By A Rishi August 1996 Nagamma, a tribal midwife from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, attributes illnesses to the spirit world and declares that Kanyamma, a goddess, helps her with her healing We have this ritual for coping with psychological problems such as too much fear or anxiety or bad dreams during early pregnancy. We put three stones at the back of the house, and apply kumkum and turmeric on them. We make pongal and offer it there; we also sacrifice a cock. Then the pregnant woman walks around that spot three times. She is given a black sari to wear that had earlier been placed on that spot. This helps to send away the bad spirits and ensures that the fetus grows nicely. She must wear this sari every alternate day till it tears or is completely worn out. It is to be washed every day. Her husband must also attend this ceremony. I do this rite many times every month, in seven villages. A white male goat can also be sacrificed. Sacred ash is brought from the next house or a nearby temple, and used in this ceremony. This rite was done on me as well since I was unable to conceive for a long time. It is done for those wanting to become pregnant and for pregnancy-related problems. It invokes the goddess Kanyamma who is worshipped by the rural people. She is believed to be more accepting and beautiful during the Tamil month of Aadi, July 15-August 15. At our place there is a sacred grove of neem trees. Anybody can come and place stones and do puja here. It is just not possible to count all the goddesses who live on this spot. The neem tree itself is adeviam, a goddess, for us. It is believed that a demon will come and cause problems during pregnancy—for example, the spirit of a woman who has died in childbirth, called the aavi, can enter a pregnant woman and devour the fetus. The pregnant woman will feel cold and have convulsions—the spirit is breaking the fetus. We use neem leaves and chant mantras to send the demon away. A munishwaran or manusha is another spirit that can cause problems. This spirit is found in wells and has got matted hair. These spirits mostly go from the first or seventh child and are usually seeking revenge. Before entering the house where a birth is to take place, I wash my legs and hands and pour water over my head to remove the spirits that may have been attracted to me. If threatening spirits are thought to be present, an exorcist is called who waves neem leaves over the woman in labor and drives them away. In the hut or the stone house, the woman’s family ties a long thin palm leaf over the door, and places a knife beside the door. When the midwife comes, she takes the knife and cuts the leaf into two. While cutting, she prays to the household god or goddess. Sometimes there may be many gods and goddesses: Kayana, Selvi, Ganga, Kariya. If the cut is clean, the birth will be easy; if not, there will be many complications. After birth, we do not throw away the placenta. The mother later buries it near the house. We put neem leaves underneath, and then cover it with earth and put a stone on top, and then more neem leaves. The water from the first bath of the mother and baby should flow on the ground where the placenta is buried. On the ninth day, when the woman is given a bath, we clean up the place where the placenta is buried. On the stone we put kumkum and turmeric. We place cooked rice on top of a banana leaf and put it in a winnowing basket, along with a sweet made of rice powder and jaggery. A copper diya (earthen lamp) is placed and lit on the other side. The baby is put on the ground near the diya. This ritual is called kuchra ma (garbage mother) and is only done for the first child. The mother prostrates herself on the ground before the stone and then the baby is handed to her. After that nobody comes near that place again.
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