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Why Take Part In Outdated Religious Customs?

Posted: January 15, 2014

I was recently part of a semi-religious Maharashtrian function called Haldi-Kunkum, where a number of married women gathered. They were felicitated with marking their forehead with the mark of matrimony – namely the haldi – kumkum and a coconut, betel nut, rice and flowers were given; again, all symbols of wedded bliss.

All fine so far.

The accent is on keeping this entire jamboree within the purview of the ‘Savaasheen’ (as married women are referred to in Marathi). What always irritates me at such events is that none of the women invited are unmarried, divorced or widowed.

Indeed, even wedding rituals such as mehendi, sangeet, poojas, and similar quasi-religious occasions give ascendancy to married women with an intact ‘suhaag’.

Religious customsMy cook had a harrowing time raising her sons almost single-handedly, amidst the drunken beatings of her husband. But, a few months prior to the date of her son’s wedding (an event that she was eager to participate in), her husband passed away. Due to her widowed status, she had to remain a spectator in what was a moment of personal joy and triumph for her. Sitting far away, in a simple sari and hardly any adornment, she cut a forlorn picture.

The identity of most women in modern India is bound up with their fathers or husbands. Even our names have to be hyphenated with that of the males in our lives. Some flexibility does exist with regard to this under the law and women can keep their maiden name or change it to whatever they wish.

But, we do not and cannot exist in a vacuum, do we?

We step out and mingle with relatives, friends, colleagues. This is where most women who are single due to choice or circumstance are made to feel their ‘low status’.

Women living in cities may feel that I am overstating something that, perhaps, rarely exists in urban India. But let me assure you that it does. This conscious and subconscious shunning of single women is a symptom of a society which is deeply regressive. The initial herding of women according to their marital status and later, bestowing a superior ‘Chosen One’ status is a form of dependency on the males in their lives.

To an unmarried woman, it signals, “get married or else….”

To the married one, “Stay married or else.”

To the widowed/single ones, it signals ostracizing on a public platform, as in, “You were important as long as you are someone’s wife.”

I remember a birthday party, which started with the traditional aarti of the young tot, which is an old custom to wish the child a long life (called ‘ovaalni’).

All the close female relatives were asked to do the honours, one-by-one, until a young aunt who was a widow was left. When I edged her forward, I received glares of disapproval from the matriarchs present. It was left to the father of the child to put his foot down and insist that she perform the aarti.

Is the aunt’s blessing somehow tainted because she is widowed? Where are we after all these years of progress and modern thought? More importantly, the signal for such change is opposed by other females and then, has to be sanctioned by the males in the family.

Unfortunately for me, I am usually a bystander to this unfair behaviour many a time, as I rarely host such events and thus have no say in the matter. Bowing to the whims of the elders in the family is as ingrained in us as is the need to not hurt their sentiments.

But, if we are hosting such events/rituals, it is important for us to actively encourage an inclusive attitude and insist on the participation of all irrespective of their marital status.

Perhaps, this does not succeed in changing anything in the minds of the older ones, besides letting them know our views, but definitely creates the correct conditioning for the younger ones.

Do you have any similar experience to recount?

Pic credit: Rohit (Used under a Creative Commons license)

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  1. I have similar experiences during wedding ceremonies of my female cousins.Once when I was 19 years old, I was continuously asked to dip my hands in sindoor and keep it in contact with my cousin. Apparently that would help me get married fast as informed by some giggling married female relatives. I could only give them a “What the Hell!!!” look.

    I agree that the enlightened younger generation has to put its foot down on archaic and idiotic customs and fight to establish a new and progressive society.

  2. Though what you have said is true for most communities, in some it is the other way round. During my marriage, my mother, who has single-handedly brought up me and my brother after my father’s demise, was hesitant in coming forward to bless the two of us in the ‘mandap’. But in my husband’s community, a widowed woman’s blessing is considered ‘shubh’ (good) since they are supposed to be aides of Lord Krishna (or some story similar to that). So my in-laws insisted that she step up. That was the first time I realized that these rules existed. Ever since then I have always encouraged her to step up and give her blessings at any religious ceremony.
    Another similar incident happened when my son (then 3) touched the feet of our maid on the first day of school, which left all the elders shocked (lower caste and all that nonsense). But me and my husband put our foot down there and no one has ever objected after that.

