Rites of Passage For Women Living In A Tamil Brahmin Village

By Jon Carpenter

Link: http://people.stu.ca/~belyea/2002/RITES02/libtam.HTM




Vasumathi K. Duvvury, author of “Play, Symbolism, and Ritual: A Study of Tamil Brahmin Women’s Rites of

Passage”, conducted a study to determine the role of women’s rites of passage in south India.

From 1983 to 1984, Duvvury conducted her observations in the Brahmin village, Danapuram and in Bangalore

city. Both traditional and modern Brahmin (Aiyar) families from Bangalore city were studied. The people are referred to as

Aiyar in race that  speak the Tamil language and while they are Hindu they fit into the Brahmin sect.

The author claims to share some common cultural features with her participants as a result of early socialization as

well as the ability to speak the same language. She says she had no trouble establishing a trust with her female informants

and says they were extremely cooperative. She also found that the Aiyar's performed most, if not all, of their traditional

rites, despite the effects of industrialization and the expansion of urbanization.

Her data was collected through a number of techniques. She used participant observation, and a short

questionnaire that was distributed to 88 Aiyar women from 49 families in Danapuram and 57 women from 32 families in

Bangalore City. The participants belonged to different age groups, educational backgrounds, and socio-economic

conditions. The author says there were also varying degrees of modernization and conservatism. Other observation

techniques included the data from collected documentary material, and books and manuscripts in the Tamil language.

According to Duvvury, Hindu women are only completely initiated into the Indian society after they have given

birth, especially if they give birth to a male child.[1]  Her study of Aiyar men and women (Tamil speaking Brahmin)

revealed that their incorporation rites occur in stages. For women, their liminal period or threshold state ends only when the

child is born.[2] While puberty and marriage rites are very important for the Danapuram female villagers, women are not

incorporated into society as adult members until they give birth. Therefore, this essay will deal primarily with the birth rite.


Chapter 2 and 3 of her book presents an ethnographic setting for the Aiyar people, who like Aryans, belonged to north

India, but later emerged as one of the dominant groups of Brahmins in the south.

The south was originally Dravidian territory but slowly become Aryanized.[3] It was once a stronghold for ancient

Dravidian races until the Arayns invaded it. Eventually, Aryan ideas and the religion of the Brahmins managed to reach the

south and it began dominating all aspects of the people’s lives. The author characterizes this process as occurring not by

force of arms but by the arts of peace. The Dravidian races seem to have willingly submitted to Aryan culture and


Brahmin priests established settlements in South India sometime between the 3rd and 5th century. This has lead

many scholars to believe that the Aryanization began as early as 500 B. C.[5] A large number of temple priests were

brought in from north India to work in the important religious centers of south India. Not only did this Aryanization lead to

the introduction of myths, legends and a new culture, it also led many of the Aryan immigrants to assimilate native practices

such as snake worship and borrowing Dravidian gods and goddesses with their own Hindu religion.[6]

Danapuram is where most of the author’s studies were conducted. The town is located in the Kanyakumari district

in Tamil Nadu, South India.[7] The area surrounding Kanyakumari is thought to be the home of the very first Aiyar colony,

who were also Tamil-speaking Brahmins. Prior to the linguistic reorganization of states in 1956, the district belonged to the

state of Travancore whose official language was Malayalam. The district became Kanyakumari when in 1956; the

government of India decided to reorganize states based on the recommendation from the States Reorganization

Commission. The commission made boarder adjustments to fit the new states into new linguistic patterns. The vast majority

of the population in the district consists of Tamil-speaking Hindus, followed by minority groups of Malayalam, Telugu, and

Tulu- speaking Hindus.[8]

The Kanyakumari district is a rich rice paddy-growing area. Agriculture is in fact the most important source of food

and employment for the people. Rice Paddy is the primary crop grown in the region and usually two paddy crops are

harvested annually. The industry is poorly developed, although a few small-scale industries do exist. Other crops grown

include banana and coconut.[9]

The Danapuram village has an estimated 268 people. The houses are all built very close to each other, forming

what’s known as a nucleated village, whereby all the dwellings are clustered and concentrated rather than dispersed.

Most of them have electricity, still, many lack the proper sanitation and toilet facilities and every house obtains

water from personal wells. Besides the houses there are five temples, a pos t office, a library and two halls used for various

socio-cultural and religious activities.[10] There is also a tank, which was once used for ceremonial purification baths. Both

men and women used it in the past when the village controlled it, but now it belongs to the government. Now the Brahmin

men feel it is not pure, since non-Brahmins are now allowed to use it. Women however, are free to use it as they


The village is has no official leader, but is instead governed by a group of men who are in charge of all internal

affairs and the upkeep of the library and halls. The group is known as the samudayam and the Brahmin men elect a

manager and two committee members once every three years.

