The Disputed Civets and the Complexion of the God: Secretions and History in India

By McHugh, James | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, April-June 2012 | Go to article overview

The Disputed Civets and the Complexion of the God: Secretions and History in India


McHugh, James, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


In 2002 the civet and its odorous secretion hit the news in India. The newspaper The Hindu reported that at the temple of Venkatesvara at Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh the temple authorities (or Tirumala Tirupati Devathanams: TTD) were rearing nine civets in the Sri Venkategvara dairy farm in order to collect their secretions, which are used to anoint the sacred image in the temple every Friday. This article reported that the animal is endangered, and that since captive breeding is not feasible the future of procuring the animals was in danger, as was the ritual of anointing with civet. (1) The story seems to have resurfaced in 2008, when we read again in The Hindu that the civets kept at the temple dairy farm had actually been confiscated, as "rearing them in captivity violated the provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972." The animal apparently smears its secretion on twigs, and this material is collected to be used in the temple. The latter article also notes that in the context of a request by the temple authorities to have the animals returned to the temple, "It was also contended in the representations that the withdrawal of Punugu oil from the ingredients used during the 'abhishekam' as prescribed in the Vaikhanasa Agamas amounted to interference with the age-old religious practices." And, the article continues, "Justifying the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams' case for permission to possess the civet cats as part of the temple paraphernalia such as elephants, horses, oxen etc, and [sic] the representation cited the practice of using fallen peacock feathers in temples for rituals. The same analogy could be applied in this case also, the representation noted." In addition to the force of tradition and scripture, this article also notes that "The civet according to temple priests and wildlife sources has miraculous properties of keeping the stone of the Moolavirat [that is to say, the main stone image] smooth, fresh and free from splits and cankers." (2) Another article from August 2008 notes that it is unlikely that the civet cats will be returned to the temple. This article adds the details that the temple authorities had "pitched a sandalwood pole in its dairy farm (Goshala) where it reared the civet cats to scoop the secretion periodically." And this later article also notes a possible solution to the problem: the temple authorities could fund an enclosure for the civets at the zoo and collect the civet in return. (3)

Anyone who has ever studied the history of perfumery in pre-modern India might be surprised to learn that civet is such a key material in this apparently orthodox context. Scholars of Sanskrit texts are no doubt familiar with references to musk (kasturika) and sandalwood (candana), but it is unlikely that they will ever have come across civet, a material one does not tend to associate with Indian perfumery. Yet here was civet, a stinking cat secretion, in South India, considered a vital part of the weekly adornment of the main image of Venkatesvara in the temple at Tirumala. This is the same weekly process of cleaning and perfuming that involves the replacement of the most famous aromatic adornment of this image, the large white trapezoid mass of molded borneol camphor that adorns the forehead of the image, bisected by a groove filled with a dark-colored paste of musk and sandalwood. As I shall argue in this article, it turns out, on closer examination of a broad range of sources, that civet-like materials, by various names, were one of the more important types of perfume in India during much of the second millennium C.E. Indeed, civet was perhaps one of the most characteristic perfumes of the sixteenth century from Amsterdam to Delhi; yet only centuries previously it was unheard of.

By studying the history of civet in pre-modern India I hope to answer the following questions. First, why is one of the most revered Hindu temple images in India anointed with what nowadays might seem to be a rather strange and possibly unappealing substance? …

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