Mottai Addithal – A Tamil Boy’s First Haircut

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We were invited to a Tamil rite of passage—a baby boy’s first haircut.

From Wikipedia, on rites of passage:

A rite of passage is a ritual event that marks a person’s progress from one status to another. Rites of passage are often ceremonies surrounding events such as other milestones within puberty, coming of age, marriage and death. Initiation ceremonies such as baptism,confirmation and Bar or Bat Mitzvah are considered important rites of passage for people of their respective religions. Rites of passage show anthropologists what social hierarchies, values and beliefs are important in specific cultures.

These Tamil rites are ancient, as old as the Tamil culture. What we will see today echoes thousands of years of traditions. I think it is important to record these rites. Who knows how Tamil culture will survive its encounter with Western modernity? These rites affirm the person’s place in the family and in the world at large, and also confirms and reinforce the family ties in which the person lives. More postings can be found following this link, Tamil Rites of Passage.

The Mottai Addithal is a family celebration. There are no priests involved. They will be holding it today at the family shrine of the paternal grandfather (grandfather of the father of the child). The grandfather lived in a village near to this spot, and the shrine here is seen as the family shrine. They use it for a special family shrine pooja once each year. This celebration is put on by and for (mainly) the father’s side. 

None of the family lives near here, so we took several auto-rickshaws to the place, a few km north of Tiruvannamalai. The boy, Vishnu, son of Karuna and Devi, is being lifted out of the rickshaw by a sister.

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The clump of trees to the left, past the rice field, is where the temple is.

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Here is Rajan, Karuna’s brother. Rajan is holding Vishnu. Vishnu is, I believe, two years old. Note that Vishu’s hair is done up like a girl, including wearing flowers in his hair.

We have seen other village boys, before their ritual haircut, dressed like girls. We only found out that they were boys when they lifted their skirts and we noticed a penis. I do not understand much about this, perhaps a reader can tell us more about this Tamil custom?

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Rajan carrying Vishnu through the rice fields. Between each plot is a narrow dirt walkway, muddy today because of the rain.

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Approaching the temple area. I don’t see a temple anywhere.

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When we get there, Karuna and another man have machetes, and are cutting down brush and weeds. The temple is within the grove of trees.

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This does not look like a path to me. Just wait!

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More people approach, walking between the fields.

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A path has started to take shape through the brush.

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And people head into the trees.

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I am in the trees, now. Still no sign of any thing like a temple or shrine.

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There is a row of black stones, and a woman sets down the big pot, loaded with supplies for today.

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Here is the family shrine. One large stone, the chief presiding god, together with a number of smaller ones.

In my understanding, this is how almost all shrines and temples begin—a small natural shrine. Then if they become popular there will be a thatched roof added. Then maybe some more gods, or a clay statue. Then if still more popular, stone walls and a roof, more shrines, stone altars, bigger statues. Then if more visited still, walls, towers, secondary temples, temple tanks, etc. Finally inner walls and towers, outer walls, towers and more buildings in a temple ‘complex’ like Arunachaleswara Temple, in Tiruvannamalai. They all started like this.

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More supplies arrive. Karuna and Devi, unpack items. Rajan has created a stove out of the black rocks, and has a brass pot sitting on it. An important part of this ritual is offering the gods fresh food, made here today.

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The brush cutting goes on unabated. A good area needs to be cleared for the ceremonies and the people participating in them.

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Rajan puts water into the pot. Time to get started cooking. There cannot be the pooja until this is done.

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An older woman is clearing the altar area. This is one of Karuna’s aunties, a sister of his father.

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The fire is going under the pot. I noticed that Rajan used a chunk of camphor to start the fire. It is easy to light, and melts away when burnt.

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A plastic ground cloth is put down in a big area that has been cleared. This will be a place where people can sit while they wait.

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Here are some of the kids here today, all from the father’s side. So these are sisters and cousins of Vishnu (sitting in the middle of the kids).

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Devi again. She looks happy today. I think this is a big day for the mother, her baby is growing up!

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Auntie sweeps the now-cleared dirt in front of the altar. It looks like no man is permitted in this space today.

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Rajan dumps rice into the now boiling water. This will become pongal, a savory rice porridge.

Cooking pongal rice is a traditional practice at Hindu temples during any festival in Tamil Nadu. The community will convene to cook pongal rice, then eat it and distribute it to those present.

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The clearing and altar area are clean now. Good job, Auntie! A jug of filtered water is here, to be used for cooking and the pooja.

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Through the trees, we can see more people arriving.

