Traditions & Customs - Childhood
Eighty percent of Jaffna Tamils are Hindus by birth and they practice Hinduism following Siva sect. The pure form of Saivaism can be found only in Jaffna. These people are generally deeply religious but are never religious fanatics. A typical Hindu will worship at least twice at home once in the mornings and another in the evenings. They are supposed to be vegetarians although eating non vegetarian food is accepted but not on Fridays and other religious days and temple festival days. They go to temple to pray whenever possible but not compulsory. There is no hard and fast rule on temple visits. Whenever they pray holy ash, which is made by burning cow dung, is worn on the forehead and is a religious symbol of Saivaites. In the life of a Hindu Tamil, religion plays a great role and daily they say the names of their favourite deities. Every important step in the progressive life of a child was a festive occasion for the parents and family and they celebrated with appropriate religious ceremonies. The Jaffna man is devoted to his family and his life is family centered and the family comes first. He would sacrifice years of home life and of home land if it meant his sibling received good education and his daughters achieved good marriages.
Birth of a child
In the good old days the child was born at home with the help of local midwife who had some experience in child delivery but no medical knowledge or education as such. They were called Maruthuvichchyy (மருத்துவிச்சி) and they lived in almost all villages. In the villages, a modest home of a moderate farmer will have a room with a door to the outside garden where there will be a toilet close by and this room was used for the delivery and by women during their menstrual period, to be isolated.
When a child is born, the exact date, day and time of birth is recorded. There were some discrepancies in the time of birth recording; the appearance of the vault of the head, severing of the placenta (naval cord) or the first cry of the baby were suggested as the true time of birth. Whichever the time it is believed to be, the fact is the time of birth is recorded. All this was required for the preparation of the horoscope of the child.
The good news will be brought to the father of the baby who will be waiting outside the room for the news. It is always appreciated that the first born baby in the family is a boy but it didn't matter if it was a girl. The difference in the sex of the child had different expressions; a boy means the father need not work harder and the boy will grow up and look after the family after the father and he would perform the last rites for his father and mother. On the other hand if it is a girl the father had to work harder to save up for her dowry.
After the mother had a hug at the baby gifted to her by her Gods, the baby is washed, cleaned and dressed up and brought outside the room to be shown to elders and relatives who would have arrived hearing the good news. If the baby is a boy, sweet candy is given and for a girl toffee or jaggery is normally given. The dirty linen used during the birth of the baby will be removed by the dhobi to wash.
The mother receives meals which are special form of diet called Paththia (பத்தியம்) curry which is mildly hot and has different make up of the spices - See recipes section for more details. Mother and baby remain in that room for 31 days isolated. They are impure religiously - ‘Thudakku' (துடக்கு) for 31 days from the time of birth of the baby. See description of Thudakku for explanation.
Soon the astrologers are consulted and they draw up the astrological chart of the baby depending on the time and date of birth and predict the baby's life and also suggest the first letter for the baby's name.
Naming of the baby-பெயர்சூட்டல்
The usual method of naming a child is by giving them their own name by which they will be known throughout their life, with their father's name as initials. Christians used the Western way of naming their children. Various families adopted various forms in naming a baby; they used to give grandfather's name to a boy, or a Deity's name (Each Deity have hundreds of names), or a popular name or an independent name beginning in the letter suggested by the astrologer and so on. No sooner a suitable name has been agreed upon, the birth of the baby will be registered at the Registrar of Births.
31st Day of birth - துடக்குகழிவு
On the 31stday after the birth of the baby, the whole house is cleaned and washed; everybody in the household including the mother of the baby will have a head bath. The baby's head will be shaved by the family barber and be given a head bath. The dhobi removes all the clothes worn by the mother and the rest of the household to wash. A Hindu priest is invited to perform the pooja to remove the impurity caused by the child birth - Punniyagavasanam (புண்ணியாகவாசனம்). The grandparents of either side or uncles, if they wish to, give presents to the baby, usually the grandparents give some form of gold jewellery and this is a way to start a saving and investment for the baby. A vegetarian meal follows this ceremony. With this performance the baby and mother are free to move around the house. The Kudi makkal also receive cash, gifts and food.
