Omens and Superstitions of Southern India

One of the occupations of the Kuruvikkārans (bird-catchers and beggars) is the manufacture and sale of [190]spurious jackal horns, known as narikompu. To catch the jackals they make an enclosure of a net, inside which a man seats himself armed with a big stick. He then proceeds to execute a perfect imitation of the jackal’s cry, on hearing which the jackals come running to see what is the matter, and are beaten down. Sometimes the entire jackal’s head is sold, skin and all. The process of manufacture of the horn is as follows. After the brain has been removed, the skin is stripped off a limited area of the skull, and the bone at the place of junction of the sagittal and lambdoid sutures above the occipital foramen is filed away, so that only a point, like a bony outgrowth, is left. The skin is then brought back, and pressed over the little horn which pierces it. The horn is also said to be made out of the molar tooth of a dog or jackal, introduced through a small hole in a piece of jackal’s skin, round which a little blood or turmeric paste is smeared to make it look more natural. In most cases only the horn, with a small piece of skull and skin, is sold. Sometimes, instead of the skin from the part where the horn is made, a piece of skin is taken from the snout, where the long black hairs are. The horn then appears surrounded by long black bushy hairs. The Kuruvikkārans explain that, when they see a jackal with such long hairs on the top of its head, they know that it possesses a horn. A horn-vendor, whom I interviewed, assured me that the possessor of a horn is a small jackal, which comes out of its hiding-place on full-moon nights to drink the dew. According to another version, the horn is only possessed by the leader of a pack of jackals. A nomad Dommara, whom I saw at Coimbatore, carried a bag containing a miscellaneous assortment of rubbish used in his capacity as medicine-man and snake-charmer, which included a collection of spurious jackal horns. To prove the genuineness [191]thereof, he showed me not only the horn, but also the feet with nails complete, as evidence that the horns were not made from the nails. Being charged with manufacturing the horns, he swore, by placing his hand on the head of a child who accompanied him, that he was not deceiving me. The largest of the horns in his bag, he gravely assured me, was from a jackal which he dug out of its hole on the last new-moon night. The Sinhalese and Tamils regard the horn as a talisman, and believe that its fortunate possessor can command the realisation of every wish. Those who have jewels to conceal rest in perfect security if, along with them, they can deposit a narikompu.14 The ayah (nurse) of a friend who possessed such a talisman, remarked: “Master going into any law-court, sure to win the case.” Two horns, which I possessed, were stolen from my study table, to bring luck to some Tamil member of my establishment.

The nasal bone of a jackal or fox, enclosed in a receptacle, is believed to ward off many evils. The nose of a hyæna is also held in great estimation as a charm. When a hyæna is killed, the end of the nose is cut off and dried, and is supposed to be a sovereign charm in cases of difficult labour, indigestion, and boils, if applied to the nostrils of the patient.15

In Malabar, silver finger-rings with a piece of bristle from the tail of an elephant set in them, are worn as a charm.

In the Vizagapatam district, a most efficacious charm, supposed to render a man invulnerable to every ill, consists of a small piece of black wool, given to every one who takes a black sheep for the priest of a temple on the Bopelli ghāt. Another much valued charm in this [192]district is called chemru mausa, which is described as being a small musk-rat only an inch and a half long, very scarce, and only found on rocky hills. It is worn in a gold or silver receptacle on the arm, and is supposed to render a man invulnerable against sword cuts and musket shots. In like manner, a mixture of gingelly (Sesamum) oil, the red dye which women use, and other ingredients, put into a small piece of hollow bamboo, and worn on the arm, are believed to protect a man against being shot with a bow or musket.

Many of the Kādir infants on the Ānaimalai hills have tied round the neck a charm, which takes the form of a dried tortoise foot; the tooth of a crocodile mimicking a phallus, and supposed to ward off attacks from a mythical water elephant which lives in the mountain streams, or wooden imitations of tiger’s claws.

The joints taken from the tail of the black scorpion are believed to ward off illness, if children wear them on their waist-thread.16

Of charms worn by the Nambūtiri Brāhmans in Malabar, the following are recorded by Mr F. Fawcett17:—

Ring, in which an ānavarāhan coin is set. This is a very lucky ring. Spurious imitations are often set in rings, but it is the genuine one which brings good luck.

Gold case fastened to a string round the waist, and containing a figure written on a silver plate. The man had worn it for three years, having put it on because he used to feel hot during the cold season, and attributed his condition to the influence of an evil spirit.

Two cylinders, one of gold, the other of silver. In each were some chakrams (Travancore silver coins) and a gold leaf, on which a charm was inscribed. One of [193]the charms was prepared by a Māppilla, the other by a Nambūtiri.

In connection with the wearing of charms by the Nāyars of Malabar, Mr Fawcett writes18 as follows:—

“One individual wore two rings made of an amalgamation of gold and copper, called tambāk on the ring-finger of the right hand for good luck. Tambāk rings are lucky rings. It is a good thing to wash the face with the hand, on which is a tambāk ring. Another wore two rings of the pattern called trilōham on the ring-finger of each hand. Each of these was made during an eclipse. An Akattu Charna Nāyar wore an amulet, to keep off the spirit of a Brāhman who died by drowning.”