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One of the men, I think the fellow in white, fell off into the rice paddy. The kids thought that this was hilarious. We didn’t see the fall, but sure heard the laughter. (This reminds me of when we fell off the elephant, during elephant bathing, and the old man watching laughed and laughed, the funniest thing all day!)

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Things are shaping up. The altar is clear and clean, the pongal has started cooking, a big area has been cleared, and a reed mat is down on the ground, for food storage and Carol’s sitting.

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Now the pooja starts. First is Devi placing flowers on top of each god.

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Then lighting a flame (camphor) in front of the gods.

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The light is offered also to Vishnu. This starts today’s rite of passage for Vishnu. This day marks the milestone of the baby becoming a boy.

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Vishnu is in his mother’s arms now. I don’t think he really knows what is going to happen.

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Waiting for him is the barber holding a razor to shave Vishnu’s head.

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Mother has taken off Vishnu’s shirt and shoes. And removed the flowers from his hair. This will be the last time for him to have flowers in his hair.

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Vishnu’s father plays with him for a moment before giving him to his wife’s brother, maternal uncle to Vishnu.

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More people are coming. We wait a couple of minutes for them to arrive.

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The maternal uncle holds Vishnu for the cut. As a member of the mother’s family, this uncle is the only exception to the fact that the other celebrants are from the father’s side of the family.

First is wetting the hair, so it will shave more easily.

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The haircut starts. The first cut is made by Paul, a Western friend of Karuna.

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The barber continues the shaving of Vishnu’s head.

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According to Arnold van Gennep who first wrote on this subject in his book The Rites of Passage, rites of passage denote rituals marking the transitional phase between childhood and full inclusion into a tribe or social group. Now they are seen more broadly, as important life transitions. Van Gennep’s work had a deep impact on anthropological thought. Rites of passage have three phases: separation, transition, and reincorporation, as van Gennep described. Rites of passage show what social hierarchies, values and beliefs are important in specific cultures.

In the first phase, people withdraw from their current status and prepare to move from one place or status to another. "The first phase (of separation) comprises symbolic behavior signifying the detachment of the individual or group … from an earlier fixed point in the social structure." There is often a detachment or "cutting away" from the former self in this phase, which is signified in symbolic actions and rituals. For example, the cutting of the hair for a person who has just joined the army. He or she is "cutting away" the former self, the civilian.

Hindus are said to believe that the infant hair is associated with the karma of the previous incarnation. Cutting this hair removes this karma from the young child. The cutting of the hair is the separation from the past identity, that of a baby.

Now the hair is almost completely cut, just a few curls remain on his neck. The separation from the past is almost complete.

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The other kids watch intently.

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As does his mother, making sure he is OK with all this.

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Here goes that last bit of hair.

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It is done! Vishnu feels his own bald head, standing as the center of attraction.

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Karuna is there with his boy.

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Everybody applauds when the cut is finished. Paul shakes Vishnu’s hand.

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Mother Devi looks at her boy now. I think she feels for the passing of her child’s babyhood, and for her boy’s present discomfort.

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Here is Vishnu, almost the new boy. The old baby is gone now.

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The second phase of the rite is the transition. The transition is the period between states, during which one has left one place or state but has not yet entered or joined the next. During transition you get prepared for the new state in your culture.

Mom removes his pants. She is going to take him away and put on new clothes.

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As the first step she gives Vishnu a bath. (This is always thought to be needed after a haircut, anyway.)

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She wraps a towel around him.

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Now his father rubs holy turmeric on Vishnu’s head. This is a purification step. (And turmeric is a bacterial disinfectant.)

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Now Mom takes Vishnu into the forest to be dressed.

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Vishnu is greeted by a sister. Do you see the love in this family?

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Men, friends of the father, sit and watch. There is really no role for them in this family celebration other than watching. They are here anyway, good friends.

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They look for two more people to have their heads shaved. There need to be three shaved heads, we are told, in this kind of ceremony. Don’t know anything about this. Does anyone?

Another kid, Ranjith’s daughter, with short hair from a similar shaving a few weeks ago, is selected for a shave.

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Here we go again!

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Here is the second shaved head, all nice and clean now.

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I move to the forest area. Vishnu is reaching into a bag and pulling out his new clothes.

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Mother gets him dressed.

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Meanwhile, at the altar, the family women have washed the gods and lit incense for them. I think the gods have had a milk bath, too. Other pooja items are laid out and ready,

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Vishnu in his new clothes!

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The pooja is going now. Brown sandalwood paste is poured over the gods.

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The sandalwood is spread to cover the whole front of each of the gods in the altar.

