Observations on the Mussulmauns of India
By Meer Hassan Ali

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Letter XXVI

Superstition of the Natives.–Fair annually kept by Hindoos.–Supposed practice of witchcraft by an old woman.–Assaulted by an infuriated populace.–Rescued by a Native gentleman.–He inquires their reasons for persecuting her.–Is instrumental in appeasing their malignity.–Endeavours to remove their prejudice.–Proneness of Asiatics to superstition.–Opinion of a Mussulmaun on the influence of evil spirits.–Account of a woman possessed by an evil spirit.–Dialogue with her during the paroxysms of her affliction.–Means used for her recovery.–Further allusions to the false notions of the Natives respecting supernatural agency...Page 387

All the Natives of Hindoostaun appear to me to be, more or less, tinctured with superstitious notions, which, in many instances, are so grafted in their nature as to resist every attempt made to root out by arguments the folly of this great weakness.

I hope to be forgiven for introducing in this Letter a few anecdotes and occurrences, which may illustrate that faulty side of the character of a people who have not derived those advantages which are calculated to displace superstition from the mind of man;–in a word, they are strangers to that Holy volume which teaches better things.

A fair had been held at Lucknow one afternoon, not immediately within our view, but the holiday folks passed our house on the road to and from the scene of action. This fair or mayllah is visited by all ranks and classes of Natives; but it is strictly a Hindoo festival annually kept up in remembrance of the celebrated Kornea,[1] of Hindoo mythologic celebrity, who according to their tradition, when but a child, on a certain day killed with his slender arm a great tyrant, the giant Khaunce. Had there ever existed a suspicion that the Hindoos sprang from any of the tribes of Israel, I should have imagined the event they celebrate might have reference to the act of David, who with his single arm destroyed Goliath of Gath. This, however, can hardly be supposed, although the similarity is remarkably striking.

The figure of Khaunce is made up of bamboo and paper, representing a human being of gigantic stature, and bearing a most fierce countenance, with some certain appendages, as horns, tail, &c., to render the figure more disgusting. It is placed near the bank of the river Goomtie, in a conspicuous situation, for the wonder and admiration of some, the terror of the weak, and the satisfaction of the believers in the fabled story of Kornea and his supposed supernatural power.

Kornea is represented by a little boy, dressed in costly apparel, who is conveyed in grand procession, seated on an elephant, and surrounded by attendants on horseback, with bands of music and a multitude of followers, through the principal streets of the city to the chosen spot where Khaunce is placed to be attacked by the child.

When the farce is properly prepared for the attack, the child, I am told,–for I have never seen the ceremony,–takes aim from his well-ornamented bow, and with a single arrow sends the monstrous giant into the river, whilst the shouts of the multitude declare the victory of Kornea, and the destruction of the enemy to the repose of mankind. The figure, I should have remarked, is made up of parts merely placed on each other, so that the force of an arrow is sufficient to dislodge the lofty erection as readily as a pack of cards in a mimic castle may be levelled by a breath. The mayllah concludes when the floating members of the figure have glided with the stream out of sight.

A party of poor weak-minded mortals, pedestrians, but by their dress respectable people, returning from this day’s mayllah when the evening was well advanced, suddenly halted near my house; my attention was soon aroused by violent screams, and exclamations of ’Seize her! seize her! she is eating my heart!’ accompanied by all those indications of fear and pain, that did not fail to excite my sympathy; for I could not comprehend what was the matter and imagined the poor man had been wounded by the hand of an assassin.

A crowd quickly assembled, and a great bustle ensued; I was really alarmed, and the tumult of voices continuing for some minutes, we distinctly heard the loud cries of a coarse female voice who seemed to be in great danger of losing her life by the rough treatment of a lawless rabble; this induced a Native gentleman of our family to venture out, to ascertain if possible the cause of the excitement, and also to endeavour to assuage the angry feelings of the turbulent party. His appearance amongst them produced the desired effect, they were silenced by his command; and when the man whose alarming screams had first assailed us, was brought before him, he found that he was a man of great respectability amongst the shop-keepers of the city, with a child of four years old in his arms, or rather I should say the child was seated astride on his father’s hip, the arm encircling the child’s body, as is the general manner of nursing amongst all classes of the Natives.

On being questioned as to the cause of his raising the tumult, he declared that he was walking quietly on the roadway with his party, when the old woman (who was in custody) had touched him as he passed, when immediately his heart sickened, and he was sensible she had bewitched him, for she was still devouring his heart and feasting on his vitals.[2] ’I will certainly kill her!’ he added, ’if she does not restore me to myself and my child likewise!’–’When was your child attacked?’–’About four days since,’ answered the angry father.

