The importance and complexity of what we call “Ritual”
This post discusses the complexity of ritual, and how the term “symbol” does not do justice to ritual in Indian cultures. I believe it is inappropriate to use the word symbol because it radically separates the symbol from that which it stands for. No example demonstrates simultaneity (rather than symbol) better than the idea that women and the earth share “fertility” and are thus ‘dirty’. Woman is not a symbol of the earth, nor is the earth a symbol of woman….but both share fertility.
To illustrate this point and explain the importance of cultural rituals around childbirth, I’ve compiled examples of this phenonoma throughout India.
Himachal— A complex phenomenon of this region is ‘ritual pollution’, which declares that women should not go into the kitchen nor temples, mosques etc. during the postpartum period because they are ‘polluted’ or jooth. (this is throughout India, not just HP)
Jeeva research in Himachal Pradesh interviewed women postpartum in one village. Their explanation of notions of ‘pollution’ show that it is not just an individual phenomenon but is shared by the earth:
- “In our place we do not go to the fields to work after the prasoota (birth) was done. We consider it as jooth. That is why we have to inform all the villagers by announcing it to them”. (Rani Devi)
- “After the prasoota is done then we consider a jooth of 3 days in the village. After the birth is done no one from the village goes to the field to work. On the 3rd day after all the cleaning is done they go back in the fields to work”. (Sapna Devi)
Similarly in Belary District we heard that Hole Puja is not just worship, but also is a prayer to reduce the postpartum woman’s bleeding. (This is another reason women postpartum and menstruating are ‘dirty’—what is normally inside the body is now outside.) Women postpartum relate:
After delivery on the third day they do hole puje (they make a puja to reduce her dirt or bleeding). Then they do Gangamma's puja. They put chuttige (poking with the hot needle). They keep sickle, neem leaves and make puja. They make mutton curry and share it. (Durgama)
On the third day, they do hole puje (to stop bleeding). On that day, they keep kudugolu (sickle) and neem leaves and do puja. (Shanta)
The sickle was once used to cut the umbillical cord and now is used ritually along with neem leaves.
In this Pavra and Bhil adivasi(tribal) area both female and male dais (huarki and huarku) handle childbirths. Burdvu(local traditional healers or shaman) are specialists in casting the daana (seeds, usually of jowar). This ritual is of major importance in this site, both as an invocation to one or more deities as well as to divine the source and solution to any problem during labour, birth or afterwards. Postpartum women here reported the following about the disposal of the seeds or daana used in the rite.
We did the baara (removal of pollution) ritual after 7 days of the birth. My mother-in-law (a Dai) put the daana near the stand for drinking water and broke the nail of a little chick and put a mark of blood on the baby’s forehead.
The huaarki (dai) kept the seeds of black gram, jowar, small millets and okra. She wound a thread around a cowdung cake and kept it near the water stand. Then she broke the nail of a little chick and put a mark with its blood on the baby. She gave me the daane used in the puja and we gave that chick to the huaarki. On the 9th day when they sent me to the river to bathe, first I released those daane in the river and then Itook my bath.
In this area of Jharkhand, as in many other places, bathing is an intrinsic part of cleansing or purifying the mother post-partum.
On naarato (9thday) the Dai bathed me and my baby. The naai (barber) was called and he cut everyone's nails. On the same day oil was given to villagers. Then on ekoosa (21stday) she bathed both of us again and performed the soshthi puja with us in front of the banyan tree.
On the 7thday after prasov (birth) to purify the body they bathed me and the baby, but nothing after that. On the 40th day we called the maulana to perform the milaad and we kept the baby's name. All who had come were given food.