Coming of age ceremony is not only Indian culture monopoly – it exists in many cultures, namely Japanese, Korean, Mayan, and most popularly, Jewish where the ceremony is held for both girls and boys unlike Indians who only hold puberty ceremony for girls.
Of late, Hindu Indian puberty ceremonies here are held with such grandeur and pomp and splendour that they look like pre wedding ceremonies. My bone to pick with is, ‘Is such a splurge necessary?”
The original way and reasons for Indian Hindu puberty ceremony
Now, let’s look at why girls who have started menstrual cycle are subjected to confinement for a period of time and later the puberty ceremony known in Tamil as sadanggu:
For those who didn't pay attention in science and Biology class, the immature ovum or egg cells (the biggest cells in the human body) in the ovaries of a female human mature and released into the Fallopian tubes. When the ovum is not fertilized, it dies and is discarded from the uterus along with endometrium tissue that lines the uterus via the vagina in a menstrual cycle of 28 days. This purge is known is known as menstruation or more colloquially, period or euphemistically, the time of the month. The puberty ceremony in Indian culture represents the feminine energy and the female generative power. The girl is considered to have reached maturity when she starts to menstruate and takes upon an enhanced status. Although a boy’s transition into manhood is considered automatic, a girl who haven't started menstruating is considered not to have reached “full” womanhood. Hence, the ceremony praises the transformation of a young girl into a woman who is ready for marriage and ultimately childbearing. The seclusion a girl is put in after she gets her first period is to have her to rest completely for she might have menstrual cramps or other ailments that would worsen should she mingle freely. The girl is given highly nutritious food to strengthen her uterus and body in early preparation for childbirth and to ease menstrual cramps. The foods include raw/half boiled eggs, sesame seed oil, urad dhal (ulunthu) porridge, steamed cakes and ulunthu vadai, molasses aka black sugar and rice flour puttu. She is given minimal water after a meal. Sweets, sugary food, meat, seafood, legumes and bread are not given just to name a few. Water consumption is greatly reduced to prevent the girl from appearing ‘bloated' due to water retention. Other restrictions include, the girl not being allowed to go to the temple, touching pooja things, going near trees, going into prayers room or not even leaving the house in general and many more. The 4 former restrictions have a 'till menopause do us part' application. When I was in Form 2, I used to wait for the school in afternoons bus under a murunggai tree from a distance of my house because the bus driver didn't take the route to where I lived. Subsequently, the fat Indian lady which the murunggai tree belonged to forbade me from taking shade under the tree. She alleged that the menstruation bad aura, known as theetu in Tamil I emitted was killing the tree. The same is true for newborn babies - menstruating women are forbidden from going near newborn infants. The sadanggu or puberty ceremony would be held as soon as the girls’ first period has stopped – in a week or so, after a time frame of seclusion mentioned above. If there is any dhosham for the girl that would impede her in later life, dhosham kalithal will be performed as well as atonement rituals by a priest if the time and day when the girl got her 1st period are inauspicious.
Puberty ceremonies that have gotten out of original context
Puberty ceremonies may vary in size, extravagance, and style depending on how the family chooses to go about the celebration. It can range from a small private event for close family members to something that everyone from your neighbors to viewers in YouTube know and the latter is one aspect that can be deemed unnecessary.
Nowadays, holding grand puberty ceremonies has become a status symbol and they have taken on additive variants like dance performance, cake cutting, professional video shooting and the inclusion of alcohol. Some puberty ceremonies are grander than weddings and this baffles the other races here. They go,”Apa ni? Tunang ke?” (What’s this? Engagement?) When explained to them, it almost always evokes derision on their part, on why we invite everyone to celebrate the stain on girls’ undergarments. Ironically, in our culture, girls are told to keep their periods under wraps but we publicize to everyone that girls are finally sexually reproductive, to put it crudely.
Puberty ceremony is rightfully to be held promptly, after the girls’ first period has stopped but nowadays, the ceremony would be postponed to the convenience of the parents – to get stuff prepared for the ceremony. Girls are sent to school immediately after they get their first period – the seclusion ritual above is not widely practiced now because absence from school evokes questions from classmates and teachers and compromises school and exam attendance. Puberty ceremonies are held on weekends or during school holidays, at the families’ own convenience.