As examples of charms worn by Bēdar men in the Canarese country, the following may be cited:—

String tied round right arm with metal box attached to it, to drive away devils. String round ankle for the same purpose.

Necklet of coral and ivory beads worn as a vow to the goddess Huligamma.

Necklets of ivory beads, and a gold disc with the Vishnupād (feet of Vishnu) engraved on it, purchased from a religious mendicant to bring good luck.

In an account of the Mandulas (medicine-men) of the Telugu country, Bishop Whitehead records19 that a baby three days old had an anklet made of its mother’s hair tied round the right ankle, to keep off the evil eye. The mother, too, had round her ankle a similar anklet, which she put on before her confinement. One of the men was also wearing an anklet of hair, as he had recently been bitten by a snake.

A metal charm-cylinder is sometimes attached to the [194]sacred thread, which is worn by Dēvāngas (a weaving caste), who claim to be Dēvānga Brāhmans.

I have seen the child of a Kuruba (Canarese agriculturist) priest wearing a necklet with a copper ornament engraved with cabalistic devices, a silver plate bearing a figure of Hanumān (the monkey god), as all his other children had died, and a piece of pierced pottery from the burial-ground, to ward off whooping-cough. The Rev. S. Nicholson informs me that, if a Māla (Telugu Pariah) child grinds its teeth in its sleep, a piece of a broken pot is brought from a graveyard, and, after being smoked with incense, tied round the child’s neck with a piece of string rubbed with turmeric, or with a piece of gut. In the Tamil country, the bark of a tree on which any one has hanged himself, a cord with twenty-one knots, and the earth from a child’s grave, are hung round the neck, or tied to the waist-string as talismans.

A Kota woman at Kotagiri on the Nīlgiris, was wearing a glass necklet, with a charm pendant from it, consisting of the root of some tree rolled up in a ball of cloth. She put it on when her baby was quite young, to protect it against devils. The baby had a similar charm on its neck. By some jungle Chenchus pieces of stick strung on a thread, or seeds of Givotia rottleriformis are worn, to ward off various forms of pain.

Small flat plates of copper, called takudu, are frequently worn by Tamil Paraiyan children. One side is divided into sixteen squares in which what look like the Telugu numerals nine, ten, eleven and twelve, are engraved. On the other side a circle is drawn, which is divided into eight segments, in each of which a Telugu letter is inscribed. This charm is supposed to protect the wearer from harm coming from any of the eight cardinal points of the Indian compass. Charms, in the form of metal cylinders, are [195]worn for the same purpose by adults and children, and procured from some exorcist.20

By some Mēdaras of the Telugu country, a figure of Hanumān (the monkey god) is engraved on a thin plate of gold with cabalistic letters inscribed on it, and worn on the neck. On eclipse days, a piece of root of the arka plant (Calotropis gigantea) is worn on the neck of females, and on the waist or arm of males.

In a note regarding moon-shaped amulets against the evil eye described by Professor Tylor,21 Mr. Walhouse mentions that crescents, made of thin plates of metal, sometimes gold, are worn by children on the west coast, suspended upon the breast with the point upwards. Neck ornaments in the form of a crescent are commonly worn by Muhammadan children.

Concerning the use of coins as charms, Mr V. Devasahayam writes as follows22:—

“Seeing a woman with several old coins strung on the tāli (marriage badge) string round the neck, I offered to buy them of her for a good price, but got only a torrent of abuse, since she, in her ignorance and superstition, supposed that Lutchmi, the goddess of fortune, would forsake her if she parted with the coins. In Tranquebar there lives a head mason, who always carries in his betel-nut bag a copper coin bearing the inscription of Konēri Rāyan, one of the later Pāndyans or early Nāyakars. The man would on no account part with this coin, for he believes that his success in business has improved since he came into possession of it, and that it will continue as long as he carries it with him. He says that he shall bequeath it to his family at his death, to hold in veneration almost amounting to worship. For [196]dog bite, some Natives tie an old copper coin with a bandage over the wound, and wear it till it has healed. Others rub the coin against a copper vessel, using a few drops of the juice of the datura plant in order to form a paste, and apply the paste to the wound. Whooping-cough is believed to be caused by the displeasure of Bhairava, the dog-god, and the whooping is regarded as a sort of barking, under possession by the god. To appease his anger, an old coin is hammered into a flat round disc, a rude figure of a dog engraved on it, and suspended as a charm to the sick child’s waist. In the treatment of skin disease, dyspepsia, and leprosy, old copper coins are ground to dust, heated till the dust is like ashes, and administered medicinally. Soon after a Sonaga woman is delivered of a child, she is made to swallow a small old copper coin together with some water. Natives believe that, during delivery, the whole system is so irritated that strong counter-irritants must be administered to prevent tetanus.”

