The Evil Eye

The other day I was spending a few hours in bed suffering from a miserable flu and was in no mood to read. In utter boredom I was reduced to gazing around the room and out of the windows, till my gaze finally rested on an old black and white photo of a couple, them being my dad and mom, taken some days after their marriage in the mid 50’s. Dad looking chum and smart with his Clark Gable moustache, keeping with the times and mom looking very serene and contended in her Banaras sari. But then I concentrated and saw a smudge on her face and walked closer to inspect it. Yes, it was what I thought, a beauty spot on her face. I had obtained this photo recently from my brother and had missed this aspect of the photo in the dark winter months, but well, that set me thinking. As was the custom in those days, they did affix this lamp-black spot on the left side of ones lovely countenance to ward off the evil eye, so that was what it was.

Sadly it did not quite help her as events transpired. A severe jawbone degradation (I do not recall the exact name of the ailment anymore) in her middle years resulted in major reconstructive plastic surgery (in those days it was a great thing and she was the subject of a pioneering attempt at Vellore) and even though my mother continued to have a very nice countenance but had to use dentures after that, her confidence was somewhat dented. She would always talk of the days when her face looked as it should be, and I have heard her mention this many a time to my wife. My mother turned out to be extremely superstitious after that and she would always be looking out for single Brahmins or crows or nayadis and all other kinds of other Malayali superstitions. She would strictly adhere to Rahulakam, Yamakanda kalam etc and irritate the hell out of the rest of the family. I also remembered that every exam we wrote was after consumption of a bit of unripe mango for luck, and if there was no fresh mango, it was the mango from the Kannimanga or Kadumanga pickle bottle. Wistfully I recollected events from those days relating to my mother and her little idiosyncrasies. I was lost in thought, sometimes with a tear in my eye, thinking of what wretched luck she had at times….

….till my mind danced and drifted away and back to settle on the matter concerning the evil eye. You know how it is, like it or not, bits of those apparently lost moments will always remain in your life. I am not superstitious, but both our cars have the Turkish Nazar hanging right in front and the home has at least two big Turkish Nazars (nazar boncuk) to ward off ill luck and evil eyes. And so this article is devoted to the evil eye…the Drishti, Nazar….the wretched gaze of envy – which as it so happens, happens to be the most widespread belief in the world, not just India!!!

So prevalent is it that you can find mentions of it from the Greek and Roman times, also in the Sumerian texts, The Bible, ancient Middle Eastern, Egyptian and many Indian epics. The interesting part of course is that the anecdotes are quite cross cultural, making you wonder if it was the same event just being reported in local context. Most of the time it is just uttered for continued consumption and there is no proof of a said event ever attached. And so, the belief continues to manifest cultures and modern civilizations even today though not with the same seriousness as in the past. It was apparently first recorded by the Mesopotamians about 5,000 years ago in cuneiform on clay tablets and the Evil Eye may actually have originated as early as the Upper Paleolithic age. It seems that amulets meant to protect against it have been found in many parts of the world. In many a culture, it is a devastating ever present force and in some others, it is just bad luck, or as they say, a "jinx."

Nowhere else is it still evident than in Kerala, a place where praise is never given even if the best thing has been achieved. The Malayali would pass any performance off as though it is the most natural thing happening (see the countenances of the onlookers in the episodes of Idea star singer after a stupendous performance of a young singer) and not offer an iota of encouraging praise, just as I recalled Usha Uthup’s comment of rarely getting an enthusiastic clap or cheer in Kerala.

Many years back, I had asked my mother about this and she said, we from Palghat are like that. Even if the rains are good and somebody asked how the monsoon was, we would say, ‘oh, it has been Ok, but that we had better years’. Never is it good or great as an American would always hyperbole. And the reason friends as I found out, is that such enthusiasm or praise would result in bad luck. Never praise anybody unduly or either his head will get swollen or the evil eye would have its effect, be it beauty or excellence in school or the harvest.

Typical also is the ancient Turkish system where the person who praises the beauty of a child is required to do drastic things like spit on its face to ward off the evil eye effect. After which the lamp-black beauty spot is applied (even in Turkey) just as it is done the world over.

