Friday, March 27, 2009

Aksharaabhyaasa (or Vidhyaarambham) - A Prayer for a Milestone

Growing up in India, it is very easy to feel like you're drowning in the frequency and number of rituals in any given year. There are the numerous festivals, there are the special rituals unique to every family, the rituals for every life event, and then there are the pujas held at random times during the year to address specific issues - if someone has been sick for a long time, if someone is having difficulty at work or in finding a bride or groom, or if the family is just grateful for a happy occurrence.

Not only do you celebrate the ones in your own home, but you participate in the ones in relatives' and friends' houses as well - 'participate' meaning you dress up in nice clothes, put on all your jewellery, talk nineteen to the dozen with the gathering of friends and relatives, feast to your heart's content on festival food and go back home deliciously tired. Yes, rituals in other people's houses are almost always more fun. Someone else is doing all the work, you see.

Living in the US, it's a completely different story. We live off of a calendar that makes no mention of any of the festivals, wandering in the desert of no rituals for years. Life runs on a completely different cycle than the one on which we grew up. No, this is not a complaint, just a statement of fact. It is what it is. We each pray in our own way every morning, we get to the temple as often as we can, but festivals come and go unnoticed, unless my parents or in-laws call from India and ask what we did that day.

There are some rituals, though, particularly the ones to do with children that somehow we've managed to keep our sights on. When the future is in plain sight is perhaps when you look carefully at your past, at your roots. So we've been eager beavers when it comes to making sure our kids are up to date on the rituals meant for them. There's the little ritual when the baby comes home for the first time from the hospital; a visit to the temple is the baby's first outing; there's the naming ceremony; there's the ceremony for when the baby graduates from milk to solid foods; a ceremony to make an offering of the child's hair to the family deity (in India, hair would be shaved off completely from the children's heads, whereas here the priest held a few blades of dried grass right next to our son's hair and air-snipped as a stand-in); and there's the ritual before children begin their formal education.

This last one, the ritual for when children are about to start school is a personal favorite. Going off to school is one of the big milestones in the life of a child, his or her first real step as a social being, deserving of proper marking and celebration. The Aksharaabhyaasa is simple, sweet and profound in import, all at the same time.

So this past January, the day before D was to start pre-school, we set up time at the temple to have a priest perform the ceremony for us. The temple's website helpfully provided the list of items we needed to take - flowers, fruits, about a pound of rice, honey, milk, yogurt, ghee, turmeric, kumkum (vermillion), betel nuts, betel nut leaves, a piece of cloth, a book and a pencil, etc., etc. That Sunday, we dressed up D in her long skirt (langa) and blouse that my sister-in-law and brother-in-law had given her as a gift during C's thread ceremony (the Upanayanam, which I wrote about here), C wore his jubba and pyjama and off we went to the temple.

After the initial iteration of our family's antecedents and a small prayer to invoke the goddess of education, Saraswati, the priest had D sit on her father's lap and with his hand guiding hers, her finger serving as a writing implement, she traced the first few alphabets of the Kannada script on a rice-filled plate. Then followed a few letters of the English alphabet and then the numbers. Right on cue, good-natured ribbing followed - are you sure you remember your alphabets, the priest teased the husband; he can't even read my letters anymore, chimed in my mother-in-law. And then it was done.

The next day, Monday, I woke her up gently, telling her she had to go to school. She got up with a start, yelled, "I can hear the school bell. I'm late!" (a dialogue from a Dora book that she found the right moment to apply) and tumbled out of bed. She picked out her outfit - leggings, shirt, frock and boots - slung her backpack over her shoulders (yes, she had filled it with the stuff she wanted to take the night before), said goodbye to her grand-parents and dad, sat in the car with her brother and was off to school.

The next two days were tough. The novelty of the first day wore off mighty quick. She cried on Tuesday and Wednesday. Then Thursday was library day and park day at her school. There has been no looking back since then. Every day she walks in with a wide grin, big arms and a "Hi friends!" for her classmates. I'm not kidding. A couple of them come running and they have a group hug while I stand there taking in all the drama. Oh, yeah. There's plenty of that!

