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Omens and Superstitions of Southern India

5. Invertebrates

The Sahavāsis of Mysore are described41 as “immigrants, like the Chitpāvanas. Sahavāsi means co-tenant or associate, and the name is said to have been earned by the community in the following manner. In remote times, a certain Brāhman came upon hidden treasure, but, to his amazement, the contents appeared in his eyes to be all live scorpions. Out of curiosity, he hung one of them outside his house. A little while after, a woman of inferior caste, who was passing by the house, noticed it to be gold, and, upon her questioning him about it, the Brāhman espoused her, and by her means was able to enjoy the treasure. He gave a feast in honour of his acquisition of wealth. He was subsequently outcasted for his mésalliance with the low caste female, while those who ate with him were put under a ban, and thus acquired the nickname.” [103]

It is commonly said that the scorpion has great reverence for the name of Ganēsa, because it is supposed that when, on seeing a scorpion, one cries out “Pilliyar annai” (in the name of Ganēsa), the scorpion will suddenly stop; the truth of the matter being that any loud noise arrests the movements of the animal.42

At the temple of Kolaramma at Kolar in Mysore, a pit under the entrance is full of scorpions, and the customary offerings are silver scorpions. The village goddess at Nangavaram in the Trichinopoly district is called Sattāndi Amman, and her idol represents her in the act of weaving a garland of scorpions. It is generally supposed that no scorpion can live in this village, and that the sacred ashes from Sattāndi Amman’s shrine are a specific for scorpion stings. People sometimes carry some of the ashes about with them, in case they should be stung.43 At Royachoti in the Cuddapah district, a festival is held on the occasion of the god going hunting. The idol Vīrabudra is carried to a mantapam outside the town, and placed on the ground. Beneath the floor of the mantapam there is a large number of scorpions. Whilst the god is taking his rest, the attendants catch these scorpions, and hold them in their hands without being stung. As long as the god remains in the mantapam, the scorpions do not sting, but, directly he leaves it, they resume their poisonous propensities.44 The peon (attendant) in the zoological laboratory of one of the Madras colleges would put his hand with impunity into a jar of live scorpions, of which he believed that only a pregnant female would sting him with hurt. Lieutenant-Colonel [104]D. D. Cunningham records45 the case of a certain Yōgi (religious mendicant), who was insusceptible to the stings of scorpions, “which would fix their stings so firmly into his fingers that, when he raised and shook his hand about, they remained anchored and dangling by their tails, whilst neither then nor afterwards did he show the slightest sign of pain or inconvenience. The immunity may possibly have been the result of innate idiosyncratic peculiarity in the constitution of the performer, or more probably represented the outcome of artificial exemption acquired at the expense of repeated inoculations with the virus, and corresponding development of its antitoxin.”

A sweeper man, who had a mole on his back in shape somewhat resembling a scorpion, believed himself to be immune against scorpion sting, and would confidently insert the poison spine of a live scorpion into his skin. In a letter to a medical officer, a Native wrote, that, when a pregnant woman is stung by a scorpion, the child which is in the womb at the time of such stinging, when delivered, does not suffer from the sting of a scorpion, if ever it is stung during its lifetime. Some families keep in their homes small pots called thēlkodukku undi (scorpion sting vessels), and occasionally drop therein a copper coin, which is supposed to secure immunity against scorpion sting. The Sakuna Pakshi mendicants of Vizagapatam have a remedy for scorpion sting in the root of a plant called thēlla visari (scorpion antidote), which they carry about with them on their rounds. The root should be collected on a new-moon day which falls on a Sunday. On that day, the Sakuna Pakshi bathes, cuts off his loin-cloth, and goes stark-naked to a selected spot, [105]where he gathers the roots. If a supply thereof is required, and the necessary combination of moon and day is not forthcoming, the roots should be collected on a Sunday or Wednesday. In cases of scorpion sting, Dommara medicine-men rub up patent boluses with human milk or juice of the milk-hedge plant (Euphorbia Tirucalli), and apply them to the parts. Among quaint remedies for scorpion sting may be noted, sitting with an iron crowbar in the mouth, and the application of chopped lizard over the puncture. The excrement of lizards fed on scorpions, and the undigested food in the stomach of a freshly killed goat, dried and reduced to powder, are also believed to be effective remedies. There is a belief that scorpions have the power of reviving, even after being completely crushed into pulp. We are, therefore, warned not to rest secure till the animal has actually been cremated.

