Colombo, Identity, Religion and faith

Superstitions in the 21st century: Of black pottu, politicians and punools

In the black and white photographs of my childhood, my sisters and I look pretty smart, standing to attention under the spreading mango tree which Rajaratnam Uncle took every year to record our development for future reference.

But there was one major flaw. We all had hideous black pottus the size of an Orange Barley bottle top on our foreheads. The pottu is to ward off evil-eyes  which could ruin our beauty. But then none of us were Ajantha frescoes but parents being parents obviously thought we were.

Then my father was cleaning the cobwebs in our rather ancient house with two kokkathadis ( two large poles tied together) to reach the ceiling-less roof on a Friday when our neighbour, Mr Jacob, walked in. He said it was thudakku (not done according to Hindu customs) to clean the house on Friday.

Mr Jacob was a staunch Catholic whereas my family is a hotchpotch of  Hindu, Protestant and Catholics. Father fell down not because it was thudakku but because Mr Jacob was shaking the ladder.

I am still a single person and here in the UK I first lived with two young Sri Lanka Muslim families. One of them had a newborn child and whenever I walked into the dining room the mother, a young thing of 22, would turn the other way while spoon-feeding her six month old baby.

I did not take much notice of this until the other mother told me that their Hindu friend had said those who never had borne children should not be seen while feeding the baby.

Did she honestly think that my being there would make the infant puke or suffer colic?  And I thought Muslims did not have hang-ups about superstitions.

Then there was my hard-line Catholic mother who when writing a cheque would always ask my sister who is the third daughter in the family to stand before her since she is supposed to bring good luck. And when my father sold some valuable pieces of household gadgets bought at an auction while he was serving abroad he asked this same sister to count the money.

And we were not allowed to bathe on a Thursday because according to superstition there would be quarrels in the house.

I am the fourth daughter and I was supposed to bring bad-luck to the family and I have strong evidence to prove this. I was conceived during the full solar eclipse of 1955 when my mother had to go to a darkened room inside the house when the day turned pitch dark. When I was brought home from hospital after birth, my mother decided to sleep on a mat because it was hot in August.

Now my father’s cousin, whose husband had passed away, decided to give her 32 sovereign Thali to my mother and she was wearing this when I was brought home. Meanwhile, my father, one of the few in town who had a car, was approached by a man with another bleeding by his side to take the injured to the hospital. Father obliged and was driving in the direction of the hospital which also was close to the police station.

Incidentally this man had actually assaulted the injured with a knife in an altercation and when he saw father driving towards the police station he suspected my father was going there to make a complaint. So when night settled in he came round to our house in search of my father with the intent of killing him. The first person he saw was our servant sleeping on the verandah. Santhanam was totally out for the count because he was used to having a tot in the evening. This man then spotted my father’s car and since in those days there was no electricity he found my father’s hurricane lantern in the dicky. He took this, lit it and went in search of my father.

Well, according to my mother, I was messing with her Thali with my tiny digits and my mother in exasperation removed it and placed it along the window-sill. While searching for my father, the culprit shone the lamp at the room where we were sleeping and found the thali.

He absconded with the precious jewellery instead of finding my father.

Until the day she died mother would blame me for losing the thali but my father would always remind her I saved his life. I am surprised I was not psychologically traumatized by this injustice from my own parents. On the contrary I grew up to be a very confident

individual scoffing at their stupidity inside all the while.

Another superstition is not to sweep the house after sundown. This was handed down from generations and methinks it is a bit outdated. Say if you lost a needle or your ear studs, you will sweep them off in the absence of electricity. Now that we have electricity (at least 40 percent of SL households) we can throw this one out.

And do not carry fried food across a cemetery. I still do not have any explanation for this and I am sure commentators could enlighten me.

