The Hindu Indian tradition of holding an occasion for girls who got her first period is an ancient tradition.
Factually, this occasion is held to promulgate that there is a girl in the house eligible to marry and potential suitors can come and ask her hand for marriage. This ritual is also done to rid ‘dhosham’ or bad aura and energy so that the girl will live well and have a happy life in matrimony.
Originally, this ritual was held in an austere fashion, only family members attend and the girl is bathed, anointed, wrapped in colourful saris and trappings. Then she is made to sit on a stool and married ladies would perform rituals for the girl. The ritual is known as sadanggu and it is conducted so that the maiden would have a wholesome life, be blessed with a good husband and bear lots of children. The girl is also told to renounce her playful and brazen ways and be bashful because she is now a woman. In the Tamil movie ‘Kaadhal’ (Love), the heroine would realize her femininity after she gets her first period and falls in love immediately after that.
In those days, girls generally got their first periods when they were 14 to 17. So, they have only few years left before marriage – a 25 year old woman is considered left on the shelf in that era. I watched a Tamil movie where a girl got her period when she turned 23 and a lavish coming of age ceremony was thrown. Accordingly to the age, the coming of age ceremony is warranted – the tacit message conveyed is any man can come and ask the parents of the girl if they will give their daughter to be his wife or the girl would be married off to her mom’s brother’s son or her father’s sister’s son. Such marriages are conducted in order to keep family ties close.
Girls these days reach puberty when they are 10 to 12 years old. I had a friend who got her first period when she was 9 years old. The acceleration of puberty in girls is due to the food we eat these days – foods infused with growth hormones. When young girls consume such foods, they mature more quicker physical wise unlike their mothers and grandmothers.
Most Indian women marry late in this era – years after puberty. They get educated, build careers, own property and vehicles, have a bank balance and their own aspirations. The girls of today will be the women of tomorrow and they are only going to get more advanced.
With that said, holding the coming of age ceremony in order to marry girls off is no longer relevant. Some Indian girls make a ruckus that they don’t want such a ceremony that publicize their puberty. They reckon that the tradition is obsolete. Those girls with dhosham, have this ceremony incestuously – within the closest members of the family. For others, sadanggu is performed when the girl is about to get married – 2 days before the wedding, a ceremony known as nalunggu is held and for those girls who did not undergo sadanggu, they will be subjected to it in the nalunggu ceremony.
For parents with many daughters, sadanggu is usually skipped unless there is bad boding dhosham surrounding the girls – a simple ceremony would be held to alleviate the planetary bad influence.
I recently attended my niece’s coming of age function. My 11 year old niece was all dolled up like an Indian bride and her aunts on her mother’s side came and brought lots of sweets, chocolates, girlish niceties, saris and gold jewels. It was a happy event and the eldest brother of the girl shed tears of happiness, seeing his only baby sister being celebrated.
Nowadays, this ceremony has become a platform for parents to show how much they love their daughter and what they can do for her. From printing coming of age invitation cards to live concerts in the occasion, this ceremony has been commercialized.
In the age when the sari won’t even stay on the girls’ waist, they are made to sit and have sandalwood and turmeric paste smeared on their cheeks and lower arms. But again, it is good to hold such rituals because it augurs well for the girl but nowadays the ceremony has underwent many newfangled changes. In those days, this ceremony would be held as soon as the girls’ first period has stopped – in a week or so, after a time frame of seclusion but nowadays, the ceremony would be postponed to the convenience of the parents – to get stuff prepared for the ceremony.
Below is how the ceremony is typically conducted:
The Indian coming of age ceremony starts, when the girl’s first menstruation begins, with a period of ritual seclusion. The girl sits separately on a wooden plank in a corner. Neighborhood women gather for a ceremonial meal that is served on banana leaves, after which they paint the girl’s feet with a mixture of red ochre, turmeric and limestone. This nalanggu ceremony is enacted in the same manner whether the occasion is the first menstruation, as part of wedding festivities, or the celebration of a woman’s pregnancy.
For ritual seclusion, a hut is made of fresh leaves, from leaves of coconut, neem and mango, among others. This hut may be either inside or outside the house. The hut is furnished with all the things needed by the girl, including toiletries, clothing and vessels. Food is brought to her, and she takes complete rest. She is helped by other women while bathing. Daily bathing alternates between ‘head-bath’ and ‘ordinary bath.’ When she goes to the toilet, she must carry neem leaves and something made of iron, to ward off evil spirits. Special foods are prescribed for this seclusion, which is continued for 9, 11 or 13 days (it must be an odd number of days).
The third and final part is the lavish public function, where the men folk and friends are all invited. The girl’s maternal uncles are supposed to gift her richly. The girl gets her first sari, which is made out of silk. The girl’s grandparents are supposed to gift her saris. The girl wears the saris for the first time on this day. Gifts are also given by family friends. Elaborate pujas are performed, both at home and in the public function.
The young woman is dressed almost like a bride, with a silk sari, and much gold jewelry. Some say that this function is the announcement of a marriageable woman, and serves as notice to prospective husbands and their families of a bridal possibility.
Now, let’s look at the superstition that surrounds this lengthy ceremony:
During the seclusion, the girl is instructed not to look at birds on an empty stomach, not to go out alone, and especially not to go into the pooja (prayer) room. She is warned not to leave leftover food where dogs could get it, because she would get a stomach ache if a dog ate the leftovers. Further restrictions symbolize her ritually dangerous status: she should not touch flowering plants (they might wilt), and she should not touch stored food items such as tamarind, rice or salt, which might be spoiled by her contact. The girl is relieved of the seclusion only after a purification ritual which is the second step in the ritual process.
Later in life, girls are forbidden from entering temples, go to the prayers room in the house and get close to newborn babies when they menstruate.
These minute details associated with the custom is on the wane now as modern day practicality assume priority especially in urban areas. This ceremony is often dismissed and labeled dispensable these days as privacy becomes an issue of busy lives. Working mothers and nuclear families are putting paid to this custom and in some cases the girl is sent to school as usual after being taught how to manage menstruation because her absence would evoke questions on behalf of her non Indian classmates and teachers.
When I told about what my folks did to me during my absence from school, I got incredulous responses; I was asked whether I got engaged then married. It was highly difficult for me to explain to them why Indians make a huge deal about a natural human development – it was embarrassing to say the least.
In order to avert such doubts, inquisitorial prodding and awkwardness which I hope this article cleared , this ceremony is now being held during weekends or school holidays, pre-planned and well organized. Sometimes, if there is more than one daughter in the family, the ceremony would be held for all daughters at once especially if the age gap is close.
So, when it comes to the question of this ceremony being relevant today depends on affordability, time factor, status symbol and mostly convenience. Kids these days are much smarter than generations before them and they know what they want exactly and parents are asking for their daughters’ consent if they want to proceed with the ceremony or not.
Tradition has taken many new glittery faces and the coming of age ceremony is not an exception. I feel it is good if boys undergo this kind of ritual as well but I know it is wishful thinking!