’Good man!’ replied my friend; ’you must be under the influence of delusion, since you told me just now, the woman is a stranger to you, and that you never saw her before; how could she have bewitched your child then four days ago? I am sure weakening fears or illness has taken possession of your better feelings; the poor creature looks not like one who possesses the power you ascribe to her.’

The old woman threw herself at the feet of my friend, and implored his protection, reiterating her gratitude to him as her preserver from the fury of an angry populace, who had already beaten her with slippers on her head, as a prelude to their future harsh intentions towards her. She stretched out her hands to touch him and bless him, as is the custom with the lower orders of women to their superior of either sex, but the multitude insisted she should not be allowed to let her unhallowed hands fall on the good Mussulmaun gentleman; in a second was to be heard the invocations of Hindoos and Mussulmauns, on their several sources of supreme aid, to save the gentleman from her power, for all the mob felt persuaded the old woman was a witch.

’Be assured you are mistaken, I, at least, have no fears that her touch can harm me;’ responded my friend. ’Exercise your reason–is she not a human being like ourselves? True she is old and ugly, but you are really wicked in accusing and ill-treating the poor wretch.’ They were silenced for a few minutes, then declared she must be a witch, for her feet were crooked, she was desired to exhibit them, and they were found to be perfectly good straight feet.

My friend inquired of the old woman who she was; she answered, ’A poor mazoorie[3] (corn-grinder), my husband and my sons are grass-cutters, our abode is in the serai (inn for travellers), we are poor, but honest people.’ ’You see, Sir,’ said my friend to the accusing person, ’your own weak fears have imposed upon your mind. This woman cannot have done you any injury; let her depart quietly to her home without farther annoyance.’

’No!’ replied the accuser, ’she must satisfy me she is not a witch, or worse than that, by allowing me to pluck a few hairs from her head.’–’ What benefit do you propose to yourself by this measure?’–’Why I shall relieve myself from her power over me, by possessing hairs plucked from her head, on which my friends will exercise certain prayers, and thus the craft she has used to bewitch me will be dissolved, and I shall be restored to myself again.’[4]

Willing as my friend was to get the poor woman released from the hands of the accusing party, and finding reason or argument of no avail in turning them from their purpose to detain her, the terms were acceded to on the one part, provided the woman herself was willing to comply, to which, when she was asked, she replied, ’I am not the wretched creature my accuser imagines, and therefore can have no objection, on condition that I may be allowed afterwards to return to my home in peace.’

The poor old head was now in danger of being plucked of its white hairs by the surrounding crowd, whose extravagant desire to possess the, to them, invaluable specific against witchcraft–for they still believed she was actually a witch–led them to overlook humanity and feeling; but the peacemaker’s voice was again heard, commanding the crowd to desist, and they should all be gratified, when the scissors he had sent a servant to fetch, might enable them to possess the prize without inflicting pain on the poor persecuted woman.

Whilst this was in agitation, and before the scissors were used, several well-armed soldiers, attracted by the appearance of a riot, had made their way to the scene of contention, who recognizing the old woman as the mother and wife of their three grass-cutters, immediately took the poor old soul under their protection, and conveyed her safely from her tormentors. My friend was very well satisfied to resign his charge to their guardianship, and not a little pleased that he had been instrumental in preserving a fellow-creature from the lawless hands of the foolishly superstitious of his countrymen.

It is lamentable to witness how powerful an ascendancy superstition sways over the minds of Asiatics generally. The very wisest, most learned, most religious, even, are more or less tinctured with this weakness; and, I may add, that I have hardly met with one person entirely free from the opinion that witchcraft and evil agency are in the hands of some, and often permitted to be exercised on their neighbours. The truly religious people declare to me, that they only are preserved from such calamities who can place their whole reliance on the power and goodness of God alone; Who, they are persuaded, will never suffer His faithful servants to be persecuted by the evil one in any shape, or under any mysterious agency. Perfect dependance on Divine Providence is the Mussulmaun’s only safeguard, for they declare it to be their belief that evil agency exists still, as it did in the first ages of the world. Faith and trust in God can alone preserve them; when that fails, or if they have never learned to rely on Him for protection, they are necessarily exposed to the influence of that evil agency by which so many have suffered both in body and soul amongst their country-people.