Religion is a major part of life in the village and days are structured according to the agraharam, which is the solar

Hindu religious calendar. About 38% of the village’s population is over 50 and there are more females than males. This has

happened because over the years many men have left the village in search of better employment.

Education for women in the village is very minimal since women are seen only as homemakers. Education is not

considered important for knowledge of domestic crafts like cooking, sewing and child raising. Furthermore, parents would

rather spend their money on their daughter’s marriage than school. The author claims that the villagers are aware of the fact

that the more education a female has, the more difficult it will be for them to find a husband for her. Most men are not

interested in educated women since they believe they will not make obedient wives.[12]

Rites of Passage

The term shuddhi is used to represent the life transforming rites of passage. All rites before that of the birth rite, deal

mainly with the union of the male and the female, which inevitably leads to the birth rite. The rites are designed to transform

a females into a sumangali which is basically an auspicious person; an incorporated mother. While marriage is the first step

to incorporation for the Brahmin women, they become fully incorporated into society when they give birth.[13] Brahmin

women’s rites of passage have been grouped into three divisions. After the puberty ritual, until a women gives birth, she is

forever in a liminal stage.[14]

At every stage of the female’s rites, she is made aware of her inferiority and her subordinate position. 8 As early as

childhood, Aiyar women are taught that they should stay at home and be submissive. This role is crystallized when the

female’s life cycle rites are performed by the female’s mother and other sumangalis.[15] It is of the opinion of most men

that the female rites are of no significant use, since other women, without the help of a Brahmin priest, perform them.

While life cycle rites are performed for both male and females, there are distinctions made according to the sex.

For instance the Hindu religious law books called the Dharmashastras, instruct that all female rites except marriage, are to

be performed only to purify the body. They also instruct that when the rites are performed, recitations of Hindu sacred texts

are not to be read, as they are during the rites for males.[16]

Each major rite is enacted by the kindling of a scared fire, by a purification bath, sipping of water, and aspersion of

water, praying, blessing, by touching various parts of the body, by donning new special clothes and jewelry, by feeding,

and by the recitation of mantras.[17] In addition, the time and location of the rite is performed with the great preparation.

The sun holds much symbolism in Hinduism and their ceremonies must coincide with the position of the sun. It determines

the best time of day, day of the week, and month for various rites.[18]

None of the Hindu sacred books deal with women’s rites. Therefore, their rites have been passed down from

generation to generation orally. Since they are passed orally there has been much room for improvisations, additions, and

even omissions.[19]



Puberty initiation marks the transition of a girl from a asexual world to a sexual world. While it does make the girl an

adult, it does not make her a significant individual in society.



Marriage is a very important rite for Aiyar women for it determines her fate. It leads to a geographical change of

residence, a change of responsibilities, and the prospect of motherhood, which is the most important stage in her life


During the marriage rite, the father’s gift of his virgin daughter absolves him from all his sin of begetting a daughter

by transferring the burden to his son-in-law. The female must then merge with her husband’s personality and she can only

attain salvation through her devotion to him. Therefore, she is never considered fully independent and at every stage of her

life she is under the dominion of a man. She is so dependant on him because it is only a man that can make her a mother

and in turn a member of society.[21] Brahmin men require their wives to be chaste to ensure the purity of their offspring. If

a woman were to die before her husband, her soul is not propitiated until after the death of her husband.


It is only as a mother that a woman can redeem herself. This notion is closely related to the concept of the Mother

Goddess in Hindu theology. The Hindu tradition of Mother worship is known as Shakitism and is a very important aspect

of Hindu religious belief.

By procreating a son, it saves the father from the hell called ‘put’, a hell to which all childless men are said to be

condemned. If a wife neglects her duty, then tragedy, like natural disasters and disease will ensue.[22] If a women is

unchaste and gives birth to a child, her disloyalty to her husband will cause the child to be born in the womb of a jackal and

it will be tortured by diseases as a punishment of her sin.[23]

During the eighth month of pregnancy, the valakappu is performed in the husband’s house. The pregnant wife

wakes up early and the mother-in-law puts some ceremonial oil on her head and then she takes a ritual oil bath. She then

puts on a nine-yard sari, which she wore during her marriage, as well as a garland around her neck. She then makes an

elephant-faced god that is meant to act as a representation of Vigneshvara and then prays to it and asks it to remove all of

her obstacles and bless her. It is then customary to slip two bangles on each arm of two small children.

