Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Witchcraft

On leaving Jabērā,[1] I saw an old acquaintance from the eastern part of the Jubbulpore district, Kehrī Singh.


'I understand, Kehrī Singh', said I, 'that certain men among the Gonds of the jungle, towards the source of the Nerbudda, eat human flesh. Is it so?'


'No, sir; the men never eat people, but the Gond women do.'


'Where?'


'Everywhere, sir; there is not a parish, nay, a village, among the Gonds, in which you will not find one or more such women.'


'And how do they eat people?'


'They eat their livers, sir.'


'Oh, I understand; you mean witches?'


'Of course! Who ever heard of other people eating human beings?'


'And you really still think, in spite of all that we have done and said, that there are such things as witches?'


'Of course we do—do not we find instances of it every day? European gentlemen are too apt to believe that things like this are not to be found here, because they are not to be found in their own country. Major Wardlow, when in charge of the Seonī district, denied the existence of witchcraft for a long time, but he was at last convinced.'


'How?'


'One of his troopers, one morning after a long march, took some milk for his master's breakfast from an old woman without paying for it. Before the major had got over his breakfast the poor trooper was down upon his back, screaming from the agony of internal pains. We all knew immediately that he had been bewitched, and recommended the major to send for some one learned in these matters to find out the witch. He did so, and, after hearing from the trooper the story about the milk, this person at once declared that the woman from whom he got it was the criminal.


'She was searched for, found, and brought to the trooper, and commanded to cure him. She flatly denied that she had herself conjured him; but admitted that her household gods might, unknown to her, have punished him for his wickedness. This, however, would not do. She was commanded to cure the man, and she set about collecting materials for the "pūjā" (worship); and before she could get quite through the ceremonies, all his pains had left him. Had we not been resolute with her, the man must have died before evening, so violent were his torments.'


'Did not a similar case occur to Mr. Fraser at Jubbulpore?'


'A "chaprāsī"[2] of his, while he had charge of the Jubbulpore district, was sent out to Mandlā[3] with a message of some kind or other. He took a cock from an old Gond woman without paying for it, and, being hungry after a long journey, ate the whole of it in a curry. He heard the woman mutter something, but being a raw, unsuspecting young man, he thought nothing of it, ate his cock, and went to sleep.


'He had not been asleep three hours before he was seized with internal pains, and the old cock was actually heard crowing in his belly. He made the best of his way back to Jubbulpore, several stages, and all the most skilful men were employed to charm away the effect of the old woman's spell, but in vain. He died, and the cock never ceased crowing at intervals up to the hour of his death.'


'And was Mr. Fraser convinced?'


'I never heard, but suppose he must have been.'


'Who ate the livers of the victims? The witches themselves, or the evil spirits with whom they had dealings?'


'The evil spirits ate the livers; but they are set on to do so by the witches, who get them into their power by such accursed sacrifices and offerings. They will often dig up young children from their graves, bring them to life, and allow these devils to feed upon their livers, as falconers allow their hawks to feed on the breasts of pigeons. You "sāhib lōg" (European gentlemen) will not believe all this, but it is, nevertheless, all very true.'[4]


The belief in sorcery among these people owes its origin, in a great measure, to the diseases of the liver and spleen to which the natives, and particularly the children, are much subject in the jungly parts of Central India. From these affections children pine away and die, without showing any external marks of disease. Their death is attributed to witchcraft, and any querulous old woman, who has been in the habit of murmuring at slights and ill treatment in the neighbourhood, is immediately set down as the cause.


Men who practise medicine among them are very commonly supposed to be at the same time wizards. Seeking to inspire confidence in their prescriptions by repeating prayers and incantations over the patient, or over the medicine they give him, they make him believe that they derive aid from supernatural power; and the patient concludes that those who can command these powers to cure can, if they will, command them to destroy.


He and his friends believe that the man who can command these powers to cure one individual can command them to cure any other; and, if he does not do so, they believe that it arises from a desire to destroy the patient. I have, in these territories, known a great many instances of medical practitioners having been put to death for not curing young people for whom they were required to prescribe.


Several cases have come before me as a magistrate in which the father has stood over the doctor with a drawn sword by the side of the bed of his child, and cut him down and killed him the moment the child died, as he had sworn to do when he found the patient sinking under his prescriptions.[5]


The town of Jubbulpore contains a population of twenty thousand souls,[6] and they all believed in this story of the cock. I one day asked a most respectable merchant in the town, Nādū Chaudhrī, how the people could believe in such things, when he replied that he had no doubt witches were to be found in every part of India, though they abounded most, no doubt, in the central parts of it, and that we ought to consider ourselves very fortunate in having no such things in England.


'But', added he, 'of all countries that between Mandlā and Katāk (Cuttack)[7] is the worst for witches. I had once occasion to go to the city of Ratanpur[8] on business, and was one day, about noon, walking in the market-place and eating a very fine piece of sugar-cane. In the crowd I happened, by accident, to jostle an old woman as she passed me. I looked back, intending to apologize for the accident, and heard her muttering indistinctly as she passed on.