In India, it is widely prevalent and it has always been understood that the eyes cast the most powerful of emanations from a human body and also that the casting of an evil eye is usually cloaked in an admiring gaze. To repeat the words of an old historian - Children are said to waste away under the evil eye effect and the cow to curdle its milk in its udders after such a gaze! Many a time it is mentioned that this is usually rooting from jealousy and is almost always associated with women, like for example a childless mother or a widow. That the eye emanates powerful signals is the reason behind not looking at newborns until the correct moment, or not looking at the eclipse or looking behind at a funeral pyre. Women, jackals, cats and serpents as well as the planet god Shani are commonly associated with casting evil eyes in South India. Why women? I do not know.

As a villager Chatu mentioned to the anthropologist Thurston - Those who have the evil eye are generally women, men rarely. The cause is in the eye itself. No evil spirit is in any way connected with it. A woman may affect her own child. A person having the evil eye, looking at a beautiful or a healthy child will affect it without intending to do so. The injury done through the eye is often unintentional. The power of the eye to do mischief is altogether beyond the volition of its possessor; but it is excessively virulent when mischief is really intended. Color of the eye matters nothing. Nor is possession of the evil eye confined to any caste. The effect of it on a child is that it becomes lean, feverish, loses its well favored appearance, and cries in its sleep. Men and women suffer from headaches and pains in the limbs. Animals are disposed to lassitude and eat little. Cows will not give milk.

As another anthropologist puts it, it is said that the most important times when the evil eye has to be avoided is at child birth, marriage or coming of age. Many a time the person who casts the evil eye is associated with some deformity and the logic thus provided is ‘misery likes company’. So it is for the same reason that masons and carpenters leave a small bit of the house construction incomplete, or a master weaver leaves a small extra knot or wrong weave in his produce. And that is why we have the ugly face painted pot in front of a new house or a scarecrow in a field full of harvest bounty (like a rice field – not just to scare birds) to ward off the evil eye.

Remember how it is when a new bride enters a house? You have the old woman of the house armed with the pot with water colored red, a burning wick, some rice and all kind of other stuff for an impromptu warding off of all evil eye effects on her with an ‘aarati’ before she enters the house (or is it to ward off her own evil eye effect in the new household?). In ancient times, a child was sometimes provided with an elephant tail hair bangle to ward off evil eyes or a locket of a tigers claw or tooth (I myself had one on my chain as a child). And it is for this that one waves red chillies and salt and throws them into the fire following an important event at home. If no noxious odor comes out (Well!!!! Will it ever smell any other than burning chillies??), the evil has been averted.

But then there are also interesting antidotes in Malabar – if somebody praises you and you fear an evil eye attack, you counter it by scaring him out of his wits in the middle of the conversation by screaming ‘yow – there is a snake at your feet’ or some such thing. Now as you know snakes are the real thing in Malabar, revered and part of your household even (we have 6 sarapakkavus in our ancestral house) and something people can be very scared of. If he/she gets suitably frightened (hair standing up or lady swooning and so on), the evil eye has been averted. But then again, you find very interesting accounts as well, it appears that the procession of Nair girls in front of a wedding palanquin in the past (this specific incident was attributed to the Travancore royal wedding) was meant to ward of the evil eye.

As the Iranians say – an evil eye sends the camel to the pot and mankind to its grave, and Romanians called their pretty children ugly, with the very purpose of warding of possible evil eyes. It is for the same reasons that Germans look at ‘people with red eyes’, with much suspicion and Italians believe that people with ‘joined up eyebrows’ should be avoided.

Back to Kerala, the objection to the higher caste man being seen by a lower caste person is also based on the ‘evil eye -jealousy aspect’. I recall as small kids spending the vacation in our village, we were not allowed to be near the milking chap early mornings to ward of the evil eye, and he had to do his work in the wee hours of the day before anybody was awake & about. And when we heard the howl of the nayadi announcing his arrival and asking for alms from a distance, every child or human was asked to hurry indoors, for the nayadi’s very sight would have destroyed the peace and tranquil of the household.

