Rites Of Passage Overview: Turmeric Bathing Ceremony

Ever since human societies have emerged, there has been some sort of importance placed on a woman’s reproductive health, as it is the main factor in the further expansion of their communities, cultures and populations. While there are many communities have several rites of passages for female children approaching adulthood, one that is particularly significant in the Tamil coming of age ceremony called the Turmeric Bathing Ceremony, a celebration held by the family of a young girl once she experiences her first occurrence of menstruation and marks her transition from child to sexually mature woman. The first time I witnessed the Turmeric Bathing Ceremony, I was a young girl in the company of my older cousin who had recently received her first menarche. I remember being shocked due to the fact that my cousin was no longer able to do certain things with me that we had always done, such as eat dinner, sleep together and play together. The older women in the community and our family were very quick to inform her of the difference between her and I: she was on the brink of womanhood whereas I was still considered a young girl. At first I was confused, but as the festivities continued, my cousin was now considered a young woman and I became more comfortable and knowledgeable with the ceremonies of my culture

There are three defined stages in a rite of passage ceremony: separation, liminality and reincorporation. The process of the Turmeric Bathing Ceremony may be complex, however I believe that each ceremony follows the three stages of a rite of passage. Firstly, a rite of passage is a sacred ritual that groups of people employ in the goal of changing one's identity from one to another. In the first phase of a rite of passage ceremony, the individual is isolated from their existing identity. In the Tamilian perspective, the young girl in question is both figuratively separated through the appearance of puberty and literally separated from her family and identity. In fact, there are two types of puberty as defined by Arnold van Gennep: physiological puberty and social puberty. Social puberty refers to the way that an individual is treated due to a certain change in status, such as a rite of passage whereas physiological puberty refers to the enlargement of the breasts and pelvis, the appearance of pubic hair and the first occurrence of menstrual flow. In his book Rites of Passage, Gennep states that social puberty precedes physiological puberty and such is the case of the Tamilian Turmeric Bathing Ceremony. As the girl in question reaches the traditional age of puberty, she starts to be treated differently by other members in the community. While she is still largely considered a child, the social importance of her upcoming ceremony continues to loom over her in the form of information, stories and experiences by other members in the community. As she gets closer to this age, more responsibilities of the household are given to her, such as cleaning, cooking, raising and taking care of younger siblings. The purpose of this change in responsibility is to make aware the girl of her ever changing body, while also preparing her for a life with her husband and in-laws.

In the Hindu religion, great importance is placed on the role of a subservient and obedient wife who is able to care for her husband’s needs by keeping him fed and giving him many children. In fact, Hinduism dictates that a woman is a responsible for the home, cooking nutritious food for the well-being of the family and the maintenance of the cooking utensils. She is the safekeeper of the home and must keep her home peaceful for her family. This religious importance placed on the effectiveness of a wife is the driving cause of why many families with young pubescent girls teach their daughters from an early age how to care for a group of people. If she is unskilled in these tasks, chaos is seen as impending doom upon her family. While the girl is not yet physically isolated, due to her approaching the traditional age of puberty, she is given a vast amount of new knowledge in order to prepare her for married life, socially isolating her from her younger peers. Once a young Tamillian girl receives her first experience with menstruation, she is obligated to isolate herself from her friends, family and loved ones. According to Gennep, these separation rites may lead to the girl being physically isolated, even considered dead before they are either physically or symbolically resurrected into a new being. In the case of the Tamilian Turmeric Bathing Ceremony, fresh coconut, neem and mango leaves are used to construct a hut where the young woman will remain for a certain number of odd numbered days. While in seclusion, she is notified of certain rules she must abide by such as not looking at birds while hungry, not to enter the pooja or prayer and resisting the urge to touch blooming flowers in the case they may wilt. As for her diet, she must follow a strict nutrition plan that is optimized to prevent bloating and to strengthen the body for childbirth. The diet may include a concoction of raw eggs and sesame seed oil in the morning, limited drinking water and avoidance of sugary foods and breads. This physical seclusion from her community along with the strict diet allows the girl complete rest and prepare her for her any future motherly duties that she may have. The girl enters the hut as a child unprepared for the challenges of woman hood and while in seclusion, is given a chance to rest, reflect and prepare for the life ahead of her. In this sense, the girl enters the hut as a child and exits as a woman, demonstrating the death of her role as a child and her rebirth into a fledgling, not yet officially considered a full grown woman but well on her way to crossing this important threshold.

The second phase of liminality is defined as a the period of transition, where one does not fully belong to their existing group but is not fully considered a fully-fledged member of the group they are attaining to join. In the case of a young Tamilian girl, the second phase of Gennep’s model is demonstrated in the final part of the ceremony called the Manjal Neerattu Vizha. While this ceremony is usually lavish and opulent, it is further broken down into two sections based on the what the young girl is wearing: the half saree which is later swapped out for a full-blown saree made of silk paired with sets of gold jewellery gifted to her by her maternal uncles and grandparents. A saree is a long garment worn by the women of the Indian subcontinent that consists of a drape that is typically wrapped around the waist and draped over the shoulder, exposing her midsection and is typically worn by married women to signal maturity and fertility. Due to the fact that the girl is not technically considered a fully grown woman, she dons a half saree, comprising of a petticoat, cropped blouse and long ornate veil which is draped across the body in a diagonal fashion and wrapped around her hips and pinned at the shoulders. This displays her status as a young girl in the midst of transition to grown woman. The series of elaborate prayers that are conducted are for the good health, luck and prosperity of the girl right before she officially becomes a woman. It is only then when she is considered a fully grown woman and qualifies for the last stage: reincorporation. Reincorporation refers to when the individual has completed all previous rites and fully assumes their new life in their new identity. It is with this new identity that one re-enters the community with a new social status.