    • Your comment about your mother is very touching and about the maid as well.
      We often sideline the persons that matter the most for the flimsiest of reasons.

    • Arunima ji,
      In the first case, the elders thought that widows of society have very less respect because of psychological reasons. To keep them alive they have made this tradition to follow. In the second case SANSKARS are induced amongst children that elders should be respected irrespective of any caste, creed or position. Elder is Elder.

  3. In my opinion all such customs are just an entertainment for all the relatives present at the occasion.
    Ms Ujjwala has nicely drafted the article and it becomes the duty of all of us that with the advancement of science, such systems should be made advanced by way by passing old traditions.

  4. I share your views, Ujjwala. My ‘recommendation’ to my wife is not to hold haldi-kumkum kind of rituals at home where widows are discriminated against. Having a husband is no big achievement, not having one is no crime.

    • Refreshing view, Suneel.
      The ceremony that I referred to at the beginning of my blog was held at my in-law’s home. My discomfort with this ritual was evident and my views are well-known. Although what I really wished to do was stay away, I conversed with the guests, but did not participate in the actual anointing!!
      Wonder what interpretation was put on this???

  5. I too would like to say what Arunima said, there are some communities who thankfully do not follow such customs and I am proud to be married into one such community, for all pooja’s and Aarti’s all women have equal rights to hold the aarti thali ,in fact what I most appreciate is the daughter never touches the feet of any elders to seek blessings as she is considered the Laxmi of the household.

  6. Most children of working women today are ignorant of such customs, because the mothers do not have time to hold such elaborate optional rituals. However, they become aware of all these thanks to the mindles TV serials in every language being beamed at us where they go out of their way to perpetuate these ‘rasms’ and reeti-riwaj’ in the name of culture and heritage. Time we all boycotted such programmes because only when TRPs come down do producers realize that people do not have to tolerate the tripe being doled out to them in the name of entertainment!

  7. This is a comment that I received via email, after they read my blog, from a couple in their early sixties.

    Alaka and I have been brought up in progressive families. We are also aware of all these stupid,disgraceful and repulsive insultations which have been so much ingrained in our Society that it is almost impossible to come out of them. Pressures from the elders, men and women in the families is repressive. The younger generation is suppressed and gets crushed under this viciousness unable to defy.They get indoctrinated, and start thinking on similar lines, and accept this as to be correct.Have you ever heard the despicable word, “Vanjhoti” ? Eeeks !!!

    Sunil R Vaze

    The term “vanjhoti” refers to a childless woman and is perhaps one of the most terrible things that a woman is “accused” of in our culture!!!

    • No one on this earth can scold the nature.
      No one can stop Floods.
      No one can fight Natural Calamity.
      Similarly Vanjhoti can not be eliminated from the dictionary of elders.
      One thing we can do- Go on listening and keep yourself in productive activities to raise your economic status. Economy can over rule every thing.
      L:et all the female society join together and come under a unique consortium to learn entrepreneurship and fight the society with your own money power. Be Brave, Be Bold, Be Enthusiastic but remain generous.

  8. While I worked at Public Sector,we ladies used to have haldi kumkum in office during Sankranti & exchange small gifts like agarbattis,small dabbas,etal..We would distribute these items to all ladies irrespective of the lady being childless.divorced,spinster or a widow .

    I am a homemaker now .I have restarted haldi kumkum for my maids & the milk maid.I buy a small item of gift for them & give it to them during Sankaranti along with til gur.No discrimination regarding having hubby and or child or being married. I did it during Adhik maas.I do it, for earning brownie points from the Almighty.

  9. Well if you notice, it is women who more often than not encourage such behavior 🙁

    • Hi Seeta,
      You have really said the right thing, it is we the ladies, who are not marching forward with time.
      Time and Tide do not wait for old rituals- quick and fast it acts.
      Beware female society, keep yourself ready to grab money not by old rituals but by competitive
      acts parallel to male society.
      We have to progress in the society, that is why I am motivating ladies to opt entrepreneurship and
      start manufacturing consumable items to flood the market with a label ” Manufactured by Women Entrepreneurs” .

