Widening the Circle of Hope

Stella Brikey meets some fortune tellers in Madurai and excitedly listened to what a parrot, a palmist, a nadi astrologer, and a man who rolled cowrie shells told her about her future, present and past … While still in a dilemma of whether to believe or not to believe, she is however, certain of one thing: a peek into one’s future is a lot of fun!

 Statue at Ratnagiri

India, the land of myths and miracles. Nowhere else you can find such a mix of different fortune tellers and magicians. The area around the legendary Meenakshi Temple in Madurai is a place where you can come across palmists, fortune telling parrots and Nadi readers —around 1000 astrologers work here! Are all of them genuine? How can you identify a good fortune teller?

Day one: Passing an alley full of beggars with outstretched hands, I arrive at the great Alagar Temple, a 20 km one-hour drive by car from Madurai. The whole area is ruled by capricious monkeys who take law into their own hands! Someone told me about a man with a magical rat who lives here. I find the “legend” dozing in the shadow of a tree with no leaves, next to some beggars. When I ask for his services, he just grumbles: “I feel sick. Come back tomorrow.”

The Palmist

Day two: I arrive at a rather strange temple: the Kattunaiyakar, temple of goddess Jakkamma and god Pandi, located at the “dark side of Madurai”—an area full of sex workers, alcoholics and criminals. Leaving my shoes in the car, I enter the temple. It is hard to walk because hundreds of devotees are lying, sitting, eating and sleeping everywhere! I pass some stalls where you can buy offerings for Pandi—alcohol and cigarettes! By touching the temple wall, a woman falls into a trance and started to scream: Pandi “came into her” or possessed her. Next to her, some men shave the heads of boys, a ritual done for various reasons. The whole area is full of black hair. And mud. And I am barefoot. On the left, I see a sheet full of goat heads. They are still jerking. “You should not come here alone or after dark”, the Projects Abroad coordinator warned me.

Immediately, a dark-skinned old woman in a yellow sari speaks to me. Kaliamman (40) is a palmist. She is willing to tell me my future for Rs. 20. I agree. She takes my right hand and starts to “read”: “The planet situation is very bad for your horoscope. You had a very unfortunate time and a lot of trouble in your job in the last year. That is why you came to India.” (Direct hit!) She goes on: “You should not marry because you have a lot of trouble with your current partner. You need to find another man. Afterwards you will get more than five children and become very happy.”

Goddess Jakkamma gives Kaliamman the power to know about my future, present and past: “Whatever I say will happen because I have his power in my tongue.” And she has no choice.

“I am a member of the caste of fortune tellers. My father was a fortune teller. My grandfather was a fortune teller. My grandchildren will become fortune tellers – even if they go to university and become a doctor. They will always come back to this place and work as a fortune teller. My ancestors were chosen 5000 years ago. It is our destiny.” For six months Mrs. Kaliamman goes to work while her husband cares for the children. Afterwards they alternate. She loves her job. But the Kattunaiyakar temple is not a safe place. Guide books warn most foreigners to stay away away . Kaliamman has fifty clients every day. She is the cheapest fortune teller I’ve met in Madurai. “I am not looking for the money. I work for God,” she says and disappears in the crowd.

Authenticity: +++
Credibility: ++
Price: ++++

The Prophecies of the Parrot

Paneer Selvam (48) works near the Kattunaiyakar temple. His working place: a little hut in front of an empty shop. His medium: a green parrot. Paneer is dressed in an orange dhoti. His upper back is naked and he sports a tattoo of a snake on his arm. He pretends to be very busy. “Rs. 50, Rs. 50,” he says instead of, “Nice to meet you.”

I agree and sit down. I have to tell him my name and my age. He immediately starts to drum and begins to coax his parrot to step out of the cage. Meanwhile a lot of people come to watch us. Paneer then opens his parrot’s cage and tells him my name. The parrot chooses a card: Kali, the goddess of death.

“You will become greatly successful in future,” Paneer interprets. “You planned your trip to India very well. Kali says that you will find great opportunities abroad and in future you will do business overseas. This experience will offer you a good job. In 30 days you will get an appointment and become very successful!”

Afterwards I have to choose a card: Kali – I choose the same as the parrot. Paneer is excited: “You will have a good life with your family. You will get married overseas – but it is not your current boyfriend!”

Interesting, but why should I trust a trained parrot? It is just a bird!

“Every god has his special vehicle to talk to people,” Paneer explains. “Pandi speaks to me with a parrot. I paid Rs. 3000 for a trained one. I started my career when I was 17 years old. I am very happy with my job.”

“Whatever you do, your job is your God!”

Authenticity: ++
Credibility: +
Price: +++

Cowrie Shells and Destiny

Day three: After a one-hour ride by car from Madurai, I arrive in a small village, searching for a famous fortune teller with a rat. The village is not connected to any bus station. But in every thatched house there is a TV! In front of a small house I meet an old man with a red turban and ask him for the man with the rat. “He is not here,” Subbaiya Nayakkan (66) says. “But you are a lucky girl because you just met the best fortune teller of Madurai – me! Some people travel over a hundred kilometers to see me. I am only here for one day. Come, take a seat!” How could I decline?

