Tuesday, February 10, 2009

CONCHSHELLS AND BANANAS: THE BENGALI WAY OF BIRTH

The blare of conchshells, children beating on winnows, a pigtailed Brahmin priest squishing bananas into a bowl of milk: Those were my childhood memories of the mysterious things that happened when babies were expected. When I grew older, I realized that there was a method to the seeming madness of these rites and ceremonies prescribed for pregnant mothers down through the centuries.
There are almost as many birthing customs as there are dialects in India. Each state and each community has its own set, although modernism has ended many. Gone are the days when women, like my mother, had me at home and was then segregated for a month in the antur ghar (delivery room). Still, there are several customs, which I saw used before and after the birth of my nephew last year in Bengal where I live.
One of the most popular customs is the ritual of swad (taste or longing). When childbirth was a potentially dangerous process with no certainty of the mother's survival, the swad ceremony was a way of ensuring that the pregnant mother had nothing left to desire before she went into labour, whether it was special food, clothes, or jewelry. It was also a way of making sure that she was well fed and strengthened for the potentially dangerous event. The swad, which revolves around a lunch, is held in the ninth month of pregnancy, on a day set aside for the purpose in the panjika (almanac of auspicious days). Before gynecologists the date involved a certain amount of guesswork and some mothers had to be rushed into labour before their longings could be fulfilled.
Some pregnant women will have three swads -- one thrown by their aunt, one by their mother and one by their mother-in-law. The guest list must include five married women, the rest can be whomever the girl chooses. The expectant mother wears an elaborate new sari and jewelry given to her for the occasion by the swad's hostess. Specially prescribed food is set out in front of her on a huge silver platter including a cooked fish's head -- one of the most auspicious foods in the Bengali calendar of rituals -- five types of fried food, including banana fritters -- the banana is also auspicious -- and a mix of vegetables called shukto. The first mouthful that she takes has to include a pinch of everything on the platter and as she puts it into her mouth, the conchshells blow alerting the gods that the swad has begun and a future mother is now under their care. The mother's meal ends with payesh, a sweetened dish of rice and condensed milk. Today some swads include Western foods -- glazed ham, mutton en croute and lemon soufflé -- taking the meaning of the ritual into account, rather than its letter. While the mother-to-be is eating, a child is put on her lap -- a boy or girl depending on which gender the couple desire -- and shares the meal with her. Since the advent of ultrasounds which can detect gender, this custom is sometimes no longer observed.
Before the swad ceremony, on another auspicious day, some families celebrate a ritual called the Panchamrita or five nectars ceremony ensured to nourish the mother-to-be. The expectant mother at nine months is fed the five amritas or nectars described in the Hindu sacred books: wild honey, unpasteurised milk, sweetened yogurt, clarified butter and sugar. A special puja (prayer) is performed on her behalf, and that of the child, in the temple with a little of the panchamrita taken from the ceremony. For the day's remainder the expectant mother is allowed to consume only fruit and milk.
Such rituals aside, childbirth calls for cheating the gods and make them believe no baby is expected, so ensuring a safer delivery. There are so no overt signs of preparation made for the baby; no new clothes bought or bedding made. From birth up to age three all babies have their foreheads smudged with kajal (charcoal) since black averts the evil eye. After a session of excessive compliments, the baby's maid might burn chilies in a brazier sending out clouds of stinging smoke to blind the eyes of the evil gods and send them scurrying away. As soon as the baby's birth time has been accurately documented, a horoscope is cast. If the stars predict ill luck, a gold talisman filled with sacred herbs is tied around the baby's wrist with a matching amulet for the mother. The baby also wears an iron bangle around its wrist symbolizing protection and strength
A ceremony called Aathkarhai (eight woks) takes place when the baby is eight days old since eight is one of the auspicious numbers in the Hindu sacred books. This ceremony is in honour of Ma Sashthi, goddess of childbirth and children, and takes place in the new mother's home. A winnowing tray is upturned and tied down at the four corners with sacred thread. Eight children are invited to pelt as hard as they can the tray with nuts and puffed rice, so that all evil spirits can be threshed out of the place and so, it is implied out of the baby. The winnowing tray is then torn to shreds and the pieces carefully disposed of so. Eight small woks filled with fried nuts, grain and puffed rice are then given away to the eight children. During this time, the mother and baby are, at least theoretically, confined to the nursery quarters and not allowed to move freely around the house. The reason for this segregation was the high infant mortality prevalent in the bad old days.
After the first month the probability of survival was considered higher leading to the ceremony of Sasthi. All the clothes that the baby and mother wore during their confinement are thrown away and both get a new wardrobe, courtesy of the mother in-law. Wearing their new clothes, both mother and infant go to the temple to pray to Ma Sashthi. A priest performs a special puja, which includes molding from mud a small artificial tank, or pond filled with milk. The priest asks Ma Sashthi to ensure that the mother's milk supply be as plentiful as the milk stored within the artificial pond. Some 21 packets made from sal leaves are filled with puffed rice, betel leaves, areca nuts and coins are distributed to 21 children. A trousseau, including food and the obligatory fish is sent to the new mother's house by her husband. This is to ensure that he does his part in looking after his wife and child and shows consideration for his in-laws.
The last birth ritual is the annaprasha (rice eating ceremony) when the baby is six or seven months old and first allowed to eat human food. The baby, formally dressed as a bride or a bridegroom, sits on the mother's lap and is offered a tray which contains certain ritual objects: a lump of earth, a sacred book, a pen and a silver coin. If the baby first picks up the pen it means that he/she will be fond of studies; the earth signifies fertility and prosperity, the money wealth and the sacred book religion. Some babies are allowed two dips. After a puja, the baby's mother dips a gold ring in a bowl of payesh and the ring is given to the baby to suck. This is followed by tiny pinches of fish, shukto and sweetened yogurt. These ceremonies take place during the day. At night, guests are invited to dinner and the baby is introduced to the wider world of society. With this last ceremony mother and child are firmly settled in the world and free to lead their lives as they please.
By Anjana Basu
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