In the olden days, these ceremonies were held to publicize the matrimonial availability of the girls, that they are now ready to marry and those suitors interested can come and ask the girl’s hand for marriage. Girls were married off in their teen years those days and they got their periods in their teen years, much later than the age girls nowadays become periya manishi. My mother got her first period when she was 16.
Presently, like I mentioned above, girls hit puberty much early, as young as 9 years old. This phenomenon has to do with modern dietary habits – growth hormone injected foods, the same foods that cause cancer. Conversely, girls marry much later nowadays which renders the grand puberty publicizing ceremony virtually needless. It is maybe a display of love and show off on how much parents can do for their daughters. But, the money spent on lavish puberty ceremonies might as well be saved as tertiary education deposit thus encouraging them to reach intellectual heights. That is a better way to show love and care to daughters.
By holding extravagant puberty ceremonies and dolling up the girl like a bride, it makes them lose their innocence.
I think a girl’s rite of passage has been over-glorified and more attention needs to be given to menstrual health and hygiene; they should be taught how to manage menstruation. Personally, I find the younger a girl gets her period, the more unawares she’s caught. How do you explain ovaries, ovum, uterus and menstruation to a 10 year old girl? Young girls are exploited in the photo shoots for puberty ceremonies. They don’t look like fresh faced kids with all that make up on – they look like women of marriageable age. The innocence of coming to age is disregarded.
Bat Mitzvah also engages dressing up but the makeup and dress don’t undermine the kiddish innocence in pubescent kids because that is what they are, kids. Both Bat Mitzvah and Bar Mitzvah involve preaching maturity and responsibility in conduct and although they are for Jewish laws, tradition and ethics, it is good if Indian parents here focus on their daughters’ human sentience and awareness development rather than their superficial, external puberty.
Parents deck their daughter like a bride when they hit puberty, and then get mad when their teen daughter gets herself a boyfriend at the soonest when it is the parents themselves who tacitly suggest that the girl is now a woman since she had a bridal lady dolling her up, fastening false eyelashes, eyebrow threading and facial, tying sari and parents telling every relative enthusiastically that their daughter is now a big girl and then go on to celebrate her puberty in a grand fashion. Parents confuse their daughters by holding puberty ceremonies that looks unmistakably like pre wedding ceremonies and the girls are caught in a limbo. I am not saying that only girls who underwent puberty ceremony are prone to have boyfriends in their teens; I’m saying that it intensifies the perception of having an enhanced femininity nuance complementing the subsequent hormonal surge.
It is reasonable to hold puberty ceremony for your daughter if she has dosham or got her period at an undesirable time and day according to astrology and Hindu almanac. Extravagance in celebrating puberty and the ceremony itself is totally unnecessary if you ask me for reasons I gave above unless with long term well being as in the reasons aforementioned manifest. Menstruation is a natural process like sweating and digestion so it’s best accounted for in nonchalance granted for other biological mechanisms.
There are girls who don’t menstruate because they are born with testicles instead of ovaries and don’t have uterus, ovum and Fallopian tubes and they are infertile – they cannot get pregnant and neither do they produce sperm from the testicles. Their genitalia is not in tune with their gender and this is genetic. This condition is known as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, acronym, AIS. And then, there is gender dysphoria. Puberty, sexual maturity and eventual sexual orientation are a lot more complex than what most of us think.
There is another round of sadanggu performed 2 days before a girl’s marriage and it’s known as nallunggu. If sadanggu was not subjected to the girl at the time of the onset of puberty, the ritual would be held in the nallungu one short. Nalunggu is also done on guys 2 days before marriage.
Of course it is up to parents to hold puberty ceremonies for their daughters whichever way they want or don’t hold it at all or do a small one if there is dhosham or inauspicious timing or leave it to their daughters to decide whether they want to have sadanggu or not. The points I made above are subject to moot.