P.S. We'd had C's ceremony at the same temple when he was about three. My in-laws were visiting us then too. We had gone to the Bombay Club across from the White House for dinner then. We decided to replay the episode fully and went to the Bombay Club again. When we got there we found that the entire street and all the streets around the Hay Adams Hotel were cordoned off because then President-elect Obama and his family happened to be housed at that hotel in the days before the inauguration (remember the episode about the Blair House not being available because Bush had the former PM of Australia staying there?).

So we had to park the car a couple of blocks away and we, in our fashionable but flimsy Indian clothes froze by the time we got to the restaurant. We had not expected to stop anywhere after the temple and we were unprepared. Then, the next day we read in the papers that just as we were chowing down on some delicious but bland Indian food, Obama and his family were at the Lincoln Memorial, just a few blocks away, paying homage to the man whose train journey Obama was all set to replicate in a couple of days. One of those so-near-yet-so-far moments that I'm sure will be repeated many times.

The temple does not allow photography within its premises. The one above is from the Aksharaabhyaasa ceremony for my niece in Bangalore a couple of years ago.


Sylvia K said...

Sujatha, I loved reading this! Yes, our countries are so very different and bless the differences because they are what make all of us the individuals that we are. Hopefully, as we learn more about one another's cultures we will develop an appreciation for all cultures so that we can celebrate not only ours but everyones. Splendid post!

Margaret's Ramblings said...

I did love this. TO have cerominies celebrate the milestones in our lives would be a good thing. We let these special times slip by without a thought. Keep them up for your children.


Jinksy said...

How boring growing up in England is by comparison!

Anonymous said...

So lovely...we did it on the Sarawathi pooja day closest to the time they started pre-school...I think pre-kids we were pretty comfortable doing without the many festivals and associated, I find myself celebrating all the major ones and as many of the minor ones that we can accomodate with both parents working...The kids love it. I think it gives them a real sense of belonging, that they know they have these ceremonies to choose from, as they grow - or so we hope!

Happy Ugadi - Happy new Year!

Anonymous said...

What a lovely post- I did not know about the Aksharabhyaasa ritual so when the time comes maybe I will have my little girl do the same thing.
And what a cutie D is- she seems like such a social being....the group hug thing and 'hi friends' part just made me smile.

Frankie Anon said...

Sujatha--as always, a beautifully evocative and detailed post. I suppose we Americans have our rituals--Thanksgiving & Easter Egg hunts spring to mind -- but they are fewer and much poorer by comparison to those you describe. Ritual plays such an important role in life and society, and it's wonderful that you are passing them on to your children.

SR said...

nice post sujatha.have read many of your posts;first time leaving a comment. i do follow all the rituals as much as i can.aksharabhyas is the only thing i couldn't do for my older one; sort of procastinated it and then he started going to preschool already!
one more ritual i did for my older one was ear pericing(yes , for a boy!), though i admit i don't really know if it has any relevance with any particular growing up period.
For my younger one i am hoping to follow the same set of rituals. You have lovely kids , sujatha. I am very impressed with your parenting (having read so many of your posts on kids :-) )
- SR

Shalini said...

Hello Sujatha,
I stumbled upon your blog,while doing research on Bangalore Schools. You have an amazing blog. I have been a great fan and ardent follower of blog. Especially your blogs about Bangalore and parenting impressed me a lot.i think you have all the patience in the world to put such neat blogs.Amazing and thanks again.
Happy Ugadi

Kavi said...

There are so many rich traditions here with so much of a deep meaning. One only wonders if they will be followed well by the coming generations !

Its great to see these take root in DC !!!

Choxbox said...

loved reading this.

so relate to replicating it the second time business :)

Choxbox said...

and hey belated happy ugadi!

did you have bevu-bella? the ugadi pacchadi? do you celebrate this festival?

pradipwritenow said...

