Black and South India: Symbolism

By Ruhi Malik

South India is home to various beliefs and every house has some superstitions or another. Black is generally seen as a negative colour and is associated with a few negative occurrences, such as death or negative omens. Black is the colour usually used to ward away all negative omens, and a small black dot is applied on a newborn baby’s cheek to keep evil spirits away. Black is said to be a somber colour, that doesn't add to the vibrant nature of life. Many temples in South India have their towers painted in many different colours, but not black. The only instance where black is worn in a religious connotation is when one is undertaking a trip to Sabarimala, the abode of the Lord Ayyappa. In this case, black along with saffron represents austerity as the process required for one to be allowed to make the trip to the hill shrine is very rigorous. There is almost no house in South India without a lamp that is lit everyday, so that black, the colour of darkness, is warded off. In most parts of India, South India included, the god Shani, who is said to ward off bad omens, is represented by a large black stone. In mythology, each and every Asura, or demon is represented by black, the colour of ignorance. The gods that banish them do light a lamp afterwards, to signify the triumph of good over evil. It is the belief of a number of people in South India, especially that of religious gurus, that the colour black represents the Guna or virtue of tamas, which is ignorance or laziness, which can worsen into bad habits. This philosophy is widely propagated by yogic gurus in the South of India, namely Sri Sri Ravishankar of Art of Living and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev of the Isha Spiritual Organisation. People are said to get rid of laziness in their bodies to optimise their output. It is a custom, in Brahmanic rituals, that black sesame seeds are used when conducting the last rites for the deceased or when offering a prayer to ancestors long gone. A sweet made of sesame seeds is distributed to family members upon completion of 13 days of the person’s death. It is a common belief that our ancestors return to us in the form of crows, leading to the tradition of feeding crows every day. And crows too, are black in colour, and their arrival symbolises the return of a deceased member of the family.