Flowres and Kumkum: Symbols of a Woman’s Fertility

Abstract: Human society is in a constant state of flux. Hence certain practices which owe their origin to prevailing conditions at a given point in time often take on considerably different connotations with the passage of years. This paper attempts to examine the changes in meaning undergone by symbols and objects in common use today, from the time when they were first adopted by society. Two such elements that play a very important role in Hindu social and religious practices are flowers and kumkum.

 Keywords: woman’s fertility, traditional religious practices, symbolic rituals, Earth Goddess, menstrual phase, worship of women

Human society is in a constant state of flux ; hence certain practices which owe their origin to prevailing conditions at a given point of time often take on considerably different connotations with the passage of years. Symbols and objects in common use today may have had entirely different meanings when they were first adopted by society. Two such elements that play a very important role in Hindu social and religious practices are flowers and kumkum (the red powder also known as sindoor).

No religious / auspicious occasion in Hindu society is complete without these two elements which have been used by men and women to adorn their bodies from time immemorial. Mention has been made of them in folk literature as well as in contemporary writing and they have thus become symbols that identify a Hindu woman as a suvashini or ‘one whose husband is alive.’ A widow does not have the sanction of society to use these objects on her person but the kumari or unmarried young girl faces no such taboos.

Changing social mores have seen a transformation in the way women use kumkum as a form of adornment, for instance, even fifty years ago women in Goa sported a small horizontal streak on their foreheads but today they prefer artistic, ready to use bindis instead. The use of flowers in the hair, however, seems to be on the decline though certain flowers are used on certain ceremonial occasions and when a suvashini takes part in rituals connected with a wedding, for example, she is sure to sport kumkum and flowers on her person together with the other symbols that indicate her married status.

While the use of flowers as a form of adornment was not unknown in the Vedic age and the Puranas and Shastras are replete with mention of particular flowers being favoured by particular gods, the use of kumkum on women’s foreheads was unknown in Vedic times. There are a few scattered references to the usage of kumkum in the third and fourth centuries A.D. and the women in the sculptures and paintings in the Ajanta caves testify to this fact. By the seventh and eighth centuries A.D. however, the use of kumkum had become very common and there are many allusions to this practice in the writing of the times.

The tradition of using kumkum is basically a non-Aryan one. When the Aryan tribes had settled in the country alongside the native population for a considerable amount of time they adopted various rituals and practices commonly in use, one of which was the use of kumkum. The folk culture that exists in Goa today shows a mixture of Aryan and non-Aryan strains with the non-Aryan agricultural rituals and traditions finding expression in the numerous jatras and utsavs celebrated in the villages.

Social historians like Burnell, Giles and Briffault are of the opinion that it was the woman who first started the agricultural tradition. Using a pointed stick to dig holes in the ground she began to till the land near her home as she stayed back tending her children while the man travelled far and wide hunting for food. It was only with the invention of the plough that man entered this field.

With the onset of the agricultural tradition the cult of the Earth goddess came into existence and it was the woman who was vested with the power to conduct all the rituals associated with her. Man entered the hallowed portals of the Earth Goddess’s court much later, and even then, his entry was by no means unopposed. In the initial stages he could only associate with this cult in the guise of a woman, after subduing his masculine traits

. Ancient man, caught up in the threefold act of sowing crops, tending the young plants and waiting for them to ripen could well appreciate the similarity between the Earth’s creative cycle and that of the woman. While the human mother gave birth to the child, nurtured it with the milk from her breast and looked after her offspring, the Earth too, bore countless forms of vegetation on her body and provided them with the essential elements vital for life. Birth and death, the two constant factors of human existence found their parallels in the cycle of Nature on earth, so ancient Man caught up in the struggle for survival began to look on the Earth as the Aadi mata or the ‘Great Mother’ — ‘the Mother who existed before all mothers.’

A woman’s fertility and creative powers are centred at her yoni or genitals which lead to the womb where new life is created and nurtured before it is born. Thus ancient Man worshipped the yoni as the symbol of the Mother Goddess (also the Aadi mata or the Earth Goddess) and the deity at the biggest centre of Shakti worship, the Kamakhya temple in the Kamrup district of Assam is depicted in this form. Many images of the goddess Lajjagauri also exist in this form.

