Omens and Superstitions of Southern India



Magic and Human Life

Some of the cases here brought together serve as an illustration of the difficulty which frequently arises in arriving at a decision as to how far the taking of human life is justified as being carried out in accordance with a genuine superstitious belief, and when the act renders the perpetrator thereof liable to punishment under the Indian Penal Code.

Five persons were charged a few years ago at the Coimbatore sessions with the murder of a young woman. The theory put forward by the prosecution was that two of the accused practised sorcery, and were under the delusion that, if they could obtain the fœtus from the uterus of a woman who was carrying her first child, they would be able to work some wonderful spells with it. With this object, they entered into a conspiracy with the three other accused to murder a young married woman, aged about seventeen, who was seven months advanced in pregnancy, and brutally murdered her, cutting open the uterus, removing the fœtus contained therein, and stealing her jewels. The five accused persons (three men and two women) were all of different castes. Two of the men had been jointly practising sorcery for some years. It was proved that, about two years before, they had performed an incantation near a river with some raw beef, doing pūja (worship) near the water’s edge in a [225]state of nature. Evidence was produced to prove that two of the accused decamped after the murder with a suspicious bundle, a few days before an eclipse of the moon, to Tiruchengōdu where there is a celebrated temple. It was suggested that the bundle contained the uterus, and was taken to Tiruchengōdu for the purpose of performing magical rites. When the quarters in which two of the accused lived were searched, three palm-leaf books were found containing mantrams regarding the pilli suniyam, a process of incantation by means of which sorcerers are supposed to be able to kill people. The record of the case states that “there can be little doubt that the first and fourth accused were taken into the conspiracy in order to decoy the deceased. The inducement offered to them was most probably immense wealth by the working of charms by the second and third accused with the aid of the fœtus. The medical evidence showed that the dead woman was pregnant, and that, after her throat had been cut, the uterus was taken out.”

In 1829, several Natives of Malabar were charged with having proceeded, in company with a Paraiyan magician, to the house of a pregnant woman, who was beaten and otherwise ill-treated, and with having taken the fœtus out of her uterus, and introduced in lieu thereof the skin of a calf and an earthen pot. The prisoners confessed before the police, but were acquitted mainly on the ground that the earthen pot was of a size which rendered it impossible to credit its introduction during life. The Paraiyas of Malabar and Cochin are celebrated for their magical powers, and the practice of odi.

“There are,” Mr Govinda Nambiar writes,1 “certain specialists among mantravādis (dealers in magical spells), [226]who are known as Odiyans. Conviction is deep-rooted that they have the power of destroying whomever they please, and that, by means of a powerful bewitching matter called pilla thilum (oil extracted from the body of an infant), they are enabled to transform themselves into any shape or form, or even to vanish into air, as their fancy may suggest. When an Odiyan is hired to cause the death of a man, he waits during the night at the gate of his intended victim’s house, usually in the form of a bullock. If, however, the person is inside the house, the Odiyan assumes the shape of a cat, enters the house, and induces him to come out. He is subsequently knocked down and strangled. The Odiyan is also credited with the power, by means of certain medicines, of inducing sleeping persons to open the doors, and come out of their houses as somnambulists do. Pregnant women are sometimes induced to come out of their houses in this way, and they are murdered, and the fœtus extracted from them. Murder of both sexes by Odiyans was a crime of frequent occurrence before the British occupation of the country.”

In a case which was tried at the Malabar Sessions a few years ago, several witnesses for the prosecution deposed that a certain individual was killed by odi. One man gave the following account of the process. Shoot the victim in the nape of the neck with a blunt arrow, and bring him down. Proceed to beat him systematically all over the body with two sticks (resembling a policeman’s truncheon, and called odivaddi), laying him on his back and applying the sticks to his chest, and up and down the sides, breaking all the ribs and other bones. Then raise the person, and kick his sides. After this, force him to take an oath that he will never divulge the names of his torturer. All the witnesses agreed about the blunt arrow, and some bore testimony to the sticks.

