevented by the wearing of a yantram. The other case was that of a boy, who was possessed by a devil. He was found, on the occasion of the visit of the European, lying down in the courtyard of his house, clad in an ample loin-cloth, and with a high temperature. Suddenly, through some invisible agency, a corner of his loin-cloth caught fire, which was stamped out. It then caught fire in another place, and eventually was riddled with burnt holes. This was the way in which the devil manifested its influence, and sometimes the boy got burnt. A mantram was recited, with the result that the burning ceased, and the fever abated. An impromptu yantram was made out of vibhūti (sacred ashes), and tied round the boy’s neck. A religious mendicant came along a short time afterwards, and treated the boy for some ordinary sickness not connected with the devil, but the medicine did him no good. Finding the yantram round his neck, the mendicant asserted that it was the cause of his failure, and ordered its removal. This the boy’s relations refused to permit. But the holy man ripped it off. Whereon the boy instantly fell down comatose. In recording these two cases, I have reproduced my [183]notes made on the occasion of an interview with the European.

Reference has been made (p. 180) to mantrams carved on stone pillars. The story of a stone slab at Rāyalcheruvu in the Anantapur district, known as the yantram rāyi or magic stone, is narrated by Mr Francis.3

“The charm consists of eighty-one squares, nine each way, within a border of tridents. Each square contains one or more Telugu letters, but these will not combine into any intelligible words. At the bottom of the stone are cut a lingam and two pairs of foot-prints. Some twelve years ago, it is said, the village suffered severely from cholera for three years in succession, and a Telugu mason, a foreigner who was in the village at the time, cut this charm on the stone to stop the disease. It was set up with much ceremony. The mason went round the village at night without a stitch of clothing on him, and with the entrails of a sheep hanging round his neck. Many cocoanuts were offered to the stone, and many sheep slain before it. The mason tossed a lamb in the air, caught it as it fell, tore its throat open with his teeth, and then bounded forward, and spat out the blood. More sheep and cocoanuts were offered, and then the slab was set up. The mason naturally demanded a substantial return for the benefit he had conferred on the inhabitants. When cholera now breaks out, the villagers subscribe together, and do pūja (worship) to the stone in accordance with directions left by him.”

Of similar stones in the South Arcot district, Mr Francis writes as follows4:—

“In several villages in the west of the district are magical slabs, which are supposed to cure cholera and cattle disease. On them, surrounded by a border of trisulas [184](the trident of Siva) are cut a series of little squares, in each of which is some Tamil letter. The villagers usually explain their existence by saying that, some forty years ago, an ascetic, whom they call the sangili (chain) sanyāsi from his predilection for wearing red-hot chains round his neck, came there when cholera and cattle disease were rife, and (for a consideration) put up these slabs to ward off his ills. He left directions that, when either disease reappeared, 108 pots of water were to be poured over the slab, 108 bilva (Ægle Marmelos) leaves tied to it and so on, and that men and animals were then to walk through the water which had been poured over it.”

Mr Francis writes further5 that “in many places, stone slabs may be seen set up in the outskirts of the villages, on what are said to be the old boundaries. These are thought to be able to ward off sickness, and other harm which threatens to enter the place, and are revered accordingly. Some are quite blank, others have letters cut on them, while others again bear the rude outline of a deity, and are accordingly given such names as Pidāri or Ellai Amman (the goddess of the boundary). To these last, periodical worship is often performed, but, in the case of the others, the attentions of the villagers are confined to an annual ceremony, whereat cocoanuts are broken, camphor is burnt, and a light is placed on the stone.”

Subramaniya Yantkam, Malabar.

To face p. 185.

It was noted by Lieutenant R. F. Burton6 that, in some hamlets, the Kotas of the Nīlgiris have set up curiously carved stones, which they consider sacred, and attribute to them the power of curing diseases, if the member affected is rubbed against them. At cross-roads in Bellary, odd geometric patterns may sometimes [185]be noticed. These are put there at night by people suffering from disease, in the hope that the affliction will pass to the person who first treads on the charm.7

As examples of yantrams, the following, selected from a very large repertoire, may be cited:—

Ganapathi yantram should be drawn on metal, and worship performed. It is then enclosed in a metal cylinder, and tied by a thread round the neck of females, or the waist or arm of men. It will cure disease, conquer an enemy, or entice any one. If the sacred fire is kept up while the formula is being repeated, and dry cocoanut, plantain fruits, money, ghī (clarified butter), and sweet bread put into it, the owner will be blessed with wealth and prosperity.

Bhadrakāli yantram. The figure is drawn on the floor with flour or rice, turmeric, charcoal powder, and leaves of the castor-oil plant. If the deity is worshipped at night, it will lead to the acquisition of knowledge, strength, freedom from disease and impending calamities, wealth, and prosperity. If pūja (worship) is celebrated by a mantravādi for twelve days with the face turned towards the south, it will produce the death of an enemy.

Sudarsana yantram, when drawn on a sheet of metal, and enclosed in a cylinder worn round the neck or on the arm, will relieve those who are ill or possessed by devils. If it is drawn on butter spread on a plantain leaf, pūja performed, and the butter given to a barren woman, there will be no danger to herself or her future issue.

Suthakadosham yantram. Children under one year of age are supposed to be affected, if they are seen by a woman on the fourth day of menstruation with wet clothes and empty stomach after bathing. She may not even [186]see her own baby or husband till she has changed her clothes, and taken food. To avert the evil, a waist-band, made of the bark of the arka plant (Calotropis gigantea), is worn.

Sarabha yantram will cure persons suffering from epilepsy or intermittent fever.

