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Omens and Superstitions of Southern India

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Divination and Fortune-Telling

It has been said1 that “men not only attempt to act directly upon nature, but they usually exhibit a keen desire to be guided as to the best course to take when in doubt, difficulty, or danger, and to be forewarned of the future. The practice of divination is by no means confined to professional magicians, or even to soothsayers, but any one may employ the accessory means.”

Of professional diviners in Southern India, perhaps the best example is afforded by the Kaniyans2 or Kanisans of Malabar, whose caste name is said to be a Malayālam corruption of the Sanskrit Ganika, meaning astrologer. Duarte Barbosa,3 at the beginning of the sixteenth century, has a detailed reference to the Kaniyans, of whom he writes that “they learn letters and astronomy, and some of them are great astrologers, and foretell many future things, and form judgements upon the births of men. Kings and great persons send to call them, and come out of their palaces to gardens and pleasure-houses to see [274]them, and ask them what they desire to know; and these people form judgement upon these things in a few days, and return to those that asked them, but they may not enter the palaces; nor may they approach the king’s person on account of being low people. And the king is then alone with him. They are great diviners, and pay great attention to times and places of good and bad luck, which they cause to be observed by those kings and great men, and by the merchants also; and they take care to do their business at the time which these astrologers advise them, and they do the same in their voyages and marriages. And by these means these men gain a great deal.”

Buchanan,4 three centuries later, notes that the Kaniyans “possess almanacks, by which they inform people as to the proper time for performing ceremonies or sowing their seeds, and the hours which are fortunate or unfortunate for any undertaking. When persons are sick or in trouble, the Cunishun, by performing certain ceremonies in a magical square of 12 places, discovers what spirit is the cause of the evil, and also how it may be appeased.”

The Kaniyans are practically the guiding spirits in all the social and domestic concerns in Malabar, and even Christians and Muhammadans resort to them for advice. From the moment of the birth of an infant, which is noted by the Kaniyan for the purpose of casting its horoscope, to the moment of death, the services of the village astrologer are constantly in requisition. He is consulted as to the cause of all calamities, and the cautious answers that he gives satisfy the people. “Putro na putri,” which may either mean no son but a daughter, or no daughter but a son, is referred to as the type of [275]a Kaniyan’s answer, when questioned about the sex of an unborn child.

“It would be difficult,” Mr Logan writes,5 “to describe a single important occasion in everyday life when the Kanisan is not at hand, foretelling lucky days and hours, casting horoscopes, explaining the cause of calamities, prescribing remedies for untoward events, and physicians (not physic) for sick persons. Seed cannot be sown, or trees planted, unless the Kanisan has been consulted beforehand. He is even asked to consult his shastras to find lucky days and moments for setting out on a journey, commencing an enterprise, giving a loan, executing a deed, or shaving the head. For such important occasions as births, marriages, tonsure, investiture with the sacred thread, and beginning the A, B, C, the Kanisan is, of course, indispensable. His work, in short, mixes him up with the gravest as well as the most trivial of the domestic events of the people, and his influence and position are correspondingly great. The astrologer’s finding, as one will assert with all due reverence, is the oracle of God himself, with the justice of which every one ought to be satisfied, and the poorer classes follow his dictates unhesitatingly. The astrologer’s most busy time is from January to July, the period of harvest and marriages, but in the other six months of the year he is far from leading an idle life. His most lucrative business lies in casting horoscopes, recording the events of a man’s life from birth to death, pointing out dangerous periods of life, and prescribing rules and ceremonies to be observed by individuals for the purpose of propitiating the gods and planets, and so averting the calamities of dangerous times. He also shows favourable junctures for the commencement of undertakings, and the grantham or book, written on palm leaf, sets forth in considerable detail the person’s disposition and mental qualities, as affected by the position of the planets in the zodiac at the moment of birth. All this is [276]a work of labour, and of time. There are few members of respectable families who are not thus provided, and nobody grudges the five to twenty-five rupees usually paid for a horoscope, according to the position and reputation of the astrologer. Two things are essential to the astrologer, namely, a bag of cowry shells (Cypræa moneta), and an almanac. When any one comes to consult him,6 he quietly sits down, facing the sun, on a plank seat or mat, murmuring some mantrams or sacred verses, opens his bag of cowries, and pours them on the floor. With his right hand he moves them slowly round and round, solemnly reciting meanwhile a stanza or two in praise of his guru or teacher, and of his deity, invoking their help. He then stops, and explains what he has been doing, at the same time taking a handful of cowries from the heap, and placing them on one side. In front is a diagram drawn with chalk (or soapstone) on the floor, and consisting of twelve compartments (rāsis), one for each month in the year. Before commencing operations with the diagram, he selects three or five of the cowries highest up in the heap, and places them in a line on the right-hand side. [In an account before me, three cowries and two glass bottle-stoppers are mentioned as being placed on this side]. These represent Ganapati (the belly god, the remover of difficulties), the sun, the planet Jupiter, Sarasvati (the goddess of speech), and his own guru or preceptor. To all of these the astrologer gives due obeisance, touching his ears and the ground three times with both hands. The cowries are next arranged in the compartments of the diagram, and are moved about from compartment to compartment by the astrologer, who quotes meanwhile the authority on which he makes the moves. Finally he explains the result, and ends with again worshipping the deified cowries, who were witnessing the operation as spectators.”

