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Omens and Superstitions of Southern India

I once saw a Muhammadan at Tumkur in Mysore, whither he had journeyed from Hyderabad, who had a rupee tied round his arm in token of a vow that, if he returned safe from plague and other ills to his own country, he would give money in charity. When a Muhammadan falls ill, a rupee and a quarter is sometimes done up in a red cloth, and tied round the arm, to be given to the poor on recovery. Members of the poorer classes tie an anna and a quarter in like manner, after performing a fateha ceremony. Should the sickness of a Hindu be attributed to a god or goddess, a vow is made, in token whereof a copper or silver coin is wrapped up in a piece of cloth dipped in turmeric paste, and kept in the house, or tied to the neck or arm of the sick person. A cock may be waved round the head of the patient, and afterwards reared in the house, to be eventually offered up at the shrine of the deity. A Bēdar, whom I saw at Hospet in the Bellary district, had a quarter anna rolled up in cotton cloth, which he wore on the upper arm in performance of a vow.

In an account of the cock festival at Cranganore in Malabar, whereat vast numbers of cocks are sacrificed, Mr Gopal Panikkar records55 that, “when a man is taken ill of any infectious disease, his relations generally pray to the goddess (at Cranganore) for his recovery, solemnly covenanting to perform what goes by the name of a thulabhāram (or thulupurushadānam)56 ceremony. [172]This consists in placing the patient in one of the scale-pans of a huge balance, and weighing him against gold, or, more generally, pepper (and sometimes other substances), deposited in the other scale-pan. Then this weight of the substance is offered to the goddess. This has to be performed right in front of the goddess in the temple yard.”

At Mulki in South Canara there is a temple of Venkatēswara, which is maintained by Konkani Brāhmans. A Konkani Brāhman, who is attached to the temple, becomes inspired almost daily between 10 and 11 A.M., immediately after worship, and people consult him. Some time ago, a rich merchant from Gujarat consulted the inspired man as to what steps should be taken to enable his wife to be safely delivered. He was told to take a vow that he would present to the god of the temple, silver, sugar-candy, and date fruits, equal in weight to that of his wife. This he did, and his wife was delivered of a male child. The cost of the ceremonial is said to have been five thousand rupees. In the thulabhāram ceremony as performed by the Mahārājas of Travancore,57 they are weighed against gold coins, called thulabhāra kāsu, specially struck for the occasion, which are divided among the priests who performed the ceremony, and Brāhmans.

The following quaint custom, which is observed at the village of Pullambadi in the Trichinopoly district, is described by Bishop Whitehead.58

“The goddess Kulanthal Amman has established for herself a useful reputation as a settler of debts. When a creditor cannot recover a debt, he writes down his claim on a scroll of palm-leaves, and offers the goddess a [173]part of the debt, if it is paid. The palmyra scroll is hung up on an iron spear in the compound of the temple before the shrine. If the claim is just, and the debtor does not pay, it is believed that he will be afflicted with sickness and bad dreams. In his dreams he will be told to pay the debt at once, if he wishes to be freed from his misfortunes. If, however, the debtor disputes the claim, he draws up a counter-statement, and hangs it on the same spear. Then the deity decides which claim is true, and afflicts with sickness and bad dreams the man whose claim is false. When a claim is acknowledged, the debtor brings the money, and gives it to the pūjāri, who places it before the image of Kulanthal Amman, and sends word to the creditor. The whole amount is then handed over to the creditor, who pays the sum vowed to the goddess into the temple coffers in April or May. So great is the reputation of the goddess, that Hindus come from about ten miles round to seek her aid in recovering their debts. The goddess may sometimes make mistakes, but, at any rate, it is cheaper than an appeal to an ordinary court of law, and probably almost as effective as a means of securing justice. In former times, no written statements were presented; people simply came and represented their claims by word of mouth to the deity, promising to give her a share. The custom of presenting written claims sprang up about thirty years ago, doubtless through the influence of the Civil Courts. Apparently more debts have been collected since this was done, and more money has been gathered into the treasury.”

