Since the lockdown, my energy levels and motivation have been at a dead end, so to speak. The idea alone, of getting any work done is jarring and exhaustion without lifting a finger is the current state of affairs. So, looking at my lethargic demeanour, my aunt decided it was probably due to the fact that someone cast an evil eye on me, or “Nazar” as we call it. There I stood, as she went into the kitchen to grab a few ingredients, walked out and performed a small ritual that involved her holding the ingredients in her right hand and circling them around me a couple of times.
She then disappeared into the kitchen to burn them, while I waited curiously to find out the final verdict. She walked out of the kitchen and stated that I had caught Nazar and she knows this because the red chillies didn’t make us cough while they burnt. While I did, and still do think that basing something on how much a chilli burns is slightly unreasonable, I understand the belief system behind it. In a country like India, food is used for much more than just filling hungry stomachs. Centuries of traditional practices still take centre stage in many households and superstitions along with local remedies are deep rooted.
One such belief or superstition that prevails in almost every Indian household, educated or not, is the evil eye, more commonly known as nazar and homely remedies to get rid of it. In most cases, when someone in the house feels unwell or tired, the mother or grandmother declares that evil eye has been cast upon that individual, and proceeds to ward off its effects using certain foods. The older women of the house believe that the key to casting of nazar is in using simple pantry items like red chillies, salt, mustard seeds, coconut and lemon.
These humble pantry essentials are believed to shield against the evil eye and bring respite to the affected person when used in certain variations and combinations. Dried red chillies are often used in casting off the evil eye, also known as “nazar utarna“, and are believed to attract and disintegrate the destructive energy. These chillies are used with mustard seeds and salt, and are then burnt in fire in order to complete the ritual and rid a person of the evil eye.
You will often see the women holding a bit of each ingredient in their palm and circling the same hand around the affected family member around seven times. During the ritual, movement of any kind is frowned upon and will usually invite angry looks from mom or grandma. On some occasions, salt is used without the chillies and mustard seeds and is then discarded under running water instead of being thrown into flames. A much easier path to choose, given that there is no involvement of burning chillies and watery eyes.
When starting a new business, buying a new vehicle or moving into a new house, lemon or neembu and green chillies or mirchi are often strung together in something known as a “nazar battu” and hung in front of the main door to ward off evil eye. A string of one lemon and up to seven green chillies are strung together to make a colourful defendant against the jealousy of neighbours and friends. Pumpkins are also used for the same purpose and are tied in front of homes and on vehicles. Much like lemons and pumpkins, coconuts are used to get rid of nazar and post ritual are cracked and thrown away. This ensures that the negative energy is dismissed and causes no harm.
These beliefs stem from a time where modern science was not at its peak and problems were dealt using alternate methods. Each household has its own interpretations and ingredients used in casting of the nazar, and these beliefs have been passed on within families for generations. The concept of nazar and its food related remedy system has cemented itself into the cultural fabric of Indian households. And since food is an important aspect of medicine within the Indian culture, it is also considered a remedy for spiritual health, which is reflected in the Indian rituals used to cast off the evil eye.