The return of our friend, with the explanation of the scene I had witnessed from my window, led me to inquire very minutely into the opinion and general belief of the Mussulmauns on such subjects. A sensible, clever gentleman of that persuasion then present, told me that there could be no doubt witchcraft was often practised in Lucknow, detailing things he had often heard, about the wicked amongst human beings who practised muntah[5] (incantations); and perhaps would have explained the motives and the acquired power if I had been disposed to listen. I inquired of my friend, as he had always appeared a religious person, whether he really believed in magic, genii, evil agency, &c. He told me, that he did believe certainly that such things still existed; but he added, ’such power can only work on the weak or the wicked, for that heart whose dependance is wholly fixed on God, has a sure protection from every evil, whether of man or spirit. You have in your sacred book a full and ample delineation of the works of magic, in the period of Moses, and also of Saul. In later periods you have proofs of greater weight with you, where Christ cast out devils and gave the same power to His disciples. My opinion,’ he added, ’will not alter yours, nor do I wish it; neither would I argue or dispute with you on subjects become obsolete in the enlightened world of which you are a member, but as far as my own individual opinion is concerned, it is my belief that all things are possible to the Almighty power and will of God. And I see no right we have either to inquire why, or to dispute about the motives by which His wisdom permits the weak to be afflicted for a season, or the wicked to be punished in this life.’

I inquired if he had ever witnessed any of the strange events I continually heard his people speak of, as having occurred in their neighbourhood, such as people possessed with unclean spirits, sufficient to confirm his belief in their probability. He replied, ’I have not only witnessed but have, under Divine Providence, been the instrument to convey relief to several different women, who suffered from being possessed by evil spirits.’ He then related the following, which I copy from the notes I took at the time of his relation:–

’When I was a very young man, my mind was bent on inquiring into the truth of the generally believed opinion, that some righteous men of our faith had power granted to them to remove evil spirits from their victims. I took the advice of a certain venerable person, who was willing to impart his knowledge to me. Preparatory to my own practice, I was instructed to forsake the haunts of man, and give myself wholly to prayer. Accordingly I absented myself from my home, family, and friends, and led the life you would call a hermit’s; my food was simply herbs and fruits, and occasionally an unleavened cake of my own preparing, whilst the nearest tank of water supplied me with the only beverage I required; my clothing a single wrapper of calico; my house a solitary chupha (a thatch of coarse grass tied over a frame of bamboo), and this placed on the margin of a wood, where seldom the feet of man strayed to interfere with, or disturb my devotion. My days and nights were given to earnest prayer; seeking God and offering praises with my mouth to Him, constituted my business and my delight for nearly two whole years, during which time my friends had sought me in vain, and many a tear I fear was shed at the uncertain fate of one they loved so well in my father’s house.’

’The simplicity of my mode of life, added to the veneration and respect always paid to the Durweish’s character, raised me in the opinion of the few who from time to time had intruded on my privacy, to ask some boon within my limits to give as a taawise[6] (talisman), which is in fact a prayer, or else one of the names or attributes of God, in such a character as best suited the service they required; for you must be told, in the Mussulmaun faith, we count ninety-nine different names or titles to the great merciful Creator and only true God. In many cases the taawise I had so given, had been supposed by the party receiving them, to have been instrumental in drawing down upon them the favour of God, and thus having their difficulties removed; this induced others influenced by their report, to apply to me, and at last my retirement was no longer the hermit’s cell, but thronged as the courtyard of a king’s palace. My own family in this way discovered my retreat, they urged and prevailed on me to return amongst them, and by degrees to give up my abstemious course of life.

’The fame of my devotion, however, was soon conveyed to the world; it was a task to shake off the entreaties of my poor fellow-mortals who gave me more credit for holiness of life than I felt myself deserving of. Yet sympathy prevailed on me to comfort when I could, although I never dared to think myself deserving the implicit confidence they placed in me.

’On one occasion I was induced, at the urgent entreaties of an old and valued friend, to try the effects of my acquired knowledge in favour of a respectable female, whose family, and her husband in particular, were in great distress at the violence of her sufferings. They fancied she was troubled by a demon, who visited her regularly every eighth day; her ravings when so possessed endangered her health, and destroyed the domestic harmony of the house.

’The day was fixed for my visit, and the first exercise of my acquirements; even then I had doubts on my mind whether the demons so often quoted did really exist, or were but the disordered wanderings of imagination; and if they did exist, I still was doubtful as to the extent of my knowledge being sufficient to enable me to be the instrument for effecting the desired benefit. Trusting faithfully, however, in God’s help, and desiring nothing but His glory, I commenced my operations. The woman was seated on a charpoy (bedstead) behind a wadded curtain, which hid her from my view. Respectable females, you are aware, are not allowed to be seen by any males except very near relatives. I took my seat opposite the curtain with the husband of the suffering woman, and entered into conversation with him on general subjects.

