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A Fetish of Fertility – Religious Rites

Religious rites are as ancient as the land. People have always believed in omens and evil spirits, boons and hoodoos, superstitions and supernatural powers. Some of these beliefs are still prevalent today.

In the then prevailing fashion among the minions of the Raj, R.E. Enthoven dedicated much of his free time to the study of the customs and habits of the indigenous population. Luckily for hi, AMT Jackson, another servant of the crown had left behind copious material on Gujarat, then contiguous with the Konkan. Enthoven put it together in two volumes, in 1915, under the common title, Folklore Notes.

Enthoven dwells on beliefs, hoodoos, superstitions, supernatural powers, boons, omens, and evil spirits. There were religious rites for everything: for the success of agricultural

operations and protection of cattle, to scare away noxious animals and insects and ensure sun-shine and favourable weather. Rites to be performed when boys and girls attained puberty and women conceived and delivered. And there were rites performed with great fanfare and rites performed in silence and secrecy.

That might have been nearly 100 years ago. But even today, as this writer recently discovered during an extensive tour of the Konkan, newly married girls have to perform the worship of Mangala Gauri successively for the first five years, on every Tuesday, in the month of Shravan, the month of the Hindu calendar when fruit-bearing trees are grafted and ears of rice begin to pop up, and tender cucumbers begin to peer through the foliage. It is enjoined that women performing the worship of Mangala Gauri must not speak while having their meals on that day. If they prevaricate,, they could mar their happiness forever. One way of saying that they might never again conceive.

The cucumber was the symbol of fertility of some west coast tribes. The totem survives, now as a symbol of the Catholic church. It is evident at Santana, a north Goa village where the Portuguese erected the first, largest and the most sumptuous church outside the Old Goa complex. Every August, women wanting a child crowd the church and offer the Pieta a cucumber with a prayer. The parish priest attests that it works. Barren women, he says, come from all over Goa and even beyond- Bombay and Calcutta.

Hindu women bow down to the Sun on the 11th, 12th , 30th and 40th day after their delivery. The Kunnbi women, the aborigines, do it on the 7th day. They offer the Sun-god some grains of rice. The offers of grain are an obvious acknowledgement of gratitude and of the belief in the virtues of fertility. The Kunnbis believe that their tribe was conceived by the influence of he rays of the sun. The other Hindus, of the upper castes in particular, do not seem to believe that the Sun could cause humans to conceive.

The moon, on the other hand, is believed to have the power to remove all diseases. The moon is the king of herbs and all trees and plants thrive because of it. One can “drink” the moon’s rays by placing figs, bananas, sugarcane and other eatables in the moonlight and eating hem early in the morning. Or better still by placing a cup of milk under the moon for sometime and hen drinking it. The full moon night is a good night for all manner of people: it is auspicious for the sanyasis, the ascetics, who shave their heads on the day and also for those married, because a child conceived on a full moon night will be bright and beautiful, wise, and will go far in life.

The Konkan was not always the desolate land it now is. Gopikas once bathed without a care in the emerald waters of Konkan’s many lovely beaches and left their clothes to dry o the sopanas, the majestic flight of steps leading from the sea to the hill-tops. On top of the promontories once could see forts built of quartz and laterite and they stood “as stately seem but lovelier far/ Than in the panoply of war”.

Rennel, an 18th century tralveller, wrote, “few countries with so straight a general outline are so much broken into bays and harbours.” And thus came to this land many adventures and mariners and not all of them were men of scruples. Small wonder then, that in this area, religion and nationalism are almost synonymous. One could not thrive without the other. Hence, perhaps, the fetish of fertility: the land had to be fertile to provide mankind sustenance and the women even more so, in order to guarantee the continuance of the “race”. And they devised a thousand rituals to fully ensure the fertility of their women and lands.

On the 12th day after her delivery the mother puts on new bangles and new clothes; coconuts, betelnuts and leaves, grains of rice, bananas and grains of wheat are place don her lap. She then comes out and bows to the Sun.

It is said that upon their arrival in the Konkan, land specially created for them by Parasuram, the hammer-wielding God, the chosen 96 Gowd Saraswats realized that their priority task had to be to colonize the land. The land abounded in peepul trees (ficus religiosa), and they soon realized that the seeds of the tree had miraculous properties. Baren woman would conceive if fed dried peepul seeds after the mandatory rituals and incantations. “No harm trying”, as a Bombay resident on a pilgrimage to Sawantwadi, told this writer.

In Sattary, Goa’s most primitive sub-division – and perhaps for that same reason the least spoilt – the Dhagar, a very handsome pastoral tribe, schedule their weddings and betrothals, during the south-west monsoon. That is the time when they return from their nomadic sojourn of the plains to their primal corals. Nature is at its best, the soil loamy, soft and yielding. Nature, they say, cannot be wrong. If the season is right for plants and weeds, it ought to be right for men and women too. Betrothals are arranged and the nubile girls are sternly viewed and inspected by the elder women of the clan. They must be free from physical blemish if they are to perpetuate a “race”- that is how they see themselves- that has been on this earth ever since God made the sun, the moon, the sea and the hills and the rivers. And the Dhagras- God’s own supreme usufructuaries.

Sterility among the Dhagars is a strong ground for divorce or for a man to take another wife. But being generous and sporting, they do not repudiate a wife on a whim. The sixty bhuts, the spirits of the tribe, are invited to speak through oracles and prescribe the right remedy. And the bhuts often direct that the woman pray to the moon, the mountain and river and beg of them the boon of a child.

Thunder in these areas is the military of the king of the clouds and lighting his banner. The clouds are messengers of the gods and earthquakes occur when the thousand-headed Shesha shakes its head. There are other widely different, but equally ingenuous interpretations of calamities and natural phenomena. They are perhaps, weird and in every respect unscientific. But for large majority of these people, that is how it is. They begin their day, before setting foot to the ground, with a prayer that is gloriously sensuous: “ O Goddess who art clothed by the sea, and whose breasts are the mountains and who art the wife of Vishnu, I bow down to thee.

Please forgive the touch of my feet.

O Goddess Earth who art born by the power of Vishnu, whose surface is of the colour of a conch-shell and who are the store-house of in-numerable jewels, I bow down to thee.

And no better way for them to begin the day than seeing first thing in the morning, within one hundred paces: boiled food, the blue jay flying by the left side, the moon in front, a married couple, a cow with its calf, one’s own mother, beautiful girl and if nothing else, a woman of pleasure.