In those early days in Malabar, they used to have a mantra which was whispered on sixteen grains of rice: on each grain separately, not on all together. As the mantram is whispered on each grain, the grain is placed in oil. Then it is stirred while the second mantram is sung.

In North India it is called Drishti. The word 'dhristi' (Evil Eye) traces its origin from Sanskrit and its literal meaning is 'sight'. As a site goes on to explain, in modern linguistics its usage signifies 'evil eye' or rather 'casting an evil-eye'. As one self styled expert states, Dhristi is not a concept borrowed from superstitions, science explains it as the flow of negativity that affects the person or object towards which it is directed. Well, subject for thought I suppose. Dhrishti Parihaaram is a measure to ward off the evil, cast by an evil eye. The remedy also depends upon the source from which the negative energy has been produced whether it is a product of witchcraft or black magic. Some fruits like lemon, watermelon and coconut have the capacity to absorb negative energy. (In our case, as you saw before, it was mango- a fruit brought to us by the ‘evil friangi’ Portuguese!! Strange, isn’t it??)

And so, today, a new automobile is run over lemons (one per wheel) before it starts its maiden (like the champagne bottle breaking & the traditional ship launch)journey and painted watermelons are hung at the gates of houses and babies are spotted with kohl on the forehead and the cheek to ward off evil. Burning camphor is yet another antidote, when burnt near any person, removes all the negativity around the person. And then of course, is the real thing – various Homams, Japams, Mantra chanting, Parayanam, amulets etc are definitely supposed to ward off such ill affects. Homemade lamp black or kohl (kanmashi) is for that reason (well at least one of the reasons) not quite extinct and is still applied on the eyes of infants to ensure protection from the evil eye. In Kerala at least, you can see that this evil eye tradition is common between the Moplah Muslims as well as the Christians. Many I have come across believe in magic, witchcraft and of course the evil eye. The hand of Fatima is believed to ward off the evil eye, and was a powerful symbol in Islam. And then in the earlier days, navara pattu was sung in homes by the Pulluvan to ward off evil eye and another method was to display peacock feathers. Sometimes pregnant woman and of course even today, new born children are given black glass bangles to ward off the evil eye.

But the most diabolic way to get rid of an evil eye effect on a child in medieval Europe, was to throw the kid into the middle of crossroads, now how do you like that?

As I mentioned before, evil eye beliefs are deep rooted in Turkey. Nazar is supposed to be cast by some envious or malicious person, and sickness, death and loss of beauty, affection and wealth are ascribed to it. As James Pierce documents - Should you happen to fix your gaze on a person or object in the presence of ill-disposed Turks, you are liable to receive rude remarks from them under the idea that you are casting the evil eye. The principal preventives and antidotes in Turkey are garlic, cheriot, wild thyme, boars' tusks, hares' heads, terebinth, alum, blue glass, torquoise, pearls, the bloodstone, carnelian, eggs (principally those of the ostrich), a gland extracted from the neck of the ass, written amulets, and a thousand other objects. The upper classes of the Christians in Turkey try to avert its effect by sprinkling the afflicted persons with cold water, fumigating them with the burning branches of the palms used on Palm Sunday, and by hanging amulets round their necks; as preservatives, coral, blue glass ornaments and crosses are worn. The common people of all denominations resort to other means in addition to these. On the last day of February they take the heads of forty small fish, and string and hang them up to dry. When a child is found ailing from the supposed effects of the evil eye, the heads are soaked in water, and the horrible liquid given to it to drink. It is considered a good test of the presence of the evil eye to place cloves on burning coals and carry them into the room. Should many of these explode, some malicious person is supposed to have left the mischievous effects of the Nazar behind him. Blue or gray eyes are more dreaded than dark ones, and red-haired persons are particularly suspected.

From Jolique, I read a very interesting fact that the word in English – Fascination as you can now infer, originates from the evil eye. In Greek, the evil eye is called baskania, from which the Latin words for the evil eye, fascinum and fascinatio, are said to be derived. The Latin form recurs in the English word, "fascination," which directly referred to the evil eye until the seventeenth century.

