The Upanayanam: A Rite of Passage - For Parents and Child

May 09, 2007
Sujatha Bagal

Five plantain leaves lay layered, one on top of the other, on the floor. Four of them, side by side, formed the bottom layer and the fifth lay over them in the center. A silver plate and cup made up the topmost layer. The cook served the food - idlis, chutney, puffed rice, some fried rice fritters, and a sweet dish made of semolina and assorted condiments and side dishes - on the leaves. Intricate rangolis decorated the floor at the edges of the leaves. Two wooden planks against the wall would serve as seats. Perpendicular to these two wooden planks, against another wall, three more planks and three more plantain leaves lay on the floor.

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The Mathru Bhojanam

It was hardly seven in the morning, but the priest hurried me and my seven year-old son to the three leaves. The auspicious time for the main part of the ceremony was nearing. Three brahmacharis sat at the other three leaves.

The rest of the congregation - my husband, our parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends - gathered around us and watched me feed my son. Good natured ribbing followed: "You're supposed to be feeding your son, not eating it all up yourself!" "Go easy on the ghee, will ya." "No more stealing from mama's plate, N. This is the last time."

As with many Hindu rituals, especially those involving children, the mathru bhojanam is a poignant affair. It is one of the principal rituals in the upanayanam ceremony and it signifies the last time a son may share food from his mother's plate and the last time a mother may feed her son with her own hands.

In fact, the entire upanayanam ceremony, which is almost as big as a Hindu wedding, is one big poignant set of rituals. Not long ago, this sacred thread investiture ceremony prepared a young Brahmin boy for the study of the vedas and marked his passage from his own home to that of his teacher's.

There is a passage in Jawahara Saidullah's excellent first novel, The Burden of Foreknowledge, that I just finished reading that goes like this,

[My mother] is nervous. Sending a daughter to her husband's house for the first time is serious business. I know this, I have known little else. She has been preparing me for this day since I can remember.... My mother has been teaching me to cook, to sew, to be a farmer's wife.
Until recently, that was the lot of mothers - to prepare children for the next stage in their lives practically from the minute they are born. In the case of girls, it was marriage that took them away from their mothers and fathers and planted them in brand new families, and in the case of boys in Hindu families, it was the upanayanam ceremony.

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The vatu

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The Sacred Thread

In the course of the ceremony, usually performed right when the boy turns seven, the boy's hair is shaved off, the sacred thread is placed over his shoulder, he is initiated into the ritual of reciting the Gayathri mantram and performing the Sandhyavandanam by his father, he asks for alms (biksha - items that will help him on his journey to his teacher's house) from his family and he's sent off on his way with his little bag of offerings slung on his shoulder.

No matter how purely ritualistic the upanayanam ceremony has now become (young boys don't actually go away to a teacher's house these days and the ceremony itself is now performed minutes before young Hindu men get married just so that they have a thread around their shoulder during the wedding ceremony), it is impossible not to be affected during the rituals. The mathru bojhanam, the biksha ritual and the point at which the son has to worship his father by washing the father's feet are the most difficult to countenance. It was gut wrenching to see him standing there with his bag asking for alms (bikshaan dehi).

Most poignant of all was the grace and equanimity with which N handled the proceedings. A few days before the ceremony the priest walked him through the big day, taking him step by step through all the rituals. He was ready to shave off his hair because the priest said that was the right thing to do (we convinced him otherwise). He woke up at three thirty in the morning because the muhurtham (the auspicious minutes) was only a few hours away, he followed the priest's detailed instructions and recited the mantras meticulously. He patiently bore all the things many different people were doing to him, pulling him in many directions at once.

At the end of it all, he found three kids near his own age among our family and was running around the hall playing tag, screaming at the top of his lungs. Towards the evening we said goodbye to all the guests, headed home and watched a movie.

Hats off to the mothers that came in the generations before mine, but I'm just glad I'm a mother in the 21st century.

Sujatha Bagal is a writer currently based in the US. She recently returned following three years as an expat in Bangalore, her hometown. For a glimpse into the life of an expat, visit Blogpourri.
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May 9, 2007
04:22 AM

And I bet you were one proud mama! Well done to all of you. It's funny, isn't it - how kids can deal with all that hungama like 'big people' (to quote P's phrase!) and once it is all done and dusted, can go back to being the children they are.

May 9, 2007
04:28 AM

A beautiful ceremoney beautifully described. It's at times like these that also make us aware of the link between the generations, don't you think? You are part of a tradition whose origins are lost to time. There is something powerful about that.

Also, thanks for the nod to Burden :-)

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