Wednesday, September 19
Art

South Asian Magic, Manisha Anjali and Tara Kenny in Conversation

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Manisha Anjali is a Melbourne-based poet and performer whose work draws heavily on Fijian-Indian mysticism and folklore from her heritage. Tara Kenny is a Kajal staff writer and woo woo enthusiast with a specific interest in Sri Lankan black magic and folklore. After connecting digitally across continents over their shared interest in South Asian magic, Manisha and Tara decided to document their family and folklore stories of poojas, hexing, astrology, demon possession, and women scorned. 

Tara Kenny: Hi Manisha! While Sri Lankan and Fijian-Indian magic and mystical traditions no doubt diverge, I’m really excited to have found another South Asian woo woo enthusiast to swap stories with. We touched on this in our recent conversation for Mystical Sweeties, but can we go over what spawned our respective interests in folklore, magic, mysticism and spiritual traditions from our heritage?

Manisha Anjali: Tara, I love exploring the ancient world of woo woo with you.

I had a dreamy tropical upbringing in the Fiji Islands that was seeped in folk stories, superstition and religious rituals. There was continuous dialogue between the living and the dead. There was color, light and fire. By the time I was eight years old I had seen several dead bodies with cotton wool stuffed up their noses, adorned with hibiscus flowers, surrounding by weeping women. I had also seen as many young brides doused in turmeric and mehndi with red sindur on their skulls. I saw my hopes and dreams in the wild fire of the hawan. With my family I would regularly attend poojas and community readings of the epic poem, Ramayana. But back then I found prayer rituals to be boring; all I wanted was to read, dress up, and play.

I was entranced by stories of sacred animals, ancient astrology, demonic possessions, reincarnation, and the afterlife. My mother has psychic dreams and visions. When I was born she saw the devil. It was the floating head of a bearded man with long black hair. He went straight into her heart! I also experienced sleep paralysis. A faceless entity would watch me in my sleep. When I told my father about it, he said that every time I felt afraid, I should recite the Gāyatrī Mantra, an ancient ode to the Sun. To avoid being possessed by the devil, all the long-haired girls would braid their hair before sundown. We all knew not to fuck with the devil.

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Tara: I love how pervasive these stories were to every aspect of your upbringing.

I grew up in Australia away from my Lankan family and outside of a broader community, and I imagine that even within Lankan-Australian communities the superstitions and rituals are weaker than on the island because of a scarcity of intergenerational hooniyan practitioners and healers from villages. While I grew up attending a Mahayana Buddhist temple where I would sit in on poojas and teachings, vicariously experiencing the rituals while I read Sweet Valley High novels, it wasn’t until more recent trips to Sri Lanka that I really took notice of how culturally dominant superstition and rituals are to everyday life. This permeates all the way from astrologers weighing in on election dates and being hired by politicians, to everyday aunties who get their comeuppance by hexing one another.

I think the fact that I had a superficial interest in new age spirituality – pretending to know about astrology when I actually just like the memes – meant that deeper learning around Sri Lankan spiritual traditions felt like a natural entry point to the culture.

Manisha: Astrology is a wonderful gateway into ancient South Asian culture. In my parents’ cupboards, there is a 20 page astrological document that was created when I was born. According to the chart I’m a Simha Rasi (Leo Moon). It says that I am handsome and sweet-tongued and prone to clandestine affairs!

 A few years ago, upon instruction from our family astrologer, I had to conduct a series of rituals where I fasted and chanted to a banana tree for nine Thursdays. I wrote a poem about it called Prayer for Jupiter. Recently an astrologer friend informed me that I had performed a manglik ritual called kumbh vivah, meaning that I had married the banana tree.

Tara: That’s amazing! It was only after I did a Nyung Nye retreat, which involves abstaining from food and speech, that I understood the transformative power of ancient rituals. They’re so experiential and it’s really difficult to convey their value second hand.

I find that there tends to be a spectrum of “acceptable” mysticism in Sri Lankan culture, ranging from above board religious rituals like the ones we just described, all the way through to black magic, which is not openly embraced. In Lanka I would try to speak to people about hooniyan and they’d often look very embarrassed: there’s stigma attached to superstition because it’s associated with provincial, uneducated rural villagers. Also, there’s national shame around the fact that Lankans are so vengeful and go around cursing one another! I’m inclined to agree that the darker stuff isn’t the most productive, but I still find it fascinating.

Once I started to take an interest, all these stories about various family members being hexed came out of the woodworks. One of my family members believes her ex-husband poisoned her with a voodoo remedy that made her accept his marriage proposal, and apparently back in the day my great grandma was hexed by male shop owners because she was a [female]business rival and so they were out to get her!