It is noted by the Rev. A. Margöschis59 that “the Hindus observe a special day at the commencement of the palmyra season (in Tinnevelly), when the jaggery season begins. Bishop Caldwell adopted the custom, and a solemn service in church was held, when one set [174]of all the implements used in the occupation of palmyra-climbing was brought to the church, and presented at the altar. Only the day was changed from that observed by the Hindus. The perils of the palmyra-climber are great, and there are many fatal accidents by falling from trees forty to sixty feet high, so that a religious service of the kind was particularly acceptable and peculiarly appropriate to our people.”

The story is told by Bishop Caldwell of a Shānar (toddy-drawer) who was sitting upon a leaf-stalk at the top of a palmyra palm in a high wind, when the stalk gave way, and he came down to the ground safely and quietly sitting on the leaf, which served the purpose of a natural parachute.

The festival of Ayudha Pūja (worship of tools or implements) is observed by all Hindu castes during the last three days of the Dasara or Navarathri in the month of Purattasi (September-October). It is a universal holiday for all Hindu workmen. Even the Brāhman takes part in this pūja. His tools, however, being books, it is called Saraswati pūja, or worship to the goddess or god of learning, who is either Saraswati or Hayagriva. Reading books and repetition of Vēdas must be done, and, for the purpose of worship, all the books in a house are piled up in a heap. Non-Brāhmans clean the various implements used by them in their daily work, and worship them. The Kammālans (artisans) clean their hammers, pincers, anvil, blowpipe, etc.; the Chettis (merchants) clean their scales and weights, and the box into which they put their money. The racket-marker at the Madras Club decorates the entrance to the scoring-box in which his rackets are kept, with a festoon of mango leaves. The weaving and agricultural classes will be seen to be busy with their looms and agricultural [175]implements. Fishermen pile up their nets for worship. Even the bandywala (cart-driver) paints red and white stripes on the wheels and axles. I have myself been profusely garlanded when present as a guest at the elaborate tool-worshipping ceremony at the Madras School of Arts, where pūja was done to a bust of the late Bishop Gell set up on an improvised altar, with a cast of Saraswati above, and various members of the Hindu Pantheon around.

At the festival held by the Koyis of the Godāvari district in propitiation of a goddess called Pida, very frequently offerings promised long before are sacrificed, and eaten by the pujāri. It is not at all uncommon for a Koyi to promise to offer a seven-horned male (i.e. a cock) as a bribe to be let alone, a two-horned male (i.e. a goat) being set apart by more wealthy or more fervent suppliants.60 When smallpox or other epidemic disease breaks out in a Gadaba village in Vizagapatam, a little go-cart on wheels is constructed. In this a clay image, or anything else holy, is placed, and it is taken to a distant spot, and left there. It is also the custom, when cholera or smallpox is epidemic in the same district, to make a little car, “on which are placed a grain of saffron-stained61 rice for every soul in the village, and numerous offerings such as little swings, pots, knives, ploughs, and the like, and the blood of certain sacrificial victims, and this is then dragged with due ceremony to the boundary of the village. By this means the malignant essence of the deity who brings smallpox or cholera is transferred across the boundary. The neighbouring villagers naturally hasten to move the car on with similar ceremony, and [176]it is thus dragged through a whole series of villages, and eventually left by the roadside in some lonely spot.”62

Marching on one occasion, towards Hampi in the Bellary district, where an outbreak of cholera had recently occurred, I came across two wooden gods on wheels by the roadside, to whom had been offered baskets of fruit, vegetables, earthen pots, bead necklets, and bangles, which were piled up in front of them. It is recorded63 by Bishop Whitehead that, when an epidemic breaks out in a certain village in the Telugu country,

“the headman of the village gets a new earthenware pot, besmears it with turmeric and kunkuma (red powder), and puts inside it some clay bracelets, necklaces, and earrings, three pieces of charcoal, three pieces of turmeric, three pieces of incense, a piece of dried cocoanut, a woman’s cloth, and two annas worth of coppers—a strange collection of miscellaneous charms and offerings. The pot is then hung up on a tree near the image of the village deity, as a pledge that, if the epidemic disappears, the people will celebrate a festival.”

It is further recorded64 by Bishop Whitehead that, during the festival of Māriamma at Kannanur in the Trichinopoly district, “many people who have made vows bring sheep, goats, fowls, pigeons, parrots, cows, and calves, to the temple, and leave them in the compound alive. At the end of the festival, these animals are all sold to a contractor. Two years ago, they fetched Rs. 400—a good haul for the temple.”