Subramaniya yantram, if regularly worshipped, will expel devils from those attacked by them, and from houses.

Hanumān yantram will protect those who are out on dark nights, and produce bodily strength and wisdom. If drawn on a sheet of gold, and pūja is performed to it every Saturday, it will bring prosperity, and help pregnant women during their confinement.

Pakshi yantram, if drawn on a sheet of lead, and kept in several places round a house, will keep snakes away.

Vatugabhairava yantram cures disease in those who are under eighteen years old, and drives out all kinds of evil spirits. If ashes are smeared on the face, and the mantram is uttered sixteen times, it will be very effective.

Varati yantram is very useful to any one who wishes to kill an enemy. He should sit in a retired spot at night, with his face turned towards the south, and repeat the mantram a thousand times for twenty days.

Prathingiri yantram is drawn on a sheet of lead, and buried at a spot over which a person, whose death is desired, will pass. It is then placed on the floor, on which the sacred fire is kindled. The mantram should be repeated eight hundred times for seven nights.

Chāmundi and Raktha Chāmundi yantrams are used for causing the death of enemies. The mantram should be written on a sheet of lead, and pūja, with the sacrifice of toddy and mutton, performed.

Hanumān Yantram, Malabar.

To face p. 186.

Asvārūda yantram enables a person wearing it to cover [187]long distances on horseback, and he can make the most refractory horse amenable by tying it round its neck.8

An inhabitant of Malabar presented Mr Fawcett with a yantram against the evil eye, which, if whispered over a piece of string, and tied round any part of the body affected, would work an instantaneous cure. A Cheruman at Calicut, who was wearing on his loin-string a copper cylinder containing a brass strip with mantrams, sold it to me for a rupee with the assurance that it would protect me from devils.

To produce an ulcer, which will cause the death of an enemy in ninety days, a mantram is written on a piece of cadjan (palm leaf), enclosed in an egg with a small quantity of earth on which he has urinated, and buried in an ant-hill. A fowl is killed, and its blood and some toddy are poured over the egg. To cure fever, the formula is written with the finger in water contained in a basin, and the appropriate words are repeated while the water is being drunk.

By some Muhammadans, on festival days, the names of holy persons, together with their sayings, are written on mango or palmyra leaves in ink made of charred rice. When the ink is dry, the leaves are washed in water, which is drunk. This is supposed to cure people of many obstinate diseases. A European official was informed by a Native magistrate in the Vizagapatam district that, when he wanted to tear up some old abkāri (liquor) licenses, a man implored him not to do so, as they had brought him life for a year, and were therefore worshipped. So the medicine was water, in which an old license had been dipped.

It is recorded9 by Mr Logan that “in 1877, a poor Māppilla (Muhammadan) woman residing in one of the Laccadive islands was put upon her trial for witchcraft [188]for importing into the island a betel leaf with a certain cabalistic and magical inscription on it; but it fortunately turned out for her that she had merely pounded it up, and rubbed it over her daughter’s body to cure her of fits. Ibn Batuta (the Arab traveller who visited South India in the fourteenth century) wrote of a Malayāli king who was converted to Islām by the leaf of ‘the tree of testimony,’ a tree of which it was related to him that it does not generally drop its leaves, but at the season of autumn in every year one of them changes its colour, first to yellow, then to red, and that upon this is written ‘There is no God but God: Muhammad is the Prophet of God,’ and that this leaf alone falls. The falling of the leaf was an annual event, and the leaf itself was efficacious in curing diseases. Nowadays the belief among the Muhammadans still subsists, that the leaves of a certain tree growing on Mount Deli (in Malabar) possess similar virtues.”

Metal bowls, engraved both on the outside and inside with texts from the Qurān, are taken or sent by Muhammadans to Mecca, where they are placed at the head of the tomb of the Prophet, and blessed. They are highly valued, and used in cases of sickness for the administration of medicine or nourishment.

It is on record that, at the battle of Seringapatam in 1799, an officer took from off the right arm of the dead body of Tīpu Sultān a talisman, which contained sewed up in pieces of fine flowered silk a charm made of a brittle metallic substance of the colour of silver, and some manuscripts in magic Arabic and Persian characters. A notorious Māppilla dacoit, who was shot by the police a few years ago, and whom his co-religionists tried to make a saint, was at the time of his death wearing five copper and silver charm cylinders round his waist. [189]

It is noted by Mr Logan10 that “when affliction comes, the animal affected is served with grass, fruit, etc., on which charms have been whispered, or is bathed in charmed water, or has a talisman in the shape of a palm leaf inscribed with charms rolled up and tied round its neck.”

The tooth or claw of a tiger, worn on the neck or round the loins, is considered effective against evil influences. A tiger’s whiskers are held to be a most potent poison when chopped up; so, when a tiger is killed, the whiskers are immediately singed off.11 They are represented in stuffed heads by the delicate bristles of the porcupine. When a Savara of Ganjam is killed by a tiger, the Kudang goes through a performance on the following Sunday to prevent a similar fate overtaking others. Two pigs are killed outside the village, and every man, woman, and child is made to walk over the ground whereon the pig’s blood is spilled, and the Kudang gives to each individual some kind of tiger medicine as a charm.12

In Malabar the tusks of a wild boar are, in cases of protracted labour, pressed over the abdomen of the woman from above downwards.

The hair of the bear is enclosed in a casket or cylinder, and tied to the girdle round the loins of male children, and in strings round the neck of female children, as a remedy against fever, and to prevent involuntary discharge of urine during sleep.13

1 of 2
2 of 2