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Divins remèdes

Ines G. Županov
Caterina Guenzi

Rituels de rémission

Exposing the Worst. A Tamil Ritual of Visual Healing

Exposer le pire : un rituel tamoul de guérison visuelle

Isabelle Clark-Decès


Cet article analyse un rituel de rémission contre la sécheresse que j’ai recueilli dans un village tamoul en Inde du Sud. Il montre la façon dont ce rituel utilise le même cadre épistémologique et la même séquence d’actions que le cérémonial d’exorcisme servant à ôter les sorts qui est pratiqué à proximité de ce village. Dans une première phase, des praticiens rituels matérialisent les forces d’affliction (sécheresse, sorcellerie) par le biais de petites ou grandes effigies. Ensuite, elles « ouvrent les yeux », en un processus qui est simultanément donneur de vie et mortifère. Pour finir, les praticiens disposent les effigies en empruntant des pratiques inhérentes aux funérailles tamoules.
Mon étude montre comment ce schéma de rituel général focalise l’attention sur une personne qui devient un sujet de réflexion et un problème qu’il est vital d’éliminer. L’argument de base est que pour les personnes atteintes, ces rémissions sont fondées sur la notion sine qua non de « se voir » elles-mêmes affligées, disgraciées, diminuées, etc., afin qu’elles puissent progresser et voir leur état s’améliorer. Pour être en bonne santé, ces rituels semblent signifier que les êtres humains tamouls doivent réfléchir sur eux-mêmes et prendre conscience de leurs problèmes. Ces rituels (et les représentations symboliques associées, récits, effigies, etc.), leur permettent aussi une meilleure introspection.

Texte intégral

1In South India, affliction is a sign of wrong doing that is not immediately apparent. By affliction I mean a condition of great physical and mental distress such as illness, untimely death, theft, or as this paper specifically suggests an ecological crisis such as drought. Drought is a period of time when there is not enough water to support agricultural, urban or environmental water needs so that the conditions for health, a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, cannot be fulfilled. If severe, drought causes famine, starvation and death, thereby bringing people tremendous physical and mental and emotional suffering.

2Drought is a constant in the Viluppuram district of Tamilnadu where I have conducted ethnographic fieldwork since 1990. There are no permanent rivers so that agriculture depends directly on rainfall that is at best unreliable. The year I arrived, the northeast monsoon did not come to this part of Tamilnadu. Without rain in October and November, villagers had to make do with just a few erratic showers for the year. But to them twelve months without heavy, localized downpours did not constitute a drought. A real emergency came, as one farmer put it, “when we don’t get any rain at all for a few years.” Only one man—an old Brahmin man—who lived a few miles north of Somatur, the village where I lived for 14 months, was old enough to remember the terrible drought of 1922-23. Born in 1915, in the nearby temple town of Tiruvanamalai he was then seven year old, old enough to realize, as he told me in English, “that there was no water anywhere and that even the temple’s forty feet deep tank was all dried up.” “To take a bath”, the old man recalled, “we had to walk half a mile to a well and share whatever little water we could draw. We could not bathe or wash our clothes on a regular basis. The washermen were out of work. There were a lot of refugees, people going wherever there was water and work.” Other old folks I spoke with typically evoked later droughts, particularly the years immediately before and after 1949 when, as one farmer put it, “we could not grow anything and had to walk 30 to 35 miles to find drinking water.” Or they talked about the drought of 1975, which had last led them to perform the drought removal discussed in this paper.

3According to the people of Somatur, drought is an indication that someone has sinned, a statement that is fitting with Eveline Masilamani-Meyer’s observation that, “in Tamilnadu absence of rain is often attributed to moral wrongs” (Masilamani-Meyer 2004: 60). Like the anthropologist Karin Kapadia who worked in a village located in the Tiruchirappalli district, I also heard people state that drought is god’s punishment for sin (Kapadia 1995 : 175; see also Karanth 1995 : 15). Over time, however, I learned that the representation of drought as “a sign of God’s anger” (Kapadia 1995 : 175) is not automatically put into social action. People may not be certain that they are facing a drought. Perhaps rain will come back next month or after the local goddess’ festival. In other words, they may not immediately understand or recognize that God is annoyed, that sin has been committed. Even if they do, they may not know for sure who has “wronged”, who has “angered” the god. In short, the representation of drought as a sign of divine scourge is not a sure thing. Rather it evolves as a logical and dramaturgical process that begins with a persistent shortage of water, climaxes with the headman’s revelation—apparently he is the one to make it—that someone has sinned, and reaches its denouement with the ritualized removal of this bad person.

  • 1 The Tamil Lexicon (1982, II: 1140) suggests that koṭumpāvi derives from koṭum (from koṭumai meaning (...)

4This removal, the focus of this paper, then, has all the appearance of a scapegoat ritual. This is also evidenced by the fact that, as I will detail later, it consists in building and burning the clay effigy of a human-like figure that is referred to as the “worst person” (koṭumpāvi).1 Moreover, this koṭumpāvi is made to take the blame for the drought, which explains why at the end of the ritual its dummy is dismantled and cremated.