'Knowing the propensities of these old ladies, I became somewhat uneasy, and on turning round to my cane I found, to my great terror, that the juice had been all turned to blood. Not a minute had elapsed, such were the fearful powers of this old woman. I collected my followers, and, leaving my agents there to settle my accounts, was beyond the boundaries of the old wretch's influence before dark; had I remained, nothing could have saved me. I should certainly have been a dead man before morning. It is well known', said the old gentleman, 'that their spells and curses can only reach a certain distance, ten or twelve miles; and, if you offend one of them, the sooner you place that distance between you the better.'


Jangbār Khān, the representative of the Shāhgarh Rājā,[9] as grave and reverend an old gentleman as ever sat in the senate of Venice, told me one day that he was himself an eye-witness of the powers of the women of Khilautī. He was with a great concourse of people at a fair held at the town of Rāipur,[10] and, while sauntering with many other strangers in the fair, one of them began bargaining with two women of middle age for some very fine sugar-canes. They asked double the fair price for their canes.


The man got angry, and took up one of them, when the women seized the other end, and a struggle ensued. The purchaser offered a fair price, seller demanded double. The crowd looked on, and a good deal of abuse of the female relations on both sides took place. At last a sepoy of the governor came up, armed to the teeth, and called out to the man, in a very imperious tone, to let go his hold of the cane. He refused, saying that 'when people came to the fair to sell, they should be made to sell at reasonable prices, or be turned out'.


'I', said Jangbār Khān, 'thought the man right, and told the sepoy that, if he took the part of this woman, we should take that of the other, and see fair play. Without further ceremony the functionary drew his sword, and cut the cane in two in the middle; and, pointing to both pieces,


'There', said he, 'you see the cause of my interference'. We looked down, and actually saw blood running from both pieces, and forming a little pool on the ground. The fact was that the woman was a sorceress of the very worst kind, and was actually drawing the blood from the man through the cane, to feed the abominable devil from whom she derived her detestable powers. But for the timely interference of the sepoy he would have been dead in another minute; for he no sooner saw the real state of the case than he fainted.


He had hardly any blood left in him, and I was afterwards told that he was not able to walk for ten days. We all went to the governor to demand justice, declaring that, unless the women were made an example of at once, the fair would be deserted, for no stranger's life would be safe. He consented, and they were both sewn up in sacks and thrown into the river; but they had conjured the water and would not sink. They ought to have been put to death, but the governor was himself afraid of this kind of people, and let them off.


There is not', continued Jangbār, 'a village, or a single family, without its witch in that part of the country; indeed, no man will give his daughter in marriage to a family without one, saying, "If my daughter has children, what will become of them without a witch to protect them from the witches of other families in the neighbourhood?" It is a fearful country, though the cheapest and most fertile in India.'


We can easily understand how a man, impressed with the idea that his blood had all been drawn from him by a sorceress, should become faint, and remain many days in a languid state; but how the people around should believe that they saw the blood flowing from both parts of the cane at the place cut through, it is not so easy to conceive.


I am satisfied that old Jangbār believed the whole story to be true, and that at the time he thought the juice of the cane red; but the little pool of blood grew, no doubt, by degrees, as years rolled on and he related this tale of the fearful powers of the Khilautī witches.


Notes:


1. Ante, Chapter 9.


2. An orderly, or official messenger, who wears a 'chaprās', or badge of office.


3. On the Nerbudda, fifty miles south-east of Jubbulpore.


4. Of the supposed powers and dispositions of witches among the Romans we have horrible pictures in the 5th Ode of the 6th Book of Horace, and in the 6th Book of Lucan's Pharsalia. [W. H. S.] The reference to Horace should be to the 5th Epode. The passage in the Pharsalia, Book VI, lines 420-830, describes the proceedings of Thessalian witches.


5. Such awkward incidents of medical practice are not heard of nowadays.


6. The population of Jabalpur (including cantonments) has increased steadily, and in 1911 was 100,651, as compared with 84,556 in 1891, and 76,023 in 1881.


7. Katāk, or Cuttack, a district, with town of same name, in Orissa.


8. In the Bilāspur district of the Central Provinces. The distance in a direct line between Mandlā and Katāk is about 400 miles.


9. Shāhgarh was formerly a petty native state, with town of same name. The chief joined the rebels in 1857, with the result that his dominions were confiscated, and distributed between the districts of Sāgar and Damoh in the Central Provinces, and Jhānsī (formerly Lalitpur) in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh. The town of Shāhgarh is in the Sāgar district.


10. Rāipur is the chief town of the district of the same name in the Central Provinces, which was not finally annexed to the British dominions until 1854, when the Nāgpur State lapsed.