How India deceives the Evil-Eye

Why do good, normal people face terrible misfortunes like sickness or financial ruin? Great civilisations, from the Greeks, to the Egyptians, to the Persians, have analysed this question and hit upon the same answer: the Evil-Eye! If a person enjoys success in any way, someone is sure to look at him/her with a jealous glare, and that unleashes bad energies. Different cultures have coined different words for this phenomenon like Nazar in Turkey, West-Asia, North India, Pakistan; Dhrishti or Kannu in South India; Mal de Ojo in Spanish Latin America; or Al-ayn amongst the Arabs. It is not a coincidence that they all mean ‘eye’ or ‘glare’. Every society has evolved unique rituals to thwart the evil-eye. Remarkably, these are practised even today, when science has supposedly replaced superstition. Let us look at some magic Indian fixes for the evil-eye. 

The cutest babies are also the most vulnerable. When someone admiringly says that a baby is adorable, the dark spirits are immediately alerted. So, mothers in South India paint a large black spot with Kajol (eye-liner) on one cheek of the baby. This is a Drishti-Pottu or the Evil-eye-spot and it diffuses the attention of the dark spirits. North Indian Muslims, practice a different ritual. The moment someone compliments the baby, a family elder would quickly add “Masha-Allah”, meaning, “God has willed it”. No evil-eye can cause harm when God has willed something, right?

A mother places the Dhristi-pottu on her child, Photo by Etan Doronne, CC BY-SA 3.0

In India, cows are valued assets.  A farmer would be financially ruined if the evil-eye did something to his cattle. So, he ties a coarse black rope on the animal to ward it off. When farmers upgraded from bullock carts to tractors, this practice continued: they now tie the black ropes on the tractor’s fender! And that practice has rubbed off on cabbies and lorry drivers too!

A lorry driver’s life is tough, driving through unfamiliar districts and sleeping in unknown places.  Who knows what the evil-eye can do in an unguarded moment? So, many trucks in the North have a Hindi inscription on the rear-flap: “Buri nazarwale, tera mooh kaala”. Translation: “You with the evil-eye, may your face be blackened!”. 

What if our evil-eyed monster cannot read Hindi? Some truck drivers paint 2 large eyes on the truck- threatening retaliation! Some drivers paint hideous monster-faces on the truck and this too repulses the evil-eye. 

When a new bride makes her grand entrée into the husband’s house, his family performs the “Drishti suthi podarathu” which is Tamil for “rotating and discarding the evil-eye”. A disinfectant solution of water, turmeric and lime are displayed as the bride arrives, and then discarded outside the house. The disinfectant absorbs and dissipates all negativity. The lovely bride is now secure from the jealous eyes of neighbours.

Buildings need to resist the evil-eye too. In the South for example, you will notice ash-gourds (Indian pumpkins) with monstrous faces painted on them. This vegetable is large enough for vivid paintings of demon faces- just scary enough to send evil spirits running. Many shops, suspend a lime with seven chillies at the entrance. The evil eye gets distracted by the tastes of acidic lime and spicy chilly and simply forgets to harm the premises. 

Chillies and lemons hanging in front of the shop, Photo by Shobana Ramanujam, Storytrails
Painted ash gourds, Photo by Shobana Ramanujam, Storytrails

If you know of any more rituals to ward off the evil-eye, do share it with us. We’d love to see just how long this list can get. And if you want to know about other Indian customs and rituals?  Come take our Peacock trail in Chennai and get a flavour. Meanwhile, may the evil-eye never see you!

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