  • 2 Of course, none of these words, “consciousness”, “revelation” and so on, correspond stricto sensu t (...)

5There is a problem, however, with this gloss of scapegoat. It imposes explanatory theories and ideological biases (those of René Girard, in particular, to whom I will come back later) that limit, even distort the understanding of the Tamil drought ritual discussed in this paper. Encoded into the word “scapegoat”, for instance, are notions of arbitrariness and violence—in short, notions suggestive of random retaliation, wrong justice and avoidance of personal responsibility. God punishes people by depriving them of rain and so people appease Him by forcing somebody else to take the blame for them. Any translation is a “coup de force nécessaire”, as Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan put it so well (1986: 151) and whatever terms we choose to interpret the vocabulary of a foreign ritual always remain suspect, imperfect, even tainted. But the category “scapegoat” here introduces a logic that does not make much sense, and actually frames this Tamil ritual with connotations that warp its intent. As this paper will show, the drought removal is better glossed in terms of consciousness-raising, revelation, as well as in terms of the moral selves that necessarily experience these processes.2 In order to bring back the rain and fix the macro-cosmos, participants need not focus on others: they need to see an image of themselves that is bad and shameful. To restore the environment, this Tamil ritual seems to be saying, the self, rather than someone else, ought to take the blame.

The Life and Death of the “Worst Person”

6In 1990, then, the year in which my ethnography is set, rains were very scarce. A couple of weeks before the Tamil month of Paṅkuṉi (March/April), two of my village friends mentioned that now would be a good time to burn the “worst person” again so that if showers followed, some crops at least would grow during the hot season. We were not in a dire situation, not like the drought of fifteen years before when, I was told, the villagers had last executed the koṭumpāvi. Still the rainfall was below normal. Perhaps because there was no real urgency, my two friends did not go to the village headman. Sensing my curiosity, they asked me instead if I wanted to sponsor this ritual. It would cost me 2,300 rupees, the equivalent then of $50, to cover its expenses. The question surprised me but I accepted to pay nonetheless.

  • 3 The making of the koṭumpāvi effigy should not be initiated at the “good time” (nallanēram) of the d (...)
  • 4 Tamil potters do not merely supply pottery; they also provide clay images of local deities (Inglis  (...)

7By the time I arrived at the place where this ritual was performed—beyond the periphery of the settled community where excess rainwater is channeled into the irrigating watercourses that traverse the agricultural fields—it was a little after 3 : 00 p.m. I was late but not by much. I knew that the preparations for the coming of the “worst person” into this world would not start before the hour called in Tamil “the inauspicious time of the day” (irākukālam), which on April 9, 1990 happened to fall at 2 : 30 in the afternoon.3 The village potter4 and his younger brother had already lifted a wooden cross, twisted around with loose straw, onto the back of a bullock cart. Now they were applying wet clay all over the straw to begin shaping the mud effigy of koṭumpāvi. The dozen men or so watching them were throwing in their own ideas of what the body proportions, postures, and ornaments should look like. “There is too much straw, not enough clay”, they would say, or, “The right arm should be up, the left one down because that’s the natural pose of animosity (āvēcam).” “There should be two protective bands (kāppu) on each limb not one.” “What about the belt around her waist, where is it?”

8Criticism is characteristic of, even intrinsic to, Tamil ritual behavior. participants and bystanders are totally focused on proper execution, and they never hesitate to correct or “help out” whoever is in charge of the ritual. Their assistance, I think “supervision” may be a better word can be taxing on the rightful masters of ceremony. This was also the case at this particular event, as the frustrated potter protested: “I can’t work like this, don’t keep telling me what to do!” But then he admitted that since this was his first time making the koṭumpāvi (his father, now deceased, had last built it) he appreciated all the help he could get. “I should listen to you”, he mumbled to his critics.

9His admission prompted the oldest of the four untouchable men who also had a role to play at this ritual to drop a crucial hint. “To make this effigy”, he advised the potter, “you need to refer to us. Make it like us!” At this a young bystander who had no particular business being there said something that suggested how anything can be made of Tamil ritual symbols. Taking the word “us” to refer to the men in attendance rather than human beings in general, the youngster told the potter, “then, you better give the effigy a moustache [nearly all Tamil men wear one]!” Upon which the old untouchable protested that the koṭumpāvi was a woman, not a man, and then someone pointed out that so far no one could tell that the effigy was female. The potter replied, “We will make it into a woman later. If we touch her [sexual] parts now, we’ll get too excited and we won’t be able to work.”

10It turned out that I was the reason why the men had not yet gendered or sexualized the figure. “Isabelle is inhibiting us”, they finally complained to my friend the washerman, “we can’t feel a woman’s body with her around.” so I joined the seven or eight women, all elderly widows, who later on in the ritual would cry out lamenting-like lyrics. Squatting a few yards away, these women knew very well that they were not wanted near the effigy. Whenever one of them approached the bullock cart where the koṭumpāvi rested on her back, she was bluntly asked, “Are you here to watch us or to wail your dirges?”