Before we start, I have to buy some leaves, incense sticks, and sugar for him. Subbaiya Nayakkan, who actually works as a watchman, kindles an incense stick. I have to tell him my name and my age.

He then throws some bright cowrie shells and starts to speak: “This time is a bad time for you. Your body is very weak. In the next three days you will become very ill. (Wrong!) Do not do always what other people tell you. You need to be your own boss. Right now, you are in a ‘Zigzag’ moment. You want to do something big? Take it slow. It is better to keep what you have. In the last three years you were very successful but one person interrupted it! (Right!) From now on, you have to hold the power in your hands!”

I am really impressed because a lot of what he told me is true. But what if he sees a bad future of someone – will he tell him? “I will,” Subbaiya says. “But I also help the people and tell them what to do. Many come back again to hear my advice.”

Is he able to forsee a person’s death? “Once I told someone that he will die very soon, probably in an accident. And it happened. I do not hide anything.”

What about his own future? “I am 66 years old. When I was born, a fortune teller told my parents that I will become ill when I am 83 and will die at 91.

Authenticity: ++++
Credibility: +++
Price: ++++

The Nadi Astrologer

Day four: I was able to get an appointment with a Nadi astrologer. Nadi astrology is also known as palm leaf astrology. I’d read about this online and not all reviews had been good. Bharathiraja is one of the most famous Nadi astrologers in Madurai. I expect a lot!

Nadi astrology is a form of astrology based on the information written on ancient sacred palm leaves thousands of years ago, allegedly by Hindu sages such as Agasthya. The principle of this astrology was made famous by astrologers around the Vaideeswaran Koil Temple, which is near Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. Even today Nadi palm leaf reading is still practiced by their descendants.

Translated from Tamil, Nadi means ‘to come in search of.’ An expert Nadi reader can accurately read your past, present, and future inscribed in these ancient palm leaves. It is amazing that a person will only get her or his leaf read when it’s predestined at that point in their lives. It is not that everyone’s lives are in these leaves. Nadi astrologers are certain that only a certain number of souls’ future predictions are in the palm leaves. Like Nostradamus, these predictions are written in verses, and it’s up to the Nadi astrologer to interpret these to the best of his or her understanding.

Bharathiraja lives in a beautiful green house close to the river. He does not look like a guru or a wise man. Wearing a blue shirt, he looks more like an ordinary person. No incense sticks. No trappings of an astrologer. But his mobile rings all the time. He asks for my left hand thumb print, my name and my date of birth. Bharathiraja then asks a series of questions (Is your father still alive? Are you the first child? Does your mom work in a school?) based on the verses on the leaf in order to find the correct match. These questions, as he told me, are to be answered only with a yes or no. The interview takes around ten minutes.

After some time he immediately stops and start to speak: “The name of your mother is PETRA. (Right!) The name of your father is CHRISTIAN. (Right!) Your name is STELLA. (Right!) This is your palm leaf!” Thereupon, I have to leave his office for 45 minutes. He wants to copy the palm leaf for me on a note pad. Afterwards, he read my palm leaf out:

(+Right, – Wrong)

– You are the first child of Christian and Petra. +
– Your parents are still alive. +
– You have one sister who is studying. +
– You work as a reporter. +
– You had a bad time for the last three years. –
– You had a lot of trouble and you were worried about your job. +
– You have problems with your boyfriend. –
– The problem in your job was a colleague. +
– At the age of 28 you will become very successful.
– You will have a big car and a big house.
– At the age of 35 you will become spiritual and go to church.
– Your father is wearing glasses. +
– At the age of 32 to 35 you will get married.
– Your husband and you will become very happy.
– You will live like a queen at the age of 75.
– You will die at the age of 82.

I have to pay Rs. 500. Actually, I am a little bit disappointed because Bharathiraja asked me so many questions which I answered with “no”. Yet he uncannily told me the names of parents.

“Eighty percent of my clients get their exact leaf which has been written 6000 years ago”, Bharathiraja says. I just search for the leaves and read it out for them.” Did anyone ever call him a liar? “I never talk about my work to a person who does not want to hear it. People come voluntarily.”

Authenticity: ++
Credibility: ++
Price: +

To believe or not to believe—that is my dilemma! The predictions of the fortune tellers were either accurate or completely wrong. Sometimes I was disappointed. At other times I was shocked by their accuracy: one of them even knew the names of my parents! All of them knew that I had a lot of trouble in my job. Coincidence? Accurate guesses?

Yet my overall impression is that one should not blindly believe fortune tellers. Like any interpretative science, its accuracy depends on the person who makes the prediction. As in any profession, even in fortune telling there are genuine people and those who are ready to take gullible people for a ride! Therefore to brand all fortune tellers as negative would be unfair. But one thing is certain: fortune telling is a lot of fun!