Ancient man regarded the termite hill as the yoni of the Earth and in the Old Stone Age the cult of the Earth Goddess laid special emphasis on the ritual worshipping of the termite hill. The discovery of metals saw the worship of the Earth Goddess through sculptures depicting the yoni; this led to the worship of sculptures of the headless naked female form, culminating finally in the worship of the female form in its entirety. As man’s imaginative and artistic skills grew he began to emphasise the difference between the Female Goddess and the ordinary woman he encountered in day to day life. Thus the sculpted form of the goddess was given four or eight arms, ornaments and weapons manifesting various powers, which were incorporated into her persona and she was hailed as the repository of primordial energy.

A woman during the procreative years of her life menstruates at fixed intervals alternating with periods of fertility. The earth, too, has well defined periods of fertility corresponding to the cycle of seasons and the jatras and utsavs in the temples in Goa are perhaps celebrated to mark these phases. Just as the woman played an important role in all rituals connected with the worship of the Earth Goddess, certain symbols representing the earth were incorporated in all rituals conducted to mark a woman’s fertility, for it was believed that the creative powers of the Earth Mother were thus conferred on the woman in the form of blessings.

Menstruation plays an important role in a woman’s procreative life. It is with the onset of puberty that a girl is transformed into a woman and the power to create new life is vested in her body. Ancient Man celebrated this phase in the fertility cycle of the Earth Goddess as well and though the actual period of celebration varied from region to region this rajotsav was generally held towards the end of Jyeshtha (late summer) or when the month of Ashaad began. This is a period of torrential rains and the rivers and streams are full of muddy water — indicating that the Earth Goddess is in her menstrual phase.

The term Ambuvachi in Sanskrit refers to this menstrual phase in the Earth Goddess’ life and all temples of the Mother Goddess are closed to the public for three days as no man is allowed to set sight on her at this time. On the fourth day at daybreak the image is given a ceremonial bath and an utsav or celebration is organised.

The rajotsav of Kamakhya Devi is celebrated with great fanfare in Assam even today. Pieces of cloth are soaked in red coloured water and distributed amongst the faithful as prasad. In Maharashtra this rajotsav is known as sath amongst some communities, in Kashmir it is celebrated as Ragnyisnapan and in Orissa as the Rajparab. In Kerala, Devi Bhagvati’s rajotsav, is celebrated as the Uccharal but this occurs only after the hectic work of the harvest comes to an end in the month of Makaram — January – February

The Purush dev (Male God) flaunts the bhudevi’s (Earth Goddess’) menstrual blood on his forehead and this leads to their union or so it was commonly believed. Hence the Purush dev’s representatives on earth, the common men began to celebrate the rajotsav, by offering blood to the gods and then smearing their own bodies with it as an expression of joy.

Raj or rakt (blood) is characterised by its red colour. In the early days the red dust or dhool which covered the earth was taken as a symbol of her blood. The dhulvat or celebration during which men smear mud on each other’s bodies is an important part of the shigmo, one of Goa’s most important festivals. Today people use gulal, sindoor and other coloured powders but the celebrations begin, only after the gods are smeared with a handful of mud and dust.

Human sacrifice to placate the Mother Goddess and the laving of her image with blood was a common practice in ancient times. With changes in social norms this came to be replaced by the ritual sacrifice of animals and later on, that of birds. Reports are there of certain Tantric rituals where the menstrual blood of a Chandal woman would be offered to the Gods.

Gulal, kumkum, sindoor and a variety of other objects, red in colour, came to be associated in the popular imagination with the Earth Goddess’s blood. Hence it became common practice to offer these objects to the Goddess while performing any auspicious act. The belief that these red powders were symbols of the infinite creative power of the Goddess and if worn and their own persons that power would be transmitted to them made women use these powders on their foreheads on a regular basis. The belief that a woman’s procreative life could not attain fulfilment without the blessings of the Goddess led to the practice of mixing a pinch of kumkum and haldi powder into the water used for the ritual bath at the end of a woman’s menstrual phase.

