Omens and Superstitions of Southern India



Human Sacrifice

“The best known case,” Mr Frazer writes,1 “of human sacrifices systematically offered to ensure good crops, is supplied by the Khonds or Kandhs, a Dravidian race in Bengal and Madras. Our knowledge of them is derived from the accounts written by British officers, who, forty or fifty years ago, were engaged in putting them down. The sacrifices were offered to the earth goddess, Tari Pennu or Bera Pennu, and were believed to ensure good crops, and immunity from all diseases and accidents. In particular, they were considered necessary in the cultivation of turmeric, the Khonds arguing that the turmeric could not have a deep red colour without the shedding of blood. The victim, a Meriah, was acceptable to the goddess only if he had been purchased, or had been born a victim, that is, the son of a victim father, or had been devoted as a child by his father or guardian.”

In 1837, Mr Russell, in a report on the districts entrusted to his control, wrote as follows2:—

“The ceremonies attending the barbarous rite (Kondh human sacrifice) vary in different parts of the country. In the Māliahs of Goomsur, the sacrifice is offered annually to Thadha Pennoo, under the effigy of a bird intended to [200]represent a peacock, with the view of propitiating the deity to grant favourable seasons and crops. The ceremony is performed at the expense of, and in rotation, by certain mootahs (districts) composing a community, and connected together from local circumstances. Besides these periodical sacrifices, others are made by single mootahs, and even by individuals, to avert any threatening calamity from sickness, murrain, or other causes. Grown men are the most esteemed (as victims), because the most costly. Children are purchased, and reared for years with the family of the person who ultimately devotes them to a cruel death, when circumstances are supposed to demand a sacrifice at his hands. They seem to be treated with kindness, and, if young, are kept under no constraint; but, when old enough to be sensible of the fate that awaits them, they are placed in fetters, and guarded. Most of those who were rescued had been sold by their parents or nearest relations, a practice which, from all we could learn, is very common. Persons of riper age are kidnapped by wretches who trade in human flesh. The victim must always be purchased. Criminals, or prisoners captured in war, are not considered fitting subjects. The price is paid indifferently in brass utensils, cattle, or coin. The zanee (or priest), who may be of any caste, officiates at the sacrifice, but he performs the poojah (offering of flowers, incense, etc.) to the idol through the medium of the Toomba, who must be a Khond child under seven years of age. This child is fed and clothed at the public expense, eats with no other person, and is subjected to no act deemed impure. For a month prior to the sacrifice, there is much feasting and intoxication, and dancing round the Meriah, who is adorned with garlands, etc., and, on the day before the performance of the barbarous rite, is stupefied with toddy, and made to sit, or, if necessary, is bound at the bottom of a post bearing the effigy above described. The assembled multitude then dance around to music, and, addressing the earth, say ‘Oh! God, we offer the sacrifice to you. Give us good crops, seasons, [201]and health.’ After which they address the victim. ‘We bought you with a price, and did not seize you. Now we sacrifice you according to custom, and no sin rests with us.’ On the following day, the victim being again intoxicated, and anointed with oil, each individual present touches the anointed part, and wipes the oil on his own head. All then proceed in procession around the village and its boundaries, preceded by music, bearing the victim and a pole, to the top of which is attached a tuft of peacock’s feathers. On returning to the post, which is always placed near the village deity called Zakaree Pennoo, and represented by three stones, near which the brass effigy in the shape of the peacock is buried, they kill a pig in sacrifice, and, having allowed the blood to flow into a pit prepared for the purpose, the victim who, if it has been found possible, has been previously made senseless from intoxication, is seized and thrown in, and his face pressed down until he is suffocated in the bloody mire amid the noise of instruments. The Zanee then cuts a piece of the flesh from the body, and buries it with ceremony near the effigy and village idol, as an offering to the earth. All the rest afterwards go through the same form, and carry the bloody prize to their villages, where the same rites are performed, part being interred near the village idol, and little bits on the boundaries. The head and face remain untouched, and the bones, when bare, are buried with them in the pit. After this horrid ceremony has been completed, a buffalo calf is brought in front of the post, and, his forefeet having been cut off, is left there till the following day. Women, dressed in male attire, and armed as men, then drink, dance, and sing round the spot, the calf is killed and eaten, and the Zanee is dismissed with a present of rice, and a hog or calf.”

In the same year, Mr Arbuthnot, Collector of Vizagapatam, reported as follows:—

“Of the hill tribe Codooloo (Kondh), there are said to be two distinct classes, the Cotia Codooloo and Jathapoo [202]Codooloo. The former class is that which is in the habit of offering human sacrifices to the god called Jenkery, with a view to secure good crops. This ceremony is generally performed on the Sunday preceding or following the Pongal feast. The victim is seldom carried by force, but procured by purchase, and there is a fixed price for each person, which consists of forty articles such as a bullock, a male buffalo, a cow, a goat, a piece of cloth, a silk cloth, a brass pot, a large plate, a bunch of plantains, etc. The man who is destined for the sacrifice is immediately carried before the god, and a small quantity of rice coloured with saffron (turmeric) is put upon his head. The influence of this is said to prevent his attempting to escape, even though set at liberty. It would appear, however, that, from the moment of his seizure till he is sacrificed, he is kept in a continued state of stupefaction or intoxication. He is allowed to wander about the village, to eat and drink anything he may take a fancy to, and even to have connection with any of the women whom he may meet. On the morning set apart for the sacrifice, he is carried before the idol in a state of intoxication. One of the villagers officiates as priest, who cuts a small hole in the stomach of the victim, and with the blood that flows from the wound the idol is besmeared. Then the crowds from the neighbouring villages rush forward, and he is literally cut into pieces. Each person who is so fortunate as to procure it carries away a morsel of the flesh, and presents it to the idol of his own village.”

Meriah Sacrifice Post.

(Hatti mundo.)

To face p. 202.

Concerning a method of Kondh sacrifice, which is illustrated by the wooden post preserved in the Madras Museum, Colonel Campbell records3 that “one of the most common ways of offering the sacrifice in Chinna Kimedi is to the effigy of an elephant (hatti mundo or elephant’s head) rudely carved in wood, fixed on the top [203]of a stout post, on which it is made to revolve. After the performance of the usual ceremonies, the intended victim is fastened to the proboscis of the elephant, and, amidst the shouts and yells of the excited multitude of Khonds, is rapidly whirled round, when, at a given signal by the officiating Zanee or priest, the crowd rush in, seize the Meriah, and with their knives cut the flesh off the shrieking wretch so long as life remains. He is then cut down, the skeleton burnt, and the horrid orgies are over. In several villages I counted as many as fourteen effigies of elephants, which had been used in former sacrifices. These I caused to be overthrown by the baggage elephants attached to my camp in the presence of the assembled Khonds, to show them that these venerated objects had no power against the living animal, and to remove all vestiges of their bloody superstition.”

It is noted by Risley4 that, while the crowd hacked the body of the victim, they chanted a ghastly hymn, an extract from which illustrates very clearly the theory of sympathetic magic underlying the ritual:—

“As the tears stream from thine eyes,

So may the rain pour down in August;

As the mucus trickles from thy nostrils,

So may it drizzle at intervals;

As thy blood gushes forth,

So may the vegetation sprout;

As thy gore falls in drops,

So may the grains of rice form.”

In another report, Colonel Campbell describes how the miserable victim is dragged along the fields, surrounded by a crowd of half intoxicated Kondhs who, shouting and screaming, rush upon him, and with their knives cut the flesh piecemeal from the bones, avoiding the head and [204]bowels, till the living skeleton, dying from loss of blood, is relieved from torture, when its remains are burnt, and the ashes mixed with the new grain to preserve it from insects. Yet again, he describes a sacrifice which was peculiar to the Kondhs of Jeypore.

“It is,” he says, “always succeeded by the sacrifice of three human beings, two to the sun in the east and west of the village, and one in the centre, with the usual barbarities of the Meriah. A stout wooden post about six feet long is firmly fixed in the ground, at the foot of it a narrow grave is dug, and to the top of the post the victim is firmly fastened by the long hair of his head. Four assistants hold his outstretched arms and legs, the body being suspended horizontally over the grave, with the face toward the earth. The officiating Junna or priest, standing on the right side, repeats the following invocation, at intervals hacking with his sacrificing knife the back part of the shrieking victim’s neck. ‘Oh! mighty Manicksoro, this is your festal day. To the Khonds the offering is Meriah, to the kings Junna. On account of this sacrifice, you have given to kings kingdoms, guns, and swords. The sacrifice we now offer you must eat, and we pray that our battle-axes may be converted into swords, our bows and arrows into gunpowder and balls; and, if we have any quarrels with other tribes, give us the victory. Preserve us from the tyranny of kings and their officers.’ Then, addressing the victim, ‘That we may enjoy prosperity, we offer you as a sacrifice to our god Manicksoro, who will immediately eat you, so be not grieved at our slaying you. Your parents were aware, when we purchased you from them for sixty rupees, that we did so with intent to sacrifice you. There is, therefore, no sin on our heads, but on your parents. After you are dead, we shall perform your obsequies.’ The victim is then decapitated, the body thrown into the grave, and the head left suspended from the post till devoured by wild beasts. The knife [205]remains fastened to the post till the three sacrifices have been performed, when it is removed with much ceremony.”

