ironServices.com

Omens and Superstitions of Southern India

It has been suggested that certain rites performed by the Pānan and Malayan exorcists of Malabar are survivals, or imitations of human sacrifice. Thus, in the Ucchavēli ceremony of the Pānans for driving out devils, there is a mock burial of the principal performer, who is placed in [212]a pit. This is covered with planks, on the top of which a sacrifice (hōmam) is performed with a fire kindled with jak (Artocarpus integrifolia) branches.17

The disguise of Ucchavēli is also assumed by the Malayans for the propitiation of the demon, when a human sacrifice is considered necessary. The Malayan who is to take the part puts on a cap made of strips of cocoanut leaf, and strips of the same leaves tied to a bent bamboo stick round his waist. His face and chest are daubed with yellow paint, and designs are drawn thereon in red or black. Strings are tied tightly round the left arm near the elbow and wrist, and the swollen area is pierced with a knife. The blood spouts out, and the performer waves the arm, so that his face is covered with blood. In the ceremony for propitiating the demon Nenaveli (bloody sacrifice), the Malayan smears the upper part of the body and face with a paste made of rice-flour reddened with turmeric powder and chunam (lime), to indicate a sacrifice. Before the paste dries, parched paddy (unhusked rice) grains, representing smallpox pustules, are sprinkled over it. Strips of young cocoanut leaves, strung together so as to form a petticoat, are tied round the waist, a ball of sacred ashes (vibhūthi) is fixed on the tip of the nose, and two strips of palm leaf are placed in the mouth to represent fangs. If it is thought that a human sacrifice is necessary to propitiate the devil, the man representing Nenaveli puts round his neck a kind of framework made of plantain leaf sheaths; and, after he has danced with it on, it is removed, and placed on the ground in front of him. A number of lighted wicks are stuck in the middle of the framework, which is sprinkled with the blood of a fowl, and then beaten and crushed. Sometimes this is not regarded as sufficient, and the performer is made [213]to lie in a pit, which is covered over by a plank, and a fire kindled. A Malayan, who acted the part of Nenaveli before me, danced and gesticulated wildly, while a small boy, concealed behind him, sang songs in praises of the demon, to the accompaniment of a drum. At the end of the performance, he feigned extreme exhaustion, and laid on the ground in a state of apparent collapse, while he was drenched with water brought in pots from a neighbouring well.

A very similar rite has been recorded by Mr Lewis Rice as being carried out by the Coorgs, when a particular curse, which can only be removed by an extraordinary sacrifice, rests on a house, stable, or field. Concerning this sacrifice, Mr Rice writes as follows18:—

“The Kaniya (religious mendicant)19 sends for some of his fraternity, the Panikas or Bannus, and they set to work. A pit is dug in the middle room of the house or in the yard, or in the stable, or in the field, as the occasion may require. Into this one of the magicians descends. He sits down in Hindu fashion, muttering mantras. Pieces of wood are laid across the pit, and covered with earth a foot or two deep. Upon this platform a fire of jackwood is kindled, into which butter, sugar, different kinds of grain, etc., are thrown. This sacrifice continues all night, the Panika sacrificer above, and his immured colleague below, repeating their incantations all the while. In the morning the pit is opened, and the man returns to the light of day. These sacrifices are called maranada bali, or death atonements. Instead of a human being, a cock is sometimes shut up in the pit, and killed afterwards.”

Evidence is produced by Mr Rice20 that, in former days, human sacrifices were offered in Coorg, to secure [214]the favour of the Grāma Dēvatas (village goddesses) Mariamma, Durga, and Bhadra Kali.