Between the Madras museum and the Government [177]maternity hospital, a small municipal boundary stone has been set up by the side of the road. To this stone supernatural powers are attributed, and it is alleged that in a banyan tree in a private garden close by a Mūni lives, who presides over the welfare of the patients in the hospital, and must be propitiated if the pregnant woman is to get over her confinement without complications. Women vow that they will, if all goes well, give a cocoanut, betel, or flowers when they leave. Discharged patients can be seen daily, going to the stone and making offerings. On the day of their discharge, their friends bring camphor and other articles, and the whole family goes to the stone, where the camphor is burnt, a cocoanut broken, and perhaps some turmeric or flowers placed on it. The new-born child is placed on the bare ground in front of the stone, and the mother, kneeling down, bows before it. The foreheads of both mother and child are marked with the soots from the burning camphor. If her friends do not bring the requisite articles, the woman goes home, and returns with them to do pūja to the stone, or it is celebrated at a temple or her house. The offerings are removed by those who present them, or by passers-by on the road.

The Kudubi cutch (catechu) makers of South Canara, before the commencement of operations, select an Areca Catechu tree, and place a sword, an axe, and a cocoanut on the ground near it. They prostrate themselves before the tree, with hands uplifted, burn incense, and break cocoanuts. The success of the operations is believed to depend on the good-will of a deity named Siddēdēvaru. Before they commence work, the Kudubis make a vow that, if they are successful, they will offer a fowl.

“A palmyra tree in the jungle near Ramnād with seven distinct trunks, each bearing a goodly head of [178]fan-shaped leaves is,” General Burton writes,65 “attributed to the action of a deity, and stones smeared with oil and vermilion, broken cocoanuts, and fowl’s feathers lying about, testify that pūja and sacrifice were performed here.”

On the Rangasvāmi peak on the Nīlgiris are two rude walled enclosures sacred to the god Ranga and his consort, within which are deposited various offerings, chiefly iron lamps and the notched sticks used as weighing-machines. The hereditary priest is an Irula (jungle tribesman).66 Certain caves are regarded by the Muduvars of the Travancore hills as shrines, wherein spear-heads, tridents, and copper coins are placed, partly to mark them as holy places, and partly as offerings to bring good luck.

Prehistoric stone cells, found in the bed of a river, are believed to be the thunderbolts of Vishnu, and are stacked as offerings by the Malaiālis of the Shevaroy hills in their shrines dedicated to Vignēswara the elephant god, who averts evil, or in little niches cut in rocks.

Of a remarkable form of demon worship in Tinnevelly, Bishop Caldwell wrote that67 “an European was till recently worshipped as a demon. From the rude verses which were sung in connection with his worship, it would appear that he was an English officer, who was mortally wounded at the taking of the Travancore lines in 1809, and was buried about twenty-five miles from the scene of the battle in a sandy waste, where, a few years ago, his worship was established by the Shānāns of the neighbourhood. His worship consisted in the offering to his manes of spirituous liquors and cheroots.”

A similar form of worship, or propitiation of demons, [179]is recorded68 by Bishop Whitehead from Malabar. He was told that “the spirits of the old Portuguese soldiers and traders are still propitiated on the coast with offerings of toddy and cheroots. The spirits are called Kāppiri (probably Kaffirs or foreigners). This superstition is dying out, but is said to be common among the fishermen of the French settlement of Mai (Mahé).”

On one occasion, a man who had been presented with two annas as the fee for lending his body to me for measurement, offered it, with flowers and a cocoanut, at the shrine of the village goddess, and dedicated to her another coin of his own as a peace-offering, and to get rid of the pollution caused by my money. [180]


1 See Bishop Whitehead, “The Village Deities of Southern India,” Madras Museum Bull., 1907, v. No. 3.

2 Ibid., 1901, iii. No. 3, 270–1.

3Gazetteer of the Tanjore District,” 1906, i. 219.

4 Madras Dioc. Mag., November, 1910.

5 See Fawcett, Note on the Mouth-lock Vow, Journ. Anthrop. Soc., Bombay, i. 97–102.

6 “Gazetteer of the Trichinopoly District,” 1907, i. 289.