Manisha: The fear of hexes, or nazar, is one of my favorite beliefs that pervades South Asian communities. I also grew up with similar stories of curses and hexes. I was taught to avoid bragging about my accomplishments to avoid being jinxed by the evil eye. To remove nazar, take a teaspoon of salt, wave it around you three times, throw it behind your shoulder and never look back.

One story that has always stuck with me is about a jealous black magic practitioner from a village back in the islands. She put a curse on a woman, intending for her to go blind. Eventually the woman became blind in her left eye and her son became possessed. Wild.

Tara: Wild! I think some of the resistance to embracing these stories is a necessary backlash to voodoo swindlers who make people pay through the nose for their services but don’t actually have the goods.

Sri Lankan masks

Manisha: I am deeply fascinated by charlatans, frauds, swindlers and cult leaders. I think they’re half the reason woo woo culture is so fun. Those figures serve as cautionary tales themselves. They profit off self-deification and human desperation. They show us there is no real truth. They show us that life really is a wheel of fortune. It’s all a game.

Tara: That’s true, except I don’t fuck with the ones who end up causing death with their botched exorcisms. Having said that, there are rip off merchants in every profession who give everyone else a bad name.

Last year, mom and I had a healer drive all the way up from his village to visit us in Colombo because another family member was suspicious she had been hexed. He investigated by using a woven basket as a vessel to communicate with a spirit – he asked the spirit to move the basket either left or right in response to a series of yes/no questions, and I saw it rotate in thin air as I touched a light finger to it! As a remedy, he recommended an intense pooja in which the evil spirit would be captured in a root vegetable balanced on the possessed woman’s body, and sliced apart with a big knife. He refused to accept payment. I’m now pretty sold on the powers of intergenerational village healers…

On a personal level, these experiences are meaningful to me because they bind and highlight similarities between myself, my mom, my grandma, and great grandma. We’re so different but each so willing to believe in woo woo.

Manisha: It is so interesting the way that stories move through generations. Last year I was researching depictions of the afterlife in ancient texts like Agni Purana and Garuda Purana. What I found was the most debauched descriptions of sin, torture, rivers of hot blood and pus, evil animals, and eternal suffering. I also found many disturbing passages where sins were attributed to simply being born a woman. Then my father told me that his grandmother had copies of those two texts she brought to Fiji from India.

I wonder what she thought about those passages. Did she believe in this version of the afterlife? Did she fear it? Did she accept that she had already sinned by being born a woman?

Tara: So many folklore stories come off as super misogynistic in that they’re kind of warning men about “evil women” who seem beautiful and kind but are really just out to get you.

Mohini is one of my favorites – a femme fatale who hangs around asking tired male travellers to hold her baby while she fixes her dress, and then ends up stealing their souls! To me Mohini is a feminist hero, and I wonder if younger Lankan women think of her like this too. I came across this little CGI animation reimagining the folklore tale, and someone told me there is also a Mohini video game.

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A young Manisha in Fiji

Manisha: Folklore of patriarchal South Asian cultures has never been kind to women. I love the story of Mohini – she is a classic churel. In North Indian folklore, the churel hangs out in graveyards, mountains, and trees. She is a sexy lady with backwards turned feet. The churel seduces young men and either kills them by draining their blood or turns them into decrepit old men.

What disturbs me is how women become churels. You become a churel by dying during childbirth. You become a churel by dying during menstruation. Baby girls who die before they are twenty days old become churels. I certainly don’t blame Mohini and all the other churels for seeking vengeance on a society hellbent on demonizing women’s bodies.

I am also reminded of the Visha Kanyas (poison maidens) of ancient India. Girls who were astrologically destined for widowhood were fed snake venom from birth and trained as assassins. The Visha Kanyas were employed by ancient kings, as they could kill enemies with a single kiss. Legend has it that before Alexander the Great went to India, Aristotle warned him that gifts from Indian kings in the form of beautiful women could prove fatal.

Tara: But then I wonder whether women are just used as convenient vessels for a broader moral, rather than the stories actually being ABOUT women, if that makes sense? As in, the story about Mohini could be a warning not to trust appearances, rather than a literal warning that ALL HOT WOMEN ARE EVIL! I mean, women being used as vehicles for telling men’s stories is still inherently misogynistic…

Manisha: I’m more inclined to believe that because these stories came from patriarchal societies they were used to control women and beliefs about them. Folklore and mythology are powerful propaganda tools that shape communities’ thoughts on religion, sex and money. Folklore can be lawless and unforgiving in the sense that while we do look for broader morals in them, they may or may not actually be there.

Tara: But it is a joy to search for or superimpose our own infinite possible meanings onto these stories in perpetuity.

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