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Omens and Superstitions of Southern India

There is a Tamil proverb relating to the selection of a wife, to the effect that curly hair gives food, thick hair brings milk, and very stiff hair destroys a family. As a preliminary to marriage among the Kurubas (Canarese shepherds), the bridegroom’s father observes certain curls (suli) on the head of the proposed bride. Some of these are believed to forebode prosperity, and others misery to the family into which the girl enters by marriage. They are, therefore, very cautious in selecting only such girls as possess curls of good fortune. One of the good curls is the bāshingam on the forehead, and bad ones are the pēyanākallu at the back of the head, and the edirsuli near the right temple.50 By the Pallis (Tamil cultivators) a curl on the forehead is considered as an indication that the girl will become a widow, and one [53]on the back of the head portends the death of the eldest brother of her husband. By the Tamil Maravans, a curl on the forehead resembling the head of a snake is regarded as an evil omen.

A woman, pregnant for the first time, should not see a temple car adorned with figures of a lion, or look at it when it is being dragged along with the image of the god seated in it. If she does, the tradition is that she will give birth to a monster.

In some places, before a woman is confined, the room in which her confinement is to take place is smeared with cow-dung, and, in the room at the outer gate, small wet cow-dung cakes are stuck on the wall, and covered with margosa (Melia Azadirachta) leaves and cotton seeds. These are supposed to have a great power in averting evil spirits, and preventing harm to the newly-born babe or the lying-in woman.51 In the Telugu country, it is the custom among some castes, e.g., the Kāpus and Gamallas, to place twigs of Balanites Roxburghii or Calotropis gigantea (arka) on the floor or in the roof of the lying-in chamber. Sometimes a garland of old shoes is hung up on the door-post of the chamber. A fire is kindled, into which pieces of old leather, hair, nails, horns, hoofs, and bones of animals are thrown, in the belief that the smoke arising therefrom will protect the mother and child against evil spirits. Among some classes, when a woman is pregnant, her female friends assemble, pile up before her door a quantity of rice-husk, and set fire to it. To one door-post they tie an old shoe, and to the other a bunch of tulsi (Ocimum sanctum), in order to prevent the entry of any demon. A bitch is brought in, painted, and marked in the way that the women daily mark their own foreheads. Incense is burnt, and an [54]oblation placed before it. The woman then makes obeisance to it, and makes a meal of curry and rice, on which cakes are placed. If there is present any woman who has not been blessed with children, she seizes some of the cakes, in the hope that, by so doing, she may ere long have a child.52 In some places, when a woman is in labour, her relations keep on measuring out rice into a measure close to the lying-in room, in the belief that delivery will be accelerated thereby. Sometimes a gun is fired off in an adjacent room with the same object, and I have heard of a peon (orderly), whose wife was in labour, borrowing his master’s gun, to expedite matters.

Some Hindus in Madras believe that it would be unlucky for a newly-married couple to visit the museum, as their offspring would be deformed as the result of the mother having gazed on the skeletons and stuffed animals.

Twins are sometimes objects of superstition, especially if they are of different sexes, and the male is born first. The occurrence of such an event is regarded as foreboding misfortune, which can only be warded off by marrying the twins to one another, and leaving them to their fate in the jungle. Cases of this kind have, however, it is said, not been heard of within recent times.

There is a proverb that a child born with the umbilical cord round the body will be a curse to the caste. If a child is born with the cord round its neck like a garland, it is believed to be inauspicious for its uncle, who is not allowed to see it for ten days, or even longer, and then a propitiatory ceremony has to be performed. By the Koravas the birth of a child with the cord round its neck is believed to portend the death of the father or maternal uncle. This unpleasant effect is warded off by [55]the father or the uncle killing a fowl, and wearing its entrails round his neck, and afterwards burying them along with the cord. In other castes it is believed that a child born with the cord round its neck will be a curse to its maternal uncle, unless a gold or silver string is placed on the body, and the uncle sees its image reflected in a vessel of oil. If the cord is entwined across the breast, and passes under the armpit, it is believed to be an unlucky omen for the father and paternal uncle. In such cases, some special ceremony, such as looking into a vessel of oil, is performed. I am informed by the Rev. S. Nicholson that, if a Māla (Telugu Pariah) child is born with the cord round its neck, a cocoanut is immediately offered. If the child survives, a cock is offered to the gods on the day on which the mother takes her first bath. When the cord is cut, a coin is placed over the navel for luck. The dried cord is highly prized as a remedy for sterility. The placenta is placed by the Mālas in a pot, in which are nīm (Melia Azadirachta) leaves, and the whole is buried in some convenient place, generally the backyard. If this was not done, dogs or other animals might carry off the placenta, and the child would be of a wandering disposition.