Female relatives and friends then sing devotional songs while the mother-in-law slips two bangles on each of the

new mother’s arms made out of two margosa twigs tied together. This act will protect the child from evil spirits. Next, the

mother-in-law leads the sumangalis to put red and green bangles made of glass on the woman’s arms. Nine are placed on

the right arm and eight on the left. They then smear turmeric paste on her arms and feet.[24]

As the sumangalis continue to sing devotional songs five women put margosa leaves and five kinds of flowers at her

feet. A sweet dish of banana, rice, shredded coconut and molasses is then served. These acts are all performed to ward off

the evil eye.

The women then lies down and the sumangalis sprinkle flowers and rice on her back while chanting, “ambale petta,

pomable petta”, which means ‘she bore a son, she bore a daughter’. Then the women feed cooked rice mixed with banana

and some sweets to five small children beginning with a boy. She eats the leftovers herself. It is customary for the guests to

then give the mother to be gifts and in turn is given sweets.[25]

In the evening, the sumangalis return. A few women perform the kummi dance and clap their hands loudly so that

the baby will not be born deaf and others sing devotional songs seeking God’s blessing for a successful delivery.[26]

Relatives look forward to the birth of a male because when a woman gives birth to a boy, it is believed that three

generations of that family, both male and female, will cross from over from heaven and into eternal bliss. Any breach in the

birth rite will bring the wrath of these three generations on the wrong doer.[27] Before the delivery, the woman leaves her

husbands parent’s house and returns to her original home. After a few months after the delivery, she returns to her new


On the seventh day after the baby is born, the kappa is performed at the husband’s house to protect the baby from

evil spirits. The baby is washed by sumangalis in water containing a few margosa leaves. Five children then walk around the

baby while it is in the bath chanting, “ambale petta, pombale petta”. Then a married sumangali that is childless bathes,

dresses and pretends to feed a small stone that symbolizes the child. A special sweet is given to all who attended the rite.

Bangles made of three metals, silver copper and iron, and a pair of gold bangles are then taken to the hospital and given to

the new born. These bangles will be worn by the mother and will protect both of them from evil spirits.[28]

On the eleventh day, the mother and child undergo purification rites. The pollution from the birth is said to last for

10 days and the mother, child and entire house is sprinkled with holy basil water by a Brahmin priest. The baby is then

purified but the mother is considered only party cleaned.[29]

In the evening, there is a cradle ceremony. The baby is placed in a cradle with the decorated stone and a lullaby is

sung. The stone is meant to fool the evil spirits that are on the lookout for innocent babies. The women believe that

whatever the spirits have planned for the child, is received by the stone.[30]

If the newborn was a female, either a simple ceremony is performed or else all of these rites are swiftly performed

before her marriage, because they cannot pass into the next stage without completing these rites.[31]

Forty days later she takes a second purification bath. It is only then that she can re-enter the kitchen and go about

her daily functions or participate in domestic ceremonies with her husband.[32]

The end of the birth ritual signifies an end to the mother’s liminal or threshold period. She is fully incorporated into

society a no evil spirits can harm her. She can now fully take part in all of the traditional rituals of the village.[33]

Though marriage and puberty are significant, they do not incorporate women until she gives birth. Therefore they are

integrated in stages.[34] The author believes that rites of passage for women living in southern India, re-enforce man-made

ideals of the patriarchal society. The rites define women in terms of their sexuality, their roles as mothers and wives and not

by their individuality.

[1] Duvvury, Vasumathi K., “Play, Symbolism, and Ritual: A Study of Tamil Brahmin Women’s Rites of Passage”.

Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., New York 1991. pg. 5

[2] Ibid, pg. 6

[3] Ibid, pg. 19

[4] Ibid, pg. 20

[5] Ibid, pg. 21

[6] Ibid, pg. 23

[7] Ibid, pg. 31

[8] Ibid, pg. 34

[9] Ibid, pg. 35

[10] Ibid, pg. 44

[11] Ibid, pg. 45

[12] Ibid, pg. 72

[13] Ibid, pg. 6

[14] Ibid, pg. 103

[15] Ibid, pg. 7

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, pg. 95

[18] Ibid, pg. 96

[19] Ibid, pg. 102

[20] Ibid, pg. 7

[21] Ibid, pg. 8

[22] Ibid, pp. 87-88

[23] Ibid, pg. 89

[24] Ibid, pg. 175

[25] Ibid, pg. 176

[26] Ibid, pg. 179

[27] Ibid, pg. 182

[28] Ibid, pg. 183

[29] Ibid, pg. 185

[30] Ibid, pg. 191

[31] Ibid, pg. 187

[32] Ibid, pg. 185

[33] Ibid, pg. 195

[34] Ibid, pg. 213