We have always been interested in Tamil rites of passages, and have written about them many times. (See this page for a listing of these articles.) This ceremony, where the girl becomes a woman, known as Manjal Neerattu Vizha in Tamil, was different, though; it was for the daughter of close friends, Vennila and her sister, Lakshmi. These two strong women run their household without any men, just the two of them and their mother. Lakshmi never married; Vennila married a worthless man and divorced him (divorce is unusual in India). Without a man of the house, the women do everything, even the worship at the family altar. Again, in India a woman doing the family pooja is rare, but these women perform them all. There are two daughters in this household, both strong, smart girls.
We had been waiting for the oldest, Sushmita, to have her first menstrual cycle, so she would become a woman in the eyes of Tamil society. Then, one day recently, we got the call: Sushmita just had her period! This starts a cycle of more than one week where she is removed from her normal life. At the end of this cycle, she is officially a new woman of the family. We have written about this before in these articles: Tamil Coming of Age – Manjal Neerattu Vizha which shows a public function for the girl, and Age Attained Ceremony: a Girl becomes a Woman, Tiruvannamalai, show the many days of a private function in the family home.
In this posting we will shjow the celebrations on the first and last days of this rite of passage.
The First Day
Here is the family house, in a village adjacent to Tiruvannamalai.
Already gifts have been set out. These include food, as well as jewelry and sarees appropriate for a woman to wear. Sushmita could not wear sarees before this since she was “just a child.”
Sushmita’s younger sister, Sweta, being greeted by an auntie.
Sushmita before getting dressed for the day’s celebration. She is dressed in her school clothes.
Woman are lined up at the door, waiting to participate in the ritual bath. With these ceremonial rituals, all the relatives, and all the people present, participate in some part of them.
The ritual bath: Each woman pours water into the metal pan. It has holes so the water gives Sushmita a shower. There are special objects in the pan, like flowers and herbs.
One of the kids in attendance. We cannot take enough photos of these sweet, bright children.
Now the women of the family are getting Sushmita dressed and decorated for the day’s event.
Here she is, all decked out. What a wonderful array of flowers in her hair, cascading over her shoulders!
After she is all dressed up, Sushmita sits while each woman blesses her with a series of gestures, such as placing kumkum on her forehead, swirling of water in a ritual bowl, sprinkling with holy water, grains of rice tossed to each side of her, etc. Below, her grandmother, Alamelu, rubs a paste on her face and arms. Sandalwood? (Does a reader know?) Alamelu is the senior member of the household and family.
Afterward, everyone is served a meal. We eat on the roof, the only space large enough for all the people. There were many people at this function, most of her relatives, and almost every woman for the village. This is a big event!
Here is Sushmita after the ceremony. She is wearing her first saree, the mark of the transition to a woman. The sandalwood paste is still on her cheeks.
The Final Day
Eight days after the first event, the second celebration occurs, the “Turmeric Washing Ceremony.” It marks the end of Sushmita’s transition. After this, she is officially a woman.
We arrive at the house and Carol is greeted by Sweta.
Preparing vadas for the breakfast after the end of the ceremony.
In another room, women work, making ropes of flowers.
The are dressing Sushmita now. She stands in the midst of a crowd of women. They already have put the special headdress on her.
A woman sits with special jewelry that will be put on Sushmita today.
The Brahmin (from Ramanashramam), Dandapani, will perform today’s ceremony. He sits and waits for Sushmita. The pooja is all laid out, with a low bench for Sushmita to sit on. .
Underneath the bench is a spread of rice, betel leaves, and bananas.
Jewelry is being put onto Sushmita’s hair.
Here she is, ready for the pooja. How beautiful she looks.
She comes in to sit on the low bench. One of the aunties is still adjusting the flowers in her hair.
The pooja begins. You can see the headdress in this photo. It is typical of the one used both in these rites and in a marriage. It weighs a lot and looks a bit uncomfortable.
Sushmita sits for the pooja. She did not have enough flowers; now they have added an enormous flower mala around her neck.
Sushmita sits with a flower in her cupped hands. Auntie is giving her something, I can’t tell what. Does a reader know?
The priest has her knock her head. This is a part of the Ganesh pooja. This act helps to activate her nadis, channels of spiritual energy.
Flowers are in her hand.
To offer to the gods.
Her cousin’s brother’s wife, Smudi, adjusts her hair.
She offers a camphor flame to the gods.
And then takes the light into herself.
Now the priest is building a fire pit of bricks for the coming fire sacrifice, the homa.
Here is Sushmita’s mother, Vennila.
The priest is decorating the bricks.
Now three women, senior women of her family, take a camphor flame and put it into the fire pit. This is to start the homa fire.
Sushmita puts sacred wood into the fire, offering it to God (and building up the fire).
Her mother’s sister, almost her co-mother, Lakshmi, looks on.
Now the priest starts adding ghee to the fire. This will make it burn brightly.
The room is full of people, mainly women and children, looking on.
The fire is pretty big now. Sushmita has to be uncomfortable from the heat.
The room is full of onlookers.
Then the priest starts adding sacred grass to the fire. Boy, does it smoke!
The fire is still large, and now the room is filling with the smoke. This is hard on the poor girl at the center of everyone’s attention. And those of us watching.
Full of smoke now.
Towards the end of the ceremony, the priest takes a leaf, rubs ghee on it, and mixes in black ash from the homa fire.
An auntie dots Sushmita’s forehead and each of her feet with the black ash.
You can barely see what is going on for all the smoke!
At the end of the ceremony her mother, Vennila, will offer her a pooja plate.
She gives the plate to her daughter, who is now a woman, a young girl no longer.
She takes the pooja plate, accompanied by women of the family.
They then offer this pooja plate to the family altar. This is the first time Sushmita worships at the altar as a woman. She has been prohibited from the family altar for the last eight days.
Then pays respect to her family. First is her mother’s brother and wife, the senior family members here today.
Then to her cousin’s brother’s wife, and cousin’s sister, Meenakshi.
The family members honor Sushmita with holy water dropped on her head. Today Carol is a member of her family.
Finally comes the turmeric washing ceremony. Each woman who is here can participate. They each go through a ritual with several offerings, chief among them is rubbing her cheeks and arms with turmeric paste. It is the same ritual that was done on the first day of Sushmita’s celebration, but with turmeric rather than sandalwood. .
Carol participates too. Here she swirls holy water in front of her “daughter.”
And rubs turmeric on her face and arms.
Here comes grandma, to take her place in this ceremony.
Outside a boy sits on his bike, looking into the house, watching the activities.
Then it is time to eat. A meal is always offered to all who come.
Richard eats. Vennila stands in the doorway. The old lady sitting to Richard’s left is a homeless woman from the village. The family is happy to be able to offer her food to eat.
These ceremonies always touch my heart. You can see how they tie the members of the family to one another, and tie the family to the village. These Tamil families are extraordinarily strong. These rituals, rites of passage, are glue that binds the families together. We have lost much of this in the West. This is a deep loss.