First outing of the baby - 41st day
On the 41st day after the birth, the mother and baby are taken to a temple to attend a pooja ceremony. Sometimes a special pooja may be arranged in the temple. The first visit of the baby is always to a temple.
On an auspicious day, the baby is then put in a cot which would hang from the ceiling of the room and can be easily rocked if needed.
First feeding of the baby - சோறூட்டல்
By six or seven months on an auspicious day and time, the baby will be fed with the first solid food. Sarkarai Pongal or Jaggery rice is made for the occasion. A lamp is lit and prayers are said and the baby gets the first solid feed from the father. Then all the relatives who have come for this occasion also can feed and bless the baby. From this day onwards the baby receives rice as part of their meal and slowly they are introduced into various foods.
Teething - பல்லுகொளுக்கட்டை
Whenthe first set of teeth appear, on a good day, the baby sits on a white cloth and another piece of white cloth is placed on baby's head. A Vinayagar idol is placed and a lamp is lit close to where baby is seated. Usually maternal uncle and aunt place either nine or eleven Kolukattai (see recipes) which have been made earlier, on the baby's head. The baby is fed with small amount of the kolukattai and the rest will be enjoyed by those who are there. This is to celebrate first appearance of teeth.
Boring of ears- காதுகுத்தல்
At six to eight months of age, all girls will have their ears bored although some people belief in doing this later in life. Usually it is done by a goldsmith who brings with him a small circular golden ring with one end pointed. Normally on a Thai Poosam day or on an auspicious day at their home, Nirai Kudam, Vinayagar idol and a lit oil lamp is placed on a banana leaf on the floor and the mother sits in front with the baby on her lap. The position of the ear ring is marked with ink on the lobe of both ears and when this is agreed, the gold smith gently pierces the lobe with the pointed end of the ring. When both ears are pierced, the gold smith receives a cash gift and leaves.
First alphabets - ஏடுதொடக்கல்
It is customary to start the education when the child reaches the age of three years. This is done usually on Vijayadashami (விஜயதசமி) day during Navarathri celebrations at home, temple or at a primary school. Usually the father, a teacher or a well named Tamil scholar or a priest performs the ceremony. Niraikudam, Vinayagar idol, and a lit oil lamp are placed on a banana leaf and the performer sits in front. He will chant some Thevarams - hymns- and starts the proceedings. He will write the alphabets on a dried palmyrah leaf with a writing tool, smear this with turmeric. The child sits on his lap and he reads the alphabets and the child repeats them one by one. Then he will hold the hand of the child and write the first Tamil alphabet ‘அ' on rice spread on a plate. From this time onwards the child in addition to learning, gets lessons in music and dance and gets engaged in sports and various cultural and religious activities. The children learn and memorise the Hindu hymns (thevarams) and recite at religious functions and at schools. By attending religious ceremonies and the temple, children learn to practice their religion.
The "Sacred Thread" Ceremony or Upanayanam - உபநயனம்
Upanayanam also called "sacred thread ceremony" is performed on a Hindu Brahmin (பிராமணன்) boy of age between 7 and 16 years, where the concept of Brahmin is introduced to a young boy. Traditionally, the ceremony is performed to mark the point at which boys began their formal education. This initiation appears to be a continuation of a prehistoric initiatory rite. This induction of a youth into full membership of the community is a practice common to early tribal units throughout the world.
On the day prior to the Upanayanam, the boy should perform the worship of Ganesha and the family deity. On the second day, he eats with his mother on the same leaf-plate - indicating his end of childhood days. He gets his head shaven and wears a special dress including a Veshti and kaupeenum or Kovanam (கோவணம்) - a loin cloth to cover the genitals, olden day's underwear for men - and an upper cloth, leading him to self control of which celibacy is the most important aspect.