The whip-scorpion Thelyphonus is believed to be venomous, some Natives stating that it stings like a scorpion, others that it ejects a slimy fluid which burns, and produces blisters. The caudal flagellum of Thelyphonus, of course, possesses no poison apparatus.

When the umbilical cord of a Kondh baby sloughs off, a spider is burnt in the fire, and its ashes are placed in a cocoanut shell, mixed with castor-oil, and applied by means of a fowl’s feather to the navel.

The eggs of red ants, boiled in margosa (Melia Azadirachta) oil, are said to be an invaluable remedy for children suffering from asthma.

If a house is infested by mosquitoes, or the furniture and bedding by bugs, the names of a hundred villages or towns should be written on a piece of paper. Care must be taken that all the names end in uru, kōttai, palayam, etc. The paper is fastened to the [106]ceiling or bed-post, and relief from the pests will be instantaneous.46

The Oriya Haddis, on the evening of the tenth day after a death, proceed to some distance from the house, and place food and fruits on a cloth spread on the ground. They then call the dead man by his name, and eagerly wait till some insect settles on the cloth. As soon as this happens, the cloth is folded up, carried home, and shaken over the floor close to the spot where the household gods are kept, so that the insect falls on the sand spread on the floor. A light is then placed on the sanded floor, and covered with a new pot. After some time, the pot is removed, and the sand examined for any marks which may be left on it.

A devil, in the disguise of a dung-beetle of large size, is believed to haunt the house wherein a baby has been newly born, and the impact of the insect against the infant will bring about its instant death.

The following case was brought to my notice by the Chemical Examiner to Government. In Malabar, a young man, apparently in good health, walked home with two other men after a feast, chewing betel. Arriving at his home, he retired to rest, and was found dead in the morning. Blood was described as oozing out of his eyes. It was given out that the cause of death was an insect, which infests betel leaves, and is very poisonous. The belief in death from chewing or swallowing the veththilai or vettila poochi (betel insect) is a very general one, and is so strong that, when a person suffers from giddiness, after chewing betel, he is afraid that he has partaken of the poisonous insect. Native gentlemen take particular care to examine every betel leaf, wipe it with a cloth, and smear chunam (lime) over it, before chewing. [107]The poochi is called by Gundert47 vettila pāmpu or moorkhan (snake), or vettila thēl (scorpion). It has been described48 as “a poisonous creature, which lives adhering to the betel leaf. Its presence cannot be easily detected, and many deaths occur among persons who are in the habit of carelessly chewing betel. The poison passes into the system through the moisture of the mouth, and death ensues within an hour and a half. It generally inhabits the female leaf, i.e., the leaf that opens at night. The following symptoms are seen when a person is affected with the poison:—exhaustion, delirium, copious perspiration, and change of colour of the skin. Treatment:—administer internally the juice of the leaves of a tree called arippēra. Make the patient suck the milk of the breast of a woman, whose baby is more than eighty days old.”

A perichæte earthworm was sent to me from Malabar as a specimen of vettila poochi, with a note to the effect that, when it is accidentally chewed, the chief symptom is drawing in of the tongue, and consequent death from suffocation. The antidote was said to be salt and water, and the leaves of the goa (guava) tree. From South Canara, Mr H. Latham sent me a planarian worm, about two inches in length, which is believed to be the vettila poochi. His camp boy told him of a case in which death was said to have resulted from eating one of these animals cooked with some jak fruit.

