They sit on the beach and call out to passers-by with their ‘Jakkamma’ wands. Where are these women from? What do they do for a living? A curious Akila Kannadasan spends some time with them to find out

Deviamma was eight years old when she was taken to the Jakkamma temple in Ettayapuram. She stayed there for 48 days, helping the elderly priestess with the temple chores. When it was time to go home, the priestess handed her a black wand and 12 cowrie shells. Deviamma was ready. She carried them safely with her when she stepped out of home after marriage — the wand and shells would feed her and her family all her life.

Today, as she sits on the sands of Elliot’s Beach, calling out to people: “Josiyam paakkareengala (want your fortune foretold?)” it’s this wand she uses to ‘look’ into their future; it gives her an identity. Her well-oiled hair confined in a bun, the 55-year-old looks expectantly at passers-by as dusk falls over the sea.

All in the palm!

“Extend your palm and tell me your name,” she commands as I sit beside her photos of gods and goddesses on a plastic mat. In her thick sing-song voice that has traces of Southern Tamil, she launches into a semi-song after tapping my palm with the tip of her ‘Jakkamma koal’ (wand). Her eyes widen, eyebrows arch, nostrils flare, and nose-studs glitter as she spells out my future.

It has been almost 40 years since Deviamma first walked into Elliot’s carrying her wire koodai (basket) with her wand and shells. She has made a successful career out of reading people’s fortunes; an art, she says, she was blessed with by Jakkamma herself.

The beach has about 20 soothsayers on an average day, and on weekends the numbers double. Most of these women are from Ettayapuram, the birthplace of poet Bharathiar.

“We are all related to one another,” says fortune-teller Maheswari. “We came to Chennai to make a living since it’s a bigger city.” Their families initiated the women into the practice when they were little girls. “It’s a custom that has been followed by our community for years,” says Deviamma.

Even today, some families in Ettayapuram send their girls to the Jakkamma temple to be initiated. “But things are changing. Girls these days are sent to school instead. My daughter is in Class X; she will have nothing to do with fortune-telling when she grows up,” explains Maheswari. But she enjoys her job. “I come here once I finish my house work. I get to take in the sea breeze every day… And I make up to Rs. 500 some days,” she grins and adds, “Some of our customers even gift us saris and jewellery when our predictions come true.”

The women can be seen on Police Commissioner Road in Egmore too. About 10 of them sit along the pavement, with photos and idols of gods and goddesses for company. Sixty-five-year-old Vadivu means business. She will talk only if you place her ‘kaanikkai’ (fee) before her. She has lost count of the years since she started fortune-telling. A widow, it is this activity that sustains Vadivu.

What are the odds?

Meenakshi, her neighbour adds that there are days she goes home empty-handed. “I take Rs. 25 a person,” she says. The price increases if you insist on listening to what the shells have to say. “If an odd number of the faces falls upwards when we toss them, it means luck is on your side. An even number means otherwise,” she explains.

These women have a way with words. They reel off poetry off-the-cuff: ‘Kadal thanni vathinaalum, un santhosham vathadhu’ (even if the ocean goes dry, your happiness will not), ‘Mala pola vandha sogam, pani pola vilagum (mountain loads of sadness will melt like the snow)… A few minutes with them will almost always leave you feeling good about yourself. A trick of the trade, perhaps?

For ‘Jakkamma’ Lakshmi from Elliot’s, the last few months have been dull. But she comes to the beach with her basket every day to try her luck. Rain clouds gather overhead as she sets out to read my palm. “You are my first boni (business)” she grins. Just then, it begins to drizzle. Lakshmi looks crest-fallen but Maheswari laughs as she packs her bag. She says: “Jakkamma has asked us to go home today!”