Rites of Passage

Many early cultures had ceremonies and rituals for the first menstruation of young women.

The Tamil rite in this regard, which marks the end of girlhood, is most interesting and beautiful. Such old rites remind us of how the ancient Dravidian civilization transcends millennia and still blesses its descendants with rites and ceremonies that celebrate different stages in the life of girls, boys, men and women. The early morning ceremonies before sunrise are full of meaning.

Dressed in a new saree with white flowers adorning her long plaited dark hair in pure Tamil style, the girl looks like a deity. Prior to the ceremony, the girl wears her stained dress and her father’s sister undresses and bathes her. Her mother’s brother offers the new saree. Apparently the bloodstained underwear and dress are thrown into the sea. Sanskrit verses and prayers are then said by the pundit performing the rites, giving the girl blessings as she enters a new stage of her life. Such rites, performed in India and among the diaspora across the world, are part of what keep the civilization everlasting and alive.

Only a serious study of rites of passage in old Indian-American and African cultures can give us a clear idea about their survival. Physical prowess demanding bravery and endurance, and overcoming fear, used to mark the passage from boyhood to manhood. In parts of Africa, boys had to spend a night on their own in the forest and sort out ways to face danger before they would start to act like men, fighting or wooing girls. So did boys in Indian-American cultures. The idea is to inculcate a sense of responsibility and to develop maturity before boys start acting like adults.

Maybe today’s rite of passage is increasingly influenced by aggressive advertisement of all sorts of brands of clothes, shoes, tonic beverages and games which target adolescents and promote consumerism, a key component of American style wildcat capitalism. Adverts tell them what they should do to be ‘in’, and fleece their parents’ bank accounts in the process. Those adverts are also telling adults that they are either too fat or too thin, not strong enough, not trendy enough so that adults end up taking to youth culture – play video games with their sons, dress like their daughters, try to look young and be happier. Aggressive publicity on TV, radio, on Internet, in our mail box, in public transport in some countries and on billboards see to it that you are never satisfied and always want more to be happier.

The legacy of the culture that started in Harlem ghettoes and expressed in rap songs and music propagated to Parisian suburbs among youths who loaded their songs with anti-Establishment diatribe and a high dose of Arab-inspired anti-female rhetoric. Youths abroad began identifying and even adopting the dress style and walking like the role models whose songs influence their young minds, depending on their aptitude for mimicry.

Opening windows and letting different waves of ideas flow in but without being swept off their feet is a quandary adults confront in the upbringing of children. That is if we assume that parents do have the time to notice and take stock of what impresses young minds and take steps to eliminate undesirable influences so as to deter harmful and anti-social behaviour. Overall, the challenge is to re-discover the proper rites of passage to show youngsters the way to responsibility and maturity.


* Published in print edition on 8 November 2013

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