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According to another account,7 the Kaniyan “pours his cowries on the ground, and, after rolling them in the palm of his right hand, while repeating mantrams, he selects the largest, and places them in a row outside the diagram at its right-hand top corner. They represent the first seven planets, and he does obeisance to them, touching his forehead and the ground three times with both hands. The relative position of the nine planets is then worked out, and illustrated with cowries in the diagram.”

The Mulla Kurumbas (jungle tribe) of Malabar are said8 to “have a gift of prophecy, some being initiated in the art known as Kotiveykal, literally planting betel vine. The professor, when consulted about any future event, husks a small quantity of rice by hand, places it inside a scooped shell of a dried kuvvalam fruit (Ægle Marmelos), and asks one of his men to plant the betel vine. The man understands the meaning, takes out the rice, and spreads it on a plank. The professor invokes the Puthadi deity, makes a calculation, and gives his reply, which is generally found correct.”

Concerning a class of people called Velichchapād, who are regarded as oracles in Malabar, Mr F. Fawcett writes as follows9:—

“Far away in rural Malabar, I witnessed the ceremony in which the Velichchapād exhibited his quality. It was in the neighbourhood of a Nāyar house, to which thronged all the neighbours (Nāyar), men and women, boys and girls. The ceremony lasts about an hour. The Nāyar said it was the custom in his family to have it done once [278]a year, but could give no account of how it originated; most probably in a vow, some ancestor having vowed that, if such or such benefit be received, he would for ever after have an annual performance of this ceremony in his house. It involved some expenditure, as the Velichchapād had to be paid, and the neighbours had to be fed. Somewhere about the middle of the little courtyard, the Velichchapād placed a lamp (of the Malabar pattern) having a lighted wick, a kalasam (brass vessel), some flowers, camphor, saffron (turmeric), and other paraphernalia. Bhagavati was the deity invoked, and the business involved offering flowers, and waving a lighted wick round the kalasam. The Velichchapād’s movements became quicker, and, suddenly seizing his sword, he ran round the courtyard (against the sun, as sailors say), shouting wildly. He is under the influence of the deity who has been introduced into him, and gives oracular utterances to the deity’s commands. What he said I know not, and no one else seemed to know, or care in the least, much interested though they were in the performance. As he ran, every now and then he cut his forehead with the sword, pressing it against the skin and sawing vertically up and down. The blood streamed all over his face. Presently he became wilder, and whizzed round the lamp, bending forward towards the kalasam. Evidently some deity, some spirit was present here, and spoke through the mouth of the Velichchapād. This, I think, undoubtedly represents the belief of all who were present. When he had done whizzing round the kalasam, he soon became a normal being, and stood before my camera. The fee for the self-inflicted laceration is one rupee, some rice, etc. I saw the Velichchapād about three days afterwards, going to perform elsewhere. The wound on his forehead had healed. The careful observer can always identify a Velichchapād by the triangular patch over the forehead, where the hair will not grow, and where the skin is somewhat indurated.”