A detailed account of the odi cult, from which the [227]following information was obtained, is given by Mr Anantha Krishna Iyer.2 The disciple is taught how to procure pilla thilum (fœtus oil) from the six or seven months fœtus of a young woman in her first pregnancy. He (the Paraiyan magician) sets out at midnight from his hut to the house of the woman he has selected, round which he walks several times, shaking a cocoanut containing gurasi (a compound of water, lime, and turmeric), and muttering some mantrams to invoke the aid of his deity. He also draws a yantram (cabalistic figure) on the earth, taking special care to observe the omens as he starts. Should they be unfavourable, he puts it off for a more favourable opportunity. By the potency of his cult, the woman is made to come out. Even if the door of the room in which she might sleep be under lock and key, she would knock her head against it until she found her way out. She thus comes out, and yields herself to the influence of the magician, who leads her to a retired spot either in the compound (grounds), or elsewhere in the neighbourhood, strips her naked, and tells her to lie flat. She does so, and a chora kindi (gourd, Lagenaria) is placed close to the uterus. The fœtus comes out in a moment. A few leaves of some plant are applied, and the uterus contracts. Sometimes the womb is filled with rubbish, and the woman instantly dies. Care is taken that the fœtus does not touch the ground, lest the purpose be defeated, and the efficacy of the medicine completely lost. It is cut into pieces, dried, and afterwards exposed to the smoke above a fireplace. It is then placed in a vessel provided with a hole or two, below which there is another vessel. The two together are placed in a larger vessel filled with water, and heated over a bright fire. The heat must be so intense as to affect the fœtus, from which a [228]kind of liquid drops, and collects in the second vessel in an hour and a half. The magician then takes a human skull, and reduces it to a fine powder. This is mixed with a portion of the liquid. A mark is made on the forehead with this mixture, and the oil is rubbed on certain parts of the body, and he drinks some cow-dung water. He then thinks that he can assume the figure of any animal he likes, and successfully achieves the object in view, which is generally to murder or maim a person. A magic oil, called angola thilum, is extracted from the angola tree (Alangium Lamarckii), which bears a very large number of fruits. One of these is believed to be capable of descending and returning to its position on dark nights. Its possession can be secured by demons, or by an expert watching at the foot of the tree. When it has been secured, the extraction of the oil involves the same operations as those for extracting the pilla thilum, and they must be carried out within seven hours. The odi cult is said to have been practised by the Paraiyas some twenty years ago to a very large extent in the rural parts of the northern division of the Cochin State, and in the tāluks of Palghāt and Valuvanād, and even now it has not quite died out. Cases of extracting the fœtus, and of putting persons to death by odi, are not now heard of owing to the fear of government officials, landlords, and others.

Of the odi cult as practised by the Pānan magicians of the Cochin State, the following account is given by Mr Anantha Krishna Iyer.3