  10. A very relevant article and yes these things still occur even in so called educated urban localities. Its often women who are instrumental in ‘implementing’ these outrageous insensible actions. Yes I have seen and experienced such customs… 🙁

  11. A vert important issue in all Patriarchial societies. And We the women spiecies should stand against it. Instead we take part in all such acts and encourage, as Seeta has rightly pointed out. If a woman will not stand with a woman then how will there be upliftment. All these rituals were created for merryment and celebrations of different stages of life when life was in simpler form by mankind only then how any living person not be a part of it for no fault of hers. When a man can be on a throne even after 100 wrongs then why a pious woman even after following all bindings of the society still be stigmated. ONLY BECAUSE SHE IS A WOMAN AND JANINI.

  12. It’s really sad. Sometimes many people don’t even notice the bias against a gender because it has been a part for so so so many years now.

    I had made a similar post long back, on customs prevalent in India that prevent women from enjoying their life to the fullest. You may find it here on my blog:


  13. I really appreciate Ujwala for taking up such topics, which may miss many people’s eyes. It is also true…as many say that women should stay with each other and act against such discriminatory practices. Instead many want to get the social approval or not willing to hazard a bad image from the other elders in the family, which makes them practice this in the name of tradition. Same way, the westerners exchange marital vows and both man and woman wear wedding ring. But here the women wear the mangal sutra, and the man does not need to reveal his marital status.
    What is more instigating is some of the women’s comments in the blogs saying ‘men will be men…yes society is changing but it will take time and we need to wait….nowadays many men are helping in household,etc etc.’ Why do many women talk only about what privileges they have in their house and generalize it or accept when men make some slight changes and feel sorry for them when they have made such ‘adjustments’. This sort of denial which exists in women is more of complacency and it their lack of awareness or alertness that is pulling the others’ efforts down.
    There is change but not at all levels.If it is happening in their house, let them be happy. But let them also understand that it does not happen in majority of the families. I kindly request such women to speak by looking at the statistics or over all scenario and do not just remain complacent if things in their house has improved. There are many women who need to be strengthened for even speaking for their own rights. Let them not deny the problem which is becoming a greater hurdle, as not only are they undermining the problem but also creating a feeling of denial in the men regarding women’s issues.

  14. Thanks Ujwala for pointing that such dogmas still exist in the 21st Century. There is one incident which I’d like to point out here about “Vanjhoti”. During my “Godh Bharai”, there was one custom wherein some 5-7 ladies will keep the puja thali on the top of my head and bless me – however a childless woman cannot be part of that. I felt that as extremely irritating and insulting for the childless lady who was present there. As I can be a rebel at times, to the extreme displeasure of some people, I called her to be part of that and give her blessings.

    There is another custom which I still fail to understand – mothers should not see their child getting married. When the groom is getting married, the mother of the groom stays behind at home. Since the marriage takes place generally at the bride’s place, it becomes more difficult for the brides mother to not be part of the ritual. She can keep herself busy with other activities, but watching the “saat pheras” is a strict no-no! And the reason behind that – “nazaar lag jayega”. Oh really, that is simply ridiculous. It high time we make our voices heard, however hard that might be.

  15. Yes, i agree.
    It is for us to feel the pain and isolation of our sisters and seek to remedy it. In our own way, we could change things, by changing these hurtful traditions, whenever and wherever we can.

    • ” Slowly and steady wins the race” Yes Ujjwala, you go on writing and let the female society go through it.
      Change will come. Wastage of time in such traditions is also being felt by the elders too., The more time the relatives will stay in the marriage to enjoy the traditions,the more they will eat, the more secrets of the family may come out for criticism. Actually the Barat arrives in the evening and the lady relatives has to pass the time to wait for MAHOORAT. This is the main reason to keep every one engaged in such meaningless rituals.

    • Ujwala, I want your e mail id please send it on

  16. Pingback: Religious customs- outdated or not? | ujwalasblog

  17. And then there are the divorced women who are conveniently forgotten to be invited even for family functions.

  18. I completely agree with you Ujwala regarding the very cruel and unfair ‘ostracisation’ of widowed and single women from auspicious family ceremonies.