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The Kotas of the Nilgiris worship Māgāli, to whose influence outbreaks of cholera are attributed. When the dread disease breaks out among them, special sacrifices are performed with a view to propitiating the goddess, who is represented by an upright stone in a rude temple near Kotagiri. An annual ceremony takes place there, at which some man becomes possessed, and announces to the people that Māgāli has come. At the seed-sowing ceremony, a Kota priest sometimes becomes inspired, and gives expression to oracular utterances. At a Toda funeral, the men, congregating on the summit of a neighbouring hill, invoked the gods. Four of them, seized, apparently in imitation of the Kota dēvādi (priest), with divine frenzy, began to shiver and gesticulate wildly while running to and fro with closed eyes. They then began to talk in Malayālam, and offer an explanation of an extraordinary phenomenon, which had appeared in the form of a gigantic figure, which disappeared as suddenly as it appeared. The possession by some Todas of a smattering of Malayālam is explained by the fact that, when grazing their buffaloes on the western slopes of the Nīlgiris, they come in contact with Malayālam-speaking people from the neighbouring Malabar country.

For the following note on the Sakuna Pakshi (prophetic bird) mendicant caste, I am indebted to Mr C. Hayavadana Rao. The name of the caste is due to the fact that the members thereof wear on their heads a plume composed of the feathers of the Indian roller (Coracias indica) or blue jay of Europeans. This is one of the birds called sakuna pakshi, because they are supposed to possess the power of foretelling events, and on their movements many omens depend. Concerning the roller, Jerdon writes10 that

“it is sacred to Siva, who assumed its form, and, at [280]the feast of the Dasserah at Nagpore, one or more used to be liberated by the Rājah, amidst the firing of cannon and musketry, at a grand parade attended by all the officers of the station. Buchanan Hamilton also states that, before the Durga Puja, the Hindus of Calcutta purchase one of these birds, and, at the time when they throw the image of Durga into the river, set it at liberty. It is considered propitious to see it on this day, and those who cannot afford to buy one discharge their matchlocks to put it on the wing.”

A Sakuna Pakshi, before starting on a begging expedition, rises early, and has a cold meal. He then puts on the Vaishnava nāmam mark on his forehead, slings on his left shoulder a deer-skin pouch for the reception of the rice and other grain which will be given to him as alms, and takes up his little drum (gilaka or damaraka) made of frog’s skin.

Closely allied to the Sakuna Pakshis are the Budubudikēs or Budubudukalas, a class of beggars and fortune-tellers, whose name is derived from the drum (budbuki) which they use when engaged in predicting future events.

“A huge parti-coloured turban, surmounted by a bunch of feathers, a pair of ragged trousers, a loose long coat, which is very often out at elbows, and a capacious wallet, ordinarily constitute the Budubudukala’s dress. Occasionally, if he can afford it, he indulges in the luxury of a tiger or cheetah (leopard) skin, which hangs down his back, and contributes to the dignity of his calling. Add to this an odd assortment of clothes suspended on his left arm, and the picture is as grotesque as it can be. He is regarded as able to predict the future of human beings by the flight and notes of birds. His predictions are couched in the chant which he recites. The burden of the chant is always stereotyped, and purports to have been gleaned from the warble of the feathered songsters of the forest. It prognosticates peace, plenty and prosperity to [281]the house, the birth of a son to the fair, lotus-eyed housewife, and worldly advancement to the master, whose virtues are as countless as the stars, and have the power to annihilate his enemies. It also holds out a tempting prospect of coming joy in an unknown shape from an unknown quarter, and concludes with an appeal for a cloth. If the appeal is successful, well and good. If not, the Budubudukala has the patience and perseverance to repeat his visit the next day, and so on until, in sheer disgust, the householder parts with a cloth. The drum, which has been referred to as giving the Budubudukala his name, is not devoid of interest. In appearance it is an instrument of diminutive size, and is shaped like an hour-glass, to the middle of which is attached a string with a knot at the end, which serves as the percutient. Its origin is enveloped in a myth of which the Budubudukala is very proud, for it tells of his divine descent, and invests his vocation with the halo of sanctity. According to the legend, the primitive Budubudukala who first adorned the face of the earth was a belated product of the world’s creation. When he was born or rather evolved, the rest of mankind was already in the field, struggling for existence. Practically the whole scheme was complete, and, in the economy of the universe, the Budubudukala found himself one too many. In this quandary, he appealed to his goddess mother Amba Bhavani, who took pity on him, and presented him with her husband the god Parameswara’s drum with the blessing ‘My son, there is nothing else for you but this. Take it and beg, and you will prosper.’ Among beggars, the Budubudukala has constituted himself a superior mendicant, to whom the handful of rice usually doled out is not acceptable. His demand is for clothes of any description, good, bad or indifferent, new or old, torn or whole. For, in the plenitude of his wisdom, he has realised that a cloth is a marketable commodity, which, when exchanged for money, fetches more than the handful of rice. The Budubudukala is continually on the tramp, and regulates his movements according to the [282]seasons of the year. As a rule, he pays his visit to the rural parts after the harvest is gathered, for it is then that the villagers are at their best, and in a position to handsomely remunerate him for his pains. But, in whatever corner of the province he may be, as the Dusserah11 approaches, he turns his face towards Vellore in North Arcot, where the annual festival in honour of Amba Bhavani is celebrated.”12