11According to my assistant who stayed by the bullock cart, the men had fun endowing the koṭumpāvi with big breasts, so big in fact that the potter eventually downsized them before dotting the nipples with charcoal paste. My assistant also noted that it was not the potter himself but one of the untouchable men who did the polluting work of smearing the big, deep vagina with vermilion powder and parting it with dry grass so as simulate pubic hair. The men giggled at the sight of the overdrawn vagina but the potter silenced them.

12When I returned to the scene, the potter was defining the koṭumpāvi’s face, using eggshells for the eyes, coconut chunks for the teeth, and dry grass for the hair. Last he smeared turmeric powder on the figure’s body and dotted its forehead with a dot of vermilion powder as married women do in day-to-day life. With the final touch of a flower garland around its neck the koṭumpāvi was ready to come to life.

13Led by the untouchables’ drumbeats the men rolled the bullock cart right under the village’s water sluice (maṭāhu). There the potter painted with black charcoal the pupils of the effigy’s bulging eyes. No sooner than the koṭumpāvi “opened her eyes”, the process that infused her earthen body with life, than she died. This was evidenced by the fact that the women went around the cart, beating their chests, crying real tears and intoning vocal outbursts of sorrow. Under normal circumstances such mournful sounds send immediate word throughout the village that a human death has taken place. In this ritual context the wails meant the same thing. The koṭumpāvi was dead and the women occasionally hovered over or threw themselves across her body, as they do with corpses at “real” funerals. Then, squatting on the ground, just below the effigy’s feet, they formed a tight circle which they bound even closer by wrapping their arms around each other in a collective embrace, each woman hugging her companions to left and right. At “real” funerals, women formed these clusters to cry out “songs” of regret for relationships that are gone (Clark-Decès 2005). Here they drawled lyrics, deploring the lack of water:

Because of the worst person,
Because of her evil deeds,
A bad time has come to Somatur
Without any warning.

There is a famine (pañcam) in the town of Somatur,
The measure for grain (marrakāl) is rolling empty.
Women have lost their husbands.
Women have traded their marriage necklace for food.

Such a famine has come to Somatur.
Will the worst person die?
Will we get plenty of rain?
Will we be able to feed our children?

14When a camphor flame was waved before the koṭumpāvi’s face, a few young men and children rapidly beat their hands on their mouths to produce an ululating cry that is heard at such deeply inauspicious ritual occasions as the removal of a widow’s marriage necklace. Here the cry confirmed the message imparted by the women’s dirges: the koṭumpāvi was dead. Then the “worst person” was fed. She was supposed to get vegetables and fruits from undomesticated shrubs but since on that day no one felt like venturing into the “forest”, she had to make do with meatballs, dry-fish soup, and puffed rice—the usual offerings for “hot” goddesses like Aṅkālaparamēcuvari and Māriamma.

15When the time came for the koṭumpāvi to be paraded through the village’s streets, the widows complained that it was obscene (aciñkam) to expose her big, unclad body to everyone. The men argued that the widows ought to leave since women usually do not follow funeral processions, but they did agree to partially cover the koṭumpāvi’s private parts. Then led by the untouchables’ rolling drums, they pushed the ox-drawn cart to the village boundary where they briefly stopped so that the washerman could light an oil lamp on the effigy’s belly.

  • 5 Reiniche (1979: 49, translation mine, see also: 59-60) reports that in the early 70s, the koṭumpāvi(...)

16In a rare and century old description of this ritual, the British museologist and ethnographer, Edgar Thurston, notes that, “the ceremony consists in making a huge figure of Koṭumpāvi in clay, which is placed on cart, and dragged through the streets for seven to ten days.5 On the last day, the final death ceremonies of the figure are celebrated. It is disfigured, especially in those parts which are usually concealed. […] This procedure is believed to put Koṭumpāvi to shame” ( [1909] 1987: 393). The koṭumpāvi’s final pageant through Somatur’s meandering streets back in 1990 was neither that long nor dramatic. It was also more subdued than any funeral procession I have ever seen. The untouchables did not deliver their “death songs” with humorous skits or suggestive dance steps, and the accompanying men did not drink or laugh. In the old days, I was told, on every street and alley people would pour out of their doorways to hurl insults and spit at the koṭumpāvi. They would say things like: “Because of you we did not get rain this year, if you die we will get water.” The idea was to heap on indignities so that the woman’s shame increased. But all that I saw was that at each house families would make a small donation of coins or refill the oil lamp.

17Another reference to this ritual suggests that at times a sacrifice is performed. At least E. Masilamani-Meyer has heard that in the village of Viruttacalam in the nearby district of Cuddalore, “the villagers bring the doll to the northern village boundary where they sacrifice a small goat or pig, pour its blood over the boundary stone and then burn the doll” (Masilamani-Meyer 2004: 60). But all that I witnessed was that after making the rounds, the effigy was rolled to the outskirts of the village where she was torn apart and cremated in the dark, as it was then past 9 : 00 pm. While the worst person burned, the untouchable pounded their drums, the children beat their mouths, and one old man kept repeating as if it were a mantra, “For water to fill our lake again, she has to die.” A distribution of puffed-rice concluded the ritual. Then, some people returned home to bathe, just as if they had incurred the pollution that comes with witnessing the cremation of a human being.