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Back at the hair cutting area, the third person will have his head shaved. Rufus will be the third to sacrifice his hair this day.

This is the “Before” photo.

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This is a young California man, who in two or three days will be going home. Boy will he surprise his friends and family!

For a moment he has the “Monk’s Cut.”

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Then the hair is almost all gone.

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All done.

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The finished product.

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A bunch of kids are on the ground cloth, enjoying the attention of the maternal uncle and his wife.

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Vishnu and cousin sit in Uncle’s lap.

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Back at the altar, Rajan’s wife, Janakee, and daughter, Jananee, have joined in the preparation.

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Curd (yogurt) is poured on the gods as an offering.

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Then it is washed off. Even during the offerings the gods must be kept clean.

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Juice from a tender coconut is offered.

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In the “kitchen,” the women have made chai. They are taking a tray of chai and cookies around to the guests.

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Incense is offered again, and a temple bell is rung.

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One more cleaning with water.

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Rose water, from a small bottle, is being offered. All offerings are made to each of the gods here.

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Another bath for the gods.

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This next act, I have never seen before. A ‘crown’ made of coconut shell fiber (I think) is put on the top of each idol, then water poured through it and onto the gods. Again, this is done for all the gods at the altar.

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After this, a gold necklace from one of the attendees is placed on the main god.

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And then given a holy bath.

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A glob of turmeric paste is added to the ‘head’ of each god.

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Then washed off.

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Auntie needs something for the pooja. Right now!

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Here is Paul, after the head shave, with turmeric paste on his head.

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As a snack, we are given tender coconuts to drink. First they must be opened with a machete. Be careful!

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The gods now all have vibhuti, white ash, placed atop them.

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Before the vibhuti is washed off, auntie collects what she can. This vibhuti is now consecrated by its use on the gods, and is special for marking one’s forehead in the morning.

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Washing off the vibhuti.

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Next the gods are coated with turmeric.

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And a special turmeric cone, used as a god for the pooja, is made.

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Red kumkum powder is put on the idols.

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Three stripes (Siva stripes) in the center, and red dots all around.

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Here comes another element I have not seen before being brought to the pooja area. These are some kind of oil lamp, made from rice and dal flower.

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Here is the main god, with the red kumkum fully applied, and the turmeric cone god placed before it on a betel leaf. There is a red dot on this, too.

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Auntie adds a flower mala.

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And flowers for the minor gods on the altar.

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More flowers for the main god.

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Oil is poured into the dough lamps.

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Here is the altar. Beautiful. Waiting now for the next part of the pooja.

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Betel leaf and nut are offered to the gods. The Tamils do this after a lunch, all are offered this treat. Even the gods.

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The dough lamps are lit.

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And added to the altar. Bananas have also been offered to the gods, another Tamil after-meal treat. Note that there is also a lemon, split and stuffed with kumkum, sitting in front of the main god, another important offering.

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Now the next phase of the rite of passage is ready to happen. People gather around.

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The altar is ready. The pongal, made today, and two pots of rice, have been added, as well as a pot of flavorful chickpeas (garbanzo beans).

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Oil lamps are lit and set out.

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Then it is time to break the coconuts.

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Lemon juice is squeezed onto each god.

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It is time now for the conclusion of the rite, the reincorporation. "In the third phase (reincorporation) the passage is consummated by the ritual subject."

Everyone is gathered here. Children’s hands are offering pranams to the altar.

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Vishnu is brought forward.

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Mother and Father’s keys are added to the altar, to be blessed by the gods.

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And the broken coconuts are added.

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Another coconut is broken.

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Now the pooja altar is complete.

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A camphor flame is lit. Vishnu rings the temple bell. This is his first time doing this important job in the family pooja. A task appropriate to his new stage in life.

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The flame is picked up from the altar.

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The holy flame is offered to all the gods.

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Here is Vishnu, now a full-fledged boy, no longer a baby. We saw several of the family women cry during this ritual. It has such deep meaning for them, a time of transition, a baby no more, into the next stage of life now.

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Holy water is sprinkled on all present.

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I don’t think the girl in pink likes the water.

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Then the holy flame is brought out so that all can partake of it.

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Vishnu goes first, since this is his special day.

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Having completed the rite and assumed his "new" identity, one re-enters society with one’s new status.

Others take the flame.

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The family (and Paul) stands together for a photo.

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Once more the flame is offered by Auntie, this time to the family.

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Below, the final altar, after the pooja is complete.

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Food is taken from the altar.

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And offered to all who are here.