But there must be some Hindu mythological references behind all this, so I hastened to check that out and found that there was indeed a tantric cult of the Lord of the eye or Nethranatha (found in Netra Tantra) found among the old Saivites from the Kashmir valley and of course Tantric manuscripts from Kerala. Referred often in Hindu mythology, the evil eye is considered to be a form of mental fire which when emanated through the eyes can ‘burn’ others. If you recall your Mahabharata, Gandhari’s gaze raised a blister in Yudhishtira’s finger. Of course, the most feared in Hindu Mythology was Nahusha (one person who was devastated by Nahusha’s gaze was Indrani, Indra’s wife a.k.a Shachi), who absorbed power from what he saw and had an evil eye that was feared by all gods. And then there was Kali who like Siva had the third eye whose kali nazar gaze make the ‘gazed at’ impotent…

And so friends, that was a primer on one of the globally omnipresent superstitions. As I rambled on, through the corridors of mythology, traditions and different worlds, we saw that the simple human being continues and continued to be troubled by jealousy, greed and envy since time immemorial, trying but finding no real solutions to the problem other than a dot of kohl or garlic or or peacock feathers or red chillies or such things….But then we do need them, do we not? To make life varied and amusing, for as they say, without that what is there? That of course, is life…

And I will sign off this Saturday, with the ever popular Mohd Rafi song from ‘Night in London’ to wish you a merry weekend

Nazar na lag jaye, kisiki rahom pe.….

Nayars of Malabar - Fawcett
Superstitions of South India – E Thruston
The evil eye – Alan Dundes
Jolique article
Death by Envy: Fr George R a Aquaro
The Hindu world Sushil Mittal, G. R. Thursby
The History and Use of Amulets, Charms and Talismans Gary R. Varner
Story of Turkey and Armenia - James Wilson Pierce


Happy Kitten said…
It was with trepidation that I ventured to read this article of yours :) for the simple reason that all these years, I have lived without believing in “evil eyes” and such.. but as one gets older, one can never be sure how one’s beliefs survive! But not so my Hubby and his family. It is at my in-law’s place that I learnt about the “chilly burning” custom. My MIL was always quick to do this if she ever felt that someone cast an evil eye. I have heard of stories about a particular neighbor who was famous for this. How he pointed to a coconut tree full of coconuts and commented on it’s abundance and the same tree was completely burned by lightening very soon! She said they always managed to keep a distance whenever this poor fellow came their way! I wonder if this fellow knew about it! and are you aware of the “vellakke burning” custom? If one has an eye sore, all one needs to do is burn a “vellakka” and leave it at the fire place and wait until the eye sore subdues… guess the theory is that eye sore needs time for healing and is best if left alone  but my attempt to give such an explanation was not well received. And also the first day of the year and the fear as to who will enter the house. I was always amused at my Hubby’s insistence on making our children enter the house, before any other poor soul does. I was happy; at least this fellow escaped from taking the blame for all the ensuing calamities in the house .
Maddy, what a well-rounded article. We still believe in dhrishti, dhrishti pariharam, black spots on faces, and throwing chillies and salt on an open fire (chutti podal). And I do believe in the potency of such eyes. In Tamil there is a saying 'Nai kan pattalum thai kan padakoodathu'. that is, the mother herself could put drishti by thinking how sweet / lovely her child is!

Maddy, Chashme badoor! to you too. (Rafi's song in Sasural)
You write about bacteria in March and laid up with flu in April, don't you think that was some sort of a "Jinx"?
What a fascinating article, Maddy! I think every Indian child has been exposed to some superstition or the other related to the evil eye. Even today I see so many bridegrooms with black patches on their cheeks to ward off the evil eye. Rahu Kalam was strictly observed by all - Hindu, Muslim and Christian - when it came to matters like exams when nobody wanted to take any chances and hedge all bets! I have never heard of Yama Kalam, though.
I do hope you are feeling better now.
SUNIL said…

That flu was worthy i think. loved the posting.
Regards and keep going
Maddy said…
Thanks HK,
yes, you are right, this is one custom that has survived all attempts by the scientific push to forget superstitions..In a way it helps calm your mind when you find somebody else to blame for a misfortune!!
Maddy said…
Hi Raji..