The principal tribal deity of the Kuruvikkāran beggars is Kāli or Durga, and each sept possesses a small metal plate with a figure of the goddess engraved on it, which is usually kept in the custody of the headman. It is, however, sometimes pledged, and money-lenders give considerable sums on the security of the idol, as the Kuruvikkārans would on no account fail to redeem it. At the annual festival of the goddess, while some cakes are being cooked in oil, a member of the tribe prays that the goddess will descend on him. Taking some of the cakes out of the boiling oil, he rubs the oil on his head with his palm. He is then questioned by those assembled, to whom he gives oracular replies, after sucking the blood from the cut throat of a goat.

The nomad Koravas or Yerukalas earn a livelihood partly by telling fortunes. The Telugu name Yerukala is said to mean fortune-teller, and, as the women go on their rounds through the streets, they call out “Yeruko, amma, yeruku” i.e., prophecies, mother, prophecies.

Korava Woman Telling Fortune with Cowry Shells in Tray.

To face p. 283.

Concerning the Pachaikutti (tattooer) or Gadde (soothsayer) section of these people, Mr Paupa Rao Naidu writes13 that “the woman proceeds with a basket and a [283]winnowing tray to a village, proclaiming their ostensible profession of tattooing and soothsaying, which they do for grain or money. When unfortunate village women, who always lose their children or often fall ill, see these Gadde women moving about, they call them into their houses, make them sit, and, pouring some grain into their baskets, ask them about their past misery and future lot. These women, who are sufficiently trained to speak in suitable language, are clever enough to give out some yarns in equivocal terms, so that the anxious women, who hope for better futurity, understand them in the light uppermost in their own minds. The Korava women will be duly rewarded, and doubly too, for they never fail to study the nature of the house, to see if it offers a fair field for booty for their men.”14

It is said that Korava women invoke the village goddesses when they are telling fortunes. They use a winnowing fan and grains of rice in doing this, and prophecy good or evil according to the number of grains on the fan.15 They carry a basket, winnow, stick, and a wicker tray in which cowry shells are embedded in a mixture of cow-dung and turmeric. The basket represents the goddess Kolapuriamma, and the cowries Pōlēramma. When telling fortunes, the woman places on the basket the winnow, rice, betel leaves and areca nuts, and the wicker tray. Holding her client’s hand over the winnow, and moving it about, she commences to chant, and name all sorts of deities. From time to time, she touches the hand of the person whose fortune is being told with the stick. The Korava women are very clever at extracting information concerning the affairs of a client, before they proceed to tell her fortune. In a note on the initiation of Yerukala [284]girls into the profession of fortune-telling in Vizagapatam, Mr Hayavadana Rao writes that it is carried out on a Sunday succeeding the first puberty ceremony. A caste feast, with plenty of strong drink, is held, but the girl herself fasts. The feast over, she is taken to a spot at a little distance from the settlement, called Yerukonda. This is said to be the name of a place on the trunk road between Vizianagram and Chicacole, to which girls were taken in former days to be initiated. The girl is blindfolded with a cloth. Boiled rice and green gram (grain) are mixed with the blood of a black fowl, black pig, and black goat, which are killed. Of this mixture she must take at least three morsels, and, if she does not vomit, it is taken as a sign that she will become a good fortune-teller. Vomiting would indicate that she would be a false prophetess.

