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Madras Tourism

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Traditions and taboos
Most of our customs have been formulated with sound common sense. However some traditionalists and ritual fanatics are bound by rigid beliefs and are faced with threats of ,mpending doom if they dare to deviate from the beaten track of hidebound custom. Innumerable do’s and don’ts guide our everyday life. In fact each day has an inauspicious stretch ( Rahu kalam) which one must keenly avoid when attempting something meaningful.

Entrance into the hallowed portals of the puja room, the place of worship is strictly prohibited before a bath. As a child I remember sticking my toes in and lying awake the whole night wondering whether the Gods would cut them off for having dared to taint the sacred precincts. The simple premise behind the taboo was that one had to be physically clean before entering a room of worship and taboos helped you take all the precautionary measures.

About forty to fifty years ago, when a girl attained puberty, there was a big song and dance about it. Everyone was informed of the event and after a specified period of time the girl was initiated into womanhood by celebrating the event with almost the same grandeur as a wedding with a host of invitees. This helped to publicise the fact that there was an eligible girl in the family whore the invitees got to meet.

Even today amongst several emancipated progressive families, the girl is isolated and rested for 7-10 days. Each day she is given nourishment in the form of raw eggs, mutton or chicken broth and a delicious halwa concoction made from black puttu rice which is supposed to be very strengthening. Though tremendously diminished, the practice of the woman being kept away from all household duties for three days every month (especially the kitchen) still abounds in orthodox south Indian households. It just meant that the woman had a sound excuse for a well earned rest. A high flying executive wished this practice was still “in vogue” today for with her frenetic and harried pace of life she was afraid she would be burnt out by the time she was forty!

There has always been an aura of mystery surrounding the unborn child, and the pregnant woman still follows outmoded customs to ensure the well-being of her baby. She is entreated to have a beautiful picture (of a person) in her room which she gazes at every day in the belief that the child will be born in the likeness of the person in the picture. No horror movies, no confrontations nor turbulence. Soft devotional music should be listened to every day. The vibrations of certain slokas recited did a world of good to the developing foetus. If you took a pinch of pure kumkumapoo, (saffron) in warm milk every day, you would beget a fair child. Woe to you if you had cravings for black fruit, dark halwas, etc., this would only ensure a dark skinned baby! The mother’s cravings for any particular food had to be appeased, and kindly friends and relatives brought in goodies hopefully not too rich for her to digest.

After childbirth even greater care is lavished whilst she is housebound for a full forty days. Sorra puttu (a delicious preparation made out of young shark) and soji keerai are offered to the lactating mother every day to increase the quantity of milk for mother and child, hot baths, fumigation of the room with garlic skin, haldi and incense ensured disinfection, besides being conducive to sleep. The added bonus was a cup of steaming hot chicken broth with a dash of brandy after the bath which served as a pick-me-up. And pick her up it did!

Some of the everyday taboos get under your skin and stay there even if,you ridicule them outwardly. If someone who stayed with you left home on a journey you would never, if you are a traditional south-Indian Hindu, massage oil on your head and have that lingering “headbath” for this is a practice that is followed only when a dead body leaves the house. Likewise, if you have an oil bath you have to come home for the night for it is only in a death house one has an oil bath and returns to his own home. Do not cut your nails after sundown (nail-biting is not listed!) and definitely not any time on a Tuesday or Friday. The same applies to hair cutting and nonbelievers will find that hair dressers are relatively free on those days, so getting appointments will be a lot easier! Do not give away on Fridays (nothing must leave the house) so advise your dhobi to stay away on Friday and tell your domestic staff well beforehand not to harass you for their pay etc., If possible, do not even throw out the garbage!

As a last bit of advice, be good, do good, receive good on the first day of the year because the chances are that the reflections will carry right through the year. But whether it is the first of January, or the fourteenth of April, or the beginning of the Indian calendar year, is for you to figure out!

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