The Kattu-Nayakars of Tamil Nadu: Aruptharani Sengupta

Teaches art History in the Department of History of Art, National Museum, New Delhi

India has always been a destination that has held a mystic challenge for the seeker. Over the centuries many came and stayed, creating within the spiritual confines of belief a lineage of sects. Synthesis was inevitable, but for some, life in this country provided the freedom to maintain unaltered link with their remote past. Sheltered in the recesses of the deep south, the Kattu-Nayakars, a community of diviners, provide a rare and fascinating study. Seldom one gets such pristine source to find out what shaped India’s great heritage.

The Kattu-Nayakars of Tamil Nadu belong to an obscure sect known for their mystic power. The colorful men, more visible than their women, belong to a tradition that is a powerful resonance from an ancient past. It is a past that goes well beyond the borders of India, for they are a lost tribe from the orient with distinct physical traits. A study of their dialect can give us a clue to their origin. The mysteries of this insular community is well-guarded from the outsiders. Membership is through descent and is open only to men. The revelation of mystery is associated with secret rituals. It must be admitted that, the sources for the study is inadequate and need to be thoroughly researched.

The Kattu-Nayakar is literally the ‘Lord of Forest’ and has no fixed residence. They spend half of the year in the forest and during the rest travel among the people. The period of contact with the world is known as thangal during which they move alone and no two of them might go in the same direction. The norm is so rigorous that one may not meet the same Kattu-Nayakar again in one’s life-time; and more than a year might pass before one encounters another. They apparently have no livelihood and are sustained by their ability to foretell the future and provide effective spells against misfortunes in human life. They are also reputed to cast spells to avenge evildoers. Their nomadic life, divided between forests and people, is similar to the Parivrajaka sect mentioned in Brahmanical literature. It is not known what the Kattu-Nayakar does when the primordial forest shelters him. That it helps to sharpen his occult power is a matter of conjecture.

The women of the community do not follow the life-style of the menfolk. They usually stay together in camps. Their sole occupation is rearing their children. In spare time they stitch small draw-string bags out of salvage, sought after by common folk to carry chewing pan leaf and petty cash. A bundle of these bags and layers of colorful clothes received as gifts, form part of the costume of the Kattu-Nayakar. While the turban is usually white, few wear red as a mark of distinction. The regal aspect is enhanced by ornaments, usually made of unusual beads around the neck and ears. They also sport a plain heavy gold bangle. In contrast the women are poorly dressed and are unremarkable. The community has a religious head known as sallipetha. At the administrative level a group of ten is governed by pattayakarar. The Kattu-Nayakars are widespread in Tamil Nadu. While the Nilgiri hills are believed to be their natural habitat, there are groups of settlements in Coimbatore, Kadallur near Dindukal, Nilakotai, Santhaipettai, Pudupatti, Pudukotal in Truchi about 130km from Madurai, Sathiamurthy Nagar in Samayanallu in Madurai and Thanjavur, District.

The Kattu-Nayakar is popularly known as guddu-guddupaikaran, which denotes a special characteristic. The men always carry a damru or udukai or as it is known in Tamil, thakai in his right hand. The signature sound of the small hour-glass shaped damru is set in motion by the incessant wrist movement. The guddu-guddu sound announces the presence of the seer, but rarely the people seek him. In his wandering he pauses in front of houses to invoke good fortune; he may receive alms but he does not beg. Though he is a harbinger of good fortune people avoid him due to his strange reputation.

The Kattu-Nayakars practice necromancy and the rituals are shrouded in mystery. The rituals take place in the cremation grounds during the moonless night of Amavasai. Nothing is more disturbing, more disquieting, sometimes more alarming than a Kattu-Nayakar shrouded in a black blanket in the dead of night; thus he has inherited additional names that are descriptive : Jamakottangi and Kamabalathu-Nayakar. On this fateful night of Amavasai, he may make a short halt to prophesy to the accompaniment of the inevitable drum-beat. But no one stirs out of door, and it is an enduring mystery that even street dogs remain silent. It is reputed that dogs do not bite the sorceror.

Kattu-Naykars worship Goddess Jakkamma and Mallaiyar, the Lord of the mountains. The temple to Mallaiyar is in Padiyur, on the road to Dindukkal and Karur. The main temple of Jakamma is on the west side of the village Kadallur. Believed to be the source of all power, her image is kept under a banyan tree surrounded by thorns of illanthai (zizyphus sp.). The ritual of providing an umbrella to the goddess is celebrated with great festivity. Jakkamma is also known as Kalimma and Bommakka.

