Author Archive

Coming of Age for Sushmita, a Tamil Village Girl, Manjal Neerattu Vizha

January 2, 2015

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.

DSC00243

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.”

036

041

Sushmita’s younger sister, Sweta, being greeted by an auntie.

061

Sushmita before getting dressed for the day’s celebration. She is dressed in her school clothes.

086

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.

097

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.

095

One of the kids in attendance. We cannot take enough photos of these sweet, bright children.

112

Now the women of the family are getting Sushmita dressed and decorated for the day’s event.

130

Here she is, all decked out. What a wonderful array of flowers in her hair, cascading over her shoulders!

159

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.

172

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!

185

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.

191

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.

DSC00245

Preparing vadas for the breakfast after the end of the ceremony.

DSC00249

In another room, women work, making ropes of flowers.

DSC00252

The are dressing Sushmita now. She stands in the midst of a crowd of women. They already have put the special headdress on her.

DSC00255

A woman sits with special jewelry that will be put on Sushmita today.

DSC00256

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. .

DSC00258

Underneath the bench is a spread of rice, betel leaves, and bananas.

DSC01830

Jewelry is being put onto Sushmita’s hair.

DSC01837

Here she is, ready for the pooja. How beautiful she looks.

DSC01845

She comes in to sit on the low bench. One of the aunties is still adjusting the flowers in her hair.

DSC00260

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.

DSC01847

Sushmita sits for the pooja. She did not have enough flowers; now they have added an enormous flower mala around her neck.

DSC00268

Sushmita sits with a flower in her cupped hands. Auntie is giving her something, I can’t tell what. Does a reader know?

DSC00272

She pranams.

DSC00279

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.

DSC01858

Flowers are in her hand.

DSC01866

DSC01871

To offer to the gods.

DSC00284

Her cousin’s brother’s wife, Smudi, adjusts her hair.

DSC01886

She offers a camphor flame to the gods.

DSC00302

And then takes the light into herself.

DSC00303

Now the priest is building a fire pit of bricks for the coming fire sacrifice, the homa.

DSC01892

Here is Sushmita’s mother, Vennila.

DSC01896

The priest is decorating the bricks.

DSC01898

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.

DSC00318

Sushmita puts sacred wood into the fire, offering it to God (and building up the fire).

DSC01907

Her mother’s sister, almost her co-mother, Lakshmi, looks on.

DSC01933

Now the priest starts adding ghee to the fire. This will make it burn brightly.

DSC00326

DSC00329

The room is full of people, mainly women and children, looking on.

DSC00335

The fire is pretty big now. Sushmita has to be uncomfortable from the heat.

DSC00336

The room is full of onlookers.

DSC00343

Then the priest starts adding sacred grass to the fire. Boy, does it smoke!

DSC00344

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.

DSC00355

Full of smoke now.

DSC00362

Towards the end of the ceremony, the priest takes a leaf, rubs ghee on it, and mixes in black ash from the homa fire.

DSC01942

An auntie dots Sushmita’s forehead and each of her feet with the black ash.

DSC01946

You can barely see what is going on for all the smoke!

DSC00379

At the end of the ceremony her mother, Vennila, will offer her a pooja plate.

DSC00387

She gives the plate to her daughter, who is now a woman, a young girl no longer.

DSC00388

She takes the pooja plate, accompanied by women of the family.

DSC00392

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.

DSC00397

Sushmita stands.

DSC00398

Then pays respect to her family. First is her mother’s brother and wife, the senior family members here today.

DSC00399

Then to her cousin’s brother’s wife, and cousin’s sister, Meenakshi.

DSC00401

The family members honor Sushmita with holy water dropped on her head. Today Carol is a member of her family.

DSC00406

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. .

DSC00411

Carol participates too. Here she swirls holy water in front  of her “daughter.”

DSC01960

And rubs turmeric on her face and arms.

DSC00424

Here comes grandma, to take her place in this ceremony.

DSC01966

Outside a boy sits on his bike, looking into the house, watching the activities.

DSC00427

Then it is time to eat. A meal is always offered to all who come.

DSC00429

DSC00433

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.

DSC01967

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.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 531 other followers

%d bloggers like this: