rites of the yesteryears
In this era of globalisation, inter-border differentiations have dissipated to make way for collective, mingled traditions. And advantageous as that may be in it's own way, fear lies in that seemingly unimportant tidbits of our culture that generations before us have practiced religiously will be lost somewhere along the line. One such dying tradition is the observation of numerous rituals that are , or were, practiced throughout our country; less well-known but equally significant. For fear of losing them completely into the obscurity of times past, long due mention of that which was symbolic to those before us...
A ritual commonly practiced in the Chapainawabganj region of our country and perhaps Bangladesh's best answer to a bachelorette party, Thhubra is a series of occasions designed for a bride-to-be that precedes the main functions of a wedding. The intention is to host multiple 'farewells' for the bride, which are arranged separately by her close relatives and friends. On an agreed date (according to the bride's convenience), the host is to fetch and escort the bride to his/her house and an elaborate meal is prepared, once again according to the bride's preferences. A strongly maintained aspect of this ritual is that every host gives the bride a new sari that she has to wear to their respective houses. The guest list comprises few else save the hosts and the bride and the idea is to spend quality time with her near and dear ones before she leaves her maternal home.
Like so many other rituals and superstitions meant for the same purpose, Shaad is an event to do with the birth of a baby. Although more common on our television screens as Godbharai ki rasm in Hindi serials, similarly structured customs are maintained in several regions of Bangladesh as well. The ceremony is intended for women to attend, and a mini banquet is prepared where a special menu features the expectant mother's cravings. Symbolism is rigidly paid heed to during the rite and different objects are placed into the mother's lap, each with a high representational value. Metal and mustard for example are given to ward off evil (ghosts to be precise).
And in speaking of births, intricate practices are not just adhered to before the child is born, but certain sacraments borne from superstitions are unfailingly maintained even after the baby's arrival. A very interesting, and even unusual ceremony in this regard is arranged by maternal grandmothers in Sirajganj. After a daughter returns to her parents' home for the delivery of her child, a temporary dwelling called an Atur Ghar is created separate from the main buildings of residence. The mother and child live here for a period of 40 days and on the completion of this time frame the child is officially brought out to be amidst other people. It is then given a bath by the grandmother in front of all the invitees and this ritual is designed such that a Nani can bestow blessings upon her grandchild. Symbolic of elements she would want ingrained in her grandchild's persona, certain figurative objects are placed in the bath water. From personal experience, my grandmother first put a Gondhoraj in the water that she bathed me in with the hope that my life would always be as fragrant and beautiful as the flower followed by a series of spices to make me a good cook (evidently some of the blessings turn out to be grossly wrong). It is nonetheless, interesting to see what different people will wish for, given the liberty that their blessings can embed in their grandchild any quality that they will. However, even though she is the centre of attraction, the Nani is not allowed to cook on this day and the meals are usually prepared by members of the extended family.
Moving on to more unisex celebrations, a festival that is collectively observed throughout rural Bangladesh is called Nobonno that literally translates to 'new grain'. During this time, workers from afar come to harvest the rice paddies of rich landlords and after the harvesting and grain picking period is complete (which variably takes a number of days or weeks) a feast is arranged for the working class where the main attraction is payesh made from the new grain. The main course comprises of rice, vegetables and meat- a treat to the workers. And the custom, in its entirety, is for their benefit. On the other end of this festival, the sons-in-law of the household are invited to a pitha utshob to enjoy the harvests of the season.
Following a similar line of thought is an event arranged, once again for sons-in-law, this time in celebration of the new fruits of the season. The seasonal Grishsho kalin fruits are the specials of this feast and whatever else may or may not find itself on the menu, the three items of jackfruit, mangoes and milk are compulsory.
And to add a final note, we have a ceremony of a completely different kind, practiced in different manners all the way from Africa to Asia. During dry spells, in some parts of Bangladesh, ceremonies beckoning rain (think Lagaan) are performed that involve a group of people going from door-to-door asking for rice grains or lentils that they amalgamate and cook together with sacrificed meat for religious leaders to pray for rain. Interesting to note is that the group, singing and dancing all the way, are clad in wet clothes and headed by a small child who has to be an only daughter.
As current times dictate, the world today becomes one large and single platform, with one universal language and one universal way of life. What then of practices that make for national exclusiveness? We can but hope that those parts of our identity that we choose to lose will find some of way of existing…if nowhere else, then at least in folklore.
By Subhi Shama Reehu