A nineteenth century Company Painting identifies the Kattu-Nayakar as a Tadwan or Malabar fortuneteller, giving a clue to the route taken. It is pertinent to observe that Tadwan is a corrupt form of ‘Tandavan’ in Tamil, a name descriptive of the cosmic power of ›iva’s dance. There are several sub-castes in the Kattu-Nayakar community. One of the sub-sect performs a ritualised dance form known as thevarattam, the dance of the God. It is awesome to watch the whole community go through steps interwoven into the complex rythm of a large drum. On such occasions a dancer with divine connection makes divinition in a trance, in which the body channelises the drum beat to make known the unknown.

The Kattu-Nayakar has several modes of divination. Divination through sound made by one stringed instrument ektara and the udukai is known as issai kuri solluthal. Reading of the pattern made by cowrie shells is also a popular device. Nattu-Sasthiram entails the reading of birth marks and scars. He also makes predictions based on cause-effect phenomena that takes into account omens, obtained at a particular time and certain gestures. Prediction from the cawing of crows, flight of birds, formation of clouds is also known. Forecasting or making of rain is one of his functions. Thus it is seen that Kattu-Nayakar is well versed in all aspects of astrology.

The most interesting form of divination is mandu parthal, which entails the reading of palm-leaves opened thrice at randam by the person consulting the diviner. The palm leaf is inscribed by Kattu-Nayakar with special communicative power with the spirit. The palm-leaf manuscript is filled with diagrams, symbols, and images on a ground supported by a particular form of syllable repeated at random. The diagrams, perceived in terms of measurements and calculations belong to the category of jataka or predictive astrology. The magic symbols surrounded by mystic seed syllables appear to be a form of muhurtha or electional astrology while the images form part of mimittas or the science of omens. The diviner knows in a glance the interactive and contextual basis of the visual communication he receives from the palm-leaf, standard information required from the client at the very beginning is his name and age.

The Kattu-Nayakar, as young as seven years, may receive a mandu, rite of passage. The rituals associated with it is unknown. Even as a child, the Kattu-Nayakar exhibits an easy confidence and knowledge of the great epics. For instance the palm-leaves may communicate the message that the person is born with fate of the Pandavas; he will leave his country and wander several years without a land of his own..! Thus, reality that is strictly metaphysical is approached through myths and symbols. But it should be remembered that the method of reading is complex and that the Kattu-Nayakar is reputed to be accurate in his predictions.

The bundle of palm-leaves contain one hundred and eight sides, of which fifty-four sides are engraved; numerologically arriving at number nine in both the instances. While quite a number of images can be recognised to portray incidents from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, there are several motifs from folk-art, while others are obscure. The recurrent animal forms are fish, snake and crocodile. The seven lingas in the form of mountains and other ›aivite symbols, and symbol of Kartika or Muruga flanked by two peacocks depict the diviner’s religious leanings. The Kattu-Nayakar is known to worship Lord Muruga of the Pallani Hills annually with great devotion. He prescribes parihara or remedial rites, one of which incorporates nine ingredients and nine nights to ensure an auspicious outcome. While restoration, or cure of illness, rituals are performed as ceremonial means of influencing the course of events or to set right a psychological state of being. It is interesting to note that the objects used in rituals are taken from nature, such as,navadhanyam or nine types of cereals, three types of flowers, particular kind of leaves, cow’s milk, earthen pot, and the purifying water. The river and the ocean play an active part in the ceremonies. The Kattu-Nayakar may also invoke the spirit and recite mantra and in addition inscribe magic seed letters on copper-foil to protect or to prevent dosam. The two recurring magical letters are approximate to the letters la andllaa in Kannada. The multiplicity of these letters on the palm-leaf mandu, one leaf of which contains nothing but these letters, is probably to produce visible sound vibrations. Enveloped in visual acoustics, these letters are used as rituals to activate natural laws and maintain the right balance for communication with the supernatural. In a similar tradition among the Tamils, the word nasi, nasi is written several times to graphically eliminate bad effects from one’s life.

            One of the most sought after is the talisman prepared by the Kattu-Nayakar. The inscribed copper-foil is rolled to contain objects such as lamp-black soot mixed with oil, petal and pollen of hibiscus flower, a bit of yellow string etc. Though mundane by itself the talisman is packed with power, for it is reputed to ward off evil eye, break the will of hatred and jealousy, bring back a lover, provide prosperity or heal an ailment, both physical and psychological. He is also reputed to practice black-magic that can cause harm. His ability to see the unseen is proverbial. As a medium he uses the shiny surface of still water in a container. The Kattu-Nayakar continues to remain a mystery, which needs to be unfolded by indepth study and understanding of their lifestyle and worldview.


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