Indians love to party, they have lavish festivals for all sorts of occasions At a recent Parents meeting, when I got handed some printed Tamil filled invitation accompanied by the typical Indian head wiggle, I instantly wondered who was getting married or what other religious event was happening, how many firecrackers would be popped this time round?! However, after reconvening with Sarah after school, I discovered that the invitation was actually to celebrate a Seer. This is a festival unique to the tribal people and was in order to celebrate a girl coming of age. One of our pupils, Durga Davi, had recently been absent for a week, the week that she got her first period. As the tradition goes, she must stay in a makeshift hut, built from coconut leaves positioned away from the house. She’s allowed visitors but she may not leave, her parents bring her food and water and there’s many washing rituals depending on how far people enter the hut. The girl must then stay in this makeshift hut until her family organise her Seer.
When I learnt about all this, through Sarah and Nandini Maam, I had no idea what to make of it. Firstly, why didn’t I get a party when I had my first period?! And then…god, imagine all my school friends knowing about this, poor Durga must be mortified. Finally I thought about how cool it would be to camp out in a little hut by myself for a week. However, when I thought about the whole thing deeper, it seemed awful. All of this fuss about coming of age, was because she was coming of the right age to be married. Obviously this was a tradition and the festival didn’t necessarily hold the same meaning any more. Durga’s family had sent her to Vidya Vanam and were clearly keen for her to finish her education before they considered marrying her off, but there was still lots of connotations surrounding the celebration and problems it could cause for the family.
Indian families are tight knit groups of people, they may not always be close in a friendly way, but they’re engineered so everyone is involved in each others lives and they can get insulted easily if they hear gossip from their neighbours before they’re directly informed. In a village like Vardakkalor (where incest is pretty common) everyone is cousins with their grandpa’s son in laws sisters child and the children all have the same Patti who’s actually an Aunty etc. As you can imagine, it would be pretty difficult to inform all of the extended family before the gossip spreads. Often, in the case of a Seer or other similar events, arguments and family feuds are started because one Tata ( or whoever) has found out before the other. There’s a lot of pressure on the family too, as every uncle on her fathers side must buy her a new sari and money must be found to spend on celebrating the day in style. Ultimately I find it difficult to commend something which is technically a celebration of the start of marriage. Many of my colleagues have been affected by the plights of arranged marriage and to listen to their upsetting stories of life with their cruel mother in laws and inconsiderate husbands is terrible. If Durga had been alive and having her Seer a few generations ago, she would have been just starting off the tedious visits from men to decide in 3-7 minutes whether they wanted her as a wife.
Aside from my personal opinions, it was an amazing thing to witness. The day was nothing like I’d seen before and I was intrigued by the different parts to the ceremony and the rituals involved. We’d woken up early to arrive by 7.15 (we’d been told that this was the ‘correct’ time to arrive) sari’s were fussed over and wrapped, a quick trip to the bus stand to buy flowers and a hasty breakfast of biscuits later we were on our way to Durga’s village. As we were walking, someone waved on a passing motorbike. Used to the routine we plastered on the smiles and the three famous white girls waved back. On closer inspection, the waving hand connected to an arm which came from Durga Davi’s body! Where was our pupil going when we were going to her house? Maybe it was some ritual? Could she be transported to her Seer from a temple perhaps? None of us knew, but we noticed that our walk had been surprisingly quiet, considering there was a party about to begin.
We arrived into the village, greeted by a bunch of cheering children (I’m getting used to this response wherever I go, don’t know what I’ll do when I get home and random people don’t just stop to have a chat). There still didn’t seem to be a great number of people around and all the kids from our school were half dressed with sticky up hair and bizzarre assortments of clothes. I started to panic that I was overdressed in my sari and jewellery, but before I could think too deeply, we were led away by Durga’s tangachi (younger sister) Vaidehi. She sat us down in three plastic chairs outside their house and bounced about excitedly with the other kids. There was still no people about…but Indian’s are always late…for everything, so I wasn’t too concerned.
Three hours later… After sitting outside, watching the preparations, being brought tea, seeing all of Durga’s new jewellery, doing each others mhindi (henna) and playing with the children the official ceremony began! In some way, the first three hours were the nicest bits, we had a behind the scenes view on everything that was happening and got to sit with a nervous but excited Durga whilst she prepared for the big day. The Seer is made up of several different parts and seeing as our kids were amongst the best English speakers in the village, we had little to no spoken explanation as to what was happening. Luckily everyone was desperate to make us feel comfortable and even if they couldn’t tell us what to do, they tried to anyway, which resulted in lots of confusing exchanges in Tamil and awkward gesturing!
The first part of the Seer consisted of all the ladies crowding round into the small back yard whilst Durga was undressed, bathed and redressed. She began wearing a half sari which consists of a skirt and blouse and a draped bit of material, it looks similar to a real sari but definitely not the same. Different ladies and girls, various aunts and friends, attacked her with make up and combed her hair, attatching clips then jewellery then changing it and putting more on then taking it all off again. I felt so sorry for Durga Davi being pulled all over the place by her various female friends but I caught her eye a few times and was granted a cheeky excited looking smile. She was enjoying being the centre of attention and getting spoiled with lots of new things for a change!
After she was dressed, she was led back into her house and sat on the floor. She was handed a bundle of various household things, (including talc and a comb) and her sister, cousin and friends sat in a circle around her. There was lots of posing for pictures then a plate full of food was produced. This was part of a ritual which also involved oil and water. Durga Davi was to pour the oil into her hand and then attempt to smear it over her head but the girls in her inner circle were to hit it out of her hand before she could do this. There was a certain number of tries that she had for the oil, then it was water, then lastly food. By the end of it, the pretty coloured half sari was covered in all sorts of interesting things. It was hilarious watching the girls begin by gently hitting her hand and the older ones, who’d been through this ritual many times before, leaning over their shoulders and trying to get them to hit harder, then eventually the younger girls getting more and more excited and the food and oil flying all over the room. After that was finished, Durga Davi was led backwards out of her home and behind into the back yard once more, to wear her first ever sari.
Once more, the women flocked around our student, dressing and undressing, redoing her hair, putting jewellery on and taking it all back off again, smearing dark make up across her eyes and threading flowers through her hair. We watched all this from afar, observing how Durga just gave off an air of excitement. Then again she was brought round to the front of the house, where she was presented with plenty of gifts of fruit, bangles and sari’s. The family members took turns to smear orange and red pastes across her face, everyone getting more and more enthusiastic until Durga ended up a mass of bright colours with these teeny tiny eyes poking out. All the family members had completed the painting and to my surprise we were next! I was called up first, posing for the photographer with the different sticky things wiped all over my fingers as I transferred them to her face. Luckily China Chitra, Peepal class teacher was there to help me as she is also Durga’s cousin/aunt (it’s unclear.) Once Durga Davi was fully painted, fed lots of grapes and more and more flowers were added to her hair, the festival was over and it was time for photos and food to end a wonderful day.
Even though I have mixed feelings surrounding the origins of this festival, I felt so incredibly privileged to have witnessed such an event. These kind of traditions are sacred amongst the tribal communities and to be allowed to be part of this celebration was immense. As we left the village, we were thanked by Durga Davi’s elder brother as he felt incredibly lucky to have shared the family’s special day with us.