28 November, 2013

The TamBrahm Series Part 8 - Valaikaapu and Seemantham Part 2

(Image courtesy : suga-namasivayam.blogspot.com via Google)

We left Edition One open ended, balanced rather delicately, with a lady who is eight months pregnant, wrapped and trussed in a 9 yard sari, with probably more than a dozen bangles on each of her arms, desperately needing a visit to the washroom.
Trust me when I say that situation would qualify for shows like America’s Got Talent because that show looks for novelty, creativity and the element of danger.  The situation that was described in the paragraph above meets all three requirements and then some. 
Let’s just assume that the expectant mother managed a visit to the washroom and back without any tucks and knots on the madisaar coming loose or better still, coming off.   Given the fact that she cannot, for the life of her, look at or see her own feet, those visits to the washroom are no less taxing than that of Houdini performing one of his escape acts.  Houdini’s acts would have been a lot easier to execute, truth be told.
Anyways, let’s move on to the actual Seemantham bit.
The priests would have arrived and they would be making all the necessary noises to show or prove to people that they are really busy and that they mean business.  One person would be sent looking for a pot of ghee (clarified butter) for the homan (auspicious fire) and another person or persons would be sent looking for things that would not have been on the original list of things given by the priest .  This is an absolute must.  The last minute “making people run around for things” bit.   This would result in a mini or a huge confusion (depending on the things demanded) and is a given at virtually any TamBrahm function.  I remember one particular incident involving priests wherein they did not bring in the cowdung cakes (yes ! you heard me right ! – the said cakes are not meant for edible consumption though.  They are used to stoke the holy fire.  Don’t you go asking why.  Cowdung cakes (called varali in Tamil) have always been used for holy fires and the premise probably is that cowdung has always been considered as something that removes impurities or some such.  Now how on Earth that happens, is completely beyond me.  I mean, it is what it is.  So then, how does it become something that purifies stuff.  Also, going by the same premise, how is that privilege conferred only on cows ?  Earth is full of scores of animals but cows hold a position privileged enough to have their bodily excretions touted as the best thing that happened to mankind ? 
There, I digressed again …… coming back to the topic on hand …..
The expectant mother, in the meanwhile, would be having her ensemble completed.  Alongwith an armful of bangles, the 9 yards sari, her neck full of chains and necklaces, she would now be further decked with a whole load of flowers on her head and a huge garland around her neck.  The idea here is all round fitness, people. 
The expectant mother has to keep her muscles toned and it is better that she stays fit because it helps with labour.  Sitting down and getting up at that stage of pregnancy without the help of pulleys or cranes, are achievements in themselves.  Ladies, at that stage of pregnancy, usually forget what the word “walking” stands for.  I, for instance, used to waddle around, pretty much swaying from side to side (not like trees in a typhoon – don’t you exaggerate, people) in a desperate attempt to maintain a semblance of balance.  During my second pregnancy, Macadamia, who was around 3 ½ years old, used to refer to me as “the penguin”.  So there – I leave the rest to your fantastically fertile powers of imagination.
Hence, with all the aforesaid contraptions in place, the lady who, by now, would be unable to lift her head or turn her neck or move her arms freely or walk freely, would be helpfully asked to sit on the floor, next to her husband (of course !).  The minute she’s managed to sit on the floor, some or the other elderly relative would walk in for the function and the expectant parents would be asked to stand up and prostrate before them.  Speaking from personal experience, it would be good to have a crane (not the one that flies) handy during seemanthams – given the number of times the expectant mother needs to get up and sit down.  I’ve always believed that the whole seemantham thing is a traditional gym in disguise !  
The focus of the seemantham prayers again are said to be vibrations.  Now these vibrations are said to be directed towards a large copper pot which would be filled with water to the brim.  Some mango leaves would cover the mouth of the pot and a coconut would then be placed on the leaves.  This water is said to absorb all the goodness from the prayers and the chants during the function.
Now,  sometime during the prayers, the expectant mother would be asked,  rather helpfully, to change into an old cotton sari or some such.  Once she’s managed (ably assisted by half the world who would take it upon themselves to comment on the size or shape of her belly or some such helpful conversation points) , she would be asked to sit on a small wooden plank in the bathroom.  Don’t get ideas !!  This is because all that water in the copper pot which has absorbed all the strength from the prayers, are meant for the expectant mother.  No !  She is not expected to drink it !  The water is poured on her.  It is pretty much like bathing under a beautiful waterfall, with half the world watching you !!!