    However,the title of this article is very misleading and wrong.
    What the author deals in this article is not due to our Dharma.These are social ills.
    Nowhere does our Sanatana Dharma promote such discrimination and injustice towards widows or single women.This is a very unfair accusation against our Dharma.
    I am certain that your angst and righteous anger is not against our Sanatana Dharma but against these ignorant and foolish people who twist,misinterpret and inflict pain on our own sisters.
    As someone has commented it is we women ourselves who are responsible for the continuance of such malpractices and travails of our own species.

    Look at some mothers-in-law who really are mean and perpetuate the mother-in-law syndrome of unfairness towards their daughters-in-law.
    But reversely there are also unkind daughters-in-law who categorize and cast aspersions on their in-laws baselessly.
    Under such circumstances,women of our ilk should step in to actively handle the situation with firm determination.

    Let me give you my own very recent experience at an engagement ceremony within the family.
    After the ceremony was over haldi-kumkum and flowers were distributed to those present.
    The sister of the bride to be came near me but deliberately refrained from offering me any of these ‘shubha’ items.It did hurt me but I sat bravely.
    I just wondered at the girl’s ‘indoctrination’ because only a few days earlier I had had a conversation with her and her parents who seemed to be ‘educated’.
    Did she ever wonder how life can change in no time!

    Just before this regretful incident,in the very same city of orthodox Chennai I had been invited for a Upanayanam ceremony.
    I was hesitant to go – not because of anything but due to my ‘own thoughts on life and my own recent disconnection’ from people.
    But my friend of over 40 years insisted that I come and I did go.
    They are also from the same Iyer community.
    For the ‘Aashirvadam’ blessing ceremony of the young ‘brahmachari’ I too was invited most warmly up to the podium and there was no discrimination.
    In fact my friend who is above 70 is also vehemently opposed to widows not putting ‘bindi’.
    According to her thinking,we Hindu women put bindis even before we are married and so the husband not being alive should be no reason for her to relinquish her right to wearing the bindi.
    My very own sister-in-law whose brother passed away some years ago put the ‘bindi’ with her own hands for his wife.
    Yes,after having cared for a husband and lived together for a lifetime it is not the wife’s fault of death taking away her dear husband.
    In fact our traditions have never ever prompted such ‘sad and unfair practices’.
    These are all (man-made) here completely woman-made unfair inflictions.
    We have to definitely start debates and discussions based on such malpractices.
    We must start movements within our own social milieu to refrain from continuing such malpractices.

    As a rule,from my childhood I was brought up by parents who were enlightened and educated and by nature I am very outspoken at times much to the chagrin of my own children.
    My grandparents were one of the first who permitted their daughter to go in for Science( my mother was the first woman Science graduate from Delhi University.
    She had her primary ‘shikshan’ at Maharshi Karve’s Mahilashram in Hingne (Pune) and she must have been one of the first women who also married outside her Iyer community.
    My mother spoke Marathi even better than her mother-tongue Tamizh.
    Maharshi Karve was a great social reformer who took up the cause of women’s education and widow remarriage.So such reforms have been taking place in our society since ages where both men and women stood up for such causes.

    A few months ago I had gone to Canada and there they performed a community Pooja to which I was invited.
    Again there were some who looked at me with ‘eyes of pity’ ( sad for them ) and then up came a newly-made friend who knew my story but took me by her hand and we did Aarati together.
    That was very brave.
    And yet among these very people there was another lady who spoke sweetly but her actions were not so sweet.
    So there are many who care for their sisters from the heart.They ignore such meaningless and ignorant practices and light the way for wisdom practices.

    This all goes to show the ‘evolution’ of the individual’s mind and heart.
    We are all evolving at our own pace and nothing can be forced but we must show the right and righteous way for prevention of discrimination and cruelty to women.

    We women are not in vain called Shakti and this power we have to use with discrimination against unfair and unjust discrimination!

  19. Pingback: Haldi kum-kum ceremony - Relevant for women today? - Nuawoman Blog

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