There’s lots of construction underway in Chennai, and one thing the visitor notices early on is that larger construction sites tend to have a scarecrow-like dummy – clothing filled with straw, with a cloth head attached – strapped up somewhere prominent. If you look closer, you’ll also see a round yellow disc (in most cases), roughly 18 inches in diameter, with a stylized angry face, stuck somewhere on one of the walls. This made me curious: what’s up with that?
Initially, I suspected some form of what outsiders would characterize as superstition. But googling for an hour or so using the terms “construction”, “superstition” and “India” turned up nothing about these strange dummies and faces. I had heard previously that astrology is a key aspect of daily Indian life; many, if not the majority of Indians will consult an astrologer to determine when the best time is to undertake certain activities, and will take careful note of a wide range of events considered to be positive or negative omens. This website gives some examples of positive and negative omens in India. And if you check out that website, be sure and scroll down to the comments, which reveal just how seriously many Indians take these considerations.
But it turns out that almost every aspect of housing construction has detailed beliefs, guidelines and principles that must be observed to ensure the well-being and good fortune of the building’s eventual inhabitants. Vastu Shastra (or Vaastu Shastra) is an integral part of Indian architecture which can be compared to the Chinese feng shui. It dictates not only the layout of a house, but when key events in homebuilding should take place, describes rituals to be performed at specific times and intervals, specifies the sequence of work and tasks to be performed in homebuilding, and virtually every other aspect imaginable. Again, consulting the site is instructive, including a look at the comments posted by readers.
But in spite of the wealth of information I found about homebuilding and construction, I could find nothing online to explain the presence of the dummies in Chennai. But finally I figured it out. It turns out that the practice of displaying a dummy and the faces above at construction sites is to ward off, or absorb the “evil eye.” Essentially just another word for the envy of others, the evil eye is said to bring misfortune to those it afflicts; this website explains more about the evil eye in the Indian context, as well as a bit about the symptoms and some remedies for the afflicted. It talks about the practice of hanging an “effigy of a fully clothed man made of hay with a pronounced exposed phallus.” At this point I consulted my photos again, wondering if I had missed this detail (I had not). For another source of information on “evil eye” you can also consult this website.
So now that the mystery is solved, I’ll be keeping an eye out at other construction sites in Chennai (there are many!) – maybe I’ll even come across an effigy with a “pronounced exposed phallus” (if not, that’s OK too). And I’m a bit worried – having briefly looked over some of the principles of Vastu Shastra, I’ve determined that the house we’re living in is built completely wrong. Maybe it’s time to put in a maintenance request with my employer to bring in some heavy construction and shift some of our rooms around!