“In Kirinadu and Koniucheri Grāmas,” he writes, “once every three years, in December and June, a human sacrifice used to be brought to Bhadra Kali, and, during the offering by the Panikas, the people exclaimed ‘Al Amma’ (a man, Oh mother), but once a devotee shouted ‘Al all Amma, Adu’ (not a man, oh mother, a goat), and since that time a he-goat without blemish has been sacrificed. Similarly, in Bellur, once a year, by turns from each house, a man was sacrificed by cutting off his head at the temple; but, when the turn came to a certain home, the devoted victim made his escape to the jungle. The villagers, after an unsuccessful search, returned to the temple, and said to the pūjāri (priest) ‘Kalak Adu,’ which has a double meaning, viz., Kalake next year, adu he will give, or adu a goat, and thenceforth only scapegoats were offered.”

Human sacrifice is considered efficacious in appeasing the earth spirit, and in warding off devils during the construction of a new railway or big bridge. To the influence of such evil spirits the death of several workmen by accident in a cutting on the railway, which was under construction at Cannanore in Malabar, was attributed. A legend is current at Anantapur that, on one occasion, the embankment of the big tank breached. Ganga, the goddess of water, entered the body of a woman, and explained through her that, if some one was thrown into the breach, she would cause no further damage. Accordingly, one Musalamma was thrown in, and buried within it. The spot is marked by several margosa (Melia Azadirachta) trees, and sheep, fowls, etc., are still occasionally offered to the girl who was thus sacrificed. When a tank bund (embankment) was under construction [215]in Mysore, there was a panic among the workmen, owing to a rumour that three virgins were going to be sacrificed. When a mantapam or shrine was consecrated, a human sacrifice was formerly considered necessary, but a cocoanut is now sometimes used as a substitute. At Kalasapād in the Cuddapah district, a missionary told Bishop Whitehead that, when a new ward was opened at the mission dispensary in 1906, none would enter it, because the people believed that the first to enter would be offered as a sacrifice. Their fears were allayed by a religious service. During the building of a tower at the Madras Museum, just before the big granite blocks were placed in position, the coolies contented themselves with the sacrifice of a goat. On the completion of a new building, some castes on the west coast sacrifice a fowl or sheep, to drive away the devils, which are supposed to haunt it.

In a field outside a village in South Canara, Mr Walhouse noticed a large square marked in lines with whitewash on the ground, with magic symbols in the corners, and the outline of a human figure rudely drawn in the middle. Flowers and boiled rice had been laid on leaves round the figure. He was informed that a house was to be built on the site marked out, and the figure was intended to represent the earth spirit supposed to be dwelling in the ground (or a human sacrifice?). Without this ceremony being performed before the earth was dug up, it was believed that there would be no luck about the house.21

Belief in the efficacy of human sacrifice as a means of discovering hidden treasure is widespread. It is recorded by Mr Walhouse22 that “one of the native notions respecting p­āndu kuli, or kistvaens, is that men of old constructed them for the purpose of hiding treasure. [216]Hence it is that antiquarians find so many have been ransacked. It is also believed that spells were placed over them as a guard, the strongest being to bury a man alive in the cairn, and bid his ghost protect the deposit against any but the proprietor. The ghost would conceal the treasure from all strangers, or only be compelled to disclose it by a human sacrifice being offered.”

Many beliefs exist with regard to the purpose for which the large prehistoric burial jars, such as are found in various parts of Southern India, were manufactured. In Travancore, some believe that they were made to contain the remains of virgins sacrificed by the Rājas on the boundaries of their estates, to protect them.23 According to another idea, the jars were made for the purpose of burying alive in them old women who refused to die.

In a note on the Velamas of the Godāvari district, Mr F. R. Hemingway writes that they admit that they always arrange for a Māla (Telugu Pariah) couple to marry, before they have a marriage in their own houses, and that they provide the necessary funds for the Māla marriage. They explain the custom by a story to the effect that a Māla once allowed a Velama to sacrifice him in order to obtain a hidden treasure, and they say that this custom is observed out of gratitude for the discovery of the treasure which resulted. The Rev. J. Cain gives a similar custom among the Velamas of Bhadrāchalam in the Godāvari district, only in this case it is a Palli (fisherman) who has to be married. Some years ago, a Native of the west coast, believing that treasure was hidden on his property, took council with an astrologer, who recommended the performance of a human sacrifice, [217]which happily was averted. On one occasion, a little Brāhman girl is said to have been decoyed when on her way to school, and murdered in the god’s room at a temple in Vellore, in which treasure was supposed to be concealed.