René Girard, His Scapegoat Mechanism and This Ritual

18The event that I have just described had the economy of good Tamil ritual where everything depends on precision, perfection and an obsession for details. The potters, untouchables and crying women were so conscientious that (who knows?) perhaps they did reproduce a faithful copy of the “real” koṭumpāvi ritual. But no matter how good their ritual might have been, it remains just that: an imitation. What the villagers of Somatur did not, and could not, present were the usual and dire circumstances that incite them to perform the “worst person’s” removal. The lack of “genuine” context is evidenced in some of my photographs that show participants laughing in festive spirit and going about their preparations in an easygoing manner. Had they not performed for me, the ever appreciative and grateful foreigner, would they have been that good-humored? An answer comes up once we review what I learned about the typical circumstances that lead to the making and unmaking of the koṭumpāvi.

19As suggested earlier, the people of Somatur were intimately acquainted with the consequences of severe drought. They knew that shortage of water did not merely cause life-threatening scourges such as thirst, hunger, and epidemics. It also prevented farmers from growing food and thus from remunerating the castes (washermen, barbers, potters, priests, carpenters, ironsmsiths and so forth) who provided them with goods and services. In times of drought, villagers explained to me, the kinds of exchanges—economic, social and ritual—that were at the basis of the caste division of labor completely broke down. People had to leave as also noted by Masilamani-Meyer. As she writes, “Two, three years without rain for villages not located near rivers or other large water sources can mean their desertion” (Masilamani-Meyer 2004: 60). If people stay, society is doomed to bitter rivalry. Everybody fall into competition for water, for food, for work, —in short for life. As one woman succinctly put it, “In times of drought we all fight to stay alive.”

20Such comments evoke French anthropologist René Girard’s contention that the peaceful existence of human beings cannot be taken for granted. Even when ecological or environmental conditions are optimal, even when there is no drought, humans desire the same things, competing and often resorting to force and violence. When the situation gets out of hand they need a mechanism for restoring some sort of order. To Girard (1977), rituals of sacrifice are such a mechanism since they allow human beings periodically to purge themselves of pent-up feelings of rivalry and aggression by redirecting them onto a scapegoat victim, generally an outsider, or a marginal member of society. In the Girardian world such focused violence is cathartic, saving society from the war against all and from total collapse.

21On the face of it Girard’s argument that the only way to stop social strife is to blame it on a scapegoat would seem to explain the ritual behavior described in the last section. Koṭumpāvi is accused of having caused the drought, and everything that has since gone haywire. But what kind of indictment is this? While the name, koṭumpāvi, suggests a particular character, a bad one, it does not evoke a specific person. Even the “worst person’s” depravity is rather generic. The koṭumpāvi is a person who is arrogant, selfish, stingy, and so on. It could be anyone in and around the village. This lack of specificity would seem to vindicate Girard’s scapegoat theory. After all, with no clear-cut identity or definite biography, the “worst person” could be made to stand for any enemy. Moreover, blaming the drought on those that are not liked would not be without precedence in Tamilnadu. From the village of Aruloor, Karin Kapadia, for example, records how the local caste of small farmers or Muthurajahs “often made the pallars [untouchables] the scapegoats for everything, including the drought that was in its third year in 1987” (Kapadia 1995: 174).

22The fact that this very bad person is a woman is also fitting with Girard’s idea that sacrifice or “scapegoating”—for him it is all the same—is a process whereby internal, destructive forces are focused on an outsider that is violently expunged. In Tamilnadu women, who move out of their birth family to live with their husbands and in-laws, are always cast in the structural position of outsiders. It is true that unlike the North Indian woman who marries outside of both the kin group and the local group, the South Indian woman, “is not thrown among complete strangers on her marriage… The distinction between the father’s house and the father-in law’s house is not as sharp as in the North. The distinction between ‘daughters’ and ‘brides or wives’ is not as deep as in the North. A girl’s behaviour in her husband’s family is much freer. After all, her husband is either her [maternal] uncle or her cross-cousin and his mother is either her own grandmother or her aunt. Neither is she separated for long periods from her parents’ house” (Karve 1965: 251). But while South Indian women do ideally marry close-kin residing not too far from their place of birth, it is my impression that at rituals, at least, they are held responsible for all that is inherently disruptive and destructive to the family and by extension to society (Nabokov 2000 : 175-178).

23There are two problems, however, with Girard’s theory. First, the “worst person” is not subjected to violence. Or let me put it this way, the aggression against her is muted. Of course, one could argue that violence was absent from the particular performance I saw because there was no “real” drought crisis and the anthropologist was paying. Under normal circumstances violence would occur as evidenced by Thurston’s mention of “disfigurement” and by the fact that in the past, I was told, the folks of Somatur would spit and hurl insults at the effigy. Yet recall that koṭumpāvi is not really put to death. She dies as soon as she comes to life, which is consistent with the observation that in the Hindu world of ritual, “killing is not killing” (Vidal, Tarabout, Meyer 1994: 202). Thus I do not believe that Tamil village headmen and other big shots would decide to build a big effigy in order to scapegoat women or untouchables, or any other subaltern group for that matter. Life is too short to be always making effigies, and moreover, to what purpose? There is always vice about, and you cannot possibly eradicate it from your life. Besides, if you know that women or untouchables have transgressed the rules of conduct, behaving for example with selfishness or arrogance, there is no reason why you could not expose them directly. In fact, why would you want to retaliate with a ritual that contains hardly any violence when you can abuse women and outcastes without harm to yourself? At least in the past those untouchables who sinned, that is who did not “give” (koṭu) proper mariyātai or “precedence” to caste Hindus, were beaten, even killed with impunity. And today, as also suggested by many ethnographers, Tamil women and untouchables continue to be openly mistreated (Kapadia 1995; Mines 2005).