“A Pānan, who is an adept in the black art, dresses in an unwashed cloth, and performs pūja to his deity, after which he goes in search of a kotuveli plant (Plumbago zeylanica). When he has found it, he goes round it three times every day, and continues to do so for ninety days, [229]prostrating himself every day before it, and on the last night, which must be a new moon night, at midnight, he performs pūja to the plant, burning camphor and frankincense, and, after going round it three times, prostrates himself before it. He then thrusts three small candles on it, and advances twenty paces in front of it. With his mouth closed, he plucks the root, and buries it in the ashes on the cremation ground, after which he pours the water of seven green cocoanuts on it. He then goes round it twenty-one times, uttering all the while certain mantrams. This being over, he plunges himself in water, and stands erect until it extends to his mouth. He takes a mouthful of water which he empties on the spot, and takes the plant with the root which he believes to possess peculiar virtues. When it is taken to the closed door of a house, it has the power to entice a pregnant woman, and cause her to come out, when the fœtus is removed. It is all secretly done at midnight. The head, hands, and legs are cut off, and the trunk is taken to a dark-coloured rock, on which it is cut into nine pieces, which are burned until they are blackened. At this stage one piece boils, and it is placed in a new earthen pot, to which is added the water of nine green cocoanuts. The pot is removed to the burial ground, where the Pānan performs a pūja in honour of his favourite deity. He fixes two poles deep in the earth, at a distance of thirty feet from each other. The two poles are connected by a strong wire, from which is suspended the pot to be heated and boiled. Seven fireplaces are made beneath the wire, over the middle of which is the pot. The branches of bamboo, katalati (Achyranthes aspera), conga (Bauhinia variegata), cocoanut palm, jack tree (Artocarpus integrifolia), and pavatta (Pavetta indica), are used in forming a bright fire. The mixture in the pot soon boils and becomes oily, at which stage it is passed through a fine cloth. The oil is preserved, and a mark made with it on the forehead enables the possessor to realise anything which is thought of. The sorcerer must be in a state of vow for twenty-one days, and live on a diet [230]of chama kanji (gruel). The deity whose aid is necessary is also propitiated by offerings.”

In 1908, the following case, relating to the birth of a monster, was tried before the Sessions Judge of South Canara. A young Gauda girl became pregnant by her brother-in-law. After three days’ labour, the child was born. The accused, who was the mother of the girl, was the midwife. Finding the delivery very difficult, she sent for a person to come and help her. The child was, as they thought, still-born. On its head was a red protuberance like a ball; round each of its forearms were two or three red bands; the eyes and ears were fixed very high in the head; and the eyes, nose, and mouth were abnormally large. The mother was carried out of the outhouse, lest the devil child should do her harm, or kill her. The accused summoned a Muhammadan, who was in the yard. He came in, and she showed him the child, and asked him to call the neighbours, to decide what to do. The child, she said, was a devil child, and must be cut and killed, lest it should devour the mother. While they were looking at the child, it began to move and roll its eyes about, and turn on the ground. It is a belief of the villagers that such a devil child, when brought in contact with the air, rapidly grows, and causes great trouble, usually killing the mother, and sometimes killing all the inmates of the house. The accused told the Muhammadan to cover the child with a vessel, which he did. Then there was a sound from inside the vessel, either of the child moving, or making a sound with its mouth. The accused then put her hand under the vessel, dragged the child half-way out, and, while the Muhammadan pressed the edge of the vessel on the abdomen of the child, took a knife, and cut the body in [231]half. When the body was cut in two, there was no blood, but a mossy-green or black liquid oozed out. The accused got two areca leaves, and put one piece of the child on one, and one on the other, and told the Muhammadan to get a spade, and bury them. So they went to the jungle close to the house, and the Muhammadan dug two holes, one on one hillock, and one on another. In these holes, the two pieces of the child were buried. The object of this was to prevent the two pieces joining together again, in which case the united devil child would have come out of the grave, and gone to kill the mother.

Years ago, it was not unusual for people to come long distances for the purpose of engaging Paniyans of the Wynād (in Malabar) to help them in carrying out some more than usually desperate robbery or murder. Their mode of procedure, when engaged in an enterprise of this sort, is evidenced by two cases, which had in them a strong element of savagery. On both these occasions, the thatched homesteads were surrounded at dead of night by gangs of Paniyans carrying large bundles of rice straw. After carefully piling up the straw on all sides of the building marked for destruction, torches were at a given signal applied, and those of the inmates who attempted to escape were knocked on the head with clubs, and thrust into the fiery furnace. In 1904, some Paniyans were employed by a Māppilla (Muhammadan) to murder his mistress, who was pregnant, and threatened that she would noise abroad his responsibility for her condition. He brooded over the matter, and one day, meeting a Paniyan, promised him ten rupees if he would kill the woman. The Paniyan agreed to commit the crime, and went with his brothers to a place on a hill, where the Māppilla and the woman were in the habit of gratifying their passions. Thither the man and woman followed [232]the Paniyans, of whom one ran out, and struck the victim on the head with a chopper. She was then gagged with a cloth, carried some distance, and killed.