The Irulas of the Tamil country, like the Yerukalas, are professional fortune-tellers. The Yerukala will carry out the work connected with her profession anywhere, at any time, and any number of times in a day. The Irula, on the contrary, remains at his home, and will only tell fortunes close to his hut, or near the hut where his gods are kept. In case of sickness, people of all classes come to consult the Irula fortune-teller, whose occupation is known as Kannimar varnithal. Taking up his drum, he warms it over the fire, or exposes it to the heat of the sun. When it is sufficiently dry to vibrate to his satisfaction, Kannimar is worshipped by breaking a cocoanut, and burning camphor and incense. Closing his eyes, the Irula beats the drum, and shakes his head about, while his wife, who stands near him, sprinkles turmeric water over him. After a few minutes, bells are tied to his right wrist. In about a quarter of an hour he begins to shiver, and breaks out in a profuse perspiration. This is a sure sign [285]that he is inspired by the goddess. The shaking of his body becomes more violent, he breathes rapidly, and hisses like a snake. Gradually he becomes calmer, and addresses those around him as if he were the goddess, saying: “Oh! children, I have come down on my car, which is decorated with mango flowers, margosa, and jasmine. You need fear nothing so long as I exist, and you worship me. This country will be prosperous, and the people will continue to be happy. Ere long my precious car, immersed in the tank (pond) on the hill, will be taken out, and after that the country will become more prosperous,” and so on. Questions are generally put to the inspired man, not directly, but through his wife. Occasionally, even when no client has come to consult him, the Irula will take up his drum towards dusk, and chant the praises of Kannimar, sometimes for hours at a stretch, with a crowd of Irulas collected round him.

I gather, from a note by Mr. T. Ranga Rao, that the jungle Yānādis of the Telugu country pose as prophets of human destinies, and pretend to hold intercourse with gods and goddesses, and to intercede between god and man. Every village or circle has one or more soothsayers, who learn their art from experts under a rigid routine. The period of pupilage is a fortnight spent in retreat, on a dietary of milk and fruits. The god or goddess Venkatēswaralu, Subbaroyadu, Malakondroyadu, Ankamma, or Pōlēramma, appears like a shadow, and inspires the pupil, who, directly the period of probation has ceased, burns camphor and frankincense. He then sings in praise of the deity, takes a sea-bath with his master, gives a sumptuous feast, and becomes an independent soothsayer. The story runs that the ardent soothsayers of old wrought miracles by stirring boiling rice with his hand, which was proof against burn or hurt. His modern brother invokes [286]the gods with burning charcoal in his folded hands, to the beat of a drum. People flock in large numbers to learn the truth. The soothsayer arranges the tribal deity Chenchu Dēvudu, and various local gods, in a god-house, which is always kept scrupulously clean, and where worship is regularly carried on. The auspicious days for soothsaying are Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The chief soothsayer is a male. The applicant presents him with areca nuts, fruit, flowers, and money. The soothsayer bathes, and sits in front of his house smeared with black, white, red, and other colours. His wife, or some other female, kindles a fire, and throws frankincense into it. He beats his drum and sings, while a woman within repeats the chant in a shrill voice. The songs are in praise of the deity, at whose and the soothsayer’s feet the applicant prostrates himself, and invokes their aid. The soothsayer feels inspired, and addresses the suppliant thus:—“You have neglected me. You do not worship me. Propitiate me adequately, or ruin is yours.” The future is predicted in song, and the rural folk place great faith in the predictions.

As an example of devil worship and divination, the practice thereof by the Tamil Valaiyans and Kallans of Orattanādu in the Tanjore district is described as follows by Mr F. R. Hemingway.16