The birth of a Korava child on a new moon night is believed to augur a notorious thieving future for the infant. Such children are commonly named Venkatigādu after the god at Tirupati.53 The birth of a male child on the day in which the constellation Rohini is visible portends evil to the maternal uncle; and a female born under the constellation Moolam is supposed to carry misery with her to the house which she enters by marriage.

Dōmb children in Vizagapatam are supposed to be [56]born without souls, and to be subsequently chosen as an abode by the soul of an ancestor. The coming of the ancestor is signalised by the child dropping a chicken bone which has been thrust into its hand, and much rejoicing follows among the assembled relations.

By some Valaiyans (Tamil cultivators), the naming of infants is performed at the Aiyanar temple by any one who is under the influence of inspiration. Failing such a one, several flowers, each with a name attached to it, are thrown in front of the idol. A boy, or the priest, picks up one of the flowers, and the infant receives the name which is connected with it. In connection with the birth ceremonies of the Koyis of the Godāvari district, the Rev. J. Cain writes54 that, on the seventh day, the near relatives and neighbours assemble together to name the child. Having placed it on a cot, they put a leaf of the mowha tree (Bassia) in its hand, and pronounce some name which they think suitable. If the child closes its hand over the leaf, it is regarded as a sign that it acquiesces, but, if the child rejects the leaf or cries, they take it as a sign that they must choose another name, and so throw away the leaf, and substitute another leaf and name, until the child shows its approbation.

It is noted,55 in connection with the death ceremonies of the Kondhs, that, if a man has been killed by a tiger, purification is made by the sacrifice of a pig, the head of which is cut off with a tangi (axe) by a Pāno, and passed between the legs of the men in the village, who stand in a line astraddle. It is a bad omen to him, if the head touches any man’s legs. According to another account, the head of the decapitated pig is placed in a [57]stream, and, as it floats down, it has to pass between the legs of the villagers. If it touches the legs of any of them, it forebodes that he will be killed by a tiger.

The sight of a cat, on getting out of bed, is extremely unlucky, and he who sees one will fail in all his undertakings during the day. “I faced the cat this morning,” or “Did you see a cat this morning?” are common sayings when one fails in anything. The Paraiyans are said to be very particular about omens, and, if, when a Paraiyan sets out to arrange a marriage with a certain girl, a cat or a valiyan (a bird) crosses his path, he will give up the girl. I have heard of a superstitious European police officer, who would not start in search of a criminal, because he came across a cat.

House dogs should, if they are to bring good luck, possess more than eighteen visible claws. If a dog scratches the wall of a house, it will be broken into by thieves; and, if it makes a hole in the ground within a cattle-shed, the cattle will be stolen. A dog approaching a person with a bit of shoe-leather augurs success; with flesh, gain; with a meaty bone, good luck; with a dry bone, death. If a dog enters a house with wire or thread in its mouth, the master of the house must expect to be put in prison. A dog barking on the roof of a house during the dry weather portends an epidemic, and in the wet season a heavy fall of rain. There is a proverb “Like a dying dog climbing the roof,” which is said of a person who is approaching his ruin. The omen also signifies the death of several members of the family, so the dog’s ears and tail are cut off, and rice is steeped in the blood. A goat which has climbed on to the roof is treated in like manner, dragged round the house, or slaughtered. At the conclusion of the first menstrual ceremony of a Kāppiliyan (Canarese farmer) girl, some [58]food is placed near the entrance to the house, which a dog is allowed to eat. While so doing, it receives a severe beating. The more noise it makes, the better is the omen for the girl having a large family. If the animal does not howl, it is supposed that the girl will bear no children.

The sight of a jackal is very lucky to one proceeding on an errand. Its cry to the east and north of a village foretells something good for the villagers, whereas the cry at midday means an impending calamity. If a jackal cries towards the south in answer to the call of another jackal, some one will be hung; and, if it cries towards the west, some one will be drowned. A bachelor who sees a jackal running may expect to be married shortly. If the offspring of a primipara dies, it is sometimes buried in a place where jackals can get at it. It is believed that, if a jackal does not make a sumptuous meal off the corpse, the woman will not be blessed with more children. The corpses of the Koramas of Mysore are buried in a shallow grave, and a pot of water is placed on the mound raised over it. Should the spot be visited during the night by a pack of jackals, and the water drunk by them to slake their thirst after feasting on the dead body, the omen is accepted as a proof that the liberated spirit has fled to the realms of the dead, and will never trouble man, woman, child, or cattle.

When a person rises in the morning, he should not face or see a cow’s head, but should see its hinder parts. This is in consequence of a legend that a cow killed a Brāhman by goring him with its horns. In some temples, a cow is made to stand in front of the building with its tail towards it, so that any one entering may see its face. It is said that, if a cow voids urine at the time of purchase, it is considered a very good omen, but, if she [59]passes dung, a bad omen. The hill Kondhs will not cut the crops with a sickle having a serrated edge, such as is used by the Oriyas, but use a straight-edged knife. The crops, after they have been cut, are threshed by hand, and not with the aid of cattle. The serrated sickle is not used, because it produces a sound like that of cattle grazing, which would be unpropitious. If cattle were used in threshing the crop, it is believed that the earth-god would feel insulted by the dung and urine of the animals.

