This weekend I had the honor of attending a valaikappu, also known as the bangle ceremony, a Hindu ritual for a mother-to-be. It is usually held in the 7th or 9th month of pregnancy and is a time when family and friends gather to convey their best wishes to the soon-to-be mom and dad.
My friend Chitra (one of my key cultural counselors in India) and her husband Suresh (you may remember him as the hero who scored a seat for me and fended off eve-teasers on my first India train trip...) are the proud expectant parents. Here, Suresh is placing a garland on Chitra.
I had never been to a valaikappu before so I wasn't sure what to expect. I was thinking it would be a casual gathering along the lines of our baby shower, but this event was almost as elaborate as some of the Indian weddings I've been to! Just like in a wedding, there was a massive spread of bananas, mangoes, coconuts, and lots of sweets. There was also a lot chanting by a priest (above, center) and a series of rituals involving fire.
The women in the room took turns giving Chitra their well-wishes and blessings.
This involved placing yellow sandal paste on her cheeks and arms, and red kum kum on her forehead...
...adding fresh jasmine to her hair...
...and a hilarious simulation of "baby handling," using a some kind of melon (or gourd?) as the baby.
Not sure what the bowl with the red liquid was all about, but I'm guessing it had something to do with fertility... ;o)
The highlight of the ceremony was each woman in the room placing two glass bangles on Chitra's arms. By the end of the day, I think she must have had about a hundred bangles on. The bangles will stay on until the baby is born; it is believed that they make a pleasant tinkling sound which the baby can hear in the womb.
After all the bangles were on, Chitra bent down and stood in this position for several minutes (that's her in the middle, above), while the elders held a banana leaf over her back and poured something down the banana leaf. If I understood the explanation correctly, this has something to do with wishing a safe journey for the newborn during childbirth. Although to me it seemed like a terribly uncomfortable position for a pregnant woman to be in for so long, I was told by her sister-in-law, who is a doctor, that it's actually a position that is encouraged for pregnant women because it eases childbirth.
One big difference between this and Indian weddings, is that there was a lot of laughter -- unlike the very somber faces of brides at Indian weddings!
As with all Indian functions, the event ended with a meal on the traditional banana leaf.
Chitra in all her bangle glory. Now all that's left to do is wait for the little one's arrival...