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After everyone has a bite to eat, the procession starts, leaving the family shrine. Mother leads the way, carrying a big pot holding the dough lamps, still burning.

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Here they are.

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The procession winds its way out from the shrine.

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And crosses the rice fields, Mother still leading the way.

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Everybody hops into a rickshaw, and we are on our way.

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Rajan is driving. His son, Raam Kumar, sits next to him.

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We are all offered lunch at Hotel Ramakrishna. We enjoy ourselves. Paul interacts again with Vishnu.

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When we leave The Ramakrishna, it is all over for the day.

I am very grateful to be able to photograph the Tamil rites. These are social forms that have existed here for thousands of years. The Tamils have a strong family, and it is celebrations like these that support and show the role of the family, and the place within it of every member, that help make these family ties so strong. I think we have forgotten many of these important rituals in the West, and we are poorer for it.

Related Posts

Rites of Passage
Mottai Addithal – Family Puja at Nadananthal Village, near Tiruvannamalai

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7 Responses to “Mottai Addithal – A Tamil Boy’s First Haircut”

  1. Sunanda Maldonado Says:

    I also wanted to say how much I enjoyed seeing the photos of the Tamil lady doing the puja. In nearly all the temples in TN, doing puja is a strictly male preserve, although I understand that pujarinis were common in the distant past. Obviously, Auntie did a fine job. Lovely also to read Selvaraj’s comment that tears were brought on by the presence of the deities. Lovely. Oh and by the way, I twice attended a Brahmin ceremony for a child’s first birthday when their ears were pierced (one boy, one girl, no anaesthetic or antiseptic!) and the child was again held by the maternal uncle (mother’s brother). Interesting that this was the case here too.

    • Richard Clarke Says:

      I have been to and ‘Ear Boring” ceremony, too. Now that I think, it was the maternal uncle, too, holding the girls. I wonder what is behind this? What is its cultural meaning?

      I also thought it was most special that the women were doing this pooja, since otherwise this is mostly the domain of the men.

  2. agoyvaerts Says:

    Might the tradition of dressing baby boys in dresses in Tamil Nadu, have anything to do with them, in this way, being protected from the evil spirits? Just a thought, I’m very interested in knowing the real reason
    .

  3. Selvaraj V Maruthai Muthuraja Says:

    Beautiful and engaging narrative and pictures as usual and thank you very much.

    As a Tamil Hindu myself, a child must be presented to the family’s ancestral guardian deities known as “Kula Devathas”. The Kula Devathas are very important and propitiated at every major passage of life. Their arrival and “presence” is often felt during these pujas and we can sense it in the tears that automatically stream from our eyes. Sometimes a particular person may go into a trance enabling direct communication with the deities. Their shrines are often kept in a pristine form and known only to direct family members. As you have suggested many family clans now construct temples for them and have regular pujas performed. The rituals and offerings are often specific to the deity and certain invocations to invite them are kept secret and passed on only to predestined members of the family clan.

    In February of this year my brother and I from Malaysia attended the Temple consecration (Kumbabishegam) ceremonies for our family ancestral deities in Tiruchirapalli in India. This was an amazing experience and helped us to connect back to the guardians of our genes which stretches back to thousands of years. In traditional worship of our “Ishta Devata” (chosen God of worship), we begin with honoring our Kula Devathas, Our Ancestors and then we do the homa and full prayers for the “Ishta Devata. A continuum is preserved and with the new the old is not forgotten but honored.

    Not much material on this subject this documentation is a great contribution.

    You were highly honored to be invited to this very special family rites.

    With Love

    Selvaraj M

  4. Praba Karan Says:

    nicely written..nice to read tamil rites from you..thank you

    I do not understand much about this, perhaps a reader can tell us more about this Tamil custom?////

    i think there is not much in that..most of tamil families want baby boy than baby girl after marriage..by gods grace after they got baby boy they will like to grow long hair to him and dressing up him with girls dress..just a funny thing

  5. Sunanda Maldonado Says:

    Wonderful to be able to see this ceremony. Many years ago I attended Karuna and Devi’s wedding so it’s great to see their children. Ranjith was also a good friend. Please be kind enough to give him love and best wishes from Sunanda.
    As for Tamils dressing boy babies as girls, you could ask Usha (from the restaurant) as I remember her once dressing her older boy in skirts. Also some Brahmin friends of mine (priests at the Big Temple) showed me a studio portrait of the elder of their two boys dressed as a girl. In their case they did it because they had just had a second son and knew they wouldn’t have more children and they wanted a picture of a ‘daughter’.

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