I happened to visit your site and enjoyed reading your blogs. I was moved by reading that although you are thousands of kilometers away you still care for ceremonies that sitting right in India not everybody does. If you find sometime I invite you to read my blogs. With My "Ashirbadam" to you kids and good wishes to yur family members.

nsiyer said...

Nicely the subtleties have been brought out. In India, we ensure that all things important have an auspicious begining. This begining is always by invoking the blessings of the Lord. Curiously , we even have different Gods for diferent occasions. Like Lord Ganesha, for stepping into a new house, Godess Sarawathi for begining a child's education, so on and so forth. Many of us also observes the Dont's by not doing certain things during certain times like Rahu Kaalam or Yama Kandam. Despite this, we balance and live wonderful lives.

pradeep said...

It's a wonderful ceremony. In Kerala, it's usually done on Vijaydashami Day.

Many lecturers, professors, poets, authors and teachers are in demand for doing this; though priests too do it.

Debbie said...

What a lovely post. I wish we had more rituals and festivals here. I have tried to start some in our family.

Sujatha Bagal said...

@ Sylvia, thank you! Looking forward to that day.

@ Margaret, thank you. We will.

@ Jinksy, not the impression I get from your blog. :)

@ M, happy Ugadi to you too! I hope the same for our kids too.

@ Siri, yay! That sounds great!

@ Frankie, thank you. There are all the religious ones too, right? Baptism, communion, etc. ?

@ SR, thank you so much for delurking and for your lovely comment. I forgot about the ear piercing. We did it for our daughter, but not for our son. You're right, I don't think it has a relevance for any particular period in life, but it's just done when the baby is very young so they don't feel as much pain. Wrote about D's ear-piercing expericence here.

@ Shalini, thank you for your kind words and for reading my blog. I'm glad you found the Bangalore posts useful. And happy Ugadi to you too!

@ Kavi, it's quite something else doing it in a milieu that is not the same as the one in which we grew up. Makes it a little bit more special. :)

@ Chox, thank you! Happy Ugadi to you too. We're going to have Ugadi lunch at a friend's house tomorrow. Have to wait for the weekend to celebrate! :)

@ Mr. Biswas, thank you so much for your kind comment and for your blessings for my children. It means a lot to me that you thought to write that!

@ Mr. Iyer, thanks. :)

@ Pradeep, that's an interesting twist, but how appropriate to have scholars conduct the ceremony!

@ Debbie, that's cool! I hope you will write about them!

Sniffles and Smiles said...

How wonderful to celebrate the beginning of a new chapter in your daughter's life! It means so much to mark her steps into her unique place in this great big world! I hope that the days will lead to great happiness for her as she settles in! Thank you for your kind are a warm and wonderful new friend! I am so thankful to have "met" you!
P.S. I love your new photo/header...the cherry trees are on the Potomac, I believe :-) They are absolutely beautiful! ~Janine

rm said...

that was a good write u started with ceremonies and endedwith Obama.. how u missed him few blogs aways. the blog is a travel thru old traditional custom and ur newlife few paces way frm the President.

SG said...

Isn't it the differences in different places that make moving, changing our coordinates so exciting.? Every move is an opportunity to learn and imbibe something new... and once in a while.. you get that strange feeling... so near, yet so far!

Sujatha Bagal said...

@ rm, thank you! I'm glad you liked it. :)

@ Phoenix, welcome to my blog. And you hit the nail on the head. I live for that excitement!

Sujatha Bagal said...

@ Janine, thank you for your kind words and beautiful wishes for my daughter.

And yes, that is of the cherry trees on the Tidal Basin. We got there yesterday early in the morning in the rain and cold. It was exhilarating!

Wendy said...

Another lovely post! We were lucky we didn't have any of the crying with our son because he had already been going to daycare for some time and didn't have to get used to being away from home. Whew!