’I soon heard the wild speeches of the woman, and my heart fully sympathized in her sufferings. After preparing the sweet-scented flowers for my purpose (it is believed all aerial beings feed on the scent of flowers), fire was brought in a chafing-dish, at my request, and a copper plate was placed on this fire, on which I strewed my prepared flowers mixed up with drugs. Instantly the demon became furious in the woman, calling out to me, “Spare me! spare me!”

’I should remark that the woman was so entirely hidden by the curtain as to leave it beyond a doubt that she could not see what I was doing on the other side, but she seemed, by the instinct of the evil spirit which possessed her, to be thoroughly acquainted with the nature of my visit, and the exertion I was making by prayer, for her release from the intruder. The women attending her, her friends and relatives, had no power to restrain her in the violence of her paroxysms; she tore the curtain with more than human force, and it gave way, leaving her and the other women exposed to my gaze.

’I would, from modesty, have retired, but her husband, having confidence in my ability to help his afflicted wife, whom he loved most tenderly, entreated me not to retire, but to think of the woman as my own sister. The woman, or rather the demon in the woman, told me what I was going to do was not withheld from her knowledge, desiring me immediately to leave the place.

’"Who are you?” I inquired.–"I am the spirit of an old woman, who once inhabited this house;” was answered by a coarse harsh voice.–"Why have you dared to possess yourself of this poor female? she never could have done you any injury."–"No,” was answered, “not the female, but her husband has taken possession of this house, and I am here to torment him for it, by visiting his wife.”

’"Do you know that I am permitted to have power to destroy you in this fire?"–"Yes, but I hope you will shew mercy; let me escape and I will flee to the forest."–"I cannot agree to this, you would then, being at liberty, fasten yourself on some other poor mortal, who may not find one to release him from your tyranny; I shall destroy you now;” and I was actually preparing my methods for this purpose, when the screaming became so violent, the poor woman’s agony so terrific, that I dreaded her instant death from the present agony of her ravings.

’"How am I to know you are what you represent yourself to be?” said I, trying the softest manner of speech; (the poor victim appeared at ease immediately).–"Ask me any question you please,” was replied, apparently by the woman, “and I will answer you.” I rose and went into the front entrance of the house, which is divided from the zeenahnah by a high wall, as are all our Mussulmaun houses, and returned with something closely concealed in my hand. I asked, “What is enclosed in my clenched hand?"–"A piece of charcoal,” was the prompt reply. It was so in truth; I could no longer doubt.

’Another of the party was sent to the outer house; and, again I inquired, “What is in this person’s hand?"–"Grains of corn."–"Of what nature?"–"Wheat.” The hand was opened, and the contents were really as was said;–confirming to all present, if they had ever doubted, that the poor woman was possessed by the demon, as I have before represented. Nearly two hours were spent in the most singular conversations, which, whilst they amused me exceedingly, convinced me by my own observations of the truth of that which I had but imperfectly believed before these trials.

’"I will certainly destroy you in this fire, unless you give me ample assurances that you will never again annoy or torment this poor inoffensive woman;” and, as I presented my preparation, the screams, the cries of “Spare me! oh, spare me this fiery torment!” were repeated with redoubled force. I asked, “What is your belief?"–"I believe in one God, the Creator of all things;” was promptly answered.–"Then away to the forest, the boon you first craved from me, nor again venture to return to this house.”

’The instant my command was given, the woman was calm, her reason restored immediately; her shame and confusion were beyond expressing by words, as she awoke from what she termed a dream of heavy terror that had overpowered her. The appearance of a strange man,–herself but half clad, for in the moments of raving she had torn off parts of her clothing, leaving the upper part of her person entirely uncovered–nearly deprived her again of returning reason; her husband’s presence, however, soothed her mind; but it was some time before her confusion was sufficiently banished to enable her to converse freely with me. In answer to the questions I asked of her, she replied that she had not the least recollection of what had occurred. She fancied herself overpowered by a dreadful dream which had agitated her greatly, though she could not recollect what was the nature of that dream. I ordered some cooling beverage to be prepared for my patient, and recommending rest and quiet, took my leave, promising to visit her again in my professional character, should any return of the calamity render my visit necessary. The whole family heaped blessings and prayers on my head for the benefit they believed I had been the instrument of Providence in rendering to their house.

’This was my first attempt at the practice I had been instructed in; and, you may believe, I was gratified with the success with which my endeavours had been crowned. For several months the lady continued quite well, when some symptoms of irritability of temper and absence of mind warned her husband and family of approaching danger upon which, they urged and entreated my second visit. I went accompanied by several friends who were curious to witness the effect expected to be produced by my prayer. It appeared the poor woman was more calm on my first entrance, than when Ihad previously visited her; but after repeating my form of prayer, the most violent ravings followed every question I put to her.