A timber merchant at Calicut in Malabar is said to have spent more than a thousand rupees in propitiating the spirit of a deceased Brāhman under the following circumstances. He had built a new house, and, on the morning after the kutti pūja (house-warming) ceremony, his wife and children were coming to occupy it. Just as they were entering the grounds, a cow ran against one of the children, and knocked it down. This augured evil, and, in a few days, the child was attacked by smallpox. One child after another caught the disease, and at last the man’s wife also contracted it. They all recovered, but the wife was laid up with some uterine disorder. An astrologer was sent for, and said that the site on which the house was built was once the property of a Brāhman, whose spirit still haunted it, and must be appeased. Expensive ceremonies were performed by Brāhmans for a fortnight. The house was sold to a Brāhman priest for a nominal price. A gold image of the deceased Brāhman was made, and, after the purification ceremonies had been carried out, taken to the sacred shrine at Rāmēsvaram, where arrangements were made to have daily worship performed to it. The house, in its purified state, was sold back by the Brāhman priest. The merchant’s wife travelled by train to Madras, to [60]undergo treatment at the Maternity Hospital. The astrologer predicted that the displeasure of the spirit would be exhibited on the way by the breaking of dishes and by furniture catching fire—a strange prediction, because the bed on which the woman was lying caught fire by a spark from the engine. After the spirit had been thus propitiated, there was peace in the house.

It is noted56 that, in the middle of the threshold of nearly all the gateways of the ruined fortifications round the Bellary villages may be noticed a roughly carved cylindrical or conical stone, something like a lingam. This is the boddu-rāyi, literally the navel-stone, and so the middle stone. It was planted there when the fort was first built, and is affectionately regarded as being the boundary of the village site. Once a year, in May, just before the sowing season commences, a ceremony takes place in connection with it. Reverence is first made to the bullocks of the village, and in the evening they are driven through the gateway past the boddu-rāyi, with tom-toms, flutes, and other kinds of music. The Barike (village servant) next does pūja (worship) to the stone, and then a string of mango leaves is tied across the gateway above it. The villagers now form sides, one party trying to drive the bullocks through the gate, and the other trying to keep them out. The greatest uproar and confusion naturally follow, and, in the midst of the turmoil, some bullock or other eventually breaks through the guardians of the gate, and gains the village. If that first bullock is a red one, the red grains on the red soil will flourish in the coming season. If he is white, white crops, such as cotton and white cholam, will prosper. If he is red and white, both kinds will do well. [61]

Various Oriya castes worship the goddess Lakshmi on Thursdays, in the month of November, which are called Lakshmi varam, or Lakshmi’s day. The goddess is represented by a basket filled with grain, whereon some place a hair-ball which has been vomited by a cow. The ball is called gāya panghula, and is usually one or two inches in diameter. The owner of a cow which has vomited such a ball, regards it as a propitious augury for the prosperity of his family. A feast is held on the day on which the ball is vomited, and, after the ball has been worshipped, it is carefully wrapped up, and kept in a box, in which it remains till it is required for further worship. Some people believe that the ball continues to grow year by year, and regard this as a very good sign. Bulls are said not to vomit the balls, and only very few cows do so.

“Throughout India,” Mr J. D. E. Holmes writes,57 “but more especially in the Southern Presidency, among the native population, the value of a horse or ox principally depends on the existence and situation of certain hair-marks on the body of the animal. These hair-marks are formed by the changes in the direction in which the hair grows at certain places, and, according to their shape, are called a crown, ridge, or feather mark. The relative position of these marks is supposed to indicate that the animal will bring good luck to the owner and his relatives. There is a saying that a man may face a rifle and escape, but he cannot avoid the luck, good or evil, foretold by hair-marks. So much are the people influenced by these omens that they seldom keep an animal with unlucky marks, and would not allow their mares to be covered by a stallion having unpropitious marks.”

It is recorded by Bishop Whitehead58 that “we went to see the Mahārāja (of Mysore) at his stables, and [62]he showed us his fine stud of horses. Among them was the State horse, which is only used for religious ceremonies, and is ridden only by the Mahārāja himself. It is pure white, without spot or blemish, and has the five lucky marks. This horse came from Kathiawar, and is now about twenty years old. The Mahārāja is trying to get another, to replace it when it dies. But it is not easy to get one with the unusual points required.”

Two deaths occurring in a family in quick succession, were once believed to be the result of keeping an unlucky horse in the stable. I have heard of a Eurasian police officer, who attributed the theft of five hundred rupees, his official transfer to an unhealthy district, and other strokes of bad luck, to the purchase of a horse with unlucky curls. All went well after he had got rid of the animal.


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