The compulsions that made ancient man offer such red coloured objects to the Mother Goddess, led him in later years to offer them to the male Gods too. Since his whole life was regulated by the cycle of Nature, the fertility of the earth and other such factors, these objects became mandatory in all auspicious acts and when the Aryans adopted the Mother Goddess into their pantheon the practice of using kumkum was also absorbed.

In the olden days women wore a horizontal streak of kumkum on their foreheads as can be seen from the images of the Mother Goddesses but this has been largely replaced today by the small red dot. The horizontal streak perhaps symbolised the liquid nature of blood and its capacity to flow. In the beginning it was common practice to smear the whole forehead with kumkum on auspicious occasions. This was known as the malvat and jogtis, and matangis, the followers of Devi Yellamma can still be seen roaming around in this fashion. It is also an important ritual when a girl is initiated into the Devdasi tradition. Till a few years ago many communities in Goa observed this ritual when a girl reached puberty and the malvat was ceremonially performed after the ritual bath on her first menstruation. The smearing of kumkum or sindoor on the forehead and hair are important rituals in any Hindu wedding and even today during the rengpuja which is performed in many Devi temples in Goa the malvat is a very important feature.

The ward mal is a corruption of dhool meaning mud or dust. In the villages of Goa even today people apply a streak of mud on their foreheads during the Dhalo festival as a measure to combat the forces of evil. It is evident therefore that the term malvat has arisen as a corruption of the word dhoolvat or the streaking of the forehead with the dust from the earth.

Even before man learnt to manufacture kumkum, sindoor, gulal and other such red powders the use of haldi (turmeric), gandh (sandal paste) and kaajal was quite widespread. These are still in use today and on auspicious occasions sandal paste is offered to the gods before haldi is applied first then kumkum is applied during the haldi kumkum ceremony and the term kaajal-kumkum commonly heard in rural areas clearly reveals that kajal took precedence over kumkum at least in the early stages of its use.

With the passing of the menstrual phase, the Earth Goddess was ready to bear flowers and out of these flowers would come the fruit — thus the cycle of Nature and of life would continue uninterrupted, it was commonly believed. Ancient man thus considered flowers to be as important as kumkum in all matters connected with fertility and procreation. With the development of his artistic faculties he was able to depict flowers as essential components in the representation of divinity. Thus images of Lajjagauri are represented as kamalshirsha or surmounted on a lotus in full bloom; the goddess Dhanalakshmi or Mahalakshmi is always depicted within a lotus and Santheri, a much revered goddess in Goa, is always depicted with a water lily in her hand.

Many of the male gods in the Hindu pantheon, are also associated with flowers. Brahma, the creator of the universe is seated in a lotus that springs from Vishnu’s navel. Mahadev, the epitome of all masculine forces is in some parts said to be partial to the red hibiscus and the red lotus.

Red flowers, especially the tiny aboli plays a very important role in Goan folk tradition. The basheeng or headgear donned by the bridegroom in Goa is adorned with aboli flowers. The male dancers who form a procession and travel from village to village performing ritual dances during the Shigmo festivities wear clusters of aboli and their bodies and coronets of these flowers on their heads. The platters of flowers ritually offered to the goddesses in the temples as a mark of thanksgiving are considered incomplete without aboli flowers.

Ancient folk tradition in Goa considered flowers and kumkum as symbols of fertility so any woman capable of procreation could use them to adorn her person. It was only when these non-Aryan tribes forsook their intrinsic matriarchal tradition and adopted the patriarchal system of the Aryans with its monogamous structure that these symbols began to represent something slightly different from what they did in the past.

What used to be seen as symbols of a woman being ayav or capable of procreation became symbols of a woman who is a suvashini or one whose husband is alive. Today these two words are considered synonymous but in actuality the term ayav means one who is capable of becoming an aai or mother. Hence, when a man died if his widow maintained relations with another man and bore children through him it was not looked upon as something unnatural and the woman could continue to use these symbols of fertility as a matter of course.

It was only after the patriarchal system took firm root and monogamy became the norm, that children born through such alliances came to be looked down upon. The word ayav, was thus reduced to a synonym of suvashini and flowers and kumkum, these symbols of a woman’s fertility were denied to a woman after the death of her husband.

Noted writer in Konkani. Has many publications to her credit.

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Noted writer in Konkani. Has many publications to her credit.

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