A few years ago, a scare arose in connection with an insect, which was said to have taken up its abode in imported German glass bangles, which compete with the indigenous industry of the Gāzula bangle-makers. The insect was reported to lie low in the bangle till it [108]was purchased, when it would come out and nip the wearer, after warning her to get her affairs in order before succumbing. A specimen of a broken bangle, from which the insect was said to have burst forth, was sent to me. But the insect was not forthcoming.

As a further example of the way in which the opponents of a new industry avail themselves of the credulity of the Native, I may cite the recent official introduction of the chrome-tanning industry in Madras. In connection therewith, a rumour spread more or less throughout the Presidency that the wearing of chrome-tanned boots or sandals gave rise to leprosy, blood poisoning, and failure of the eyesight. [109]


1 “Manual of the Kurnool District,” 1886, 114.

2 Journ. Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc., 1902, xiv., No. 2, 388–91.

3 “Gazetteer of the Nilgiris,” 1908, i. 328.

4 Journ. Anthrop. Soc., Bombay, i. 241–2.

5 “Report on the Sea Fisheries of India and Burma,” 1873, lxxvi.

6 “Manual of the Kurnool District,” 1886, 115.

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

8 Rev. F. Dahmen, “Anthropos,” 1908, iii. 30.

9 “Ind. Ant.,” 1876, v. 359.

10 H. J. Stokes, “Ind. Ant.,” 1874, iii. 90.

11 J. S. Chandler, Calcutta Review, July, 1903, cxvii. 28.

12 “Totemism,” 1887, 33.

13 M. J. Walhouse, Journal Anthrop. Inst., 1874, iv. 376.

14 H. D. Taylor, “Madras Census Report,” 1891.

15 Madras Mail, 26th January, 1906.

16 L. K. Anantha Krishna Iyer, “Cochin Tribes and Castes,” 1909, i. 22.

17 Madras Mail, 26th January, 1906.

18 S. P. Rice, “Occasional Essays on Native South Indian Life,” 1901, 211.

19 Journ. Roy. Asiat. Soc., 1884, xvi. 181.

20 Report, Govt. Botanical Gardens, Nīlgiris, 1903.

21 “Gazetteer of Malabar,” 1908, i. 163.

22 Letters from Malabar, Translation, Madras, 1862.

23 1862, iii. 464.

24 “Malabar and its Folk,” Madras, 2nd ed., 59.

25 C. Karunakara Menon, Calcutta Review, July, 1901.

26 C. Karunakara Menon, Calcutta Review, July, 1901.

27 Madras Mail, 22nd July, 1905.

28 Vide, Yule and Burnell, “Hobson-Jobson,” ed. 1903, 874–9.

29 Asiatic Journal, ii. 381.

30 Bishop Whitehead, Madras Diocesan Magazine, July, 1906.

31 Rev. F. Dahmen, “Anthropos,” 1908, iii. 22.

32 Madras Mail, 26th January, 1906.

33 Madras Mail, 26th January, 1906.

34 M. Upendra Pai, Madras Christian Coll. Mag., 1895., xiii., No. 1, 29.

35 Mem. Asiat. Soc., Bengal, 1906, i., No. 10.

36 T. K. Gopal Panikkar, “Madras and its Folk,” Madras, 2nd ed., 65–6.

37 “Manual of the Cuddapah District,” 1875, 293–4.

38 Madras Mail, 26th January, 1906.

39 “Gazetteer of the Vizagapatam District,” 1907, i. 286.

40 “Manual of the South Canara District,” 1895, ii. 242.

41 “Mysore Census Report,” 1891, part i. 235.

42 S. K. Sundara Charlu, Indian Review, 1905, vi., No. 6, 421.

43 “Gazetteer of the Trichinopoly District,” 1907, i. 283.

44 “Manual of the Cuddapah District,” 1875, 288.

45 “Plagues and Pleasures of Life in Bengal,” 1907, 196–8.

46 Madras Mail, 26th January, 1906.

47 “Malayālam Dictionary,” 1872, 983.

48 Kērala Chintamani.


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