In 1834, the inhabitants of several villages in Malabar attacked a village of Paraiyans on the alleged ground that deaths of people and cattle, and the protracted labour of a woman in childbed, had been caused by the practice of sorcery by the Paraiyans. They were beaten inhumanely with their hands tied behind their backs, so that several died. The villagers were driven, bound, into a river, immersed under water so as nearly to produce suffocation, and their own children were forced to rub sand into their wounds. Their settlement was then razed to the ground, and they were driven into banishment.

The Kādirs of the Ānaimalais are believers in witchcraft, and attribute diseases to the working thereof. They are expert exorcists, and trade in mantravādam or magic. It is recorded by Mr Logan4 that “the family of famous trackers, whose services in the jungles were retained for H.R.H. the Prince of Wales’s (afterwards King Edward VII.) projected sporting tour in the Ānamalai mountains, dropped off most mysteriously one by one, stricken down by an unseen hand, and all of them expressing beforehand their conviction that they were under a certain individual’s spell, and were doomed to certain death at an early date. They were probably poisoned, but how it was managed remains a mystery, although the family was under the protection of a European gentleman, who would at once have brought to light any ostensible foul play.”

The Badagas of the Nīlgiris live in dread of the jungle Kurumbas, who constantly come under reference in their folk-stories. The Kurumba is the necromancer of the hills, [233]and believed to be possessed of the power of outraging women, removing their livers, and so causing their death, while the wound heals by magic, so that no trace of the operation is left. The Badaga’s dread of the Kurumba is said to be so great, that a simple threat of vengeance has proved fatal. The Badaga or Toda requires the services of the Kurumba, when he fancies that any member of his family is possessed by a devil. The Kurumba does his best to remove the malady by means of mantrams (magical formulæ). If he fails, and if any suspicion is aroused in the mind of the Badaga or Toda that he is allowing the devil to play his pranks instead of loosing his hold on the supposed victim, woe betide him. Writing in 1832, Harkness states5 that “a very few years before, a Burgher (Badaga) had been hanged by the sentence of the provincial court for the murder of a Kurumba. The act of the former was not without what was considered great provocation. Disease had attacked the inhabitants of the hamlet, a murrain their cattle. The former had carried off a great part of the family of the murderer, and he himself had but narrowly escaped its effects. No one in the neighbourhood doubted that the Kurumba in question had, by his necromancy, caused all this misfortune, and, after several fruitless attempts, a party of them succeeded in surrounding him in open day, and effecting their purpose.”

In 1835, no less than fifty-eight Kurumbas were murdered, and a smaller number in 1875 and 1882. In 1891, the inmates of a single Kurumba hut were said to have been murdered, and the hut burnt to ashes, because one of the family had been treating a sick Badaga child, and failed to cure it. The district judge, however, disbelieved [234]the evidence, and all who were charged were acquitted. Again, in 1900, a whole family of Kurumbas was murdered, of which the head, who had a reputation as a medicine man, was believed to have brought disease and death into a Badaga village. The sympathies of the whole countryside were so strongly with the murderers that detection was made very difficult, and the persons charged were acquitted.6

“It is,” Mr Grigg writes,7 “a curious fact that neither Kota, Irula, or Badaga, will slay a Kurumba, until a Toda has struck the first blow, but, as soon as his sanctity has been violated by a blow, they hasten to complete the murderous work, which the sacred hand of the Toda has begun.”

Some years ago, a Toda was found dead in a sitting posture on the top of a hill near a Badaga village, in which a party of Todas had gone to collect the tribute due to them. The body was cremated, and a report made to the police that the man had been murdered. On enquiry, it was ascertained that the dead man was supposed to have bewitched a little Badaga girl, who died in consequence, and the presumption was that he had been murdered by the Badagas out of spite.