If the Seemantham is in winter, it is even better because this water would have been stored in the copper pot early in the morning.  It would be sitting in that copper pot, getting colder by the minute and by the time the whole thing is poured on the expectant mother, the water would be uncomfortably cold.  Rather helpfully, no warm water or hot water is added to that copper pot before the water is poured on the mother to be.  The premise here, it seems, is that the cold water makes the baby in the womb shake and jerk from the stimulation of cold water and that is supposed to be good and is assumed to prepare the infant for birth.  I distinctly remember how cold the water was, given that our Seemantham was in November and yes, I remember shaking and jolting but Macadamia stayed put – fast asleep, I guess.  Her sleep was important to her then too and I’d say that kid has her priorities right !!  Good on you, Macadamia !!  Thank the good lord they don’t call upon those electric zappo things they use in hospitals to revive heart rhythms, to jolt and shake the baby, in case cold water doesn’t do the trick !! 
Come to think of it, things must be much worse in places with water scarcity.  The water would be stored the previous night or something and would be extra cold.  Or, looking at the positive, the quantity of water would probably be less.  In extreme cases, there are always bottles of Bisleri to depend on ! 
Once the expectant mother is sufficiently doused in cold water, she then has to change back into her 9 yards sari with all the other contraptions that I mentioned at the beginning of the post.  To add to her discomfort, her hair would be wet too, from all that water.   
Then begins the fairly long homam, offerings made to the God of Fire, chanting and recitation of more mantras and prayers for the well being of the mother to be and the unborn child.  In the midst of all these proceedings, there would come a time when the expectant mother is expected (sorry ! pun not intended) to control her reflexes and instincts.  A couple of little girls are called upon and asked to crush some special berries or some tender bit of a banana tree (I’m not too sure)  with a pestle and mortar.  Nowadays though, no one knows what is crushed – not the expectant parents and most definitely not the little girls doing the crushing.  The priest then adds something that looks suspiciously like milk (turns out it is !) and the expectant father (can’t we call him that ?) is asked to use the tip of a silk cloth (did I hear you ask “why silk”?  Answer to this one too is “I’ve no idea”), dip the silk cloth in that milk and then he is asked to squeeze droplets of milk into the expectant mother’s nostril.  Now comes the interesting part.  She is asked to inhale the droplets because those drops are supposed to make their way to her womb (how things – especially liquids – travel from the nostril to the womb is totally beyond me, truth be told.  Is there some secret passageway that no one knows about ?  Mysterious, nonetheless !) and cleanse impurities or some such theory.  As personal experience proved, human beings are ruled by reflexes and instincts and when someone tries to get liquid in through the nostrils, the age old instinct is to sneeze …. and I did !!  If all that cold water hadn’t roused Macadamia, that sneeze was sure to have jolted her awake.  Fortunately they did not try that circus act on me again.  I guess that one sneeze had jolted the priest’s pacemaker as well. 
Once all the chanting and prayers are done and over with, the expectant father is excused to sit around and relax while the expectant mother still has ceremonies to “undergo”.  Just to clarify something here – which one of them is pregnant – as in actually carrying a 3 ish kilo baby inside of themselves ? 
The next part of the function is for the ladies only, I’ve been told.  Men, especially the expectant father, are not allowed into the room when this function is on.  Don’t ask me why – that is turning into a question that does not seem to have answers.  Now, everybody knows that at 8 months of pregnancy, the tummy tends to be quite big.  What the other ladies in the family now do, is quite funny.  They tie (or rather, they try to tie) a normal size towel onto the expanded waistline of the mom to be.  I’m not talking about the large beach towels here.  I’m talking about those special versions that are used as bath towels in Kerala.  They are much thinner than beach towels and conveniently, smaller too.  While this works beautifully from an environment point of view, it fails miserably from an 8 month pregnant lady’s point of view. 
Since the said towel has to be new, there was a mini confusion during my seemandham as some elderly ladies had to go hunting for another new towel.  They somehow managed to get that contraption on and tied a knot at the back.  So there I was, clad in my madisaar, huge as a whale, head full of flowers and yellow rice, with two white towels around my abundant waist.  The mother in law then has to put in a whole lot of neiyappams (a sweet dumpling fried in clarified butter) and steamed sweet dumplings (kozhukattais) into those towels which would have been turned into a bag of sorts.  All the while, as she puts in a neiyappam, she has to say appam – time and again.  Same goes for the steamed dumpling – when she puts one in, she has to keep saying kozhukattai.  One would think people would know the difference between an appam and a kozhukattai !!  Apparently not !  The elders then proceed to tie the other two ends around the waist as well, so that the bag is effectively sealed. 
A little child is then called and asked to pick one from that “by now huge” towel bag and asked to pick one thing out.  I mean, when you have two things which are as different in texture as can be, even a child would know how exactly to pick out what they like to eat – the not so soft appams with their crisp edges or the silky softness of the kozhukattais.  Depending on what the child picks from “the bag”, all the mamis around “decipher” the sex of the unborn child, I was told.  I’ve always wondered why they don’t take it a step further.  I mean, they could also try and figure out how the baby would look and more importantly, who it would look like.  They could do jalebis and mysore paks to figure out who the eyes would look like.  Laddoos and Badushahs could be used to figure out the shape of the ears.  Creativity, people.  Creativity !!!
