On any given day, at least 10 josiyakkaaris, or female astrologers, can be seen at the crowded, garbage-strewn Chennai shoreline looking for potential customers

How the dwindling women astrologers of Chennais beaches sell hope for a living
news Human interest Monday, February 25, 2019 - 17:18

“You were meant to be born a man, yet you have taken the form of a woman,” Lakshmi Manickam told me while softly touching my palm with a wooden wand, observing my face intently. “If you’d been born a man, you would have conquered the world. But you are not doing bad as a woman either. You bring prosperity wherever you go.”

Lakshmi is part of a fast-vanishing tribe: female astrologers, known as josiyakkaaris in Tamil, from southern Tamil Nadu. But in recent years, that tradition has faded. As future generations shun astrology as careers and once-believers are losing faith in life-altering predictions, this may be the last generation to follow this livelihood.

The josiyakkaaris of Elliot’s Beach

Lakshmi recently read my future on Elliot’s Beach in Chennai as the firefly lights from the stalls lining the beach signaled nightfall. Salty winds blew around us as she studied my palm by the light of her kerosene lantern. Her bony face, solid gold earrings and platinum-coloured hair, added to her enigmatic aura. I smiled at her, and she continued, “You are generous as well as a spendthrift. But you have the energy of goddess Lakshmi in you. So, your material needs are all fulfilled.”

On any given day, at least 10 josiyakkaaris can be seen at the crowded, garbage-strewn Chennai shoreline. Lakshmi was wary of my inquisitiveness about her life, like many of the other josiyakkaaris on the beach. But after much back and forth, she agreed to talk about herself if she could read my palm for Rs 100.

Like other soothsayers, she belongs to the Kambalathu Nayakkar community, hailing from the Tirunelveli-Thoothukudi belt of Tamil Nadu. The community has Telugu roots: their ancestors had moved down to Tamil Nadu from Andhra Pradesh around the 13th century.

“I belong to the same community as Kattabomman”, Lakshmi said proudly, referring to an 18th century chieftain who rebelled against the British rule and is considered a martyr.

With well-oiled hair tied back in a neat bun and their foreheads smeared with vermillion, holy ash, or sandalwood paste -- including vibrant dots called pottu in the middle -- these women are hard to miss. Often with dark brown wooden wands in one hand and a wickerwork basket in the other, they call out their services loudly in sing-song voices. The wand, they say, enables them to receive messages from Jakkamma, their deity goddess. They walk the beach’s length, pausing every now and then in front of potential customers, mostly young couples, and asking them if they would like their fortunes foretold.

Lakshmi started her career at the age of 10, when she underwent a 48-day ritual at the temple of her hometown’s deity, Jakkamma. Now 60, she says she remembers performing temple maintenance services and prayers, chanting mantras, and being given the Jakkamma koal (the wooden wand) at the end of 48 days. Jakkamma is the deity of the Kambalathu Nayakkars and the spirit guide for these astrologers. She is an avatar of Amman, the mother goddess of Tamil folklore: she sports free-flowing hair, brown skin, a red sari, and a beatific expression on her face. She carries either a sword and a trident depending on the representation.

“We will be attuned to Jakkamma,” she said, “and the words we utter are messages we receive from her.”

A turn in fortune

But judging from Lakshmi’s story, their own fortunes are not always enviable. “We moved to Chennai 35 years ago. We felt we can make more money here than in our village,” she said. Her husband had been a farmer in a village in Tirunelveli, but poor yields forced them to look for alternative jobs. After they moved to Chennai, Lakshmi started practicing the tradition, and her husband now works as a security personnel at an IT park.

But making money this way can be tough: while astrology is very much a part of the Hindu belief system, the general tendency is to go to astrologers with an established place of practice and reliable references. The kuri josiyakkaris at Elliot’s Beach are rarely seen as authentic, and many visitors even saw them as con artists. With every josiyakkari charging up to Rs. 200 per reading, very few people get their futures read from them.

For Mageshwari Thangappan, another female astrologer, it wasn’t money that drew her to the tradition. “This practice has been in my family for seven generations now. This is my calling,” she said one evening on the beach. “I am not here for the money. My husband is a real estate agent and he is doing well in his career.”

Magesgwari’s mother was also an astrologer who migrated from Tirunelveli to Chennai to eke out a living, and Mageshwari learnt soothsaying from her. But she doesn’t see the tradition continuing in her family. “My son does not want to get into this profession. He is in school right now, and he will decide what he wants for a career later,” she said.

Forecasts that bring hope

I asked Mageshwari what most of the people who sought her predictions wanted to know. After a momentary silence, she said, “Most of the people who agree to let us read their palms want to know if their troubles will end, and when they will end.”

She approached a young distraught-looking couple, sitting under the shadow of the boats dragged up on the beach. While the young man agreed to let her read his palm, his girlfriend looked skeptical. Mageshwari sat on the sand facing them, adjusted her navy-blue sari, and held the 30 cm-long wand in her right hand. Silver bands on the wand glinted in the light from a nearby lamp post. Invoking multiple goddesses in a sing-song voice, she began her predictions.

“You are going through a bad time,” she said to the man. He nodded in agreement.

“But you will come through. Your mountain-like problems will melt like snow. You have the ability to overcome this,” Mageshwari said, peering up at the lean, dark man. A lump formed in his throat and tears welled up in his eyes, and he confided that he and his girlfriend were having trouble getting their parents to agree to their marriage. He is a Christian and his girlfriend is Muslim.

“The next three months will be tough for you. But you will solve this. The two of you will marry”, Mageshwari assured him confidently. The woman, who had so far been reluctant to get her palm read, began to look eager as Mageshwari coaxed her to agree.

She predicted more happy outcomes for their future, including that the woman would have three children, two boys and a girl. When she finished, the couple looked less upset with their situation.

“They will definitely get married, you know,” she told me as we walked away.

After a couple of hours of combing the beach for customers with Mageshwari, I bumped into Lakshmi again. Amidst our greetings and goodbyes her mobile phone suddenly rang. Her face turned grave listening to the call.

“My son is at the hospital”, she whispered. He was being treated for a tumour on his cheek. “They just said he is being operated on. No other details.”

I offered her some water to drink and attempted to calm her. I told her not to worry — that he would be fine and that the operation would do no harm to him. She called her daughter-in-law, and after a brief conversation, she turned to me, relieved.

“You are right, the tumour is harmless!” Lakshmi beamed. “Jakkamma sent you my way to show she cares. God bless you! You will live a beautiful life.” She touched my head to bless me, and magic wand tucked in basket, set off home.

The writer wishes to thank the National Geographic Society and the Out of Eden Walk, whose 2018 slow journalism workshop supported the creation of this project.

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