In the case of a young Tamilian girl, the changing of her garment from half saree to an ornate silk saree officially confirms her identity as a woman of Tamilian society. After she has changed, the women perform a special prayer ritual in order to welcome the girl into womanhood and they further solidify her role as a grown woman by applying a mixture of turmeric and oil to her face and arms. In the Indian subcontinent, turmeric is a spice that is not only thought to bring luck on auspicious days, but also holds great importance in the ritual of female beauty and fertility. In the context of beauty and female upkeep, turmeric is thought to have beautifying properties for the skin. It is for this reason a woman is smeared with turmeric in order to enhance her feminine beauty and prepare her for possible marriage. Turmeric is thought to increase the fertility of a woman when applied to the face, cheeks and arms, as is done in the Turmeric Bathing Ceremony. When the turmeric is washed off with water, this is used to assert her role as a pure and fertile woman, ready to be married into a suitable family. In fact, the purpose of the ornate clothes and gold jewellery are to reintroduce the girl who is of marriageable age and to attract unmarried men to ask for her hand in marriage. When adorned in gold jewellery, specifically gold bangles, it is signified to the community that each bangle will represent the soul of how many children she is destined to have. Previously, when the girl was considered in transition, she was given no gold jewelry and wore a half saree. When she transitions into womanhood, the adornment of her person with gold jewellery not only signifies fertility, but also her status as a capable wife and daughter-in-law. Due to the Hindu belief that women are the safekeepers of the home, the abundance of jewellery on her person may signify to prospective husbands that should this girl become a bride, she will bring peace and prosperity to her in-laws and family.

In other cultures around the world, there are similar rites of passage that result in a girl or boy denouncing their previous life as a child and accepting their new role as fully developed man or woman. In the case of young girls, many similarities can be found between the Tamilian Turmeric Bathing Ceremony and the Latino tradition of the Quinceanera. While both are rites of passage in the form of coming of age ceremonies, there are numerous differences between the two cultures. In the Latino Quinceanera, the ceremony honours Latin American and U. S Latina girls on their 15th birthday by welcoming them into womanhood. Typically, the ritual begins with a religious ceremony in the church, followed by a reception where the friends and family bring gifts for the girl of honour also called the Quinceanera. At the reception, the girl performs an elaborate dance with her father and other members of her court. The Quinceanera court is made up of the friends of the girl of honour, who are referred to as the damas, while the gentlemen are referred to as the chambelanes. As the ceremony begins, the priest presiding over the mass will have the girl renew her baptismal vows, which she can now do of her own free will and intention. The attire of the girl is luxurious and is meant to be her first formal dress as an adult. The purpose of the dress is to denote a change in status, as she is no longer considered a child. Furthermore, the child-sized rosary that she was given when she completed her Catholic sacraments as a child are now replaced with the libro y rosario, libro referring to her own prayer book and rosario referring to a personal rosary. These gifts show that she is a now a Catholic adult in her community. Along with the libro y rosario, the Quinceanera is given several other items to demonstrate her transition from childhood to adulthood. One of these items is a religious medallion given to her by the madrina de medalla, an older female relative, is a religious medal. Another item given is a ring with the girl’s birthstone, symbolizing her commitment to God and her community. The ring is given by the second sponsor, called the madrina de anillo and it is anticipated that someday the birthstone ring will be replaced by a wedding ring. When the Quinceanera accepts these gifts, she establishes a connection with the other women of the community and solidifies her role as an adult Catholic woman. Once these gifts are accepted, the Quinceanera is now a senorita or young lady, and is thus allowed to participate in the fashion of young women. As a child, makeup, high heels and dating were forbidden, however after her her Quinceanera, the girl is free to partake in the activities of womanhood.

As for similarities, there are quite a few. First of all, both of the cultures place importance on the celebrating the girl of honour in a special banquet. Both are given lavish gifts by family members and friends, each of the gifts welcoming her to womanhood. In both cultures, special emphasis is placed on certain people, such as the maternal uncles and grandparents in the Tamilian culture and the madrina de medalla and madrina de anillo in the Latino custom. Furthermore, the girls of honour in each ceremony are wearing beautiful clothes as a gift for passing the threshold of puberty. Once they are considered fully developed women, they are given more responsibility and are viewed as marriageable. However, there continue to be many differences. For example, the period ritual isolation is not present in the Latino coming of age ceremony as it is in the Tamillian one. In fact, the Turmeric Bathing Ceremony places much more emphasis on specific rituals such as the application of turmeric, along with a strict diet and rules of avoidance. While the Quinceanera ceremony takes place at the age of 15, the Turmeric Bathing Ceremony takes place whenever a girl receives menarche. In the Tamillian custom, there is more emphasis placed on fertility rites whereas the Quinceanera is simply a ritual to welcome young girls into womanhood.

15 July 2020
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