In 1901, a Native of the Bellary district was tried for the murder of his child, in the belief that hidden treasure would thereby be revealed to him. The man, whose story I heard from himself in the lock-up, had apparently implicit faith that the god would bring the child to life again. The case, as recorded in the judgment of the Sessions Judge, was as follows:—

“The prisoner has made two long statements to the Magistrate, in each of which he explains why he killed the child. From these statements it appears that he had been worshipping at the temple of Kona Irappa for six or seven years, and that, on one or more occasions, the god appeared to him, and said: ‘I am much pleased with your worship. There is wealth under me. To whom else should it be given but you?’ The god asked the prisoner to sacrifice sheep and buffaloes, and also said: ‘Give your son’s head. You know that a head should be given to the god who confers a boon. I shall raise up your son, and give you the wealth which is under me.’ At that time, the prisoner had only one son—the deceased boy was not then born. The prisoner said to the god: ‘I have only one son. How can I give him?’ The god replied: ‘A son will be born. Do not fear me. I shall revive the son, and give you wealth.’ Within one year, the deceased boy was born. This increased the prisoner’s faith in the god, and it is apparent from his own statement that he has for some time past been contemplating human sacrifice. He was advised not to sacrifice the son, and for a time was satisfied with sacrificing a buffalo and goats, but, as a result, did not succeed in getting the wealth that he was [218]anxious to secure. The prisoner says he dug up some portion of the temple, but the temple people did not let him dig further. The boy was killed on a Sunday, because the prisoner says that the god informed him that the human sacrifice should be on the child’s birthday, which was a Sunday. The prisoner mentions in his statement how he took the child to the temple on the Sunday morning, and cut him with a sword. Having done so, he proceeded to worship, saying: ‘I offered a head to the bestower of boons. Give boons, resuscitate my son, and show me wealth.’ While the prisoner was worshipping the god, and waiting for the god to revive his son, the Reddi (headman) and the police came to the temple, and interrupted the worship. The prisoner believes that thereby the god was prevented from reviving the son.... The facts seem to be clear. The man’s mind is sound in every respect but as regards this religious delusion. On that point, it is unsound.”

A bad feature of the case, which was reckoned against the prisoner, was that he deferred the sacrifice until a second son was born, so that, in any case, he was not left without male issue. It was laid down by Manu that a man is perfect when he consists of three—himself, his wife, and his son. In the Rig Vēda it is laid down that, when a father sees the face of a living son, he pays a debt in him, and gains immortality. In Sanskrit works, Pūtra, or son, is defined as one who delivers a parent from a hell called put, into which those who have no son fall. Hence the anxiety of Hindus to marry, and beget male offspring.

A few years ago, in the Mysore Province, two men were charged with the kidnapping and murder of a female infant, and one was sentenced to transportation for life. The theory of the prosecution was that the child was killed, in order that it might be offered as a sacrifice with [219]the object of securing hidden treasure, which was believed to be buried near the scene of the murder. A witness gave evidence to the effect that the second accused was the pūjāri (priest) of a Gangamma temple. He used to tell people that there was hidden treasure, and that, if a human sacrifice were offered, the treasure might be acquired. He used to make pūja, and tie yantrams (charms). He also made special pūjas, and exorcised devils. Another witness testified that her mother had buried some treasure during her lifetime, and she asked the pūjāri to discover it. He came to her house, made an earthen image, and did pūja to it. He dug the ground in three places, but no treasure was found. In dealing with the evidence in the Court of Appeal, the Judges stated that “it is well known that ignorant persons have various superstitions about the discovery of hidden treasure, and the facts that the second accused either shared such superstitious beliefs, or traded on the credulity of his neighbours by his pretensions of special occult power, and that a Sanyāsi (religious mendicant) had some four years ago given out that treasure might be discovered by means of a human sacrifice, cannot justify any inference that the second accused would have acted on the last suggestion, especially when the witnesses cannot even say that the second accused heard the Sanyāsi’s suggestion.”