Now comes the best part.  While the expectant mother is standing there, feeling abundantly glorious, what with a huge towel full of appams and kozhukattais too tied around her middle, ladies in the family bring out coins.  There is a certain number to the coins and these are strategically placed on the head, on the shoulders, inside the folds of the madisaar, on the feet etc and the expectant mother has to stand still – so that none of these coins fall off. 
After all the coins have been placed and the expectant mother admired by all the ladies present there, she is asked to prostrate before the ladies and do a namaskaram.  You imagine that is difficult ?  Well, just about anything is difficult in that state J.  I personally found the whole situation rather haplessly hilarious during my Seemantham and I started laughing hilariously.  People seemed pretty sure I’d lost it.  Some ladies even shushed me and tutted impatiently, saying one is not supposed to laugh at times like these. 
Once the fallen coins are collected and once the mother to be has been tickled enough in the process of hands trying to extract coins from the folds of the madisaar, she is once again asked to sit down on the floor.  A banana leaf is spread in front of her and just as she expects food to be served (I mean, after all those body bending activities through the morning, she must undoubtedly be hungry, right ?), children from all corners of the building are brought in and asked to sit in front of her, around her and all the other prepositions that one can think of – except above, below and under !!  If that little stunt is supposed to put an element of fear in the expectant mother’s mind and enlighten her (in some weird way) to the fact that bringing a child up is no child’s play, it fails rather miserably in its quest, I must say.  For, all that she is looking for right then, is some food and a place to put her feet up and relax (in that order).  She is simply not in a mood, nor does she have the energy to figure out implied meanings – not right then !
During my seemandham, I remember staring in horror as a huge (I mean really huge) mound of rice was piled on to the banana leaf in front of me.  “They can’t possibly expect me to eat all this” I remember thinking to myself in growing disbelief.  That rice was equivalent to what I probably eat over three days.  I was still staring at the mound of rice, wide eyed and shell shocked when another mami walked in with a huge bucket of something – yes, it was a steel bucket.  She then proceeded to ladle out copious amounts of yellow dal onto that huge mountain of rice on the banana leaf which sat in front of me.  Another mami rushed in and started mixing the rice and the dal together. 
I stared in absolute mute horror and wondered if I was going to have to suffer the ignominy of being fed, as the mami in question started to roll up the rice/dal mixture into huge balls.  “These are the kind of balls used to feed elephants” I remember thinking to myself, with a growing sense of apprehension.  There appeared another mami like the proverbial genie, with a huge basket of fried pappaddams and right then, I almost wanted to cry.  I mean, having been through all the acrobatics the morning had thrown my way, I was going to be fed rice, dal and pappadams – that too, rice balls the size of cannonballs ??!! 
Turns out they were not for me, after all.  I was asked to hold one pappadam and one of the mamis placed a huge cannonball of rice/dal on the pappadam and I was asked to hand it to the kids sitting around me, one by one.  Truth be told, they did not look too enamoured at the prospect of eating that either.  When there is a whole feast in the offing, which kids in their right minds would want to eat rice/dal and pappadam ? 
Fortunately for me and the kids around me, that was about the last of the “rituals” that a Seemantham comprised of.  I was rather voraciously hungry and by then, sitting down on the floor seemed like a piece of cake (given the fact that I’d done that umpteen number of times that morning).  Once I sat down, banana leaves were spread in front of us and the delicacies that are a part of a traditional saddhi / feast started to arrive and be served on the banana leaf.  The aroma was doing wonders and just then, I realised the predicament I was in.  With my huge tummy, I simply could not reach all ends of the banana leaf !!!  I tried stretching myself like a rubber band.  Bad idea !!  While I stared at all that wholesome deliciousness, unable to reach them, the people serving lunch proved extremely empathetic.  They plopped a bowl at the far end of the banana leaf, for payasam to be served in.  If I could not reach the banana leaf itself, how on Earth was I going to reach a bowl that was beyond it ???!!!  I felt like one of those people that take part in apple bobbing competitions during Halloween.  Only difference being, those people are never as hungry as I was at that point of time, that day. 
A whole load of jingling bangles and all, I did (ably assisted by the expectant father) manage to gobble up all those delicacies on the banana leaf.  Sigh !  It somehow made all the acrobatics from the morning seem worthwhile.
On that note, ends the edition about Valaikaapu and Seemantham.  
Stay tuned for the next one …… customs and traditions when the expectant mother is escorted to her parents’ place, in preparation and anticipation of the delivery of the first child.