24Secondly, the problem with any functionalism, Girard’s theory shortchanges the ethnography. This is because an overemphasis on generalized “function” effectively precludes from the analysis that which most deserves description and interpretation, namely the richly detailed motifs that constitute and communicate cultural expressions like rituals. In the case at hand, as I have already noted, participants do not merely destroy an effigy, they spend a lot of time (as much as three to four hours) making it with the correct proportions, gestures and ornaments. Inscribed in this process are also key Tamil associations between seeing and being. Recall that it is only when the koṭumpāvi opens her eyes that she comes alive. This fact is not superfluous; it organizes the discourse of this particular ritual and creates its meanings in the Tamil world. Once we ask ourselves why participants put such emphasis on the making of the “worst person” and the eye-opening procedure, we are forced to go beyond a Girardian interpretation.

Opening the Eyes

25Hinduism, particularly South Indian Hinduism, is replete with processes of visualizing, viewing, gazing, seeing and so on. The line of sight, many scholars have noted, is the crucial conduit, the privileged pathway, to the deity. Devotees yearn to see (have darśan) and be seen by enshrined deities, whose large highlighted eyes transmit their divinity to them (Babb 1981; Eck 1985). The eyes in Hindu practice are central to the interaction between worshipper and deity because they are associated with the presence, even “life”, of the deity (Scott 1991 : 88). It is well known that the final preparation of the many stone, bronze or clay images which are crucial to worship in South India is not complete without the ceremony of “opening the eyes” (kāntirattal). As Stephen Inglis who has studied the clay images installed at temples by the Velar potters of the Madurai district describes this eye-opening/life-giving ceremony: “At this moment of great intensity the deity “descends”. People in the crowd chant rhythmically, often emitting a special cry associated with the deity being worshipped. The images are hoisted on to the shoulders and heads of male devotees, and a grand procession sets out… to the temple or temples at which [the images] are installed” (Inglis 1985 : 97; also see Hiltebeitel 1991 : 291-292).

26What has perhaps been less appreciated is how much “Hindu” oracular processes can be dangerous. Here I am not talking about the consequences of divine or human glances that are loaded with negative energy. It is well known that there is a pantheon of malign figures who cast “evil” eyes and thereby misfortune or illness (Maloney 1976; Nabokov 2000). I am talking about the risks at stake for those who do “open their eyes” and “see”. First, we need to go back to issues related to terminology.

  • 6 For an expanded discussion of the relationship between seeing and consciousness in Tamil religious (...)

27The Tamil participle kaṇ tiṟappu, does not simply mean “opening the eyes”, but being “awake”, “alive”, and therefore “conscious”.6 such terminology confirms Bruce Kapferer’s claim that “consciousness is always rooted in the body, and always experienced as a motion of the body” (Kapferer 1995: 149). But the ritual I am discussing here suggests that in the Tamil world such “motion” leads to an awareness of the embodied self. At least this was evidenced in the answer I received to my question of what exactly the worst person sees when she does open her eyes. “She sees herself”, I was told. Thus the primal manifestation of Tamil consciousness is a kind of self-consciousness that is synonymous with, even predicated on, the facility and power of sight.

28Here is where the problem lies. The knowledge obtained through the eyes is painful. This came up when I probed my consultants on the subject of what else the “worst person” sees after the eye-opening procedure. “She sees her nakedness”, I was told, “and is overcome with shame (veṭkam). The logic of this statement is consistent with Thurston’s old suggestion that disfiguring koṭumpāvi’s private parts “is believed to put [her] to shame” (Thurston [1909] 1987, VII: 393). It is also fitting with my consultants’ impression that humiliating koṭumpāvi during the village procession is meant, “to increase her shame”. The verb “increase” here is appropriate: the woman must already feel bad about herself as the exposure of a naked female body is the embodiment or epitome of all that the Tamils find defiling, humiliating, and degrading—which is why, I believe, the effigy is made feminine.

29The eye opening process, here, in other words, is linked to a knowledge about oneself that was not previously available; to something dishonorable and hidden that is now easily noticeable and exposed. In this ritual context, therefore, opening the eyes is connected to a moral discovery; an introspective process that leads to a contemplation of one’s self as “bad”, “very bad”, in fact. Such contemplation is deeply transformative. Recall how the worst person dies as soon as she sees herself. From beginning to end, the eye-opening process is constitutive of moral subjectivity. Once a “worst” disposition is visible, identified and recognized it disappears so that the best (rain, for instance) returns.

