Celebrating Milestones: Indian Rites of Passage Ceremonies
I didn’t have a traditional coming-of-age ceremony – I like to think I left my childhood behind when I got my first zit, freaked out about it, very vocally blamed it on my parents and then locked myself in my room for hours staring at it. (Honestly – sometimes I still handle zits that way).
Many South Asians, however, have much more upbeat ceremonies for children, from before they are even born to the time they become young adults. Most of these traditions and customs that have been passed down by our ancestors have a scientific reason, but some of them are for just for fun.
Also known as: shad, seemandham or valakappu)
Generally celebrated during the seventh or eighth month of pregnancy, this baby shower to bless the mom and baby with blessings and presents. A mash-up of a Westernized baby shower and a more traditional ceremony, these generally ladies-only events are filled with games, food, presents and a puja. More superstitious ceremonies only give gifts, such as bangles, for the mom and wait until after a healthy birth to give baby gifts.
A baby’s first non-milk food is celebrated by various parts of India, with a ceremony taking place around five to eight months, when teeth begin coming in. After a traditional puja and the tasting, symbolic objects—a book signifying learning, a pen symbolizing the arts, a toy stethoscope symbolizing the medical field—are laid out on a silver tray or banana leaf. Whichever item the child gravitates toward—my baby chose the pen, which made this writer incredibly happy—is thought of as his future career path.
Traditional Hindus often shave a child’s hair around the first birthday, symbolizing freedom from negativity from past lives. Some Hindus also believe that shaving the hair promotes brain growth and’s face it—the hair often comes back thicker and fuller.
In some parts of the country, particularly the Minicoy island off South India, babies’ heads are shaven when they are 20 days and the hair is weighed. Gold or silver of matching weight to the hair is given to charity.
Also known as: janeu, janoi, munja, punul and other variations
Traditionally the rite of passage before beginning formal education that included the teacher, the modern upanayana ceremony includes a boy, generally aged 8 to 12, receiving a thin sacred thread composed of three cotton strands to wear from shoulder to waist. Girls also sometimes undergo the ceremony, though its still more common for boys. The thread symbolizes something slightly different to different Indian regions—in Tamil Nadu, the strands represent the goddess trinity of Lakshmi, Parvati and Saraswati.
Ritu Kala Samskaram
Also known as: the half sari ceremony, Ritushuddhi, Langa Voni, Pavadai Dhavani or Langa Davani
Celebrated mostly in South India and Sri Lanka, this ceremony is performed when a girl wears a sari for the first time, celebrated after her first menstruation. Contemporary ceremonies include a girl’s family hosting a party where she is gifted a sari to change into for the second half of the ceremony, symbolizing her journey to womanhood.
In modern India and in Western countries to where Hindus have immigrated, this ceremony has often been criticized as an out-of-date fascination with girls’ and women’s fertility. I tended to agree with this, until a friend recently pointed out that it can also be seen as freely embracing menstruation in a society that often tells girls that it is something to be ashamed of or hide.
In the Telugu culture, when a baby rolls over his/her tummy the parents distribute bobbatlu (also known as puran poli, a tortilla stuffed with jaggery) to neighbors. They then make the baby roll over onto the sweets and celebrate the occassion with family and friends. Similarly, when a baby takes their first step, parents distribute ariselu (another type of a sweet, also known as Kajjaaya, Anarsa and Adhirasam).
Avani Nadkarni is a former journalist who currently works in tech PR and is forever navigating the tricky balance of trying to raise her child in the U.S. while teaching him about his Indian and Sri Lankan roots.