’Many hours were spent in this way. The replies to my questions were remarkable; she always answered, as if by the spirit with which she was possessed. I demanded, “Why have you dared to return to this poor creature? do you doubt my ability to destroy you?” The reply was, “had no power to fix myself again on the woman, until you entered the house, but I have hovered over her."–I said, “I do not believe that you are the soul of a deceased old woman as you represent yourself to be; perhaps you may wish to convince me, by answering the questions that will be made by me and my friends.” The several questions were then put and answered in a way that surprised all present.

Afterwards, I said, “You professed when here on a former occasion, to believe in God. Answer me now, to what sect of people did you belong?"–"Sheikh,” was the reply, “and I believe in one God of mercy and of truth,"’–"Then you are my brother,’” I said, rising, and holding out my hand to the woman, “we will shake hands."–-"No, No!” replied the woman, with great agitation and terror, “I beseech you not to touch me; the fire which I dread would then torment me more than I could bear. I would willingly shake hands with all here present, that would give me no pain, but with you the case is different; one touch of yours would destroy me immediately. Not to prolong my story, at the husband’s earnest entreaty, the evil soul was destroyed by the practice I had learned, and the poor woman, restored to health and peace, was no more troubled by her enemy.”

When this story was related, I fancied it a mere fable of the relator’s brain to amuse his audience; but on a more intimate acquaintance with him, I find it to be his real opinion that he had been instrumental in the way described, in removing evil spirits from the possessed; nor could I ever shake his confidence by any argument brought forward for that purpose during many years of intimate acquaintance; which is the more to be regretted as in all other respects he possesses a very superior and intelligent mind, and as far as I could judge of his heart by his life, always appeared to be a really devout servant of God.

It is not surprising that the strongly grounded persuasion should be too deeply rooted to give way to my feeble efforts; time, but more especially the mercy of Divine goodness extended to them, will dissolve the delusion they are as yet fast bound by, as it has in more enlightened countries, where superstition once controlled both the ignorant and the scholar, in nearly as great a degree as it is evident it does at this day the people of India generally. Here the enlightened and the unenlightened are so strongly persuaded of the influence of supernatural evil agency, that if any one is afflicted with fits, it is affirmed by the lookers on, of whatever degree, that the sick person is possessed by an unclean spirit.

If any one is taken suddenly ill, and the doctor cannot discover the complaint, the opinion is that some evil spirit has visited the patient, and the holy men of the city are then applied to, who by prayer may draw down relief for the beloved and suffering object. Hence arises the number of applications to the holy men for a written prayer, called taawise ( talisman) which the people of that faith declare will not only preserve the wearer from the attacks of unclean spirits, genii, &c., but these prayers will oblige such spirits to quit the afflicted immediately on their being placed on the person. The children are armed from their birth with talismans; and if any one should have the temerity to laugh at the practice, he would be judged by these superstitious people as worse than a heathen.

[1] Kanhaiya, a name of the demigod Krishna, whom Kansa, the wicked King
    of Mathura, tried to destroy. For the miracle-play of the
    destruction of Kansa by Krishna and his brother Balarama, see Prof.
    W. Ridgeway, The Origin of Tragedy, 140, 157, 190. The author seems
    to refer to the Ramlila festival.

[2] For cases of witches sucking out the vitals of their victims, see W. Crooke, Popular Religion and Folklore of N. India, ii. 268 ff.

[3] Mazdurni, a day labourer.

[4] On the efficacy of shaving or plucking out hair from a witch in order
    to make her incapable of bewitching people, see W. Crooke, Popular
    Religion and Folklore of N. India[2], ii. 250 f.

[5] Mantra.

[6] Ta’wiz, see p. 214.


Introductory Notes  •  Preface to the Second Edition  •  Introduction  •  Introductory Letter  •  Letter I  •  Letter II  •  Letter III  •  Letter IV  •  Letter V  •  Letter VI  •  Letter VII  •  Letter VIII  •  Letter IX  •  Letter X  •  Letter XI  •  Letter XII  •  Letter XIII  •  Letter XIV  •  Letter XV  •  Letter XVI  •  Letter XVII  •  Letter XVIII  •  Letter XIX  •  Letter XX  •  Letter XXI  •  Letter XXII  •  Letter XXIII  •  Letter XXIV  •  Letter XXV  •  Letter XXVI  •  Letter XXVII  •  Bibliography of Works

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