Hindu childbirth ceremonies in Trinidad and Tobago
By Dr. Kumar Mahabir
In the Ramayana, the Hindu scripture written in 500 BC in India, the chatti [sixth-day childbirth ceremony] of Lord Rama, the son of a king, is described lyrically:
“There was happy music of festivity in every house because the very fountain of beauty had manifested himself. All the men and women of the city were full of joy, everywhere. The city was full of flags and banners and festal arches. …Showers of flowers dropped from heaven ….
“Women streamed forth in troops …. carrying jars of gold and salvers full of auspicious articles. They entered the grounds of the royal palace singing as they went along, waving lights and passing offerings round and round over the child’s head as an act of exorcism. They threw themselves at the babe’s feet again and again. Bars, minstrels, panegyrists and songsters chanted solemn praises to the Lord of the Raghus [dynasty].”
Hindus in Trinidad and Tobago, and elsewhere, have been profoundly influenced by the holy Ramayana, the longest epic poem in the world. The poem is dramatised in the form of Ramleela which has been proclaimed as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO in 2005. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Ramayana has also inspired participants of the chatti and barahe [12th day] celebrations in Trinidad even after the birth of Rama 7,130 years ago, and at such a great distance ((14,459 km (8,984) airplane miles)) from India.
Among all ethnic groups in Trinidad and Tobago, Hindus perform the most intricate childbirth ceremony. The sixth-day postnatal chatti ceremony is both a cultural celebration and social proclamation of the safe return of the new mother and her newborn from the perils of childbirth. Some families prefer to observe the birth celebration on the twelfth day, in which case it is known as a barahe and is of greater magnitude than the sixth-day celebration.
This is one of the rare Hindu religious ceremonies in which a female [masseuse] officiates. She prepares and administers a brew made from the rhizomes of both the hardi and ginger plants. The masseuse [dhagrin or maidy] also gives the new mother and her newborn their first full-body ritualised herbal bath. The masseuse also performs other rituals such as gently tossing the baby into the air, dragging the newborn in a scoop (“soop”), applying kajal [lamp mascara] to the baby’s eyes, and dotting her forehead [tika] to protect the newborn from being infected by najar [evil eye]. For several days, the traditional masseuse massages the baby and the new mother, and she also attends to the maternal abdominal band.
On the evening of the celebration, guests arrive and are served food and drinks. A special dessert called halwa is prepared mainly with hardi [turmeric], a yellow, pungent “heating” herb which is a native of India. The evening begins a long night of noisy rejoicing when chutney and sohar songs are rendered in Hindi and English. The sohar songs, accompanied by a dholak [hand drum], majeera [cymbals] and a dhantal [metal rod], usually draw their sources from child-centred episodes in the Ramayana. A sample of a stanza of a sohar is reproduced below.
ráma ke gūráwá gūngru á nīckālā gāīho
[Ráma loves the ghūngru (anklets) on his feet]
… gūngru á nīckālā gāī
… loves the ghūngru
… gūngru á nīckālā gāī
… loves the ghūngru
ráma díré díré chal á backání kausalyá rání mandilá mễi
[Ráma creeps slowly slowly with Queen Kausalyá into the palace]
The participation of relatives from both sides of the family emphasises the importance of birth in continuing family lines and cementing family bonds.
The chatti and barahe ceremonies are observed as a triumph over infant mortality, particularly perinatal mortality. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines perinatal mortality as the number of stillbirths and deaths in the first week [7 days] of life per 1,000 total births. In 2013, about 2.6 million babies died in the world before reaching their first month of their life.
Dr Kumar Mahabir,
Chairman, Indo-Caribbean Cultural Centre Co. Ltd (ICC)
Ph.D. Anthropology, University of Florida
Assistant Professor, University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT)
10 Swami Avenue, Don Miguel Road
San Juan, Trinidad and Tobago
Mobile (868) 756-4961
E-mail: [email protected]