“Valaiyan houses generally have an odiyan (Odina Wodier) tree in the backyard, wherein the devils are believed to live, and, among the Kallans, every street has a tree for their accommodation. They are propitiated at least once a year, the more virulent under the tree itself, and the rest in the house, generally on a Friday or Monday. Kallans attach importance to Friday in Ādi (July and [287]August), the cattle Pongal day in Tai (January and February), and Kartigai day in the month Kartigai (November and December). A man, with his mouth covered with a cloth to indicate silence and purity, cooks rice in the backyard, and pours it out in front of the tree, mixed with milk and jaggery (crude sugar). Cocoanuts and toddy are also placed there. These are offered to the devils, represented in the form of bricks or mud images placed at the foot of the tree, and camphor is set alight. A sheep is then brought and slaughtered, and the devils are supposed to spring one after another from the tree into one of the bystanders. This man then becomes filled with the divine afflatus, works himself up into a kind of frenzy, becomes the mouthpiece of the spirits, pronounces their satisfaction or the reverse at the offerings, and gives utterance to cryptic phrases, which are held to foretell good or evil fortune to those in answer to whom they are made. When all the devils in turn have spoken and vanished, the man recovers his senses. The devils are worshipped in the same way in the house, except that no blood is shed.”

The following example of the conviction of a thief by a diviner is recorded by Mrs Murray-Aynsley.17

“A friend’s ayah had her blanket stolen. The native woman rejected the interference of the police, which her mistress proposed, but said she would send for one of her own diviners. He came, caused a fire to be lighted in an earthen vessel, then took a small basket-work grain-sifter used for winnowing rice. Having repeated certain prayers or incantations, the diviner stuck a pair of scissors into the deepest part of this tray, and, having done this, required the two assistants he brought with him each to put a finger beneath the holes in the scissors, and then hold the sifter suspended over the fire. The servants of the house were then all required, each in turn, to take a small quantity of uncooked rice in their [288]hands, and drop it into the flame, between the fork formed by the scissors, the diviner all the time repeating some formula. All went very smoothly till the woman-servant, whom my friend had all along suspected of the theft, performed this ceremony, on which the grain-sifter commenced turning round rapidly. The culprit was convicted, and confessed the theft.”

The following method of discovering theft by chewing rice is described by Daniel Johnson.18

“A Brāhmin is sent for, who writes down all the names of the people in the house, who are suspected. Next day he consecrates a piece of ground by covering it with cow-dung and water, over which he says a long prayer. The people then assemble on this spot in a line facing the Bra̱hmin, who has with him some dry rice, of which he delivers to each person the weight of a four-cornered rupee, or that quantity weighed with the sacred stone called Salagram, which is deposited in a leaf of the pippal or banyan tree. At the time of delivering it, the Brāhmin puts his right hand on each person’s head, and repeats a short prayer; and, when finished, he directs them all to chew the rice, which at a given time must be produced on the leaves masticated. The person or persons, whose rice is not thoroughly masticated, or exhibits any blood on it, is considered guilty. The faith they all have of the power of the Bra̱hmin, and a guilty conscience operating at the same time, suppresses the natural flow of saliva to the mouth, without which the hard particles of the rice bruise and cut the gums, causing them to bleed, which they themselves are sensible of, and in most instances confess the crime.”

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1 A. C. Haddon, “Magic and Fetishism” (Religions ancient and modern), 1906, 40.

2 For much of the note on Kaniyans I am indebted to Mr N. Subramani Iyer.

3 “Description of the Coasts of East Africa and Malabar,” translation, Hakluyt Society, 1866, 139.

4 “Journey through Mysore Canara, and Malabar,” 1807, ii. 528.

5 “Malabar,” 1887, i. 140–1.

6 The Kaniyan, when wanted in his professional capacity, presents himself with triple ash marks of Siva on his chest, arms, and forehead.

7 “Gazetteer of Malabar,” 1908, i. 130.

8 C. Gopalan Nair, Malabar Series, “Wynad, its People and Traditions,” 1911, 70–1.

9 Madras Museum Bull., 1901, iii., No. 3, 273–4.

10 “Birds of India,” 1877, i. 216–7.

11 The Dusserah or Dasara is also known as Sarasvati pūja or Ayudha pūja (worship of weapons or tools). See p. 174.

12 Madras Weekly Mail, 8th August, 1907.

13 “History of Railway Thieves,” 1904.

14 The Koravas are professional burglars.

15 “Madras Census Report,” 1901, part i. 164.

16 “Gazetteer of the Tanjore District,” 1906, i. 69.

17 “Our Tour in Southern India,” 1883, 162–3.

18 “Sketches of Field Sports Followed by the Natives of India,” 1822.


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