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Sinhalese birth rituals of yore


Birth, like marriage and death is an important social event in any society and as such has commanded much attention, with a number of rituals coming to be associated with the passage of time.  Sinhalese society too has its share of ritual connected with birth and childhood and much of this could be traced back to the traditions established by the early Indo-Aryans when they established their sway over the Indo-gangetic plains more than 3000 years ago. Some however are later accretions that would have arisen due to folk beliefs or contact with other cultures.

Pregnancy longings

Before dealing with birth however let us go back to the period of conception. The olden day Sinhalese women as of now craved for certain foods when expecting and this was known as dola-duka. Women deprived of satisfying their dola-duka cravings were said to become weak and emaciated, so that it was very important that such desires were satisfied, a belief reflected in medieval Sinhalese literature such as the 14th century Saddharma Lankaraya of Dharmakirthi.

The belief is a fairly old one, for the Mahavamsa, an ancient chronicle of Sinhalese royalty composed sometime during the 5th century A.D. makes reference to the rather unusual cravings of Queen Viharamahadevi when she was expecting Prince Dutugemunu, an event which goes back to the 2nd century B.C. The chronicle has it that the queen longed to lie on her right side in a beautiful bed with a honey-comb of the size of a bull at the head of the bed and to partake of honey after giving of it to twelve thousand bhikkhus. She also craved to drink while trampling his very head, the water in which was washed the sword that beheaded the chief warrior among Elara's soldiers.

A consideration of the term dola may perhaps shed some light on this interesting belief. The term appears to have derived from the Prakritic dohada which in turn arose from the Sanskritic dvaihrda (lit. two hearts). It seems that the expectant mother was considered to have two hearts, hers and that of her unborn child. This contention has lent support by the famous Indian medical writer Sushruta who alludes to a pregnant woman as one with two hearts (dvihrdayam). We may therefore suppose that the idea of pregnancy craving originally arose in India and that the term originally meant '(the desire of) two hearts'. The underlying belief here seems to have been that the unborn child's desires were manifested in the longings for certain foods on the part of the mother and that these had to be satisfied to ensure the well-being of the child.

There also existed a number of unusual customs of the olden day Sinhalese connected with childbirth which no longer appear to be practised. One such custom is recorded by Hugh Neville in his contribution on 'Social rites of the Sinhalese' to the Taprobanian of April 1887. Neville notes that before the birth of a first born child, castes such as the Hakura, Paduwa and Berawaya tie a band of gaedumba bark over the breasts for seven months or so before birth, to protect the nipples from evil influences and to increase the supply of milk.

This, he notes, is called tana potta or 'pap bark'. He also observes that Sinhalese women of whatever caste, if they wear no covering over the upper part of the body, wear a band of calico four inches wide across the breasts during the period immediately before their child's birth, and until it is weaned. This, he says, is done to avert the evil eye.

Parental home

In the not too distant past, it was generally the vinnambu or midwife who delivered the child at the woman's parental home. Indeed, confinement in the parental home appears to have been widespread even among the aristocratic families well up to the early part of the 20th century. This also seems to have been the practice in ancient and medieval times as well as may be gathered from sources such as the Saddharma Ratnavaliya composed by Dharmasena in the 13th century.

In the olden days, childbirth very often took place in a dark room in a house, a practice which seems to have died out today, except perhaps in some remote areas where health services are not easily accessible. The Valauwas or manors of the old Sinhalese aristocracy were in fact provided with special lying-in rooms known as timirige or timbirige (lit.dark house). These rooms were provided with two ropes known as vili-rena (lit.labour cords) which were tethered to the roof and dangled above the bed thereby providing support to the parturient woman straining in labour.

The fist birth rite performed on the newborn today is the ceremony of rankiri kata gema, the application of breast milk touched with gold on the lips of the infant.

That the practice is an old one, there cannot be any doubt. It is similar in many respects to an ancient Hindu rite prescribed in the Ashvalayana Sutra where it is stated that the father of the newborn should make it suck the ghee and honey rubbed in gold by placing it in the mouth of the child, before it is taken away. The bat kevima or first feed of rice is another important childhood ritual among the Sinhalese and has to take place during the 6th, 8th, 10th or 12th month in the case of boys and in the 5th, 7th, 9th or 11th month in the case of girls. The task is usually performed by the father or paternal grandfather and although tradition prescribes that the first meal be a variety of al hal, nowadays hinati hal is often used along with kitul jaggery.

The custom could be considered the equivalent of the Hindu annaprashana which finds mention in ancient Hindu ritual texts. The Ashvalayana Sutra for instance prescribes that the child be fed cereal in its 6th month and that he who desires his child be intelligent should feed it cooked rice mixed with ghee and honey. That the ritual figured among the ancient Sinhalese is borne out by the Chulavamsa which has it that King Manabharana had the ceremony of the first feed of rice (annapasana) performed for his son Parakramabahu according to custom. The Dhampiya Atuva Getapadaya of the 10th century also refers to the custom of feeding the child rice gruel (hambu povana).

Naming ceremony

But by far the most important childhood ritual in traditional Sinhalese society is the nam tebima or naming ceremony which often takes place a few months after birth when it is fed with rice for the first time. The name so given is the batkavapu nama 'the name given at the first feeding of the rice'.

The Saddharma Ratnavaliya refers to an occasion when the naming ceremony was performed on the day of the birth of the child, while the Pujavaliya refers to an instance when the naming took place five days after the birth. It however appears that in Kandyan times, the naming was done on the seventh month after the birth of the child.

The rite could be considered the equivalent of the Hindu Namakarana prescribed in the Grhya Sutras. These texts recommend that a name be selected for the child on the very first day of the birth, the eleventh day or the 101st day after the birth. We also gather from the Jataka tales which reflect Hindu social life of Pre-Buddhist India that there was a day fixed for naming the child (namagahanadivasa) and that names were usually formed after those of the ancestors or from the father's or mother's side (na mahyam mattikam naman, na pi pettikasambhavam).

The dorata vedima where the child is taken out of the house into the open and exposed to the rising morning sun is another important ritual in traditional Sinhalese society. The practice is evidently the same as the hiru vadana magula or 'Ceremony of the increasing Sun' mentioned in the Saddharma Ratnavaliya which consisted of exposing the child to the sun a few days after birth. The practice bears a striking resemblance to the ancient Hindu custom known as Aditya Darshana or the ceremony of taking the child out to see the sun which took place in the fourth month after birth.

Yet another important rite, the hisakes kepima or tonsure, is performed at an auspicious time during the first, third, or fifth year of the child. The Dhampiya Atuva Getapadaya refers to the ritual as Silu Situvana. It could be considered the equivalent of the Hindu Chudakarma prescribed in the ancient Indian ritual texts. The kan vidima or the piercing of the ears of girls, another important rite, is usually performed early in infancy.

Tradition prescribes that the piercing be done on the 10th, 16th or 19th day after birth, failing which it may be performed on a suitable day between the 6th and 8th month after birth.

Among the medieval Sinhalese works which mention the custom are the Dhampiya Atuva Getapadaya which calls it kan vijuna. There is also evidence to show that in the olden days, it was also performed on male children, at least those of royal stock.

The Chulavamsa for instance has it that King Manabharana had the ceremony of the piercing of the ears (kannavedha) performed for his son Parakramabahu.

The custom could be considered the equivalent of the Hindu Karnavedha which the Grhya Sutras recommend be performed on the third or fifth year of the child. @Sunday Observer

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