The Kondhs of Bara Mootah promised to relinquish the Meriah rite on condition, inter alia, that they should be at liberty to sacrifice buffaloes, monkeys, goats, etc., to their deities, with all the solemnities observed on occasions of human sacrifice; and that they should further be at liberty, upon all occasions, to denounce to their gods the Government, and some of its servants in particular, as the cause of their having relinquished the great rite. The last recorded Meriah sacrifice in the Ganjam Māliahs occurred in 1852, and there are still Kondhs alive, who were present at it. The veteran members of a party of Kondhs, who were brought to Madras for the purpose of performing their dances before the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1906, became widely excited when they came across the relic of their barbarous custom at the museum. Twenty-five descendants of persons who were rescued by Government officers, returned themselves as Meriah at the census, 1901.

It is noted by Mr W. Francis that5 “goats and buffaloes nowadays take the place of human meriah victims, but the belief in the superior efficacy of the latter dies hard, and every now and again revives. When the Rampa rebellion of 1879–80 spread in this district, several cases of human sacrifice occurred in the disturbed tracts. In 1880, two persons were convicted of attempting a meriah sacrifice near Ambadāla in Bissamkatak. In 1883, a man (a beggar and a stranger) was found at daybreak murdered in one of the temples in Jeypore in circumstances which pointed to his having been slain as a meriah; and, as late as 1886, a formal enquiry [206]showed that there were ample grounds for the suspicion that the kidnapping of victims still went on in Bastar.”

Even so recently as 1902, a European magistrate in Ganjam received a petition, asking for permission to perform a human sacrifice, which was intended to give a rich colour to the turmeric crop.

The flowers with which the sheep and goats which take the place of human beings are decorated are still known as meriah pushpa in Jeypore.6

In an account7 of a substituted sacrifice, which was carried out by the Kondhs in the Ganjam Māliahs in 1894, it is stated that, “the Janni gave the buffalo a tap on the head with a small axe. An indescribable scene followed. The Khonds in a body fell on the animal, and, in an amazingly short time, literally tore the living victim to shreds with their knives, leaving nothing but the head, bones, and stomach. Death must mercifully have been almost instantaneous. Every particle of flesh and skin had been stripped off during the few minutes they fought and struggled over the buffalo, eagerly grasping for every atom of flesh. As soon as a man had secured a piece thereof, he rushed away with the gory mass, as fast as he could, to his fields, to bury it therein according to ancient custom, before the sun had set. As some of them had to do good distances to effect this, it was imperative that they should run very fast. A curious scene now took place. As the men ran, all the women flung after them clods of earth, some of them taking very good effect. The sacred grove was cleared of people, save a few that guarded the remnants left of the buffalo, which were taken, and burnt with ceremony at the foot of the stake.” [207]

The buffalo sacrifice is not unaccompanied by risk, as the animal, before dying, sometimes kills one or more of its tormentors. This was the case near Balliguda in 1899, when a buffalo killed the sacrificer. In the previous year, the desire of a village to intercept the bearer of the flesh from a neighbouring village led to a fight, in which two men were killed.

Like the Kondhs, the Koyis of the Godāvari district believe in the efficacy of a sacrifice, to ensure good crops. In this connection, the Rev. J. Cain writes8 that “the Koyi goddess Māmili or Lēle must be propitiated early in the year, or else the crops will undoubtedly fail; and she is said to be very partial to human victims. There is strong reason to think that two men were murdered this year (1876) near a village not far from Dummagudem as offerings to this dēvata, and there is no reason to doubt that every year strangers are quietly put out of the way in the Bastar country, to ensure the favour of the bloodthirsty goddess.”

Mr Cain writes further9 that a langur monkey is now substituted for the human victim under the name of erukomma potu or male with small breasts, in the hope of persuading the goddess that she is receiving a human sacrifice.

On the site of the old fort at Rāmagiri in the Vizagapatam district, a victim was formerly sacrificed every third year.

“The poor wretch was forced into a hole in the ground, three feet deep and eighteen inches square, at the bottom of which the goddess was supposed to dwell, his throat was cut, and the blood allowed to flow into the hole, and afterwards his head was struck off and placed on [208]his lap, and the mutilated body covered with earth and a mound of stones until the time for the next sacrifice came round, when the bones were taken out and thrown away. At Malkanagiri, periodical sacrifices occurred at the four gates of the fort, and the Rāni had a victim slain as a thank-offering for her recovery from an illness.”10

