© 2023 Dr. Margaret Sheppard

Life Cycle Babies Childhood Puberty Engagement Weddings Death

Pregnancy & Childbirth

Paul Wirz (“Exorcism and the Art of Healing in Ceylon”) gives an excellent description of the traditions and practices associated with pregnancy and childbirth: (“Exorcism and the Art of Healing in Ceylon” p.247-49).

Wirz’s research was conducted in the early 1950s, the main differences are that most babies are now born in a maternity unit in a hospital and mothers-to-be regularly attend the ante natal clinics. Following the birth they will also attend the special post natal clinics and the babies are vaccinated. However, many of the traditions and practices outlined by Wirz still persist especially in the rural areas. Below follow a few extracts from his book which sadly is now difficult to obtain:

“If difficulties occur during the delivery, the edura is called in order to utter mantra or to perform a little ceremony. He first tries to help by reciting appropriate mantra, or with the "dehi kepima", or merely by administering holy water to the woman in labour (vatura maturala bona = water, charmed, drink). He may also draw a yantra on the leaf of an alu-kehel-banana (ash banana) and put it under her back, or anoint the woman's body with holy oil (tel maturala bada ganava = oil, charmed, anoint the belly), or put a betel-leaf under a spell (bulat kola maturala) and place it on the woman's navel. If the child still does not appear soon, the edura tears the leaf in pieces and flings it on the floor at the feet of the woman. A piece of the horn of a rhinoceros (kangavena anga), powdered, dissolved in water, and put under a charm, yields a potion for women in labour which cannot fail to produce results, even if the child should be still-born. This remedy, however, is hard to procure and hence very expensive, so that only rich people can afford it. In the case of a miscarriage, a coconut-flower is ground into a fine powder and soaked in water and then given to the woman to drink; it is believed to possess purifying qualities for pregnant women. Another purifying drink is the milk of a red coconut.”

One of Wirz’s informants gave him the following detailed statement:

“When a pregnant woman feels that her time is near, she sends for the midwife. This person helps to deliver the baby and lays it on a clean cloth; then she continues to lend assistance to the mother until the afterbirth  has appeared. Should this be delayed, she stuffs a clump of hair into the mouth of the woman to produce nausea which is supposed to drive it out. Then, the umbilical cord is cut through with a knife or scissors so that the piece remaining attached to the child's body is long enough to come up to its nose. The midwife takes this part of the cord between her thumb and forefinger and strokes gently along it towards the child's navel. Then, she folds the ends of the cord and ties it tightly with a thread. The region around the navel is finally anointed with a mixture of coconut oil and of dried burnt and powdered Garcinia combogia fruit. The afterbirth and the cut-off piece of the cord are buried in the ground at some distance from the house; the hole must be deep enough to prevent their being eaten by pigs, dogs, wild animals etc., otherwise the child will cut his teeth very late. The child is washed in clean lukewarm water and rubbed dry. Then a female relation or acquaintance expresses a little of her milk into a small bowl and a gold ornament is dipped or laid in it. A few drops of this milk, which is therefore called "rankiri", i.e. gold-milk, are now dropped into the baby's mouth and a few grains of boiled rice are pushed between its lips. A few hairs are cut from the new-born's head, wrapped in a little piece of white cloth, and kept during the first three months of its life. At the end of that time, the child's father or another of its, relatives takes these hairs with him across a river or a lake and on his way back throws them into the water.

When the delivery is finished, the midwife passes the child over to one of its relations, generally the father, and is rewarded by him with a gratuity of from two to ten rupees, according to the circumstances. The child is then laid by its mother, but must not be nursed by her during the first three days of its life, because it might fall ill. The mother must squeeze her milk into a bowl and throw it against the wall. If the baby drinks its mother's milk in the course of these days, he is in danger of being afflicted with convulsions, rash, milk-thrush, or ulcers on his legs. A woman of the family or of the neighbourhood, therefore, takes it upon herself to nurse it during this time.

The mother is for the first three days not allowed to take any food other than rice-water and a decoction of leaves of the kohomba-tree called kayangahadi. She must continue drinking the latter for at least a fortnight, or better still for a whole month. During the first days, she also has to take powdered ginger, one teaspoonful at a time, which she washes down with some water. Immediately after the delivery, she must swallow a considerable quantity of ginger-juice with kohomba oil in order to speed her recovery.

After three days, the baby's eyes are dabbed with anduna, so that they are made clean and eye diseases are prevented.

If the infant cries too much and suffers from indigestion, or if anything else is wrong, the edura is called to perform a Bala-giri tovil  a ceremony for which a figure of boiled rice must be made. In addition, five needles of an alloy of five different metals are ordered at the goldsmith's, put under a charm by the edura, and laid under the child. Then, an offering of five kinds of flowers is arranged for the Bala-giri-yakkiniyo, and a string which has been dyed with yellow-root water to the recitation of mantra, is tied about the little one's neck. After the ceremony, the rice-figure and the offering are carried off to the bush.

… From the third month to its eighteenth year the child is  subject to the influence of one or other of the giri-yakkiniyo, each of whom demands her particular offering.

….. If the child is afflicted with rash (milk-crust), the ailment is traced back to the evil eye or to evil tongues. Again the edura is consulted and a special ceremony called "temili gejah matrima" (literally: place a charm on a king-coconut) is carried out. This little ceremony must be observed only in the forenoon of a Tuesday or a Sunday and requires the following  objects: a young king-coconut, seven twigs of different kinds of lemons and oranges with their leaves, five kinds of seeds (rice, peas, beans, lentils, and sesame).

The ritual begins with the uttering of mantra, while the edura holds the opened coconut in his hand. Then, he throws the five kinds of seed into the nut, stirs the liquid, and administers a few drops of it to the child three times. After the child has drunk, its head is sprinkled with the rest of the water, also three times. This ceremony is repeated the same evening and once more the following morning, in the presence of the family. Then, the lemon and orange twigs are put into the coconut and from time to time inspected to see whether the leaves are withering and losing their colour. If this occurs within the next twenty-four hours, it is a bad omen for the child; if otherwise, it is a good sign indicating early recovery.

A few days after the child's birth, the father sends for the astrologer to have the first, provisional horoscope, cast; this fulfils more or less the function of a birth certificate and testifies as to the day and hour of the birth and the corresponding positions of the planets. Its price is twenty-five or fifty cents. The real and definite horoscope is only cast after the child has completed his tenth year, and then the astrologer charges one rupee for it.

The astrologer will also appoint a favourable day, in accordance with the horoscope, on which the child may for the first time be taken out of doors into the sun. He will also fix the date on which the mother is first allowed to leave the house again. These first airings are called "ira pennana", i.e. exposure to the sun, or "tanniyarima". Before this day, the woman in childbed is not allowed to receive visits by strangers, nor must she be left alone. One of her relations must always be near to attend to her. But from the day she is allowed to go out again, she needs no further nursing.

When the astrologer returns with the horoscope, he mentions to the parents four or five letters which are connected with the child's moon-house.  According to these letters, the parents can determine the child's name by selecting one of them as the initial for the name. The child retains this name for his whole life; only boys may change theirs, should they later on enter a monastery and be ordained.”

Life Cycle/Rites de Passage

 Painting in Buddhist Temple demonstrating the Cycle of Life - baby to bones in a grave

The following sections follow the common  Life Cycle traditions and practices  found to be common in rural Sri Lanka during the 1990s to 2015 through birth to death.

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