Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Steam hut (bliukel) © Meked Besebes

Palauan Birthing Rituals

In Palau, the healing process after birth is an essential part of a woman’s reproduction and life cycle. Great emphasis on and development of rituals have persisted to ensure women’s childbearing and rearing capabilities. Processes and details in carrying out this ceremony establish connections among family and clan members for the new mother and her husband. It is a celebration of the success and joy of the first child, the family, and relatives.

Omesurech–Hot Bath

Preparation for the first-child ceremony begins with the hot bath, omesurech (healing process). Before the omesurech begins, word is passed to appropriate relatives of the woman regarding the bath. Word of the omesurech and omengat (presentation ceremony) is sent to the men’s parents and relatives. All preparation of the omesurech and omengat are taken care of by the mlechell’s (new mother going under the hot bath) parents, family, and clan relatives.

The hot bath may begin one or two months after the birth of the child. Generally there are two divisions of omesurech, one that follows the days allotted for the mlechell’s clan and another used by followers of Modekngei. The omesurech consists of taking a hot bath, drinking herbal medicine, and having a final steam. Before the hot bath begins, the mother is told the basic protocols she has to follow.

During the bath, the mother enters the hot bath area and sits on a ulitech (woven coconut sitting mat), and turmeric oil is applied all over her body. Turmeric oil aids in removing dark areas of the skin as well as protecting the skin from the hot bath water.

Sitting with legs stretched out, she waits for the mesurech (skilled woman giving/performing the hot bath) to begin the process. An osurech (large boiling pot containing medicinal plants) is situated near the mesurech, who ladles the hot water into a small container and selects a few leaves to be used. The leaves are dipped in the water and quickly slapped on to the woman’s body. Depending on the particular training, omesurech practices may vary; however, the hot bath usually begins from the head to the abdomen and down to the feet. A typical omesurech happens twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

For the duration of omesurech, which could last several days, the mlechell showers with the hot bath water and remains adorned with the turmeric oil, constantly applying it as needed. Her mother, sister, and female kin attend to her and her baby. Omesurech helps get rid of stretch marks and other skin discoloration that may have result from the pregnancy.

Omengat e Mo Tuobed—Married Woman’s First-Child Ceremony

Traditionally, the first-child ceremony happens after a marriage exchange; however, the culture allows the marriage exchange to take place during this time as well. The mlechell’s maternal uncle plays a large role in terms of food preparation and all major logistics. The maternal uncle is responsible for food consisting of crops, meat, and other prepared meals that will be presented to the husband’s family. These foods may be presented before or during the ceremony.

On the day of the ceremony, a mlechell begins enters the bliukel (a steam hut) to complete the final stage of omesurech, which is the omengat. Afterward, she showers and is allowed to use soap to clean her body. She then goes back to the house to prepare for her final presentation. In the meantime, her family, clan, and in some cases the village, are busy packing food, decorating, and welcoming members of their family and clan to the house. The mlechell’s mother continues to care for the baby while her father supervises, being mindful not to step into the responsibilities of the mlechell’s maternal uncles (okdemelel).

Excitement runs high in the air as the husband’s family arrives and is greeted with a feast filled with the best food that the land can produce. As the day progresses, a meeting between the mlechell and her husband’s family takes place to exchange money, which typically covers the bus or orau (money for marriage) and buuldiil (money for the maternal uncle for taking care of her from pregnancy until the omesurech).Kinswomen gather inside the house to get the mlechell ready. A traditional skirt that bears the family color is used for her final presentation. A btek (woven pandanus belt) is lashed around her stomach. While her aunts prepare the finest adornment for her hair and other body ornaments, her younger sister and female cousins, who have not gone through the process, watch ardently, questioning and showing excitement, for they know that their own times will come. When she is finally ready, word is passed to the mlechell’s husband’s relatives that she is ready. A senior family or clan member of her husband covers her neck with valuable Palauan money. This money will be returned to the family afterwards.