30My feeling is that at the drought removal ritual the eye-opening process I am describing here is intended not merely for the mud-made figure that lies on the bullock cart but for all “worst persons” in attendance. I base this suggestion partly on the old untouchable’s advice to the potter early in the performance I recorded. “To make this effigy”, the Dalit man had said, “you need to refer to ourselves, make it like us.” Of course, the koṭumpāvi is much larger than a human being. She is in fact “huge” as also noted in Thurston’s old description ( [1909] 1987, VII: 393). But her size, I believe, does not merely convey the magnitude of this woman’s sin and shame; it suggests her obvious similarity to “us”.

31I am not claiming that all participants end up seeing and purging themselves of their “worst” self. But there is enough imitative or mimetic logic in this ritual to suggest that what happens to the effigy could happen to those who stare at them. At least there is enough intimate and perplexing resemblance between koṭumpāvi (her human-like figure, her eyes, her coming to terms with her depravity, her feelings of shame) and “us” to suggest that she is representative and exemplary of the evaluative process which the Tamils call “opening the eyes”. Hence my contention that this process here has the potential to be experienced by the participants. This is all the more so that the story line of this ritual, that of an egotistical woman so self-absorbed that she hardly knows she is bad until one day—the day of the ritual—she opens her eyes to find herself dead, is likely to have a special point to the people who ritually enact it. As I have suggested elsewhere (Clark-Decès 2007), the villagers of Somatur can be competitive and self-centered. It is a story that might be all the more meaningful to them when they do face an ecological disaster such as a drought. At that time they have no water. And so unless they “open the eyes”, thereby shaming and suppressing the “worst person” that lies in all of them, they too could wake up dead—without having touched the roots of their own existence.

The “Removal” of Sorcery Spells

32In this section I argue that the koṭumpāvi ritual cannot be interpreted on its own. It requires delving into other Tamil ritual traditions. In part this is because its most singular symbol—the big clay effigy—also resurfaces in these traditions (Meyer 1986 ; Hiltebeitel 1991 ; Nabokov 2000). Not that all Tamil effigies look like the “worst person” or raise the issues of consciousness and reflexivity just discussed. But notwithstanding regional and local variations, effigy iconography and thematic a relatively stable in the northern part of Tamilnadu. All ritual effigies do “open the eyes” and as soon as they “see”, or become aware of themselves and their destiny, many die. This is first evidenced in Alf Hiltebeitel’s detailed description of the “cult” of Draupadī, the central heroine in the Mahābhārata, which is particularly celebrated in the Viluppuram district where I recorded the koṭumpāvi ritual (Hiltebeitel 1988, 1991). According to Hiltebeitel, the eighteen-day festival associated with this cult stages the main story line of the great pan-Hindu classical epic and two instances of effigy making. The first occurs before the famous battle of Kurukshetra when the hero Aravan, who has been chosen as the fitting prewar sacrifice (katapali) to the goddess Kali, opens his mud eyes to “see the […] battlefield” and his sacrifice (Hiltebeitel 1991: 294). No sooner Aravan is imparted with life than he dies for the sake of the pandavas’ victory in battle. The second instance of effigy making occurs after the battle and involves the bad king Duryodhana, who in the drama enacted earlier in the festival, shames Draupadī in a disrobing scene that throws both the actors and the audience into an all-possessing state of “anger” called in Tamil āvēcam (ibid.: 269-281). The “eye opening” does not kill the bad king per se. “For the effigy”, Hiltebeitel writes, a violent slash on the right thigh, the very thigh on which the king had previously dared asking Draupadī to sit, “appears to be the moment of death” (ibid.: 323). And yet, here too, a “removal” immediately follows the life-giving rite.

33If we want to recover the distinctive themes of consciousness and self-consciousness associated with the effigy making of the “worst person” described in this paper, we have to leave the context of goddess festivals—by nature an auspicious and celebratory context—and return to circumstances of affliction. By affliction now I mean “sorcery”. As I began to visit the highly popular temple at Mēl Malaiyanūr, a few kilometers from Somatur, I met healers who “removed” sorcery spells by fashioning small earthen, anthropomorphic dolls. Except for their diminutive size, these dolls’ iconography was consistent with that of the big koṭumpāvi. They too looked ugly and scary. And they were built and imparted with life for the sole purpose of being destroyed immediately afterward—just like the “worst person” of this essay.

34As I have related elsewhere (Nabokov 2000), in Tamilnadu the key condition of sorcery victimization is a state of blindness or rather denial. Victims cannot see that someone, whom they have offended, by reneging on financial obligations, say, or in marital transactions, has taken “command” (ēval, the Tamil word that is glossed as sorcery spell) of them. Their inability to face such personal repudiation becomes the cause of their suffering, with such symptoms as paralysis, mutism, frantic trance, convulsions, nightmares, violent head or stomach aches and infertility. The logic at work in Tamil sorcery is very clear: what we do not or cannot “see”, what remains hidden from us, ends up stalking, “commanding” and ultimately killing us.

