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Childbirth Rituals


Childbirth Rituals accompanied by a series of rituals are closely related to the notion of taboos and remedial measures based on traditional medicine. Even nowadays any complication during pregnancy or in delivery is attributed to supernatural factors or infraction of taboos. Supernatural help is sought to deal with the complications.

The origin of these remedial measures dates back to the Vedic and Brahmanic period i.e., 1500-800 BC. The medicine in Vedic era was intermingled with religion, magic and charms. Atharva Veda indicates that during that period herbal materials were integrated with incantation. This paved the way for the emergence of ayurvedic medicine system. The Ayurvedic period began around 600 BC. Ayurveda maintains that bayoo (wind), pitta (bile) and slesma (phlegm) are the three main elements which in balance keep a human body healthy. This balance is maintained by intake of proper food. Food is classified into two main categories depending on the qualitative value indicating its hotness and coldness. Pregnancy and postpartum are viewed as the unusual state of the body that tends to create imbalance. Imbalance, in general, can be avoided through proper food intake.

The history of birth rituals can be traced to Charaka Samhitha (200 AD), where one finds that the uses of certain herbal materials, spices, ghee (purified butter), metals, amulets, lighting a fire, and food taboos were integral elements of the birth practices. Nowadays the uses of amulets, lighting a fire, food taboos and remedial measures are common amongst Muslims as well. Apart from purifying rituals there is little variation in childbirth practices amongst Muslims and Hindus.

Pregnancy is regarded as a vulnerable state for the woman as well as the foetus. A pregnant woman is supposed to maintain certain restrictions during pregnancy. It is believed that the formation and growth of the foetus depends on the maintenance or violation of some religio-cultural codes and social norms. For example, intercourse during the solar and lunar eclipses, slaughtering an animal, or cutting down a branch of a fruit bearing tree in pregnancy are said to cause stillbirth or deformity in a child. A pregnant woman should not set off from her house at dawn, midday, or dusk because during these hours, the evil spirits become more active and may prey on her. To safeguard a pregnant woman and her child from the influence of these evil spirits she is given made an amuletto keep it with her that contains verses from the respective religious books, special diagrams and/or herbal substances. Women also observe food taboos during pregnancy. It is thought that overindulgence in rich food may cause the baby to grow so big that the mother may experience difficulties in delivery. They also avoid any kind of modern medicine.

In rural Bangladesh almost all women give birth to their babies at home with the assistance of elderly women, relatives and/or a traditional birth attendant, known as dai. Among Muslims a separate room, cooking shed or a part of courtyard surrounded by curtains are used as the labour room. Hindus build a separate room or a shed in the courtyard for such a purpose. This is burnt afterwards. For a Muslim woman delivery can take place on the bed or on a bamboo mat spread on the floor while a Hindu woman delivers her babies on the floor on straw beds. In both cases an old knife, an old shoe and a broomstick are kept under the bed to drive away the evil spirit. Sanctified mustard seeds are spread at the doorsteps of the atur ghar, the labour room. If a dai is called, the pregnant woman washes her feet at the door step as a gesture of showing her dependence on the dai for a safe delivery. Usually the delivery takes place with the woman lying, kneeling or in a squatting position. During the delivery drinking water, milk or tea prevents reverse motion of the baby. If complications arise, the pregnant woman is given pani pada (consecrated water) and water brought from Mecca to drink. Some water is sprinkled to the umbilicus. Kabiraj (folk healers) and homeopaths are also called in if needed. The amulet and a piece of consecrated jute or the flower of hatisuri tree are tied around her waist and/or thigh. Sometimes the birth attendant places a kula (a winnowing platter, used to separate the grain from the husk) below the mother's birth passage, inviting the unborn baby to come out. Swearing to sacrifice something in the name of Allah for secured delivery is very common among Muslims.

If the ejection of placenta is delayed after the baby has been delivered, the woman is induced to vomit. In doing so garlic paste or a tuft of hair dipped into kerosene oil is pushed down her throat. Piercing the cord with a needle or broom stick, putting the cord, or applying pressure upon the abdomen with knees or a wooden stool are common techniques to extract the placenta. In this regard some rituals are also performed such as roasting of flower petals in a fry pan, cutting off the tying ropes of the thatched roof, unlocking the padlocks, unhinging the doors, opening of the cover of paddy storage, and cutting off the bamboo nodes.

