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Seetha is thirteen, a Tamil, she just can’t wait for it…
"Not yet," her mother said, one afternoon, “Sometimes it comes late.”
"Akka (Elder Sister) got it at thirteen," Seetha said, with slight impatience creeping into her voice.
"Yes she got it early. It might take you longer. Don't you think it is good, you are saved all that hassle a little longer?" comforted her mother
"Oh but the ritual, I am looking forward to it. Akka decked up like a princess, she got such awesome gifts. I can’t wait for that lavish banquet. Get me the grand, blue Kanjivaram saree we saw the other day." In one breath it was all out! Seetha has fantasized a fairy tale ceremony. Probably grander than akka's. Seetha is innocent and impressionable!
She is talking about her impending puberty. Dear readers, you be the judge, don’t just take her words.
Custom has it that, her first periods will be a knockout event, with unprecedented celebrations A.K.A Puberty Rituals, culminating into a lavish feast. Everyone must know that this girl is now a woman! She wears the saree for the first time, with jewelleries that enhances her beauty like never before. No kidding, this young lady is now fertile and feminine and she and the rest better respect her for that! Respect her? How?
There is a spectacular grind to be gone through which includes- Offering her a frugal existence, in isolation, over probably just a mat, for 6 to 15 days. Number of days is a choice by custom or practicability. She will sit, sleep and eat on this mat alone. Feeding her traditional diet, believed to prepare the body for menstrual cycles. Rice, ragi and pulses being the main ingredients of food cooked at this period, supplemented with Sesame oil and Ghee. All food rich in vitamin E is to be offered, as this is the puberty vitamin. How? It helps strengthen the uterus walls.
Mother Counsel’s her, on the significance, the precautions, the frequency, and yes, the restrictions. Particularly those menstrual restrictions, will be spooled into her mind for future replay. “Your body becomes impure during periods, you need to restrict your movement,” a message every girl is given. On the 7th, 9th or the 16th day: as decided, her aunts will give her a bath, followed by a haldi (Turmeric) ceremony in which both men and women participate. They will apply haldi-neem paste on her face and hands- a cleansing agent!
Don’t forget the feast! One akin to a marriage reception. The girl’s Mama (Mother’s brother oh don’t mistake it for Mamma!) plays a major role in this ceremony. He is certainly the guest of honour and the main convener of the puberty ritual in most southern states. He plays an important role in matrimony of the girl later. Expensive gifts will be showered upon her, by family, relatives and friends from her community only. She will thus be initiated into the magical world of the sinful pubescent. This ceremony of Saddangu (Tamil Nadu), Aashirvada (Karnataka) or Tuloni Biyah (Assam) will let the community know, she is ready for marriage. The gifts in this party are primarily a preparation for her dowry. (Note: In Assam, men don’t partake in the haldi ritual, mama does not play any particular role either)
Hereafter, every time she has periods, for three days, she will be relegated to the same mat-at-one-corner. Rendered untouchable, she will be unable to touch most of her own belongings even.
Somewhere else many, many kilometres away from Seetha’s home, the scene morphs:
Anju has no idea why she has red spotting in her panty. Red like blood and with an unbearable stench. It could be cancer, she thinks, with a sense of urgency. At thirteen and a half, she is petrified. Should she tell her mother? Hailing from a small town in Utter Pradesh, she has not been exposed to puberty education in school. She gathers courage to whisper in her mom's ear, “I saw blood in my panty, I think I am seriously ill”
“Shh!” her Mom hushes her up as she tugs her by her arm, into the corner-most room of the house. She latches the door from inside, with a dramatic air. She gives her a pack of sanitary napkins, the ones Anju used to see in TV commercials.
“You will need this, you have periods,” Mom whispers even behind closed doors. “You will get it from now on.” And that is that. With those few hushed words, Anju is initiated into a life time of secret-period-act, no drum beats, no fanfare, no adequate initiation, no sympathies either. Anju’s thoughts are fixated to the blood stench and nature’s abject unfairness towards her body. She has questions. Her mother’s face is contorted with shame, her words curt and precise, coming from another realm. Anju keeps quiet, attentively listening, cautious not to ask questions. She might check with her friends later. Scared sick and quite uncertain, she wonders, did her mother tell her the truth or does she indeed have cancer?
One country, two cultures, exact opposite! Complete overtness versus abject covertness. We the people of India, intertwined into single fabric of nationalism, yet so in silo.
I did not know, my Telugu neighbour, from Andhra Pradesh, celebrates puberty rituals. Despite living in neighbourly harmony for over 12 years. Having been part of each other’s functions and celebrations. How little we know our own neighbours!
The Tamils, the Malayalis, the Telugus, the Kannadigas, the Assamese, the Kulu Paharis are some of the people in India who celebrate puberty rituals. All these rituals have the same undercurrent, with slight differences. Confinement, Nutritious food and a feast, are the bedrock of these ceremonies. Maharashtra till recently had puberty rituals at an austere level, similar rituals but restricted only to women, a four day ritual.
I asked my neighbour why? Why the ritual? Why the untouchability? She, a believer, knows no better way to initiate the girl into puberty. And the untouchability? That gives you the much needed rest! My Tamil friend concurs. Not my Kannadiga friend, she feels it’s an invasion of privacy. “Times have changed,” she tells. My friend from Kerala agrees to that. Reactions vary, not on the basis of state, these are personal preferences; that is what I am assured. In a larger scheme of things, this tradition is under scrutiny today. There are believers and non-believers in all pockets. The opinion on the extent to which this event must be celebrated varies like the colours in the spectrum.
A small community in India, the Vohra Muslims, have a coming of age ceremony, at 16 for girls and at 17 for boys. Coming of age rituals are the society’s way to include young men and women into the adult pool. In the island of Pentecost, situated near Australia, man-hood is proven through Bungee Jumping, this is where this sport emerged by-the-way. There are various puberty and coming of age rituals across the globe, some even gruesome, while others celebratory.
Most northern states of India, from Kashmir to West Bengal, my own state Bihar, the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, none of them have puberty rituals. Then again some of the North Eastern states, to the east of Assam, have similar rituals. A closer look reveals a pattern of puberty beliefs on the first three days of periods, month on month:
Why? The question looms large. The striking similarity of the puberty rituals across India, wherever it exists, matched by similar beliefs and customs in the whole country. Why did the rituals sever? Why did the customs sever? Let us leave the past to the past. Today we have other questions to ask.
It is open to you dear readers, what do you prefer? Rituals or secrecy? Restrictions or relief? These questions have been opened up today. ‘Bleed With Pride’ movement, Haji Ali Dargah - high court approval for women to enter its precincts, Sabrimala temple - tussle over women’s age bar for entry, are cases in its favour. Who knows how stigma will finally be separated from this natural phenomena, sordid in perception, yet inevitable in perpetuation of the human race!
This article was first published in Women's Web: http://www.womensweb.in/2016/09/puberty-rituals-in-india/