The nomad Koravas are said to have formerly performed human sacrifices, one effect of which was to increase the fertility of the soil. The following account of such a sacrifice was given to Mr C. Hayavadana Rao by an old inhabitant of the village of Asūr near Walajabad in the Chingleput district. A big gang of Koravas settled at the meeting point of three villages of Asūr, Mēlputtūr, and Avalūr, on an elevated spot commanding the surrounding country. They had with them their pack-bullocks, each headman of the gang owning about two hundred head. The cow-dung which accumulated daily attracted a good many of the villagers, on one of whom the headman fixed as their intended victim. They made themselves intimate with him, plied him with drink and tobacco, and gave him the monopoly of the cow-dung. Thus a week or ten days passed away, and the Koravas then fixed a day for the sacrifice. They invited the victim to visit them at dusk, and witness a great festival in honour of their caste goddess. At the appointed hour, the man went to the settlement, and was induced to drink freely. Meanwhile, a pit, large enough for a man to stand upright in, had been prepared. At about midnight, the victim was seized, and forced to stand in the pit, which was filled in up to his neck. This done, the women and children of the gang made off with their belongings. As soon as the last of them had quitted the settlement, the [209]headmen brought a large quantity of fresh cow-dung, and placed a ball of it on the head of the victim. The ball served as a support for an earthen lamp, which was lighted. The man was by this time nearly dead, and the cattle were made to pass over his head. The headmen then made off, and, by daybreak, the whole gang had disappeared. The sacrificed man was found by the villagers, who have, since that time, scrupulously avoided the Koravas. The victim is said to have turned into a Munisvara, and for a long time troubled those who happened to go near the spot at noon or midnight. The Koravas are said to have performed the sacrifice, so as to insure their cattle against death from disease. The ground, on which they encamped, and on which they offered the human sacrifice, is stated to have been barren prior thereto, and, as the result thereof, to have become very fertile.

A similar form of human sacrifice was practised in former days by the nomad Lambādis, concerning which the Abbé Dubois writes as follows11:—

“When they wish to perform this horrible act, it is said, they secretly carry off the first person they meet. Having conducted the victim to some lonely spot, they dig a hole, in which they bury him up to the neck. While he is still alive, they make a sort of lamp of dough made of flour, which they place on his head. This they fill with oil, and light four wicks in it. Having done this, the men and women join hands, and, forming a circle, dance round their victim, singing and making a great noise, till he expires.”

It is recorded by the Rev. J. Cain12 that the Lambādis [210]confessed that, in former days, it was the custom among them, before starting out on a journey, to procure a little child, and bury it in the ground up to the shoulders, and then drive their loaded bullocks over the unfortunate victim. In proportion to their thoroughly trampling the child to death, so their belief in a successful journey increased. I am informed by the Rev. G. N. Thomssen that, at the present day, the Lambādis sacrifice a goat or chicken, in case of removal from one part of the jungle to another, when sickness has come. They hope to escape death by leaving one camping ground for another. Half-way between the old and new grounds, the animal selected is buried alive, the head being allowed to be above ground. Then all the cattle are driven over the buried creature, and the whole camp walk over the buried victim.

In the course of an interview with Colonel Marshall on the subject of infanticide13 among the Todas of the Nīlgiri hills, an aged man of the tribe remarked that14 “those tell lies who say that we laid the child down before the opening of the buffalo-pen, so that it might be run over and killed by the animals. We never did such things, and it is all nonsense that we drowned it in buffaloes’ milk. Boys were never killed—only girls; not those who were sickly and deformed—that would be a sin; but, when we had one girl, or in some families two girls, those that followed were killed. An old woman used to take the child immediately after it was born, and close its nostrils, ears, and mouth with a cloth. It would shortly droop its head and go to sleep. We then buried it in the ground.”

The old man’s remark about the cattle-pen refers to the Malagasy custom of placing a new-born child at the [211]entrance to a cattle-pen, and then driving the cattle over it, to see whether they would trample on it or not.15

It is recorded by Bishop Whitehead,16 in a note on offerings and sacrifices in the Telugu country, that “sometimes, when there is a cattle disease, a pig is buried up to its neck at the boundary of the village, a heap of boiled rice is deposited near the spot, and then all the cattle of the village are driven over the head of the unhappy pig.... When I was on tour in the Kurnool district, an old man described to me the account he had received from his ‘forefathers’ of the ceremonies observed when founding a new village. An auspicious site is selected on an auspicious day, and then, in the centre of the site, is dug a large hole, in which are placed different kinds of grains, small pieces of the five metals, and a large stone called boddu-rayée (navel-stone), standing about three and a half feet above the ground, very like the ordinary boundary stones seen in the fields. Then, at the entrance of the village, in the centre of the main street, where most of the cattle pass in and out on their way to and from the fields, they dig another hole, and bury a pig alive.”

It is suggested by Bishop Whitehead that the custom of thus burying a pig may be connected with the worship of an agricultural goddess, or a survival of a former custom of infanticide or human sacrifice, such as prevailed among the Lambādis.

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