Midlife Roadtripper said...

I remember when after two days of kindergarten, my middle son declared he'd been there, done that. Couldn't say I blamed him. I have enjoyed reading through your blog and look forward to returning.

Ugich Konitari said...

Wonderful post Sujatha. And something else that you bring out. The sense of importance at having the grandparents around both the times. A lot of our rituals happen because of this perceived importance of getting the good wishes of elders, and immediate society, when milestones are imminent. I am so glad that you continue to believe and practice these things so far away from home. My blessings to C and D on this occassion....

Nino's Mum said...

beautiful post, Suj, and I was completely unaware of this ceremony! what a fantastic way to begin school!

ra said...

How nice! ANd D really sounds like a star, what a lovely way to greet her friends.

Cantaloupes.Amma (CA) said...

Thats such a sweet post ... Aksharabhaya happens to be a simple and lovely ritual and I am so glad you were able to do it for both your kids in the presence of grand parents !!
Almost saw Obama ... uh ? Well, you live in that neighborhood, you will see him one day for sure :)

Cheffie-Mom said...

I enjoyed reading this post very much. I'm happy your daughter is enjoying preschool. That's wonderful!

naperville mom said...

A couple of them come running and they have a group hug while I stand there taking in all the drama. That's a moment to behold:)

Lovely post, this sharing of rituals...yes, we do miss out on the festivals and the drama associated with it, the whole environment itself used to be so colorful! This also reminded me of C's first birthday pooja which was held at a temple in DC as we'd driven in to see the cherry blossoms.

Sujatha Bagal said...

@ Wendy, thank you! Glad you liked it! :)

@ Julie, I can perfectly understand your son's sentiments. :) Look forward to seeing you back here.

@ Ugich, thank you so much! I'm so glad you saw that, that we had tried to have at least one set of grand parents here. When we did C's head shaving ceremony there was no family, just us and a dear friend and her daughter. It felt so different from how it would have been done at home. So we have been very lucky to have someone or the other for all our other events. And thank you for your blessings for the kids. It means a lot.

@ NM, thank you!

@ Ra, she is, she is!

@ CA, thank you. And yup, one day and when it happens it sure is going to be on the blog! :)

@ Debbie, thank you!

@ N'ville Mom, what a nice memory to have of C's birthdays. My C's birthday is around early spring too and it always takes me back to the year he was born. It's such a lovely time to associate with the birth of a child! Glad to share that with you. :)

bird's eye view said...

I love this ceremony. We did it for Puddi before she started playschool and it was so nice to watch the passing on of traditions...

Solilo said...

I was searching for Saraswati puja in various Indian states and reached here. :)

So in Karnataka it is in January during Basant Pachami?

Sujatha Bagal said...

Hi Solilo, Saraswati pooja is the last day of navarathri I think. I'm guessing the same as the rest of the country, right? The pooja we did for my daughter was associated with her starting school for the first time and the ritual that comes before that - the aksharaabhyaasa - Saraswati being the goddess of learning and all that.

BEV, I love that aspect of it!

Anonymous said...

I love how you define "participate" in festivals! My husband grew up in the US and has been asking me what we are going to do for Diwali since its coming up..and I've been telling him the same thing.Since he asks me repeatedly, I am guessing he is a little perplexed by it..

Unknown said...

Hi Sujatha,
I had just been waiting since long to get back to reading some of your blog specials which I just love reading. Especially, the 'Desi' ones.
The one on 'India Rituals-Aksharabhyasam' was splendid.
We all respect our traditions and rituals and it gladdens us, when we learn that all these have been gaining the attention and value that they deserve. Surely our kids who do miss out on some of it, find these festivities and celebrations very exciting.Don't they!
Certainly, Retaining our culture and appreciating the west is the best way to move forward. Well done there!Congrats!
Anuradha Srinivasan, United Kingdom

Sujatha Bagal said...

Mallika, :)

Anuradha, thank you so much for that lovely comment!