Thoughts,opinions and musings of a restless nomad

Surpanakha -The story of a woman scorned

April 19, 2011 Posted by Maddy , , , 26 comments
The other day we went and saw a nice dance drama at UNC Chapel Hill called Sitayana, wherein a colleague acted as Urmila and a friend acted as Hanuman. Great performances, nice singing and commentary from the background, we were provided a treat of the essence of the Ramayana story. The Stone theater was houseful and the ambiance at UNC great. But then again, this is not a review of the session, but something else that got my mind going.

That ‘something’ was the character of Surpanakha, the much reviled character depicted in many a Ramayana version as an ogress, foul mouthed, hoarse voiced, one with coppery hair, amply endowed on the upper deck and capable of changing forms at will. Before I get to that part of the story and around it, I must tell you that the girl who played that part and got the loudest applause was Bethanie Mickles, a young attorney and a dance + music artist. I was pleasantly surprised when I read her bio and saw that she had studied not just Bharata Natayam but also Kathak, Odissi, African, Hawaiian, Tahitian, Middle Eastern, Flamenco and Samba dance forms and had been performing around the world. Now how do you beat that?

You see, just before the performance, we were eating a desi dinner served by the organizers and as we were standing among the many well attired mamis, behens, confused looking young papas with wailing kids, munching the puris and chana and slurping on the jamuns, a well attired girl walked by, immediately drawing my gaze, as such an event usually would. Dressed in a yellow – orange sari, she was somewhat short, but her countenance provided the shock, for it was not desi, but a local lassie. You know how we desis are, we had to make a comment between ourselves about that, so my wife and I dutifully remarked about her confident strides through the pathway wearing the sari, and it was soon thereafter that we saw her on stage as Surpanakha. Needless to say she acted and danced her way through effortlessly and enthusiastically, to receive much applause. And now with that backdrop, let us get to understand the whole of Surpanakha’s somewhat sad story.

Some days back, I alluded to the story of the meeting between Rama, Lakshmana, Surpanaka and Sita in the Mappila Lamayana article. That was just one version, but one that is very close to the Kampan tradition. So let me now get into Surpanakha’s or Meenakshi’s story and try to make some sense out of some of the stuff we believed in, though I am not sure I will succeed.

She was the dark one with long and sharp nails, stupendous mammaries and a vile countenance. And of course, somebody who is the core of the Ramayana epic, for without her the events that transpired would not have happened. Now , is that really so? Was she really the Helen of Lanka (drawing an allegory to the Illiad)? Is it time yet for us to go the Aranya kanda (forest phase) at the Panchavati and witness what transpired? Maybe not yet, let us first get to her origins to understand her course of life.

It was a difficult task for me as the epic itself has been transformed in text and content and wildly embellished over the many centuries from the original (As it is, the large time gap between Valmiki and the epic is itself many centuries, and then again some say that there were more than one Valmiki) by different authors. It is also mentioned by some experts that the Aranya Kanda and events thereafter were actually described with lesser detail than the rest of the epic and as this points to locales and events in Lanka as well as the south and south central portions of India, which were probably not very well known to the writer, thereby alluding to even more inaccuracy.

The story as is usually told has Surpanakha wandering about the forest whereupon she chances upon the two brothers. Seeing that Rama is indeed worthy of a liaison, she changes form and comes to him as a beautiful girl (In Valmiki’s version she comes as herself, in ugly fashion) and expresses her wish to marry him. Rama indeed shows some interest, but acknowledges that he is married to Sita (and continues that Surpanakha would not like to be a mistress, second to Sita) and forwards her to Lakshmana who he says is more worthy of her, in spite of the fact that Lakshmana is married. Lakshmana however is not interested and sends her back to Rama. Surpanakha gets furious at this behavior and stalks off, to decide later that if she has to get Rama, Sita has to be done away with. Surpanakha thus decides to kill and eat Sita and as she proceeds to do so, Lakshmana attacks her and cuts off her ears and nose (In the Kampan version, her breasts are hived off as well in line with the punishment meted to adulterous women of those times). The disfigured Surpanakha runs away to her brother who later comes with his 14,000 strong army in support of her cause, but those many thousands are killed single handedly by Rama. Then Surpanakha goes to Lanka, explains the problem to her step brother Ravana by changing the story and explaining that Rama has a woman who is better than Urvasi, Menaka and Rambha put together, and that Sita is worthy of being the queen of Lanka. She adds that she was disfigured by the brothers while she was trying to kidnap Sita for Ravana. As we know, this sets off a chain of actions culminating in the Great War.

