Documenting beliefs: goats and dogs on the roof are a bad omen; nest of wasp foretells child birth

Tanjore Gazetteer, compiled by ICS officer F.R. Hemingway, captures the superstitions prevailing among the people of the composite Thanjavur district. He has given a list of people’s faiths, interpretations of dreams, and animals, birds, and human beings considered auspicious and inauspicious. These beliefs still prevail in other parts of the State

Published - June 11, 2024 10:58 pm IST

Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi

Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi

Saakuruvi, a poem by Na. Pichamoorthy, the pioneer in modern Tamil verse, talks about the superstition associated with the appearance of an owl in a village. Saakuruvi is another name for owl. Its distinct call at night is considered an omen of death. The poem narrates how the youth in the village chase the bird and hunt it down. Pichamoorthy ends the poem, saying death continued even after the bird was killed.

Interestingly, the Tanjore Gazetteer, compiled by Indian Civil Service officer F.R. Hemingway, has captured the superstitions prevailing among the people of the composite Thanjavur district. One such belief was that an owl or vulture would bring ill luck to the house on which it perches. Pichamoorthy, a native of Kumbakonam, could have used the superstition as a theme for his poem.

‘Inauspicious tortoise’

It was not just an owl. “The appearance of a tortoise in a house or in a field, which is being ploughed, is inauspicious,” writes Hemingway, adding that the superstitions were numerous. In fact, he has given a long list of people’s faiths, interpretations of dreams, and animals, birds, and human beings considered auspicious and inauspicious. Such beliefs are still prevalent in other parts of the State.

“The cawing of a crow on a house indicates the arrival of a guest; a dream of a temple car in motion foretells the death of some near relative, and dreams of good or ill generally foretell the reverse,” says the British officer, who had also compiled the gazetteer of other districts, including Tiruchi.

In modern times, especially after the outbreak of COVID-19, sneezing at public places is seen as an unhealthy practice. But, in Thanjavur, as at many places, it is a bad omen to hear sneezing. In Kanniyakumari district, there is a belief that if someone asks anyone about his plans, they will invariably end in disaster.

In the district, if one sees his friend or relative going out, he will ask, “thoorama” (are you going to a faraway place?), instead of asking “where are you going?”

In Thanjavur, Hemingway writes, it is a bad omen to catch sight of either one Brahman, two Sudras, a widow, oil, a snake, a huntsman, a sanyasi or a number of other things while leaving the house.

Hear an ass bray

But it is a good omen to hear a bell ring, a cannon sound, the braying of an ass, the cry of a Brahmani kite, or, on first leaving the house, to catch sight of a married woman, a corpse, flowers, and a water or toddy pot. In Kanniyakumari district, a woman carrying a water pot (brass pot) will be asked to come in the opposite direction while a newly-wed or pregnant woman leaves her house.

Another curious belief is that a goat climbing onto the roof of the house foretells a disaster, which can only be averted by cutting off the animal’s ears and throwing cooked rice, mixed with its blood, on the roof.

Dogs seem to be fortunate, though their presence on the roof is a bad omen. “The evil is generally neutralised in the same way, but it is often considered sufficient to club the animal. The appearance of a viper (viriyan) in a house or field is a bad omen. Similarly, the appearance of jackals, hares, or hyenas in the village is uncanny.”

Hemingway also makes a reference to the nest of clay-building fly (Kulavi). “If a nest is found in a house, the birth of a child is foretold; if a mud nest, of a male child; if a nest made with jungle lac, of a girl,” he records. This belief prevails in other parts of the State too. People do not break the nest of Kulavi, if a woman is pregnant in the family.

Light and ill luck

Yet another belief, according to Hemingway, was that a light going out during meals or while some auspicious things (like marriage) were being discussed portended something evil.

“The hissing noise of the oven indicates the arrival of a guest, and a dream of a burglary forebodes the death of a near relative. If crows are seen fighting in front of the house, news of some death will shortly be heard, and if the sole of the foot itches, a journey will shortly have to be undertaken,” he writes, listing the beliefs in Thanjavur.

Humility to dodge nemesis

The book, published in 1906, also discusses the practice — among some castes in Thanjavur and other districts — of smearing the third child with ashes if the first two children died prematurely. “The third child is smeared with ashes and disfigured, and his or her left nostril is pierced and ornamented with a gold wire ring. Among some Brahmans, it is thought that the gold for this ring should be obtained by begging,” he says.

The child, if a boy, is called Kuppusamy (‘Lord of Refuse ’) or Pakkiri (‘Fakir’), and, if a girl, Kuppammal, or some such names.

The object is, of course, to avert the nemesis, supposed to hang over the family, by becoming humble.

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