7 Scottish Standard Bearer, November 1907.

8 The Patnulkārans claim to be Saurāshtra Brāhmans.

9 “Gazetteer of the Tanjore District,” 1906, i. 71.

10 “Gazetteer of the Madura District,” i. 86.

11 “Primitive Tribes of the Nilagiris,” 1873, 17.

12 Sūdra is the fourth traditional caste of Manu.

13 “Manual of the North Arcot District,” 1895, i. 242.

14 Mysore Census Report, 1901, part i. 519.

15 Basavi, see article “Dēva-dāsi” in my “Castes and Tribes of Southern India,” 1909, ii. 125–53.

16 “Manual of the Cuddapah District, 1875, 283.

17 Madras Museum Bull., 1907, v. No. 3, 149.

18 “Gazetteer of the Trichinopoly District,” 1907, i. 289.

19 Jeypore, Breklum, 1901.

20 “Gazetteer of the Tanjore District,” 1906, 1. 72.

21 “Gazetteer of the Madura District,” 1906, i. 86–7.

22 Ibid., 86.

23 Madras Museum Bull., 1906, v., No. 2, 78–9.

24 Madras Museum Bull., 1907, v., No. 3, 149.

25 “Ind. Ant.,” 1881, x. 364.

26 The Pallis claim to be descendants of the fire race (Agnikula) of the Kshatriyas, and that, as they and the Pāndava brothers were born of fire, they are related.

27 “Gazetteer of the South Arcot District,” 1906, i. 375–6.

28 “Gazetteer of the Madura District,” 1906, i. 85.

29 “Narrative of Little’s Detachment,” 1794, 212–3.

30 Lambādis or Brinjāris, who formerly acted as carriers of supplies and baggage in times of war in the Deccan.

31 Journ. Anthrop. Soc., Bombay, i. 253–4.

32 “Ind. Ant.,” 1879, viii. 219.

33 Ibid., 1880, ix. 150.

34 Journ. Anthrop. Soc., Bombay, ii. 272.

35 “Gazetteer of the Madura District,” 1906, i. 86.

36 “Gazetteer of the South Arcot District,” 1906, i. 102.

37 “Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies” translation by H. K. Beauchamp, 1897, ii. 610.

38 “Ind. Ant.,” 1880, ix. 152.

39 “Mysore,” 1897, ii. 350.

40 Madras Museum Bull., 1901, iii., No. 3, 266.

41 The making of a shrine, Calcutta Review, 1899, cviii. 173–5.

42 Bhūtha, or demon worship, prevails in South Canara, where the villages have their bhūtha sthānam or demon shrine.

43 “Cochin Census Report,” 1901, part i. 25.

44 “Gazetteer of the Vizagapatam District,” 1907, i. 329.

45 “Gazetteer of the Anantapur District,” 1905, i. 164.

46 “Native Life in Travancore,” 1883.

47 “Gazetteer of the Madura District,” 1906, i. 102.

48 “Mediæval Sinhalese Art,” 1908, 70–75.

49 Philalethes, “History of Ceylon,” 1817, 163.

50 M. Bapu Rao, Madras Christian Coll. Mag., April 1894, xi.

51 “Gazetteer of the Madura District,” 1906, i. 286.

52 “Gazetteer of the South Arcot District,” 1906, i. 278.

53 F. Fawcett, Man, 1901, i., No. 29, p. 37.

54 “Madras Census Report,” 1901, part i. 134.

55 “Malabar and its Folk,” Madras, 2nd ed., 133.

56 Thula (scales), purusha (man), dānam (gift).

57 See Shungoony Menon, “History of Travancore,” 1878, 58–72.

58 Madras Diocesan Record, October, 1905.

59 “Christianity and Caste,” 1893.

60 Rev. J. Cain, Madras Christian Coll. Mag., 1887–8, v. 358.

61 In Southern India, turmeric (Curcuma) is commonly called saffron (Crocus).

62 “Gazetteer of the Vizagapatam District,” 1907, i. 75.

63 Madras Museum Bull., 1907, v., No. 3, 134.

64 Ibid., 171.

65 “An Indian Olio,” 79–80.

66 “Gazetteer of the Nilgiris,” 1908, i. 340.

67 “The Tinnevelly Shānars,” 1849.

68 Madras Dioc. Mag., March, 1903.


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