Mercury cups, said to be made of an amalgam of mercury and tin, are stated to possess the property of allowing mercury, when poured in, to ooze through them, and pass out. Milk preserved in such a cup for a few hours is said to turn into hard curd. Milk kept over night in one of these cups, or an amulet made from the cup materials, are believed to exercise a most potent influence over the male fertilising element. Such an amulet, applied to the neck of a chorister, is said to have increased his vocal powers three or four times. Piles, and other bodily ailments, are believed to be cured by wearing rings, in the composition of which mercury is one of the ingredients.

In a case which was tried before a magistrate in Travancore, the accused, in order to win his case, had concealed in his under-cloth some yantrams, which had [197]been prepared for him by a sorcerer. The plaintiff, having got scent of this, gave information, and the charms were handed over to the magistrate. It is recorded in the Vigada Thūthan that, when a woman who gets tired of her husband sues him for maintenance, she wears charm bundles (manthira kattu), so that his evidence may be confused and incoherent. Such charms are said to be concealed in the hair of the head or in the headdress, and generally to consist of a lime fruit, which has been charmed by magical spells in a graveyard, after the sorcerer has performed certain ceremonies to guard him against devils catching him during the incantations. It is said that, in former times, if the chastity of a Tamil Paraiyan bride was suspected, she had to establish her virtue by picking some cakes out of boiling oil, and then husking some rice with her bare hand. Her hair, nails, and clothes were examined, to see that she had no charm concealed about her.23

A friend once dismissed a servant for cheating and lying. A short time afterwards, he found nailed to a teapoy a paper scroll containing a jasmine flower tied up with coloured threads. On the scroll were inscribed in Tamil the mystic syllable, “Om,” and “Nāma Sīva R. U. Masthān Sāhibu avergal pādame thunai” (I seek for help at the feet of Masthān sāhib). Masthān is a Muhammad saint. The servant of a European police officer, who had been caught out in all sorts of malpractices, tried to win back the good-will of his master by means of a charm, for which he paid fifteen rupees, placed under his master’s pillow.

It is recorded by Marco Polo24 that South Indian [198]pearl divers25 call in the services of an Abraiman (Brāhman?) to charm the sharks. “And their charm holds good for that day only; for at night they dissolve the charm, so that the fishes can work mischief at their will.” The prospects of a pearl fishery, when success seems certain, may be abruptly ruined by accidents from sharks, of which the divers have a superstitious, but not altogether unreasonable, dread. Before the fishery of 1889, at which I was present, the divers of Kilakarai on the Madura coast, as a preliminary to starting for the scene thereof, performed a ceremony, at which prayers were offered for protection against the attacks of sharks.

“The only precaution,” Tennent writes,26 “to which the Ceylon diver devotedly resorts is the mystic ceremony of the shark-charmer, whose power is believed to be hereditary. Nor is it supposed that the value of his incantations is at all dependent upon the religious faith professed by the operator, for the present head of the family happens to be a Roman Catholic. At the time of our visit, this mysterious functionary was ill, and unable to attend; but he sent an accredited substitute, who assured me that, although he was himself ignorant of the grand and mystic secret, the fact of his presence, as a representative of the higher authority, would be recognised and respected by the sharks.”

At the Tuticorin fishery in 1890, a scare was produced by a diver being bitten by a shark, but subsided as soon as a “wise woman” was employed. Her powers do not, however, seem to have been great, for more cases of shark-bite occurred, and the fishery had to be abandoned at a time when favourable breezes, clear water, plenty of boats, and oysters selling at a good price, indicated a successful financial result. [199]

1 Rev. J. Cain, “Ind. Ant.,” 1879, viii. 219.

2 “Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies,’ translation by H. K. Beauchamp, 1897, i. 143.

3 “Gazetteer of the Anantapur District,” 1905, i. 198.

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

5 “Gazetteer of the South Arcot District,” 1906, i. 92–3.

6 “Goa and the Blue Mountains,” 1851, 339.

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

8 F. Fawcett, Madras Museum Bull., 1901, iii., No. 3, 307.

9 “Malabar,” 1887, i. 175.

10 “Malabar,” 1887, i. 175.

11 M. J. Walhouse, “Ind. Ant.,” 1876, v. 23.

12 F. Fawcett, Journ. Anthrop. Soc., Bombay, i. 260.

13 “Manual of the Kurnool District,” 1886, 116.

14 Tennent, “Ceylon,” 1860, i. 145.

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

16 Madras Mail, 26th January, 1906.

17 Madras Museum Bull., 1900, iii., No. 1, 41.

18 Madras Museum Bull., 1901, iii., No. 3, 195–6.

19 Madras Dioc. Mag., July, 1905.

20 Rev. A. C. Clayton, Madras Museum Bull., 1906, v., No. 2, 86.

21 Journ. Anthrop. Inst., 1890, xix., 56.

22 Madras Christian Coll. Mag., January, 1907, vi. No. 7.

23 Rev. A. C. Clayton, Madras Museum Bull., 1906, v., No. 2, 66.

24 “The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian,” translation, 3rd ed., 1903, ii. 332.

25 The pearl fisheries are conducted from Tuticorin in the Tinnevelly district.

26 “Ceylon,” 1860, ii. 564–5.

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