35To arrest this degenerative process and regain the capacity for independent action, victims must be empowered to “open their eyes” and see what is blocking them. This is precisely what the initial consultation with shaman-like practitioners, simply known in Tamil as cāmis, begins to do. Not that these men identify the perpetrator, they do not—at least not publicly. But by revealing that the cause of the trouble is sorcery they force their consultants to ask themselves: “Could it be that someone did this to me? And if so, who?” Any positive answer to such questions begins the “removing” or healing process. For if people are convinced that someone, perhaps someone who is an intimate, has taken deliberate measures to eliminate them from their world, they have no choice but to go through the “removal”.

  • 7 The word kaḻippu also describes rites regularly performed in households to ward off “evil eyes”. In (...)

36All the “removal” (kaḻippu)7 rites I documented (Nabokov 2000) were conceived as counter-attacks on an opposing sorcerer. To initiate this healing process, at exactly midnight on the night of a new or full moon, the hour the original spell was cast, the camis would duplicate the small and customized dolls (pāvai) believed to have been shaped by the sorcerer. The cāmis fashioned the approximately seven-inch long effigies out of the identical ingredients—rice or wheat dough, dung, clay, or ashes from funeral grounds used by the sorcerer for different spells—and applied the same iconographic characteristics. Each doll was distinctive but all shared the dominant features associated with demons: protruding tongues rouged with red vermilion powder, bulging eyes and oversized sexual organs. All looked greedy, shameless and scary.

37The making of these little dolls was premised on the idea that to identify and objectify the source of your affliction is to free yourself from it. symbolism of this liberation was particularly evident when the dolls were placed on their backs in a winnowing fan, or in a pot with their limbs drooped over the rim. Used daily to sort grain from chaff, the fans are used in Tamil rituals as “markers of separation.” During funeral processions, for example, I observed the washerman of Somatur carry such fans in order to signify that the dead must part with the living. In the context of sorcery removal the fans underscored the dissociation between controlled and free selves—a dissociation that culminated when the cāmis finished the dolls by dotting their pupils with charcoal paste to “open the eyes”.

  • 8 This is consistent with W.T. Elmore’s description of one “method of exorcism” he observed in 1913 f (...)

38With this procedure, the reader will remember, “life” is bestowed on Hindu icons. But here, as in all other effigy rituals discussed so far, this rite must have killed the dolls, for what immediately followed was a full-fledge funeral.8 The eye-opening rite instead granted life to the sorcery victims. Now they could see the negative forces that had taken control over them, in the objectified form of the demonic dolls. And so now they were free to regain “command” over themselves, as evidenced by the fact that they inserted metal nails into the dolls’ arms and legs. At this the counter-sorcery ritual was essentially over, the doll was “dead”, the spell was neutralized. Close to dawn the cāmis carried the used or “dead” effigies to the nearby riverbank. Then they lit some dry brush and cremated them all.

To See is to Live

39It is clear that Tamil counter-sorcery and the koṭumpāvi ritual share the same epistemological framework and sequence of actions. In a first phase ritual practitioners objectify the forces of affliction (sorcery, drought) in small or large effigies. Then they “open the eyes” a process lethal for some and life-giving for others. Finally, ritualists dispose of the effigies, borrowing practices integral to Tamil funerals. There is no need to ask the question of: why would the same ritual process serve to “remove” two distinctive forms of affliction? To the degree that the first afflicts individuals and the second the whole community, sorcery and drought are not scourges of the same order or on the same scale. But both troubles apparently require some kind of eye-opening procedures. Initially, as suggested above, sorcery remains un-decoded. The same is true for drought. Not that people cannot see that their wells are dry, but much as with victims of sorcery the exact cause of their suffering remains invisible to them.

40It is as if the Tamils were saying that the conditions for existence and a viable social life depend less on ecological or environmental phenomena, such as rain or drought, than on human beings being aware of themselves and the quality or even morality of their sociality. Such self-awareness, their ritual actions also suggest, is absolutely necessary for the survival or regeneration of both society and self. The message is quite simple: if people are not willing to open their eyes, they die, and this not merely in effigy.

41Not that this eye-opening process is very safe. Opening the eyes, I have suggested, is estranging. One (although not everyone) is very likely to feel, “what I see is my shame (my oversized naked body) and lack of power (my diminutive body that is under someone’s else command). What I see does not measure up to who I think I am.” Herein lies the fundamental uneasiness, or anxiety, of opening the eyes in the Tamil world. The capacity to be conscious or rather self-conscious is at one and the same time that which causes shame and humiliation. In this ritual, then, the eye-opening procedure is more than a modification of René Descartes’ cogito, I think therefore I am. Here the link between seeing and vitality produces a painful consciousness. I see therefore I am ashamed of myself. In my view, the acquisition of such consciousness or rather self-consciousness is the greatest punishment, the real violence committed against all the “worst people” of this world, especially those that have provoked god and other human beings to retaliate by means of drought or sorcery.