But we go many years back ( it was difficult for me to get the time line right as devas and asuras seem to have pretty long life times) to find out about previous births and set perspective. To start with, it appears that Sita was in her previous birth a girl called Vedavati who was molested by the same Ravana during her penance in the forest. She decided to commit sati after the event and curses Ravana saying that she will seek revenge in her next birth and ‘Since I have been insulted in the forest by thee who art wicked-hearted, I shall be born again for thy destruction’.

Back to the scene of the next event, the forest. Life has been pretty bad in the southern parts of India from an Aryan perspective and a change of scene is needed. It is now interesting to note that one of the changes the Arya dharma wanted to bring about was a change from wrong practices like the practice of matriarchy which has to be changed to patriarchy (Encyclopedia of Dalits in India: Women - By Sanjay Paswan). Was matriarchy so widely practiced in places other than Malabar? It appears so.

I will now retell the story a little differently, basing it on the Kampan and Kerala folklore versions adopted from various puppet dramas on Ramayana (goes on for 17-26 nights) and enacted in Palghat (read my blog on Kavalappara to get the background), add text from a number of other related tales, introduce you to an unfortunate and little known but important personality named Sambukumaran with all the help of Stuart Blackburn’s brilliant analysis of the event in his book cited under references. Note that similar oral versions depicting Sambukumaran’s role are also sung in many other Bhagavati temples of Kerala (and covers some 1,200 verses from the 10,000 odd verses in kampa Ramayana).Not only are these characters found in Kerala’s folk dramas but also in Andhra and Karnataka.

Curiously the puppet plays base themselves on Kampan’s version of Ramayana until the introduction of Sambukumaran (which is covered in 13 verses) and then gets back after the event. It is established by Stuart in conjuncture that Kampan chose to omit this rather important portion. But what did those 13 verses contain? To know that, let us head back to the Panchavati Dhandaka forests and before that to the origins of Surpanakha.

It is said that Surpanakha (a.k.a Chandranakha) was born to Kaikesi (daughter of Tataka and Sumali) and Vishrava (grandson of Brahma) after an untimely sexual union. In some books, it is said that Suprpanakha was the daughter of Raka, one of the 3 wives of Pulastya and her twin brother was Khara, Ravana being a step brother. This makes more sense for Surpanakha is later seen first running off to Khara for help, not Ravana. The daughter of Raka is thus called a Rakshasi. Surpanakha marries a fella with lightning on his tongue called Vidyujjihva. In some books his name is Kharadushana. Astute Ramayana enthusiasts may recall here that Surpanakha’s husband was killed before the event, so I cannot continue without telling you that part of the story to set perspective.

The puppet play also introduces in some places, the husband of Surpanakaha named Vidyujjihva who was killed by Ravana during his victory march. In one story Vidyujjiva’s brothers Kalakeyas were defeated by Ravana and killed after which a battle ensued between Ravana and Vidyujjihva in which the latter was killed (in some others he is accidentally killed) and to cut that story short, Surpanakha was irate. In Uttara Ramayana, it is stated that the jungles were thence allocated to Surpanakha in order to pacify her and make amends and the rights over all males in the forest were also accorded to her. She then goes through the three worlds in search of a new husband and thus chances on Rama at Panchavati in Dantaka aranya (forest). Some variants states that the whole Sita abduction came about following Surpanakha’s scheming in revenge of her husband’s death, for she wanted Ravana killed. It is even said that with that purpose, she assumed the form of Mantara and got the brothers sent for vanvas.

Back to the forest - And so the brothers Rama and Lakshmana reach the forest home to the five varieties of fine trees, with an intent to eradicate the five types of crimes (lying, cheating, drinking, killing and abusing ones guru – also maybe matriarchy) during their vanavas. The serene astute forests of nasik now have to bear testimony to the sudden arrival of a startled Surpanaka. She arrives here in search of her lost son ( in some versions she is bringing food as usual to her son), who was last seen deep in penance, praying since the last 12 years to Lord Siva after being antagonized by his uncle Ravana (who killed his father), hung upside down from a tree. This son bears the name Sambukumaran, born to Surpanakha after many months of penance.