After the placenta has been expelled, the umbilical cord is tied in two places with a thread or a piece of cloth. The cord is cut with a silver bamboo (in rare cases, a blade) in between the ligatures and ash or burnt earth is applied on it as a dressing. The placenta is put in a banana leaf or an earthen pot and buried deep down in the earth so that no animal or evil spirit can reach it. If any of them touches the placenta, it is believed that it may cause drying up of the mother's milk, inflicting diarrhoea to the child or even neonatal death. In fear of being dragged out of the buried placenta by some scavenging animals, it is sometimes buried inside the hut.

After the baby is born, a few drops of mustard oil is put on its nostrils, ears and also on its tongue for lubricating the mouth, but it is not considered as a food. The first food given to the child is honey. In most cases colostrum is not given to the child since it is considered as polluted or too thick for the child to digest. After the child is washed, azan (calling for prayer) is whispered in the right ear of the child, if he is a boy, and in the left ear, if she is a girl. Hindus blow a trumpet of conchshell or beat a copper plate with a stick on the birth of a boy. A black spot is marked on one side of the baby's forehand and a black thread is tied around its waist to prevent the evil eye and an amulet is given to protect it from all inauspiciousness. Just after the baby's birth, a fire is lit to drive the evil spirit away. The fire pot is also used to take hot compress from it. A compress is applied to the baby's navel to cauterise it and on the lower abdomen, as a weft in the external genital parts of the mother. This heat helps mother's uterus to retract and heals the raw flesh of the womb. This could be applied in different ways, for example, like a lump of dried soil made hot in a fire ball and wrapped in clothes and pressed gently on the abdomen, or as a hole made in the ground, where twelve types of spices are put and a fire is lit. When the flames come up, the woman squats over the hole. Sometimes the woman is asked to sit on a hot brick.

Among Muslims as well as Hindus, the sixth night after the childbirth is considered to be significant. To Hindus the 6th day is known as saraswati din. They believe that the child's fate is determined and written by God in that night. A piece of paper, ink, pen, a ring made up of the combination of gold, silver and bronze, paddy, husked rice, milk, grass, joba flower (china rose), ghee (butter), honey, a branch of mango, and a branch of wood apple tree etc. are kept in a kula. To Muslims, this night is considered as inauspicious since evil spirits become more active in this night to snatch away the baby from its mother. The mother along with other women relatives stays awake throughout the night keeping the child in their laps. Both Muslim and Hindu families keep a lamp burning throughout the night for seven days during this period.

For Muslims the naming ceremony called aqiqah is performed on the 7th, 14th or 21st day after birth. Two goats for a male child and one for a female child are sacrificed in the name of Allah. Among Hindus it takes place on the 10th day and is followed by a puja. The child is given two names, one based on the constellation at the time of birth, and the other for day to day use. For Muslims, on the 7th day, the child's hair is shaved, gold or silver weighing equal to the shaved hair or equivalent to the price of the metals is donated to the poor. The shaved hair is buried under the earth or thrown away into the river. For Hindus the shaving is done twice, once on the 5th, 7th or 9th day and the final one on the 30th day. A barber shaves the child.

Hindus depend on the dai and barber to remove pollution caused by childbirth. The number of days in pollution varies in different religions, even in different caste groups. It varies from 11 days (for brahmans) to 30 days (for shudras).

A Muslim woman remains polluted as long as her post-patum bleeding continues (usually 40 days after delivery). During her polluted state, the parturient woman, irrespective of religion, is not allowed to perform any religious duty or resume coitus. She refrains herself from milking cows, collecting eggs laid down by poultry, and entering inside a gola, where the grain bins are kept.

Among Hindus, Brahmans perform purifying rituals once on the 11th day while Sudras perform it on the 3rd, 11th, and finally on the 30th day. The ceremony is led by a Brahman. The baby's hair and nails are cut. The baby and the mother take their baths, wear new clothes, and discard whatever they used during the period of seclusion due to birth pollution. After she has had her bath, the mother is fed with a small quantity of pancha gobbaya, containing five elements - ghee, honey, milk, gangajal (sacred water from the ganges) and go-chona (a bit of cow-dung and a few drops of cow's urine). Then she is provided with a meal consisting of five dishes. After the Surya Arghya Puja is over, she is allowed to leave atur ghar, but she herself is held to be polluted for a certain period of time.