The temple was searched, and the following articles were found:—three roots of the banyan tree having suralay (coil), a suralay of the banyan tree, round which two roots were entwined, a piece of banyan root, and a wheel (alada chakra) made of banyan root. Besides, there were a copper armlet, copper thyati (charm cylinder), nine copper plates, on which letters were engraved, a copper mokka mattoo (copper plate bearing [220]figures of deities), a piece of thread coloured red, white and black, for tying yantrams, a tin case containing kappu (a black substance), a ball of human hair, and a pen-knife. There was also a dealwood box containing books and papers relating to bhūta vidya (black art).

A man was accused in 1907, in the Kurnool district, of stabbing a supposed wizard in the darkest hours of a new-moon night. In the course of his judgment, the Judge stated that “what may be taken as the facts of the case are very curious. The accused and his elder brother saw an ‘iguana’ (lizard) run from the foot of a hill. This is supposed to be one of the signs of buried treasure. They killed the animal (and ate it eventually), and dug, and found, where it had slept, treasure in the shape of a pot full of old-time pagodas (gold coins). Now a goddess (called here Shatti, i.e., Sakti) is supposed to guard such buried treasure, and the finder ought to sacrifice a cock to the goddess before receiving the treasure. The brother of the accused neglected to do so, and came to the deceased, who was supposed to be a warlock, though his wife represents him to be merely a worshipper of Vīra Brahma, and a distributor of holy water (thirtham) and holy ashes to people possessed with devils. The deceased gave holy water to Pedda Pichivadu to avert ill-luck, but the man suddenly died from running a thorn into his foot, and his leg swelling in consequence. About the same time, the accused’s younger brother got palsy in his head, and the deceased failed to cure him, though he made the attempt.”

At Girigehalli in the Anantapur district, there is a temple, concerning which the story goes that the stomach of the goddess was once opened by an avaricious individual, who expected to find treasure within it. The goddess appeared to him in a dream, and said that he should [221]suffer like pain to that which he had inflicted upon her, and he shortly afterwards died of some internal complaint.24

In the Cuddapah district, many of the inhabitants are said25 to believe that there is much treasure hidden from the troublous days of the eighteenth century, but they have a superstitious dread against looking for it, since the successful finder would be smitten by the guardian demon with a sudden and painful death.

The Pānos (hill weavers) of Ganjam are said, on more than one occasion, to have rifled the grave of a European, in the belief that buried treasure would be found.

Many years ago, a woman was supposed to be possessed with a devil, and an exorcist was consulted, who declared that a human sacrifice was necessary. A victim was selected, and made very drunk. His head was cut off, and the blood, mixed with rice, was offered to the idol. The body was then hacked so as to deceive the police, and thrown into a pond.26

At a village near Berhampur in Ganjam, Mr S. P. Rice tells us,27 a number of villagers went out together. By and bye, according to a preconcerted plan, one of the party suggested a drink. The intended victim was drugged, and taken along to the statue of the goddess, or shrine containing what did duty for the statue. He was then thrown down with his face on the ground in an attitude suggesting supplication, and, while he was still in a state of stupor, his head was chopped off with an axe.

It is narrated by Chevers28 that, in 1840, a religious mendicant, on his way back from Rāmēsvaram, located himself in a village near Ramnād, and gave himself out [222]to be gifted with the power of working miracles. One evening, the chucklers (leather-workers) of the village, observing crows and vultures hovering near a group of trees, and suspecting that there was carrion for them to feast upon, were tempted to visit the spot, where they found a corpse, mangled most fearfully, and with the left hand and right leg cut off. Many nails were driven into the head, a garland was placed round the neck, and the forehead smeared with sandal paste. It was rumoured that a certain person was ailing, and that the holy man decreed that nothing short of a human sacrifice could save him, and that the victim should bear his name. The holy man disappeared, but was captured shortly afterwards.

