Editor’s Note: This month, that is October 2020, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Childhood and Relationship With Parents and Family,where we invite various articles to highlight the different experiences that we all have experienced in some form or the other in our birth or chosen families and have been negotiating with them everyday. If you’d like to share your article, email us at email@example.com.
In the Tamil Brahmin culture I grew up in, every time a woman passed away before a man or every time someone from my brahmin community was getting married, Sumangali Prarthanai was performed. This function was an ‘auspicious’ tradition performed with rituals to invoke the blessings of the ancestral Sumangalis and the future Sumangalis.
In the Vedas, ‘Sumangali’ is the title given to a married woman living with her husband. Prarthanai means prayers. Sumangali Prarthanai is a ritual performed in South Indian Brahmin homes before ceremonious occasions like a marriage, thread ceremony, or a women’s death before her husband. Supposedly a function for women by women, but what about single women, widowed women, divorced women and trans women? Why are they excluded?
Women in my family always looked forward to this function. They were praying for good health, wealth, peace and prosperity, and wished for blessings to die before their husbands, following the ancestral women who died before their husbands.
The family performing the function invites five to seven Sumangalis (married women) and a Kanya (a girl who has not attained puberty) to participate in the main function. Women on their periods are not allowed to participate or attend the function. Married women who are five months pregnant or have babies five months old cannot participate in the ritual. Girls, women, and other menstruators who are not married cannot participate in the ritual. Close family guests are observers of the function. The practice of isolating while menstruating because of being impure is strictly practiced in brahmin households. Domestic workers, and security guards are given the day off as this an ‘upper-caste brahmin’ ritual.
There are numerous rituals of oil bath, wearing nine yards saree, offering prasadam to the gods, decorating with turmeric and kumkum, wearing flowers, and a divine feast that is offered first to the ancestors and then to the Kanya and sumangalis. After the Sumangalis have been worshipped and have feasted, the rest of the guests can also eat.
Growing up, I was a part of at least five Sumangalis as a Kanya from 4-12 and attended other Sumangalis as a guest. As a child, these functions significantly impacted my conditioning on what it means to be a ‘good woman’ and influenced my internalised patriarchy and misogyny.
As a female child born into a Hindu brahmin household, wedding bells start ringing at birth. From the time the child comes out of the mother’s womb, they start listening to sentences like “this baby is going to be a great bride,” “cant wait to get you married off to a brahmin boy,” “so excited for your wedding,” or “you are going to be a great mother.” The pressure to get married by twenty-five for women and age thirty for men in the family meant that I started attending weddings at a young age.
The first wedding that I remembered attending had an oonjal (swing) ceremony. I was one of the Kanya’s made to sit on the swing with the bride and groom and watched the ceremony fold out. The swing led me to glamorise this ceremony that stems from child marriage, and I started imagining being at my wedding on that swing with my future husband. Immersion in these ceremonies significantly contributed to my conditioning to be a ‘good married wife’ from age three. I got so excited when I was the Kanya for the Sumangali Prarthanai before this wedding, where I saw the oonjal ceremony for the first time. Looking back on these experiences as a queer person, these small instances have led to years of built up homophobia, transphobia, patriarchy, and misogyny that I am actively trying to dismantle and learn from.
Sumangali Prarthani is one of the few times when in a traditional Indian brahmin household, the family’s women eat first before the men. They have to cook the feast, arrange all the materials for the rituals, clean and decorate the house, invite the guests, and manage everything for the function. The men take a day off from work for the function but are mainly observers of the function with minimal participation—an occasion where women get to eat first before the men is deemed as auspicious. I am certain that because of brahmin patriarchy conditioning, there will be times when Sumangalis have thoughts about eating less so that their male husbands, in-laws, relatives, and children can eat more.
Generally, in a family, the women cook the food, serve the children and husbands and in-laws and then eat themselves. The women in the family then wash the dishes, clean the kitchen, and do some meal prepping for the next day. On this auspicious occasion of Sumangali Prarthanai, the women get to eat first, but they still have to do all the cleaning and cooking. Maybe the plates are an exception since the meals are consumed on the banana leaves.
An essential factor in brahmin families and functions is gender inequality. Manusmriti influences Brahminical patriarchy so there is conditioned disrespect and objectification of women and femme people. The nature of this function, like numerous other functions, is incredibly patriarchal. It glorifies heteronormativity, encourages submission of women, justifies the power-relations of how men are superior to women and women are meant to be only wives and care-takers, and stirs the idea of how women should stay within the family and put the family before their own survival needs. It ostracises women who are not married, women who are divorced, and women who are widowed. It excludes queer women, trans women, and femme non binary people.
Personally, because of my experience, I believe these functions are unsafe for young children. In my case, while the women were busy praying to the ancestral Sumangalis and celebrating, as a young child who also happened to be the kanya, an educated elder brahmin man took advantage of me. This happened at multiple ceremonies/functions where the women were busy setting up for the rituals.
The moment I was not around the women of the family, I was taken advantage of. If this has happened to me, I am sure it has happened to other women and femmes, because most brahmin men are conditioned to feeling a sense of entitlement and controlling women and non-brahmins with structural violence and oppression. By glorifying Brahmanical patriarchy, these rituals and functions contribute to the normalisation and continuation of gender-based and caste-based oppression.
Even though I am strongly against this ceremony, the aspects I fondly remember about these ceremonies were meeting my cousins and relatives whom I do not get to see often, eating delicious traditional food and mingling with family and friends in the community.
This is a casteist and patriarchal practice and if you are someone who’s family practices this function, have a conversation about it, and let’s put a stop to a celebration that glorifies Brahmanical patriarchy and heteronormativity.
Sriranjini Raman is pursuing her undergraduate studies in Environmental Resource Studies and International Development. She is passionate about intersectional environmental justice and is an organizer with Fridays for Future India, a youth climate justice movement. She enjoys obscure cinema, creative expression, backpacking, and being in nature. You can find her on Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube.