Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Guru Granth Sahib © Tukaram.Karve / Shutterstock.com

Childbirth in India and the Associated Food and Song Culture

The birth of a child is considered auspicious and sacred in every culture. India, being multicultural in its beliefs and customs, has diverse traditions of local cuisines at all occasions, be it childbirth, or even death. Although the recipes have grown in number as a result of shared practices in modern times, traditional food items and their variants are still popular and can be found in almost all mandatory rituals.

Childbirth in Hinduism is considered the beginning of the existence of humankind and is accordingly treated as a pivot to a life-system that revolves around the infant.

It is therefore, not surprising, that seven out of sixteen samsakaras (sacraments) among Hindus are devoted to the birth of a child, which is celebrated with pomp and gaiety by family members and accompanied by singing auspicious songs for the occasion and partaking in celebratory food by all, but especially by the new mother.

It would be impossible to describe all the Hindu traditions spread across India, but three popular traditions from North India can illustrate the importance of traditional rituals, song, and food associated with childbirth.

Sohar is a folk song sung during pregnancy or to welcome an infant into a family. This song is about blessing a newborn and expressing gratitude at the baby’s arrival in the family mansion.

Important rituals are associated with naming the infant—Naamkaran and Jaatkarm Sanskaar—wherein the father of the child whispers prayers and Vedic hymns in the baby’s right ear. More than introducing the new born to their family religion and invoking divine protection, this ritual mainly aims at a sound social and cognitive development of the child.

A newborn Hindu child is given a few drops of honey owing to its medicinal qualities of cleaning the gastrointestinal system, which help clears out the meconium (the first dark bowel movement of a new born).

Simmantonnayan Samskara or God Bharayi is observed in the seventh month of pregnancy, when the mother’s hair is delicately parted by the father to put her in a calm and relaxed mood amidst prayers recited by women to bless the expectant mother and pray for the well-being of the mother and the new born.

In Braj, during the seventh month of conception, a typical rite of health is held for the would-be mother where she is plied with all kinds of nutritious foods, clothes and jewelry gifted to her by the family. This song speaks of a pregnant woman’s carving for a sweet pudding called halua, made with flour, clarified ghee, condiments and sugar/jaggery.

Tikki chaat is a typical North Indian tangy and hot preparation made with potatoes, fritters, and more in a tamarind sauce with spices © Mrityunjay Kumar Singh

Keeping in mind the hormonal changes, mood swings and thus the irrational palate during pregnancy, traditional sour-sweet, tangy, savory, and spicy foods like chaat (mixture of potatoes, onion, white peas, tamarind, curd, and condiments), and pakora (batter fried vegetables) is quite common. A sweet pudding (kheer/payas) made of fragrant rice, milk, dry fruits, jaggery, or sugar follows.

Other foods include pickles, papad (lentil wafers), chutneys, fried breads, (kachauri) with raita (spicy yoghurt dips), and many more. Relatives also bring a variety of foods.

Many prenatal food are described in song. For example, “Sonth Ke Laddu Charfare Hain” describes the ubiquitous laddoos—sweet balls with blood purifying, pain reliving, anti-oxidant, and energizing qualities made of dried ginger (sonth) or tragacanth gum (gond), fennel, flour, ghee (purified butter), jaggery syrup/sugar, and dry fruits, such as cashews, almonds, walnuts, and raisins.

There are many cultural variants among the Indian Muslim community too. In Rajasthan, Manganiars celebrate a child’s birth with folk songs of gratitude at the arrival of the newborn who is blessed with prosperity and health.

Most Muslims perform a circumcision on the eighth day of the child’s birth and believe that the sounds of the azaan—La ilaaha illilaah, mahmad-ur-rasulullaha—should be the first words to enter the baby’s ears. Softened dates with honey are rubbed on the palate of the newborn during the aqiqah.

In Sikh communities, the newborn is taken to a Gurudwara within forty days of birth where the Granthi (the priest) chants from the Guru Granth Sahib (a holy book). The family then chooses a name from the first letter of the hymn that is chanted by the priest. The name, so chosen, is announced by the family to the gathering, and then a halua is distributed among the gathering as celebratory treat.

All the communities ensure that the first food on the palate of their new born is sweet, believing that it sweetens the personality of the infant.

Throughout India, with its multicultural communities, the vast array of customs related to childbirth is as diverse as the customs themselves, and many involve food and song to help create a festive atmosphere while still holding on to the importance of bringing a new life into the world.