that is one saying I have not heard before. it is quite the extreme, don't you think?
Maddy said…
hi MY Version..

well, actually, as they say, this blog was started before I wrote about bacteria, but i finished it off only now, but then, in reality, flu is caused by viruses, right? nevertheless, it is a kind of coincidence, I suppose.
Maddy said…
Thanks Kamini..

yes, the next thing I must cover some day is the three kalams (in some places there are more) namely rahu, Gulika and yamaganda. Yamaganda is the son of Guru and he is also considered inauspicious.
Maddy said…
Thanks Sunil..

all your comments keeps me going, so don't be stingy with the comments please readers...
Happy Kitten said…
Maddy, there is also one leaf which is rubbed or swished around when one fears the evil eye. When my late FIL was recovering from a major surgery (last year) and recuperating fairly well, seems someone commented how well he was looking.. I recall my MIL saying how she quickly rubbed this leaf over him..
Happy Kitten said…
Hope everything is fine.. read about the storm...
Maddy said…
thanks HK..
all is well, we had torrential rain, hail and heavy winds..but unscathed..
Anamika said…
Very interesting. Whether it is a serious subject like bacteria & infection or a lighter one like "drishti" you do an extensive research and present in a beautiful way.

Yesterday while searching for some details about the songs in the movie "Yavanika", I came across your blog on MBS. Brought back a lot of memories. The film "Ulkkadal" and the songs were a rage in the campuses.
I try to read your old blogs whenever I find time. "A pack of cards" - simply brilliant! I felt,somewhere it has a touch of "Malgudi".

Best regards,
Maddy said…
thanks Anamika..
it is always nice to hear when somebody says they enjoyed what I write, and I must admit that I enjoy doing that research as well and getting to the root of anything, if not anything, the attempt.

Oh yes, MBS, my all time favorite, and a pack of cards is close to my heart..
thanks again anamika, 'you made my day' as they say here...

Awesome and very very informative. I have linked this super blog to a blog of mine in which am writing an experience based on my Master and the evil eye.

Thanks a lot for this hard effort...
You brought back Palakkad memories for me, a fellow Palakkadian...sarpa kavu, molaga, pambu, etc Great blog! :)
Maddy said…
thanks aravind, sorry for the delayed reply...
and thanks for linking this...
i read your interesting article as well..
Maddy said…
thanks radhika...
glad you enjoyed this.
palakkad and its idiosyncrasies are best understood only by its residents...
jk47 said…
Hi Maddy,
This was a fun article to read as the "chilli burning" ritual still takes place in my household. For us, during this chilli burning session, we take red chillies, rock salt & pepper in hand, then do a clockwise movement with it in front of the 'affected' person. Then without speaking, the person who does the 'uzhiyal' will take the contents in hand outside & will burn it & while burning it, if the smell of chilli wouldn't come, it means som 1 had cast an evil eye & was now averted. Curiously enough, during certain 'uzhiyal sessions' no smell had come !!! The resident 'uzhiyal expert' in our house is my amma....
Maddy said…
thanks Jk47..
I am compiling another article on the various superstitions in malabar..I started on it and then drifted away to other topics
Lekha said…
enjoyed reading this, maddy! i have lovely memories of chittur-palakkad - when we went there for our summer holidays - my grandmother and her sisters going into a frenzy as soon as visitors left the house, rushing into the kitchen and grabbing handfuls of mustard and chillies to "chitti ideekkya" the grandchildren! my dad who's from irinjalakuda firmly believes that some people have a "kari naaku" or black tongue - whatever they say comes true. but it seems to have an evil twist too - if this kari naaku person praises you, sure enough, you've had it!
Maddy said…
thanks lekha..
sometimes i wonder if this is all about laying the blame for your misfortune on somebody else..araande aparadham variyande perapurathu....
Persephone said…
Thank you! That was such an interesting and thorough article. My background is Greek, and while I'm fairly open-minded, I'm also very keen on evidence, so I never really believed in the evil eye. I had an odd experience today, however, related to the idea of the evil eye, so started googling and came across all this interesting detail. Thanks!

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