Jambukumaran after praying to Indra (some say Siva) gets a powerful killer sword ‘Suryahasa’ as a boon, but is mollified and is not interested in such things. Indra assures him that it will be of help (as you can see later, some help it was!!), but Sambu does not accept it and it is hanging in the air above his tree where he continues his penance. Lakshmana who is wandering around, sees it and drawing it, he cuts the bamboo bushes down to get wood for their new home, accidentally killing Sambu in the process. Then again, there is this other version which states that Sambukumaran actually saw Sita while taking a break from his penance and fell in love with her. In order to continue to spy on her, he took the form of a tree opposite their place of stay. This tree was felled by Lakshmana while cutting trees to strengthen their hut. Lakshmana in despair after the event, decides to kill himself, but Narada comes along and tells him that it was an asura he killed, not a holy sage or a Brahman, so the matter is forgotten.

And so as we see, Sambukumaran (a.k.a Jambukumaran) is killed by Lakshmana, and Surpanakha not knowing who did it is crying out to Siva (or Indra) asking if that was the reward for his penance and how unjust it all was. She cries bloody revenge of the perpetrator, be it Siva, Indra, Brahma or Narayana and promises death of the killer at the hands of her brother Ravana.

But then she espies Rama on the banks of the Godavari and is smitten. Immediately she carries out a Lakshmi puja (she is an ardent devotee of Lakshmi) and transforms herself into a bewitching damsel (recall the Mappila version? Where she painfully applies make up to reach the same conclusion?). She later explains to Rama that she is a Kamarupini meaning one who can change herself to any form (not Kama as lustful as some others translate, according to experts).

In the Kampan version which is popular in South India, Rama is indeed taken aback seeing this beautiful lady and says to himself that he must check her out and believes that it is his ardent penance that has provided him an opportunity to meet such a lovely damsel. Surpanakha however explains that she is a Rakshasi and that is when Rama replies that he cannot marry her (he may have otherwise?) and suppresses his desire for her. Surpanaka continues stating that she is there not of her own will, but is driven by Kamadeva’s actions. Surpanakha says that her problem at that point of time is the acute feelings of desire, magnified tenfold by the influence of Kamadeva, explaining that the red lotus arrow of his is the one that makes her feelings for Rama unbearable. In fact she even believes that this form of Rama is Kamadeva when she makes her advances and eventually proposes a gandharva wedding for lovers, which Rama rebuffs.

Her mistake at this juncture probably was her honesty and because she added authority to her demand (but of course if you recall, she was provided the authority over all males in her forest by Ravana) by citing her relation with Khara, Ravana, Kumbhkarana and other Rakshasas. Now this of course raised the heckles of Rama. And so Rama goes on to ridicule her by passing her on to Lakshmana, saying ‘Here is my heroic brother Lakshmana. He is young, leading a celibate life, young and a good match for you. Take him as your husband and lover."

But Lakshmana was not interested, he says he is merely a slave to Rama and that she must try again with Rama, thus he passes her back to Rama. In fact in some other versions, Lakshmana takes offense at the adulterous nature and her demands to choose her partner herself much against the norm, for which he punishes her with the prescribed mutilation. But again there is added confusion for certain Jain versions mention that Lakshmana went looking after Surpanakha, after Sita tells him to marry her so that she can have some female company in the dark and dreadful forest. But all that did not work out though some Indonesian Ramayana versions marry them off too.

There is even a story in Brahmachakra that Surpanakha had two daughters whom Lakshmana killed, as they were on guard in the Kishkinda forest, but I could not find any further details on this angle. Most other sources mention only the lone son of Surpanakha and not any daughters.

After the mutilation of Surpanakha, she goes off to Khara for help, who goes to fight the two brothers with another 14 chiefs (most accounts say 14,000) but they are killed by Rama. Then she goes wailing to Ravana. To get his interests up, she uses the beauty of Sita as bait. Ravana swallows it hook, line and sinker and goes on to kidnap Sita after which the Great War occurs and Ravana is defeated and killed as Vedavati wanted.