A copper-plate grant, acquired a few years ago at Tirupati, and believed to be a forgery, records that a temple car was made for the goddess Kālikadēvi of Conjeeveram by certain Panchālans (members of the artisan classes). While it was being taken to the temple, a magician stopped it by means of incantations. The help of another magician was sought, and he cut off the head of his pregnant daughter, suspended it to the car, and performed certain rites. The car then moved, and the woman, whose head was cut off, was brought back to life. A somewhat similar legend is recorded in another copper-plate grant discovered in 1910 in the North Arcot district, which is also believed to be a forgery. It is there stated that the five castes of artisans made a bell-metal car for the Kāmākshiamman temple at Conjeeveram. Members of these five castes, belonging to the left-hand faction, commenced to drag it, but Seniyasingapuli, belonging to the right-hand faction, by means of magical powers, raised a thousand evil spirits against each wheel, and arrested its progress. A woman, named Mangammal, offered to sacrifice her son, and the artisans accordingly [223]purchased the boy, saying that they would give her a head equal to that of a new-born child. Eventually, Mangammal herself laid down before the car. Her head was cut off, and hung at the top of the car. Her abdomen was torn open, and the fœtus removed therefrom, and dedicated to the evil spirit. The headless trunk was buried in the path of the wheels. [224]


1 “The Golden Bough,” 1900, ii. 241 et seq. Bibliography of human sacrifice among the Kondhs, see Thurston, “Castes and Tribes of Southern India,” 1909, iii. 412–5.

2 “Selections from the Records of the Government of India,” No. v., Suppression of human sacrifice and infanticide, 1854. The subject of Meriah sacrifice is also dealt with by F. E. Penny, in her novel entitled “Sacrifice,” 1910.

3 “Personal Narrative of Service among the Wild Tribes of Khondistan,” 1864.

4 “The People of India,” 1908, 62.

5 “Gazetteer of the Vizagapatam District,” 1907, i. 202.

6 “Gazetteer of the Vizagapatam District,” 1907, i. 262–3.

7 Madras Weekly Mail, 6th June, 1894.

8 “Ind. Ant.,” 1876, v. 359.

9 Madras Christian Coll. Mag., 1887–88, v. 357.

10 “Gazetteer of the Vizagapatam District,” 1907, i. 202.

11 “Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies,” translation by H. K. Beauchamp, 1897, i. 70–1.

12 “Ind. Ant.,” 1879, viii. 219.

13 Infanticide, see Thurston, “Ethnographic Notes in Southern India,” 1907, 502–9.

14 Marshall, “A Phrenologist amongst the Todas,” 1873, 195.

15 Ellis, “History of Madagascar.”

16 “The Village Deities of Southern India,” Madras Museum Bull., 1907, v. 3, 137, 186.

17 “Gazetteer of Malabar,” 1908, i. 132.

18 “Mysore and Coorg Manual,” 1878, iii. 265.

19 The Kaniyans of the west coast are exorcisers.

20 “Mysore and Coorg Manual,” 1878, iii. 264–5.

21 “Ind. Ant.,” 1881, x. 366.

22 Ibid., 1876, v. 22.

23 “Ind. Ant.,” 1878, vii. 177.

24 “Gazetteer of the Anantapur District,” 1905, i. 179.

25 “Manual of the Cuddapah District,” 1875, 284.

26 Lieutenant-General F. F. Burton, “An Indian Olio,” 307.

27 “Occasional Essays on Native South Indian Life,” 1901, 72–3.

28 “Manual of Medical Jurisprudence in India,” 1870.


1 of 2
2 of 2