In the Hindu community childbirth pollutes all the kin belonging to the child's gotra. None of the members of the gotra perform puja before the polluted stage is over. For Muslims the childbirth does not pollute any of the family members excepting the parturient. Nevertheless, she is expected to stay at the atur ghar for three to seven days in order to protect the baby from the evil spirit. The mother is also seen to be vulnerable possession by a zin/bhut since the evil spirits are fond of polluted blood and breast milk. When the parturient woman goes outside to urinate or defecate, she covers her hair, takes a piece of iron or a bunch of key, and sprinkles her path with water in order to expel all dangers in front of her. Before entering the atur ghar, she walks around the fire pot and warms up her hands and feet to expel any bad spell, which might have accompanied her. The Muslim mother takes a bath on the seventh day, wears new clothes, and is fed with special meals containing five or seven dishes. Then she is allowed to leave the atur ghar.

The food and health care for a new mother is selected very carefully to provide the parturient with necessary warmth and strength, dehydrating the extra fluid that she accumulated due to pregnancy without disturbing her digestive system. The preferred hot food includes ghee, honey, seeds, cassia, cinnamon, comfit, ginger, garlic, clove nutmeg and cardamom. Hot food such as meat, eggs, big fishes, pulses, chilli etc. are avoided. Cold food includes water-based vegetables, yoghurt etc.

Fluid based foods are soup, juice, milk, and cooked rice. Dry food includes roasted rice, puffed rice, molasses, bread, ground herbs and spices. After delivery, the mother is not served with cooked rice for at least three days. The prescribed diet includes admissible hot foods and dry foods along with the sap of some herbs and hot tea. Although fluid-based food are avoided, a kind of special soup is prepared for the mother and is given to her either on the third or the seventh day. The leaves of rujat, neem, dhankolash, amtal basak, tuni mankuni and rajmanik (all such herbs grow wild in Bangladesh) are made into a paste. The paste is then mixed with baro bakar. The mixture is fried in ghee and two pints of water is added and brought to boil. Afterward one or two sing machh (catfish) or a slaughtered pigeon are added to the boiling soup. The mother takes her first cooked rice with this soup.

There are some home made herbal preparations, which can prevent some complications during postnatal period and help speedy recovery. Powdered dried leaves of neem and jute mixed with honey and ghee relieve pain and help drying of the fallopian tube. It may prevent swelling of the legs, cervical pain, anorexia, indigestion and dizziness. Some practices just after delivery may prevent obstetric related diseases. It is believed eclampsia could be prevented if immediately after delivery the warm blood of a pigeon is massaged on the scalp of the mother. Similar application of pasted leaves of chalta prevents sutika (postnatal diarrhoea). Massaging the scalp with warm oil smoked with freshly ground garlic and ginger protects against burning skull. Avoiding fluid based food could prevent swelling of the body.

It is also thought that the more excessive the bleeding the more the possibility of an earlier recovery. A shek (hot compress) helps to discharge the polluted blood out of the body. It is believed that injection administered after delivery prevents the clotted blood from being expelled out and gives rise to obesity, cervical pain etc. Such injections also decrease the flow of breast milk. So women prefer avoiding modern medicine but if complications arise women may receive a combination of three types of remedial measures, i.e., modern, herbal and supernatural.

Since 1980s, the government of Bangladesh has extended its programme to provide antenatal care and safe delivery assistance by establishing maternal care units at the union level. There are 96 maternal centres in Bangladesh. Services are also provided at home through traditional birth attendants, known as TBA or dai The dais are given training on safe delivery system and are provided with safe delivery kits. The number of these daises is 109,825. In spite of all these efforts, only 5.4% deliveries were assisted by doctors/nurses, 59.41% by TBAs and 35.2% by relative/untrained persons.

In order to expand government's health programmes, with the inclusion of community representative a Stakeholder Committee has been formed to extend help in all health related issues including antenatal/postnatal care. Because of the efforts of the government, as well as UNICEF and some NGOs, some positive changes have taken place. In addition to their rituals, women are increasingly opting for antenatal treatment. The rate of adopting tetanal toxide during pregnancy is 72%. Children are also given medical attention. The rate of immunisation coverage for TB, DPT, polio and measles are 94%, 69%, 69% and 79% respectively.

Birth rituals differ very little in the urban areas of Bangladesh. The only major difference is that most deliveries take place at hospitals in urban areas and mothers as well as children receive modern medical treatment. But despite the availability of modern treatment, most urban as well as rural people continue to value traditional lore and practices relating to child birth but do not do so as blind followers of tradition or cultural dups. Instead, their deployment of resources is a product of many interacting factors - personal knowledge, preference and economic condition. [Sultana Mustafa Khanum]