One completely different account is provided by Ramaswami Chaudhri in Suta Puranamau where he explains that Surpanakha as an old woman goes in search of her son in the forest where Lakshmana instigated by Brahmin sages has just killed Sambukumaran. Surpanakha goes to Rama for an explanation and gets a callous reply that he was the enemy of sages and gets furious. She tries to attack Rama with her knife, but is restrained by Lakshmana who is then ordered by Rama to cut her ears and nose off (see temple picture). She runs off to Ravava for help and Ravana kidnaps Sita only to teach Rama a lesson without any erotic feelings attached to either of the two events.

Anyway after the events above, some accounts put the Surpanakha story to rest, with her living a lonely life in Vibhishana’s court at Lanka, but another source mentions that she continued to play a role and was the reasoning behind many other events and Rama’s continued distrust for Sita. That is also an interesting aside. Let us take a look.

It appears that Surpanaka goes to Ayodhya and spreads false news that Rama has been defeated and killed, following which Bharata and Shatrugna almost commit suicide. Then again she had once asked Sita to make a sketch of ravana, but as a devout wife, she never looked up from the floor and only draws Ravana’s toe, which Surpanakha picks up and uses to complete Ravana’s image. Rama seeing it gets suspicious (this story is also mentioned otherwise while at the vavavas, where Surpanakha brings the Ravana image to life and Rama thinks Ravana was in Sita’s bedroom). So as you can see the rakshasi has been a reason for fertile imagination in various minds.

I cannot leave this story without giving you what we call here a kicker.

Why should we attach any importance to the above story as they sing it in Palghat, one which has been an oral tradition for many centuries and continued even now? What has it got to do with Palghat or Kerala? Or does it have anything to do with it? Well, friends, if you go to the Pollachi – Parambikulam border area in Palghat, you will come across a hill tribe named the Kongu Malayans or malasars. According to old tales, they are the descendants of Surpanakha, the half sister of Ravana. While she was in the forests, a wild elephant attacked her; and so she created a boy who took the elephant deeper into the forest, where the boy tamed the animal. Surpanakha then settled the boy in the forest and he is the ancestor of the Malasar (Parthasarathy 1988) tribes. And there is yet another strange phonetic connection for Surpa or Surparakha is another ancient name for Kerala. Was the western ghat forests perhaps the abode of Khara?

Now as you know these stories cannot end abruptly. We have heard that the scorning and mutilation of a woman is a great sin, so something has to happen in Surpanakha’s next birth to balance it all, right? Well, in the Bhramavaivrata purana, it is mentioned that Surpanakha goes to the sacred lake Pushkara and prays to Brahma, after which she gets a boon that she will marry Rama in her next birth. Accordingly she is reborn as Kubja, the hunchbacked woman who becomes one of the wives of Lord Krishna as whom Rama is reborn.

That was not the end, for Surpanakha had to even up with Lakshmana, so she becomes Lakshmana’s wife as well. For that story, read this blog, it takes you to Rajasthan where the popular story is told as the story of Pabuji and Phulvanti. The detailed story can also be found in many scholarly books (last two references).


Hopefully this gave you the full account of Surpanakha in addition to what we know from the usual sources. Next time, somebody tells you the regular tale, you will have a better perspective, understanding of the character, the motives, the events and reactions and so much more to counter with. Of course all of which or none of which may have any relation to the actual events or characters of the story, as you may see mentioned in disclaimers on inside cover pages of all novels.

And you can infer the moral of the story - Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned…

References
Inside the Drama-House -Stuart Blackburn
Encyclopedia of Dalits in India: Women - Sanjay Paswan
Ramayana stories in modern South India: an anthology -Paula Richman
The Bedtrick: Wendy Doniger
Kambans Surpanaka
The Mutilation of Surpanakha – Kathleen Erndl (within - Many Rāmāyanas: the diversity of a narrative tradition in South Asia - Paula Richman)
Encyclopedic Dictionary of Puranas, Swami Parmeshwaranand
The encyclopedia of Dravidian tribes - Volume 2
Encyclopedia Indica: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Volume 100
Valmiki Ramayana – Aranya kanda
Rethinking India's oral and classical epics - Alf Hiltebeitel
The epic of Pabuji - John D. Smith (Ph. D.)
Maddys Ramblings – Mappila Lamayana
Historic Alleys – Kavalappara

The Evil Eye

April 09, 2011 Posted by Maddy , 25 comments
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.….


References
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

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