Baby shower or Godh Bharai, as it is called in the West & North of India, it is called differently in other parts of the country. For example it is known as Puli Oonu in Kerala and Seemantham in Tamil Nadu, both states situated in South India and Swad in Bengal, situated to the east.
People in India enjoy celebrations of any kind. It is a land of such diversity that each community has their own customs and traditions while celebrating festivals, marriages etc., and a baby shower is no different. Although the rituals are different, the common thread of congratulating the pregnant woman and welcoming the unborn child with sweets, flowers and gifts, is the same.
Godh means lap and bharai means to fill. So, the literal translation would be filling the lap of the mother-to-be with loads of gifts and good wishes. The ceremony is conducted by the in-laws of the mother-to-be and is exclusively attended by women. Gifts for the unborn baby is believed to be inauspicious. (the origin to this belief goes way back in ancient times when infant mortality was high). After the ceremony, the expectant mother goes to her parents’ house to stay there until after childbirth and six weeks of postpartum care.
The Puli Oonu, as it is known in my native village of Kerala, is done when a pregnant woman has entered her third trimester. Puli means tamarind and oonu means rice meal, literally meaning eating a meal of tamarind rice. When the mother-to-be enters her ninth month, an auspicious day and time is fixed for the ceremony by the family astrologer. The mother-to-be is adorned in silk sari with gold jewelry around her neck and wrists and fragrant flowers on her hair. She is seated facing the east and specific items like the quill of a porcupine and ripe paddy is used in a ritual to invoke the full-moon goddess. The ritual symbolizes that the unborn child should be beautiful as the full moon with a penetrating and sharp intellect as the quill of the porcupine. Later, the expectant mother visits the nearby temple to pray for a safe delivery, followed by a scrumptious traditional lunch for all. However, this ritual died a slow death and is hardly practiced anymore by the Nair community of Kerala.
As a variation, in Tamil Nadu, the seemantham is held by the in-laws of the mother-to be with only close female relatives and friends in attendance. The expectant mother is well dressed in gold finery and her face, hands and feet are smeared with turmeric paste and a beautiful design from henna paste is drawn on her palms. Amidst chanting of sacred mantras, valakaapu is done where the women fill the expectant mother’s wrists with red, green and gold colored glass bangles and the remaining bangles are given to the guests. Vala means bangles and kaapu means to protect, and this ritual symbolizes protection to the mother-to-be and her unborn baby. The soft jingle of the bangles is believed to be auspicious for the baby’s ears. The bangles are worn till childbirth and given away to the midwife after birth. The mother-to-be is showered with gifts and sweets. This ceremony is still popular and widely practiced by the women-folk of Tamil Nadu. The other southern states, namely, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh follow similar traditions and customs of celebrating pregnancy.
In the state of Gujarat, to the west of India, during godh bharai, relatives of the expectant mother bring five beautifully adorned round metal plates filled with sweets for her. The mother to-be is asked to enter her husband’s house and walk to the place where the puja (worship) is going to be performed. Every step she takes is on a square piece of colored silk placed under her feet. She is asked to sit on a baajoth (four-legged wooden seat). Her mother-in-law and her mother fill her lap with gifts, jewelry and sweets, amidst songs, dances and blessings from elders.
Another state to the west of India called Maharashtra, call the ceremony Dohal Jevan, which is held in the house of the expectant mother’s parents. Dohal means craving and Jevan means food, which literally translates into craving for certain foods. This ceremony is held as a means to satiate an expectant mother’s food cravings. The underlying idea is to soothe the expectant mother’s feelings, wherein she is well adorned, wearing a soothing green sari and listening to soothing music. A low table has a wide array of wholesome, nutritious food and sweets like pedhas and barfis, that are kept covered. The food and sweets are given a gender and categorized as such. Rice and pedhas are considered masculine and chappatis and barfis are considered feminine. The expectant mother is asked to choose one of the covered plates containing the food. There is a fair amount of teasing about the gender of the unborn baby, based on her choice.
To the east, in Bengal, the ceremony swad , which means taste is an elaborate occasion and originated in ancient times when childbirth was fraught with dangers, especially for the mother. The swad is held during the ninth month in order to fulfill an expectant mother’s desires, if any, before she went into labor, which also doubled up as a means to strengthen the mother-to-be to face the rigors of childbirth. Swad is held by the mother or mother-in-law or aunt of the expectant mother. After wearing an elaborate sari and jewelry, the expectant mother takes her first mouthful of food, that contains a little of everything from an impressive array of food, including a dish of cooked fish’s head (staple diet of the Bengalis), banana fritters, shukto (mixed vegetables) and payesh (rice pudding). A conch shell is blown to indicate the start of the swad
In an Indian Muslim household, the ceremony is called satvasa and is quite similar to a godh bharai held in the north. The expectant mother’s parents visit their daughter with gifts of sweets, food and clothes for her and her husband and he is honored with a garland. The ceremony ends with a delicious lunch of meat and vegetables for everyone present. A nourishing medicinal herbal concoction called mussaffar that is prepared out of precious metals, by the local muslim physician, is given to the mother-to-be, to nourish her unborn baby.
These amazing rituals are such wonderful ways of welcoming the impending arrival of a newborn into this world. The ceremonies depict the rich tradition of this country that has withstood the test of time and continue to flourish unabated.