3 voice(s) said so:

Supriya Kabra said...

thats so much thing happening on a single day. how do they expect a 8 month preg woman to endure all this.. call it stamina building, i guess! hearing ur story, m scared too... u knw wht, though m not a TamBrahm but Marwari have their own whole set of rituals and they r no less!!

Gauri said...

Hi Supriya,

Thanks for stopping by :-). Yes, TamBrahm functions are quite tiring :-). I would love to hear about the functions and rituals in the Marwari community too.
Do keep reading :-)
Cheers !

Rajesh said...

Ms. Gauri, I appreciate your blog on seemantham-valaikappu and the satirical manner by which you have portrayed the difficulties faced by the pregnant woman. However, it is sarcastic at times, criticizing the rich culture and traditions of the Brahmin Community. It would have been better if you had tried to consult well-informed person who is aware of the significance of the Sastras behind such rituals and made an attempt to understand it's significance before you had started writing your blog, which, doesn't seem to be the case here. If one has to disbelieve and start criticizing a ritual / belief, then there is no end to it. Most of these customs and practices must have been initiated at a time when all Brahmin women would have been wearing sarees on all days (my guess!); Modern day changes in attires and lifestyles have led to believing that even wearing a saree is a challenge! Since most of the present generation women like yourself seem to give more priority to the comfort part of life, all such traditions and customs will only fade away and we will all end up losing our identity, without realizing it's value and the purpose of our births, as per the sastras will never be realized. While I agree 100% that no human being should be forced onto something that is against one's will, it is equally important for everyone to respect their customs and practices and not openly criticize the same without suggesting a solution / way forward. Request you to give a thought on the same. Best Regards, Rajesh Natarajan