Besides age-old recipes to boost immunity, the pandemic saw a resurgence in the use of charms and rituals to protect one’s home and family from the evil eye, once believed to be any unexplainable adversity. In ancient times, this meant, besides other things, the use of several everyday foods, combining practical knowledge and a belief in magical powers. The "evil eye" is called drishti in south India and nazar in the north. Nazar battus (charms) of lemon and green chillies are strung in front of vehicles, shops and at the entrance door of the house; ash gourds are hung outside homes and offices, and rangolis of turmeric and rice flour are made outside homes. Most of us have scrunched our eyes shut when our mothers drew circles around us in the air with a palm full of rock salt, peppercorns, mustard or red chillies, which they would then throw into a fire.
Rituals to cast off the evil eye are many across communities globally. In India several everyday foods and ingredients are routinely used in such rituals, the knowledge of which has been passed down through generations. What gives these foods the power to protect against the evil eye? Interestingly, these answers lie in a mix of mythology, ancient healing methods and some scientific understanding.
Also read | How recipe writing got a makeover
In India, the concept of the evil eye stems from the belief that everything around us exists because of the Vedic Panchamahabutas (five elements) – earth, fire, water, wind and space, and therefore possesses an energy. The classification of these energies as positive and negative though are not Vedic but, a later interpretation. These ancient texts speak of abhichara— rituals to cast the evil eye and pratyavichara—rituals to ward it off too. “Vedic rituals were of two kinds – sacred and magical— and it was customary to use opposite approaches for each,” explains Mugdha Gadgil, associate professor, department of Sanskrit and Prakrit, SP Pune University. “Ingredients were believed to be the medium to transfer well-meaning or harmful energies targeted at a person. Auspicious rituals used pure ghee whereas magical, a mix of oil with a poison. Every ritual had a mantra associated with it. Foods like black sesame or black urad were typical of Vedic rituals. Chillies and lemon came about in post-Vedic times,” she adds.
There are multiple approaches to warding off the evil eye. Some find their roots in ancient healing methods, others in mythology and many are varied interpretations of age-old rituals.
Take the stringing of lemon and chilli. Mythology speaks of Alakshmi, harbinger of misfortune and grief, the antithesis of her sister Goddess Lakshmi. While Lakshmi enjoys offerings of sweets, Alakshmi is partial to pungent food. Satiated with lemon and chilli at entrances, she accepts them and leaves without causing any harm.
It’s common knowledge that lemon and chilli possess anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties. It is believed that the cotton thread that runs through them absorbs their various positive properties, aerosolising it and disinfecting the air around it, keeping illness or the evil eye away.
“In ancient times, people used foods they knew to have healing properties like lemons, chillies, mustard, coconut, salt and even nigella seeds to ward off the evil eye”, says Delhi-based food historian and development professional Tanushree Bhowmik. “In fact, the use of garlic was restricted to medicinal purposes only. Notably, foraged food would never be used to protect against negativity as it was believed that only precious ingredients could appease the energies,” she adds.
Also read | How food can help with anxiety
Why specific ingredients were used to ward off evil can possibly be found in the Ayurveda classification of food based on their impact on the body. Cereals, legumes, derivatives of fresh milk etc., are considered sattvic leading to clarity of mind and body, goodness and positivity. Foods that stimulate like spicy and salty foods are rajasic foods, leading to aggression, believed necessary for people like soldiers. Tamasic (tamas meaning dark in Sanskrit) foods like alcohol and onions, for example, were considered harmful, dulling the mind and body.
“This classification is based on gunas or properties of food - hot or cold, potency levels, pungency etc.,” says Dr Bhagya Lakshmi an Ayurveda physician based in Mansurpur, Uttar Pradesh. “Cooling and calming foods cannot ward off negative energies. A mix of rajasic and tamasic foods absorbs and captures negativity, which can then be destroyed in fire or water, both known purifiers. The use of these ingredients is based on the knowledge of their medicinal impact,” she adds, saying that seminal Ayurvedic texts like the Charaka Samhita are a body of collective knowledge on the medicinal effects of different foods and their practical applications. Over time, these foods became part of rituals in the hope that both known and unknown negativity could be kept at bay.
The ash gourd and pumpkin are also predominantly used to ward off the evil eye and are suspended at entrances. Some have demonic faces painted on them – usually just large eyes and an upper jaw which appears to be devouring something. In the Skanda Purana, a demon lion was created by Lord Shiva to destroy the demon Rahu. Frightened, Rahu pleaded for mercy and was spared. On Shiva’s behest, the hungry lion eats himself to satiate his hunger, leaving just his eyes and upper jaw, and earns the honorific Kirtimukha (meaning glorious face). The Kirtimukha is said to spot even a hint of ill-will and devour or absorb it and is hence kept outside homes.
Several theories abound on the use of gourds, say Bengaluru-based Anurag Mallick and Priya Ganapathy, food and travel writers. “Gourds are large with an ashy covering and have a long shelf life, even when left to the elements. If the gourd rots in a day or so, it is believed to have absorbed the malefic effects of the evil eye and has to be replaced till the cycle is stopped. The size of the gourd perhaps just makes it easier to draw a demon face for better protection”.
Across India, to this day, several ingredients like rock salt, neem leaves, mustard seeds, garlic, coconut, bay leaves, black cumin among others, are used to ward off the evil eye along with various herbs, shrubs, aromatics, incense and more. Their inclusion and use is a knowledge rooted in mythology and fables, traditional medicine, belief systems and more. The ultimate aim is to nullify negative effects on mind, body and soul.
Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is a features journalist based in Bengaluru.