The hallmark of having gone through the Upanayanam ceremony is the wearing of the Sacred Thread - Poonool (பூநூல்) - on the body. The thread is circular, being tied end-to-end (only one knot is permissible); it is normally supported on the left shoulder and wrapped around the body, falling underneath to the right loin. The length of the thread is generally 96 times the breadth of four fingers of a man, which is believed to be equal to his height. The Poonool has three strands of threads, actually only one thread, folded three times and tied together. These strands represent Goddesses Gayathiri, Saraswathi and Savitri and denote that one who wears the sacred thread should lead a regulated life with purity in his thought, word and deed. The knot in the middle resembles a cow in the sitting posture and represents the formless Brahman (பிரம்மன்), the pure form of energy. The sacred thread illustrates the fact that everything in the universe emerges from and then merges with Brahma (பிரம்மா). The sacred thread is supposed to be worn for the rest of one's life after the ceremony has been performed. A new thread is worn and the old thread discarded every year; the change-over ceremony is held on a specific date calculated as per the Hindu lunar calendar. At the occasion of wedding, a further three threads are added to make for a six-thread bunch with one more thread being added at the birth of every child.
The wearing the sacred thread is done with the chanting of appropriate mantras with the help of the Guru (teacher). In the ancient days people used to wear the skin of a black antelope or upper cloth during sacrifices. The Poonool is a remnant of that practice. The boy is expected to think, "From today my life is like a sacrifice. I will dedicate to the welfare and service to the society". These threads are intended to constantly remind the man of his worldly responsibilities.
The next step is holding the stick of a sacred tree and he is expected to keep this as a companion throughout his student life and this reminds him to control his sense organs at the psychological level. Also, it serves as a weapon of protection from dangers. This follows a very elaborate step by step induction process involving mantras and kriyas.
Coming of age - சாமத்தியசடங்கு
The attainment of puberty is a big event in the life of a girl as she has reached womanhood. The family celebrates this event as a sort of matrimonial advertisement by inviting the relatives and friends. On the day the girl attains puberty, the girl is given a bath by the closest kith and kin, usually by the parents. A coconut is broken at this event as the water is poured on her head. This girl is then put on isolation in a room for about a week during which period she is fed in rich easily digested food including Kali, egg fried in gingelly oil, and various other things. The time and day of puberty is noted and the astrologers are consulted. It seems the girl's future can be affected by this event.
The ceremony is performed on an auspicious day and time falling on the seventh, ninth, eleventh or thirteenth day after puberty. The maternal uncle and aunt play a big role here. In the bathing place, the girl will sit in front of Niraikudam and Vinayagar idol on a mat with her head covered with a white cloth and holding in her both hands roll of betel leaf containing areca nut and coins. The cloth is removed and the uncle places some Arugam Pullu and milk on her head and blesses her while camphor is lit and a coconut is broken into two halves invoking the blessings of God. Following the uncle, five or seven relatives place Arugam Pullu and milk on her head. Then the uncle pours water on her head followed by her other relatives. Then the girl is given a bath and dressed as a bride in new clothes and is handed over a Kumbam by her uncle and escorted to the hall where ceremony is to take place. Her head will be covered with a white cloth to protect her from evil eyes. Numerous guests are invited including friends and relatives. Head cover is removed and an ‘Aalathi' is performed to ward off evil spirits and various other ‘Aalathi' with different food items are carried out invoking good health, wealth and happiness. Once these are done the girl falls on the feet of her parents, uncle, aunt grandparents and receives their blessings. Then the guests bless her and give presents. From this time onwards the girl will wear on her forehead a big black pottu to ward off any evil eyes. This will be replaced by red pottu after marriage. She is not to be seen by men outside her close family and starts training in home science from her mother and grandmother - usually cooking, house maintenance etc. Whenever she goes out, usually with her parents, she would wear a ‘Half sari' which is full length skirt with blouse and a piece of cloth that goes round her waist once and thrown over the left shoulder called Thavani. These are all changed nowadays and girls go to college and work too.
As the boys grow up their education gets a higher level of importance. The parents of the boy guide him with the help of his teachers to the type or profession that is best suited to him and the family. Sometimes lot of pressure is put on the boys for them to study for a particular line of profession, a dignified one which will have a government pension at the end of retirement. The boy grows up to be a man who will have a good education and a good job at the end of it; the girl of course learns the housewife's chores and become a beautiful bride who awaits the hands of a husband with a good job.
Related articles Please read: Children in Hinduism, Tamil beliefs and Superstitions, Tamil Hindu culture