The Colgate Scene
January 1999
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Tradition immediate and nourishing

by Amy Allocco '97
[IMAGE] I woke before the sun and filled buckets with cool water for my bath. After bathing I rubbed coconut oil into my skin and hair, as is the South Indian custom for women on major festival days, and left my hair loose to dry. I hurriedly swept the floor of my tiny bedroom with a twig broom and dressed carefully just as the sun was coming up over Madras. When I pulled the brilliantly dyed and embroidered salwar kameez, an outfit of baggy trousers and a long top, out of my cupboard it rustled as only fine Indian silk does. I selected a glittering bindi, a decorative sticker that Indian women use on their foreheads, and adorned my wrists with rows of jangling bangles. Lastly, I draped a coordinating dupatta, or scarf, over my shoulders, dipping it artfully and modestly in the front, and arranging its iridescent folds carefully.

     That day was to be a very special one. The almanac indicated that the planets were in the correct alignment to propitiate the goddess Gauri, a form of goddess Lakshmi, the beautiful administrator of wealth and prosperity. Preparations for the important rite had begun the day before in the home of my Indian family, and I was expected to participate in the extensive ritual that would begin soon after dawn. Not bothering with shoes, which would only have to be removed when I entered the sacred space of the home, I padded up the flight of stairs to the hall where the ritual would take place. Pathy, the grandmother of the family, was crouched in the doorway smearing a turmeric paste across the moldings with two outstretched fingers. This paste, believed to be purifying and a deterrent to insects, is washed off and renewed at each festival. Pathy, who had probably been awake several hours by this point, settled down cross-legged on the floor behind me and precisely parted my hair before adding a bit more coconut oil and braiding it tightly. In South India the parting of a woman's hair is a recognition of the powerful male-female energy that flows through the cosmos and every one of us. By parting the hair we acknowledge that this shakti, or cosmic energy, must be simultaneously present for life to unfold as it is meant to, and that both aspects must function in harmony.

     Lalitha, Pathy's daughter-in-law, squatted near the speckled tile, meting out ground white rice flour from a clenched fist. What emerged from the painstaking motion of her hand was an intricate pattern called a kolam in South India, a design which is meant to provide a sort of protection for those within the house and those who enter, like an artistic manifestation of prayer. The kolam spread across the floor, imparting blessings, auspiciousness. It was at this particular point in the religious cycle that Lalitha joined the community of women in the apartment building as they gathered at their thresholds, allowing intricate kolams to seep from between their callused fingers. Her love for her family and her respect for the ancient traditions find their expression in the elaborate kolam and in the tiny oil lamps fashioned from the red earth by her strong hands. Swiftly Lalitha bent forward, thick black braid tumbling down her back, and lit the saturated wick with a glowing match. Her sari bunched around her knees and her brow furrowed in concentration, Lalitha was startlingly beautiful in a wholly unselfconscious way. The strands of fragrant jasmine blossoms pinned in her hair fell to the side as the last lamp was lit and she straightened up to survey her work.

     Lalitha is my friend, and the mother of the family with whom I lived in Madras. As soon as I began living with them and joined their joint family I was considered the oldest of her children; behind me there are two daughters, Priya, 21 and Anusha, 18, and one son, Sakthivel, 11. Lalitha, whose name is one of the many that interchanges with Parvati, the wife of the great annihilator Lord Shiva, possesses a remarkable and unique inner strength, generosity and resilience. The cadence of her existence embodies dharma (duty or righteousness); she is ever-faithful to her responsibilities but seldom complains. Though the parameters of her life and dreams are chiefly determined by her gender, caste, class and education, she has transcended these limits in subtle yet significant ways.

[IMAGE]      The men were hastily fed some tiffin (light snack) from the vast assortment of special festival foods that the women of the family had been preparing since the previous morning, and then they were ushered off to the back bedroom where they would be out of the way until their part of the ritual. We women were fasting in honor of the goddess on this occasion, and would not eat until all stages of the ritual were complete. Now that Lalitha had demarcated the sacred space with her beautiful kolam, we could begin the fashioning of the goddess. The elder women of the joint family examined the new brass water vessel that had been purchased for the puja (worship, ritual) and began to smear it with a paste of ground rice and water. The younger women assembled the small brass facial features that they had bargained so hard for in the evening bazaar and affixed them to the vessel with some sugar paste. The pot was transformed into a face, and the women placed it on a mound of dry rice set on a fresh green plantain leaf. They ornamented it with garlands of colorful, fresh flowers that someone had woven early that morning. I smeared brilliant yellow turmeric on a fresh coconut and set it in the mouth of the vessel, along with a few waxy mango leaves, all of which are considered auspicious symbols. Priya, who makes monthly payments on the gold jewelry that will constitute her dowry for her wedding in early 1999, laid her intricate necklace on the vessel before propping aromatic pink lotus blossoms at its base.

     Solemnly, the women gathered before the decorated vessels. The only sound were saris rustling as we settled on the floor around Pathy and her yellowed volume of Sanskrit slokas, or prayers. After clearing her throat Pathy began to chant the slokas in that lilting rhythm she sometimes chanted over Anusha and me in up on the roof on breezeless nights when the power failed. Her voice grew clearer and stronger as she prayed, and I felt my body grow taut with attention. Something transformative was happening in this sacred space, and I could feel Lalitha's hand trembling in mine as she silently mouthed Pathy's prayers. The old woman's voice dipped low and then rose, high and triumphant, to rest on the final incantation; in an urgent whisper she told us all in Tamil, "She is here." In this way the goddess became present in our modest home. She was invoked by the fervent and sincere entreaties of us women, and came to reside in this vessel we had carefully fashioned in her image. Now, certain of her attention, we brought our concerns before her. Principally, we prayed for the health and longevity of the men of the family. We appealed to the goddess for good husbands for those of us yet unmarried, and we asked her to grant us all fertility at the appropriate times in our life cycle. We prayed for the prosperity of the entire family, and then called for the men.

     They came before this adorned vessel, now infused with the spirit of the goddess we had called forth, and received the blessings we had solicited. Beginning with Pathy, we each took our turn ringing the small brass bell with our left hands as we rotated the sacred camphor flame around the image of the goddess three times with our right hands in a clockwise motion. We knelt before her and fanned some of the smoke from the camphor flame over our faces and heads, then stepped back to allow another to stand before her. Once we had all come forward to pay our respects to the goddess, it was clear that our darsana (viewing) was complete; we had been heard and she had been glimpsed. The men retreated to the bedroom to resume conversing while most of the women gravitated toward the tiny kitchen to arrange the elaborate festival meal and break their fast.

     Lalitha and I remained behind for another moment. With a deft flick of her wrist, she removed the cap of the small bottle containing oil for the clay lamps, and she crouched above them, refilling their cavities so that they could continue to burn. From the tall brass lamps she re-lit the small ones that had burnt out, and replaced them carefully in the symmetrical design she had created. She looked up at me and I could see satisfaction and pride evident on her face, pleased to have assisted her mother-in-law in conducting this important annual rite and proud that I had witnessed what was an immensely powerful ritual. I was struck at that moment by the seamlessness of it all: Lalitha's life and religious practices and those of her foremothers. For in the lighting of the many oil lamps I saw generations of Indian women keeping the glow of rituals alive in their families, illuminating the ancient traditions throughout the cycle of the Hindu calendar, sustaining the enriching flame that invokes the gods and goddesses and makes the tradition immediate and nourishing.


Amy Allocco studied Hindu women's ritual practices in South India on a Watson Fellowship.
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