42In this paper I have tried to show that affliction in South India is an indication that something that is wrong but not immediately apparent has occurred. The recovery process I have described requires two conditions. The first, which may go without saying, is that it is only when human beings have no other choice (when they face a disaster, a trauma, an ecological crisis, and so on) that they can “open their eyes’ and see the invisible dynamics that cause their suffering. The second is that only after people confront themselves in the images that embody and mirror the “worst” in them can they part with whatever starves them or “commands” them. Admittedly, these are grim conditions, but the ritual story line associated with all the effigies described in this essay implies that some kind of life, social life even, can be restored by an act of self-consciousness.


43* The field research for this essay began in August 1990 when, thanks to a generous grant from the American Institute of Indian studies, I spent fourteen months in a village located in what was called then the south Arcot District of Tamilnadu. I am grateful to M. Savarana Kumar of Madurai and M. Thavamani of Gingee for their assistance during my research. I am also grateful to Ines Županov and Caterina Guenzi for giving me the chance to contribute to this volume. I have presented previous incarnations of this essay at the Nordic Association for south Asia studies in Aarhus, Denmark in June 2005, at the Religious studies Department at the University of California in Santa Barbara in May 2006 and in the Anthropology Department of princeton University in November 2006. I thank my hosts and colleagues for their questions and feedback. some of the arguments developed in this paper build on descriptions first presented in Religion Against the Self (2000) and The Encounter Never Ends. A Return to the Field of Tamil Rituals (2007).



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1 The Tamil Lexicon (1982, II: 1140) suggests that koṭumpāvi derives from koṭum (from koṭumai meaning “cruelty”) and pāvai (statue, image) so that this word could mean, “the fierce effigy” or something like that. However, it appears that Tamil scholars understand pāvi to derive from pāvam or “sin”, which explains why koṭumpāvi is glossed as “pécheur cruel”, (Reiniche 1979 : 49) or “terrible sinner” (Masilamani Meyer 2004 : 60). In a personal communication David Shulman suggested that these double meanings of “badness” would be better translated with the superlative, “worst person”, and that is the gloss I adopt in this paper.
To the best of my knowledge, there is little historical or ethnographic documentation concerning the making and burning of koṭumpāvi. However, scholars seem to agree that this ritualized event takes place in times of drought. As E. Masilamani-Meyer writes, “In some villages near Viruttacalam [in the district of Cuddalore] long absences of rain induce the villagers to fashion a straw doll called koṭumpāvi ( “terrible sinner”) […] and then burn the doll” (Masilamani-Meyer 2004 : 60; see also Reiniche 1979 : 49, 59-60, 63 ; Thurston 1987, VII: 393; for other South Indian rituals performed in times of drought, see Karanth 1995: 15-23).

2 Of course, none of these words, “consciousness”, “revelation” and so on, correspond stricto sensu to the Tamil meanings that structure this ritual. But as I hope to show, they open up a language to talk about the ritual treatment of drought that is consistent with its terminology and practices.

3 The making of the koṭumpāvi effigy should not be initiated at the “good time” (nallanēram) of the day. Nallanēram is a propitious period of one hour and an-half that occurs at different intervals twice a day: once in the morning and once in the evening. It is the time used to solemnize auspicious endeavors like marriage.

4 Tamil potters do not merely supply pottery; they also provide clay images of local deities (Inglis 1985). Usually these images are different from the mud effigies described in this paper. They are hollow images modeled by hand, dried, fired, and then painted (ibid.: 96). But like mud effigies they are made for specific ceremonial occasions and are either destroyed or left to crumble at the end of the ritual. For a general discussion of the making of images in Hinduism, see Preston 1985.

5 Reiniche (1979: 49, translation mine, see also: 59-60) reports that in the early 70s, the koṭumpāvi she saw made in the Tirunelveli district was “dragged for three days throughout the village”.

6 For an expanded discussion of the relationship between seeing and consciousness in Tamil religious epistemology, see Handelman & Shulman (2004 : 107, 219).

7 The word kaḻippu also describes rites regularly performed in households to ward off “evil eyes”. In that domestic context circular hand motions draw the troublesome malevolence into absorbing, purifying substances which either leave no residue, such as camphor lumps lit just outside the home, or which can be discarded, like cooked rice (pocock 1973; Maloney 1976). The same logic underlies the counter-sorcery rite, for, as I have discussed elsewhere, sorcery victims have been likewise incapacitated through visual means, only by the gazes of sorcery demons rather than envious neighbors (Nabokov 2000). But while the effects of human-cast “evil eyes” are relatively benign, and may be neutralized without help from specialists, demonic gazes can kill. Their “removal” therefore requires a more elaborate intervention, which, commensurately borrows its process and symbols from Tamil mortuary ceremonialism.

8 This is consistent with W.T. Elmore’s description of one “method of exorcism” he observed in 1913 from the adjacent state of Andhra pradesh. An “image of dough” was placed in a pot that was then interred in the funeral grounds, in line with “usual burying ceremonies” (Elmore [1913] 1984: 50, emphasis mine).


Associate Professor of Anthropology, Director of the Committee for South Asian Studies, Princeton University, USA. She has conducted fieldwork in Tamilnadu (South India). Her research focuses on the transformative dynamics of ritual processes and on the ways in which kinship organization shapes collective sensibilities and people’s personal subjectivities.

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