Among Hindûs, especially among Brâhmaṇs of the Madras Presidency—and I now see from personal observation that it is the same in the Bombay Presidency also—there is a custom, while taking their meals, of leaving their food uneaten when it so happens that from any cause the light is blown out. Of course this could occur only in the night-time. Such mishaps now-a-days take place only in poor families, sitting down to supper with a single light. Hence the following story, told as the origin of this custom, is beginning to be forgotten. It runs as follows:—
In a certain village there lived a Brâhmaṇ who had an only daughter. She was deeply read in Saṅskṛit, and was of the most charming beauty. He procured a husband for her as deeply read as herself. The betrothal had already taken place; the muhûrta or auspicious time for her marriage was fixed at the tenth ghaṭikâ(An Indian hour = 24 min.) of that night. On that very evening the son-in-law went to a tank to perform his Sandhyâ vandana or evening prayers. It swarmed with crocodiles. People never went near it. The son-in-law, being quite new to the village, entered the tank without knowing anything of the danger. Unfortunately, there was none near to warn him. He had set his foot in the water when a crocodile caught him by the leg, and began to drag him into the water. That very night was fixed for his nuptials, and a crocodile was taking him to feast on his flesh. He was extremely horrified at his position, and said humbly to his enemy, “My friend crocodile! Listen to my words first, and then decide for yourself. A wife, the only daughter of an old Brâhmaṇ, is waiting for me to-night. If you eat me now, you take me away without my seeing her, my father-in-law, and other relatives. Their hearts may break at the news of my death on the very day of the wedding. They may all curse you. If, on the contrary, you leave me now, I shall go home, speak to my wife and others about the sad calamity that has come over me, and after embracing and taking leave of her will come to you for your supper at the fifteenth ghaṭikâ. Till then leave me.” The cruel crocodile, though very fond of human flesh, and himself dying of hunger, spared him for a few ghaṭikâs at his humble request. After extracting several oaths from him that he would return in accordance to his promise, the crocodile went into the water.
The son-in-law also went home. All his joy vanished; how could he be happy after his promise to the crocodile. Still, to give no uneasiness to the aged parents of his wife, he underwent all the ceremonies of the marriage. Only five more ghaṭikâs remained for him to live in the world, as he thought. He, in a few words, explained everything to his wife, and asked her permission to leave her. She showed no sign of sorrow, preached to him about the iron hand of fate, and that he must undergo what was written on his forehead. She most willingly gave him permission to go, and he returned to the tank even a ghaṭikâ earlier, and called the crocodile, who came and seized him.
At this moment a certain light glittered before the eyes of the crocodile and vanished. It was a woman that did it. The wife, after consoling her husband, and preaching to him about the supremacy of fate, had accompanied him unobserved with a lighted lamp concealed in a vessel. Just when the crocodile applied its teeth to the leg of her husband, she took the lamp out, flashed it before the crocodile’s eyes, and quenched it. Nor was it without its intended effect. The crocodile left the husband to himself, and said, “You had better go now; I will never touch you after seeing a lamp extinguished when I began my meal to-day.” The husband was astonished at the device of his wife, and still more at the faithful observance of a rule in an unreasonable beast. From that day it was fixed that men, who are still more reasonable, should never eat when the lamp is blown out.
Another story is told. In a remote village there lived a poor woman, who laboured from morning till night in different houses, and returned to her hut with two measures of rice. That quantity would serve for ten ordinary persons. Being extremely poor, she used to keep no lamp, but cook her rice in the dark, only guided by the light of the fire. When she sat down for her meal even the light of the fire faded; so she had to eat in the dark. Though she used the full two measures of rice that she brought away every day, her hunger was never satisfied; she was always in extreme want.
Now it so happened that she had a younger sister, who was somewhat richer than herself. The younger came to see her elder sister. The former never used to be without a light, and so asked her sister to buy some oil that night and light a lamp. The elder was compelled by necessity to do so; for that, she devoted a portion of her two measures of rice, and returned home with great uneasiness and perplexity of mind as to how less than two measures would furnish their supper that night, while full two measures were found insufficient on former occasions for herself alone. The lamp was set for the first time in her house, and she cooked the remaining rice. The younger sister was astonished to see her using so much for two. The elder, thinking within herself that the younger would soon see her mistake, cooked everything. Two leaves were spread, and they sat down to their supper. Not even a fourth part of the rice in the pot was consumed, but already they were satisfied. The younger sister laughed at the foolishness of her elder, who now said, “I do not know what magic you have in you. Every day I cook two measures of rice, and fast the whole night, without finding them sufficient for myself. Now a fourth of less than two measures has satiated both. Please explain the cause.” The younger sister, who was very intelligent herself, wanted to find out the cause, and asked next day if she might serve the meals without the lamp. Instead of eating she stretched out her hand and caught hold of a lock of hair. She asked the other at once to light the lamp, which, being done, they found a devil sitting by their side. On being questioned how he came there, he said that he was in the habit of going to every one who ate without a lamp, and swallowing his meals fast without leaving him a morsel. The elder sister perceived her mistake, and used a lamp from that day. The demon ceased to come. She had abundance for herself and something to spare. So when the lamp is blown out, devils are said to come and eat out of our leaves. Hence the custom of rising whenever such mishaps occur.
Why Brâhmaṇs cannot eat in the Dark – Folklore of Southern India