Saturday Magazine
Amulets and charms keep misfortune at bay

by Godwin Witane
People believe that by wearing of amulets and charms one can keep away misfortune. Magic and superstition were the products of the ages of ignorance but their power is rapidly declining with the advancement of science in the modern world.

During the ages of ignorance when man was primitive they feared natural phenomena like the eclipse of the sun or the moon. Even thunder was believed to be the handy work of evil spirits that dwell in the high heavens. They believed that a whole host of invisible beings and spirits were responsible for all external phenomena. Demons controlled wind and weather, raised storms, produced lightning and thunder. They also could cause drought and famine, make women barren and produce strangling at child birth. Primitive man lived by hunting and gathering natural food in the forests such as yams and wild fruits. We can therefore imagine how these early people spent days of misery and nights of anxiety or even terror as their lives were surrounded by all sorts of dangers and they seldom died a natural death. It was always a violent end, attacked by a jungle beast, a bear for instance or a leopard.

Sometimes like the monkeys, they fall down from frenzy heights when they climb tall trees or go down precipices on ladders made out of jungle creepers to pluck honey combs. Often they succumb to these dangers or some mysterious disease before reaching old age. Fear of death, alarm over natural phenomena or some similar calamity created belief in supernatural help and when a stroke of luck descend on them, they felt grateful and formed primitive belief in the supernatural.

They feared their dead and when phantoms appeared to them in their sleep and if they recognise the dead ancestors who had died sometime before, they got alarmed. They started to propitiate such spirits as they believed they all forbade evil. They believed that those hostile beings and evil spirits not only had the power to curse them and all one’s family members but also cast an evil eye on them. Only the living were constantly threatened by evil spirits.

The Veddhas of this country are famous for incantations to avoid harm which they believe are caused by the dead. They call the "Nae Yakas’7. This is nothing but superstition. Even among civilised people the fear of the number 13 continue to strike fear into their hearts and the power of the evil eye is still believed to be dreadful to most educated and uneducated. To overcome these debacles Sooth Sayers and magicians have invented the Talisman and the Amulet for luck and protection against misfortune.

The common practice is to wear round one’s waist, neck or arm a Talisman, containing a charm written on copper or gold plate or on ola leaf. Medicinal oil too are kept in hold" in these containers which are charmed either with incantations or Pirith.

Charms and invocations are done by Kattandiyas, who are accepted by those who believe in them. The practitioners of charms do it as a living depending on their gullible clientele. The chanting of the Manthra with magical words which people believe to have the potency to create good or bad effects. Tying of a charmed thread or "Epa Nool" to ward off disaster for a given period as three months or one year is the first act conducted by the charmer to win the confidence of the effected person.

The commonest amulet worn by every Buddhist child is the 'Panchauda', an ornament made out of gold or silver in which the fivefold weapons are symbolically represented by carvings or embossed. They are the bow and arrow, conch, sword, trident and disc or 'Paara Walalla'. These symbols associated with the life of Lord Buddha are believed to protect the wearer from all evil. There are special amulets made of gold, silver or copper or a compound of five metals called Paslo, in which are enclosed sheets of gold, copper or ola leaf on which auspicious letters and words are engraved or written. These are charmed over an altar of flowers with fumes of incense thrown at intervals.

These worn by the believers to avoid misfortune. The spot or Pottu marked on the forehead with red or black paste is believed by the Hindus as a symbol to dispel ill-effects of the evil eye. This practice has now been copied by the Singhalese too that their children are daubed with the black Pottu in various proportions on their foreheads. The Swastika and the Anchor are worn as Amulets. Statues or figures of animals, birds, men, women, or sometimes replicas of a limb, a leg or hand are offered before the emblems of gods at the Devalas to win their grace and sympathy to overcome misfortune. Animal teeth of the leopard, bear and their claws are worn in order to dispel the effects of the evil eye. We see the horse shoe fixed above the door frames of most houses perhaps with the same intention.

However they are rare now as horse drawn wagons or horse riding is not common at present. Elephant hair is worn by both men and women which are made into rings or bangles. This is supposed to bring the wearer luck and prosperity. Rings made of gold or silver embodying the hood of the cobra are worn on the fingers to ward away bad periods in life. The wearing of precious stones of various hues is supposed to dispel ill-effects of malefic planets on man. The wearing of Navaratna or nine kinds of gem stones fixed on a ring or a pendant mitigates a host of unexpected pitfalls in life.

There are charms to prevent snake bite. These are hawked by snake charmers and the nomadic gypsy in the form of small stones or a piece of the root of a tree. In the Western world the comb is supposed to render protection from the inflammation of the mammary glands of a lactating woman that she carries a comb on her breast hanging from the neck. The jungle trackers use Manthras or charms which when uttered drives a wild elephant away from making any harm to human beings.

Once in 1947 when I was working in Polonnaruwa, a rouge elephant chased people and threatened them on the road between Giritale and Polonnaruwa when it was all jungle. The Korala of Topawewa, after a flip of toddy approached the animal on his push cycle and stretching his had uttering a 'Manthram' attempted to drive away the elephant. The raging beast caught hold of his knot of hair or konde with its trunk that his sculpt came out with the hair. The pachyderm after killing the man kept vigil over the corpse until the famous elephant hunter of Matale, Mr. Mant destroyed the animal. To avoid anger for a past offence or to express gratitude for a favour received a "Puja Vatti" is offered to god Kataragama and other deities.

This vatti contains an assortment of fruits, including a husked coconut and flowers either natural or made of paper along with Jos sticks. These are beliefs still prevailing in the country which are difficult to be explain, but embedded in their mental beliefs. When the foundation is laid for the construction of a new house it is the custom to bury in it a collection various objects called "Nidan Wastu" including even a portion of the soil trampled by an elephant. The belief is that the house when completed will bring prosperity to the occupants. When a child gets mumps a paste obtained by the rubbing of an elephant’s tooth is applied on the cheeks to bring on a cure.

The fishermen of Hikkaduwa have a brisk sale of shark’s teeth, which the foreign tourists buy to wear on their necks to prevent muscular cramps while bathing in the sea. Mothers while sending their children to school in the mornings do not forget to hide a nail or something made of iron in the lunch box. Thus they believe that no evil spirit or Prethaya could have access to the food. This clearly proves that faith reigns supreme in the mind. It is only science and medicine that can help minimise disease and prolong life.