If someone is leaving the house do not beckon him/her back because the mission would be unsuccessful. If I need to pay my facilities fees and father did not give it to me the previous night I really needed to ask him before leaving. Otherwise our principal (a real dragon and an OMI nun who doted on rich parents with stupid children whose only contribution to HFC was paying the fees on time. Never mind they spend their classroom hours pouring over Indian movie stars’ magazine when Ms Vallipuram was trying to drum into their heads the intricacies of amoeba and chlamydomonas and their ingenious reproductive habits) would make me stand outside her office so that everyone would know I am behind in paying the school fees.

Even now when I compliment some mother on her beautiful or clever child I automatically want to spit out three times ( a habit from Jaffna to ward off evil-eyes) but then I remember the council warnings of £50.00 fine for spitting and I restrain myself.

What does it say about our superstitions in the 21st century. Our Presidents are not helping either to shake off these cobwebs of superstitions since they all go running to their monks to tie multi-coloured threads round their necks, arms and wrists and possibly around their private parts.

  • Superstition and wrong beliefs, imposed by horoscope readers and fortune tellers, for earning “something”, has caused an unwanted and ridiculous culture of wrong beliefs in the entire island.

    Now, the basic truth that these are man made nonsence, is understood very well, beyond any doubt, by those who got “out of the well”, both in the North East and South and have gone overseas.

    Wrong thinking has caused a wrong mindset or a wrong belief system. It is important to have renaissance to undo this evil, which is demonic.

  • Mano R

    Thanks for this amazing article. How true. Societies and people have been frozen into inaction because of absurd superstition. This is NOT only for Tamil people but Sinhalese too. It is funny though that India is the land of superstition they are not as dependent and frozen in time as Sri lankans are. For example, in Sri lanka some people even go to war with horoscopes and astrology playing a key role. They assume work at new jobs with this. This is absurd. Buddha said “an auspicious time is the time that is most convenient for a person to do a task”; it is not based on some planets. We are the masters of our own destiny. That is why I reject the false piety and false Buddhism in Sri Lanka as well.

    Do not believe in anything (simply) because you have heard it.
    Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
    Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumoured by many.
    Do not believe in anything (simply) because it is found written in your religious books.
    Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
    But after observation and analysis when you find that anything agrees with reason
    and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all then accept it and live up to it.
    (FROM: Anguttara Nikaya Vol. 1, 188-193 P.T.S. Ed)

  • Mano R

    Charlatans prey on people and their fears. Astrologers, Hooniyang doers, Black magic doers, all are frauds. We alone are in charge of our destinies and our actions. We and we alone bear the consequences of our actions. smashing coconuts and pottus and hooniyangs out of envy are irrational actions not condoned by the Buddha.

  • Carlo

    Interesting story but for the last few words”around their private parts” unbecoming of a well educated lady who loses her respectability by touching on religion in a derogatory manner thus exposing her true self.

  • SS

    Pirith or Pariththa in pali means ‘protection’. It’s a blessing or a transferring of good mental energy created by chanting Budu Guna, Daham Guna and Arya Sanga Guna [Triple gem] by the chanter [not necessarily a monk]out of loving kindness and compassion towards the receiver. The Power of the Triple Gem is TRUE and ETERNEL. Probably the writer did not know the meaning of pirith . Chanting Pirith is not a superstition or a wrong belief

  • ss

    She has mixed up the TRUTH and the superstiton, hence ended the article in such a derogatory manner

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    I never claimed I am a lady or ‘educated’. I am just an ordinary female journalist telling it as it is.

    I find wisdom among the so-called illiterates more than the ‘educated’ like my great aunt who could not put a signature with letters ate very sparingly not because she could not afford it but because she wanted to be healthy. Meanwhile she fed all the poor in the neighbourhood. She lived to a very ripe old age.

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    Dear SS,
    I never mentioned pirith.

  • ss

    Dear writer, as also mentioned in one of the comments you were touching on a religion by saying ” Our Presidents are not helping either to shake off these cobwebs of superstitions since they all go running to their monks to tie multi-coloured threads round their necks, arms and wrists and possibly around their private parts” eventhough the word’Pirith’ has not been specifically mentioned