Life events - Birth

The observance of rites and ceremonies is a central aspect of birth in South Asia. From the very moment of birth, a human being in the Indian subcontinent is surrounded with beliefs drawn from an ancient connection with nature.

Hinduism

Dried turmeric roots from Kew's Economic Botany Collection.
Image: Auspicious items such as turmeric are placed near the baby's cradle during the naming ceremony.

In Hindu families a little ghee (clarified butter) is placed on the tongue of the newborn and auspicious sounds (like 'om' the sound of the cosmos) are whispered in its ear before it is washed and placed at its mother's breast. Before the baby's birth, the pregnant mother will have been made to eat special foods made of a variety of cereals, nuts and dried fruits to help her in the preparation for the birth and ensure her health and serenity. She will have received oil massages and been anointed with plant-based creams to keep her relaxed, supple and glowing. This would be especially true of a first pregnancy, which is given great significance. The woman is usually sent to her parents' home for a couple of months before the birth to receive good care and attention.

The naming ceremony or namkarana is the first important celebration in the cycle of life or samskara. The baby, aged between 12 days to three months, is placed in a flower-bedecked cradle, women sing songs with its name, and auspicious items such as betel leaves, betel nuts, turmeric, rice and nuts are placed near it, symbolising good fortune, longevity and prosperity. Planetary positions at the date and time of its birth frequently determine the choice of the baby's name.

Another key event in the baby's life is the first taking of solid food, which is inaugurated with a ceremony called annaprashana. At this ceremony cooked rice is mixed with milk and ritually fed to the baby. There are many other birth rites followed in India, one of them being a presentation of the baby to the sun in a reflection of age-old solar worship. Others include the first visit of the baby outside the house, (which is usually to the temple), the ear-piercing ceremony, and the tonsuring of the head after some months; the hair being offered to the deity.

Islam

In Islamic practice, when a baby is born, the very first sound it hears is a declaration of faith in God. It is whispered in its ears by the child's father, an imam, or a male relative. The first taste in its mouth should be something sweet; a little bit of date juice is often smeared on its tongue. The naming ceremony is also an important event. Sikhs celebrate a baby's arrival with readings from the Granth and distribution of karha prashad or sweetened semolina.