In 1906, two men were found guilty of killing a man by shooting him with a gun in South Canara. It is recorded in the judgment that “the accused have a brother, who has been ill for a long time. They thought deceased, who was an astrologer and mantravādi, had bewitched him. They had spent fifty or sixty rupees on deceased for his treatment, but it did no good, and accused came to believe that deceased not only would not cure their brother himself, but would not allow [235]other doctors to do so. Also, a certain theft having occurred some months ago, deceased professed by his magic arts to have discovered that accused and others were the thieves. In consequence of these things, accused had expressed various threats against deceased. One witness, who is a mantravādi in a small way, was consulted by one of the accused to find some counter-treatment for deceased’s bewitchment. Accused said that deceased refused to cure their brother, and would not let others do so, unless they gave him certain gold coins called Rāma Tanka, said to be in their possession. They desired this possession, so would not satisfy deceased. So their brother was dying by inches under deceased’s malign influence. This witness professed to have discovered that accused’s brother was being worried by one black devil and two malignant spirits of the dead. It is clear from the evidence that accused, who are ignorant men of a low type, really believed that deceased was by his magic wilfully and slowly killing their brother. They believed that the only way to save their brother’s life was to kill the magician.”

During an epidemic of smallpox in the Jeypore hill tracts, a man lost his wife and child. A local subscription had been organised for a sorcerer, on the understanding that he was to stay the course of the epidemic. The bereaved man charged him with being a fraud, and, in the course of a quarrel, split his skull open with a tangi (axe).

In 1906, a Kōmati woman died of cholera in a village in Ganjam. Her son sought the assistance of certain men of the “Reddika” caste in obtaining wood for the pyre, carrying the corpse to the burning-ground, and cremating it. The son set fire to the pyre, and withdrew, leaving the Reddikas on the spot. Among them was one, who is said to have learnt sorcery from a Bairāgi (religious mendicant), and to have been generally feared and hated in the village. [236]To him the spread of cholera by letting loose the goddess of the cremation-ground, called Mashani Chendi, was attributed. Arrack (liquor) was passed round among those who were attending to the burning corpse, and they got more or less drunk. Two of them killed the sorcerer by severe blows on the neck with wood-choppers. His corpse was then placed on the burning pyre of the Kōmati woman, and cremated. The men who delivered the death blows were sentenced to transportation for life, as their intoxicated state and superstitious feeling were held to plead in mitigation of the punishment.

In 1904 a case illustrating the prevailing belief in witchcraft occurred in the Vizagapatam hill tracts. The youngest of three brothers died of fever, and, when the body was cremated, the fire failed to consume the upper portion. The brothers concluded that death must have been caused by the witchcraft of a certain Kondh. They accordingly attacked him, and killed him. After death, the brothers cut the body in half and dragged the upper half of it to their own village, where they attempted to nail it up on the spot where their deceased brother’s body failed to burn. They were arrested on the spot, with the fragment of the Kondh’s corpse. They were sentenced to death.8

In the North Arcot district, a few years ago, a reputed magician, while collecting the pieces of a burning corpse, to be used for the purposes of sorcery, was seized and murdered, and his body cast on the burning pyre. From the recovery of duplicate bones, it was proved that two bodies were burnt, and the murder was detected. Two persons were sentenced to transportation for life.9

Jumadi Bhūtha, South Canara.

To face p. 237.


1 Indian Review, May, 1900.

2 “The Cochin Tribes and Castes,” Madras, 1909, i. 77–81.

3 “The Cochin Tribes and Castes,” Madras, i. 176–7.

4 “Malabar,” 1887, i. 174.

5 “Description of a Singular Aboriginal Race inhabiting the summit of the Neilgherry Hills,” 1832, 83–4.

6 “Madras Police Administration Report,” 1900.

7 “Manual of the Niligiri District,” 1880, 212.

8 “Madras Police Administration Report,” 1904.

9 Ibid., 1905–6.

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