Indian birth rituals
by Soundararajan, Anasuya
In an Indian household, as with all cultures, the arrival of a new baby is an occasion for celebration. The traditional ceremonies start before the baby is born and may continue for up to a year after birth. Various rituals and customs mark this period of time.
Valaikaapu, or the pre-natal bangles ceremony, is performed during the seventh month of the mother’s first pregnancy. The pregnant mother returns to her parents’ home and remains there until one to three months after the baby is born.1 At this ceremony, the expectant mother dons her wedding saree and jewellery and sits on a special dais. Close female relatives perform the nalangu, which entails placing sandalwood paste on the mother’s arm and flowers in her hair. They also place thilagam, or a red dot of saffron powder, on her forehead and sprinkle rose water on her.2 They adorn her arms with glass bangles (valayal) of all colours and designs and sing songs wishing beautiful children to be born to her.3 Towards the end of the ceremony, the bangles are given to female guests and the expectant mother is blessed by the elders.4 This seventh-month pregnancy ritual is also known as the simantam.5
The confinement period for the Indian woman after she gives birth is 40 days. She spends this period at her parents’ house, especially if it is her first child, so that she receives the best care and gets enough rest, as all meals would be prepared for her.6 Further, she may feel more comfortable with her own mother.7 During this period, the new mother may be given oil massages to tone her body.8 The confinement diet would usually comprise fish, green vegetables and milk. Ghee is sometimes used to prepare meals, as it is believed to improve the quality of breastmilk.9 The special dishes prepared include dishes with more ginger and garlic, which is believed to help get rid of “wind”.10 On the 11th day, a ceremony known as the punya dhanam to cleanse the house is conducted by a priest who chants prayers and sprinkles holy water in the house.11
Thottil and namakarana
A cradle, or thottil, ceremony is performed usually on the 10th, 11th, 12th or 16th day of the baby’s birth to signify the baby’s independence from his or her mother.12 In this ceremony, a black spot is put on the baby’s forehead to ward off evil.13 Some also hold a prayer ceremony asking the goddess Periyachi to bless and protect the child. The naming ceremony, or namakarana, is sometimes conducted on the same day.14 While some families might consult an astrologer for a suitable name for the baby, others might choose an ancestor’s name, or name their child after their favourite Hindu deity.15 On this occasion, relatives and friends are invited to celebrate the baby’s birth and usually present the baby with cash gifts or jewellery.16
Annaprasana is the ceremony in which the baby first tastes solid food and usually takes place about six months after birth. The ceremony can be held either at home with the assistance of a priest or at the temple. The goddess Lakshmi, who symbolises wealth and prosperity, is invoked, and after praying for the good health of the baby, the father feeds it with a sweet rice pudding, payasam.16 The pudding is made from mashing and sweetening rice cooked with milk.
Between the first and third years after the child’s birth, the ceremonial shaving of hair – a ritual known as the mudi irakkuthal or choodakarna – is performed.17 Shaving symbolises the letting go of one’s vanity and is said to promote the healthy growth of hair. On the chosen auspicious day, the child sits on the father’s lap while his or her hair is shaved. Mantras for long life, health and prosperity for the child are also chanted. The ritual is usually done in the temple, and some Hindus choose to do it during the Thaipusam festival at the Sri Dhandayuthapani Temple.18
1. S. V. Krishnan, “When a Child Is Born,” Straits Times, 24 July 1987, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “A Matter of Tradition,” Straits Times, 6 April 1990, 25. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Srivatsa, “Pre-natal Ceremonies,” Straits Times, 16 July 1982, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Krishnan, “When a Child Is Born.”
5. Tham Seong Chee, Religion and Modernization: A Study of Changing Rituals among Singapore’s Chinese, Malays and Indians (Singapore: G. Brash, 1985), 78–79 (Call no. R 301.295957 THA); Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger, Everyday Hinduism (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2015), 170. (Call no. 294.5 FLU)
6. “Gifts of Gold for Girls, While Boys Get Clothes,” Straits Times, 24 September 1997, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “The Indians,” Straits Times, 17 August 1989, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “Gifts of Gold for Girls.”
9. “Gifts of Gold for Girls.”
10. “The Indians.”
11. “The Indians”; Tham, Religion and Modernization, 78–79.
12. “The Indians”; Srivatsa, “Naming the New Born,” Straits Times, 20 August 1982, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “The Indians.”
14. Srivatsa, “Naming the New Born.”
15. Srivatsa, “Naming the New Born.”
16. “Gifts of Gold for Girls.”
17. Srivatsa, “Feeding of Rice,” Straits Times, 11 February 1983, 16 (From NewspaperSG); Tham, Religion and Modernization, 78–79.
18. Srivatsa, “Feeding of Rice”; Srivatsa, “Hindu Rites to Attain Purity and Prosperity in Life,” Straits Times, 12 August 1988, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article is valid as at November 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.