IN Kathmandu there’s a living goddess, Kumari. She’s selected from a multitude of candidates when she’s very young, often only about three or four. Once a year, at the festival of Indra Jatra, she’s carried round the streets of the city in a chariot. Gazing out blankly from the shade of a gold-embroidered umbrella her face looks both human and ethereal - an artist’s creation of charcoal-rimmed eyes and scarlet lips, framed in the crescent of her tiara. Crowds flank the streets showering the chariot with flowers and coins. In the evening when she’s completed her round, she greets the king, marking a vermilion tika between his eyes - her mandate for his rule in the coming year. The king stoops and touches her feet with his forehead, a gesture of the ultimate homage. But the girl is a goddess only -until puberty. If by some grave mischance her first period starts before she’s been relegated to human status, while she’s still the goddess Kumari, it’s said that some terrible evil will befall the king and the country.
In a Hindu village in north-western Nepal, a girl spends the four nights of her first period alone in the stable. She learns that now and for every period for the rest of her life she is polluted and potentially polluting. At no time must she enter the house and although she works in the fields she must fetch no water nor prepare or cook any food - one of the greatest sins a woman can commit is to offer food to a man while she is menstruating. On the fifth day she goes to the stream and washes her body and hair, her clothes and blanket and the bowl she kept separate for her food. Then the floor of the house is plastered with a solution of mud and cowdung (the products of the cow are particularly purifying to the Hindus) and she drinks a few drops of cow’s urine and sprinkles some about the room and the pollution is ended - until the next month.
As soon as possible after puberty a girl should be married. An illegitimate pregnancy, the public disavowal of her virginity, would make her, theoretically at least, unmarriageable. And because everyone in the village belongs to a single clan, inside which marriage would be incestuous, the girl is sent to live with her husband in another village. The early years of her marriage are almost invariably miserable. As the only outsider in a close-knit family circle she elicits suspicion and hostility as well as the typical jealousy of the mother-in-law for her son’s wife. Most women are betrothed in their early childhood - marriages don’t grow out of love or friendship, so a woman’s husband too is a stranger, allying himself with his family and against her. A perfect scapegoat. the woman carries the brunt of the workload, particularly the most menial tasks. Then, in the evening she hovers, silent and deferential, on the fringes of the family gathering.
One woman I knew found the early years of marriage intolerable and ran away, back to the solace of her own home and the village where she grew up. But usually a woman’s unhappiness ends with the birth of a son. From this time on her husband’s lineage accepts her - she becomes an honorary member by virtue of her son’s belonging and the patriline’s need to procreate. It also seems that, now her sexuality has been validated and harnessed to the lineage, she is less dangerous, less polluting.
For a boy the growing-up process is smoother. There is an initiation rite called bartaman, which marks the incorporation of the young man into caste society. From this time onwards he is responsible for his actions: from now, if he touches untouchables or menstruating women, or eats ritually impure foods such as pork, he will be polluting himself - however freely he committed these transgressions in his childhood. His initiation enhances his ritual purity as well as his personal and social worth. But a woman’s initiation, which isn’t marked by any rite but is axiomatic on her first period, has the opposite effect: it degrades her. Similarly, the early years of marriage are, for a young man, comparatively unproblematic. His wife joins him where he is living, in his own village, his own home, with his own family - his familiar routine is unruffled.
But the learning of gender roles and the assumption of moral and social responsibility encapsulated in these rites of passage constitute only one aspect of the total process of growing-up. Equally important is the transition from material dependence on others to some degree of economic responsibility. In Western society this aspect of childhood is vastly protracted, partly because our affluence allows it and partly because the training for economic independence takes place outside the home and on premises that are often alien to experience. In this, and most subsistence farming communities, dependants (whether old or young) can’t be carried for long. Sending even one son to school is a luxury in terms of labour foregone. So children are taught from the earliest possible age to contribute in whatever small way they can. Since they are always surrounded by adults going about their daily tasks, as their physical capabilities expand so do their knowledge and experience of the skills required.
The result is that there is no one traumatic day when suddenly an adolescent is expected to go out to an unfamiliar job with the full expectation of having to fend alone for the rest of his or her life - the process is gradual and predictable. In the household where I lived, the seven-year-old son took the cattle out to graze; the five-year-old daughter stayed at home, fending the chickens off a pile of grain drying in the sun and looking after her sister aged three and the six-month-old baby. In the afternoon when the baby got hungry she would SCOOP up the grain, put it in a container inside, and carry the baby to their mother in the fields to be fed. In another fifteen years’ time, the familiar pattern will be repeated, one spin up the spiral: it will be her turn to tend the fields and wait for the arrival of her own small daughter.
THE bar mitzvah is a rite of passage which is as much a psychological milestone in the life of the parents as of the child. A boy becomes a bar mitzvah, literally ‘a son of the laws’ on his thirteenth birthday. So ‘social puberty’ reflects the community’s general expectation of biological puberty, rather than its attainment by a particular child. It means that a boy has entered the adult Jewish community; has become a man, ready to fulfil the commandments gleaned from the Talmud, the book that codifies ancient Jewish laws and traditions.
In what was a patriarchal religion, girls were not given the same public recognition of their transition to adulthood. In recent decades that has changed. Many girls now participate in a parallel ceremony at the age of 12, called a bat mitzvah (bat means ‘daughter’).
The preparation for bar mitzvah is arduous. The child’s programme of study differs from synagogue to synagogue but can last as long as two to three years, and includes Jewish history, religious ritual and classes in Hebrew, the ancient language of Judaism. The bar mitzvah candidate must become fluent enough to read and understand the basics of the language. And he must commit to memory the portion of the Torah (the Jewish Holy Book) that he is assigned to read on his bar mitzvah day.
These readings are the subject of a great deal of study and thought. The child discusses their meaning not only with his Rabbi but with other adult family members and friends and is encouraged to think about their significance in relation to his own life. So the ceremony is not, as it may seem to a cynical onlooker, empty rote-learning; it is a space created for the boy and his care-givers to explore their understanding of the soon-to-be adult’s impending responsibilities.
As with other religions, there are many Jews who find institutional Judaism confining and inappropriate to their needs. For these parents too, a bar mitzvah provides a chance to explore their own values and beliefs, to sift from their Jewish heritage what they cherish and want to see passed on to their children.
Traditionally, the first public declaration of a child’s new acceptance into adulthood takes place on the first Saturday after the boy’s thirteenth birthday. This ceremony closes with the boy’s father reciting the Hebrew blessing, ‘blessed are you who releases us from the responsibility of this child’. The blessing makes explicit the boy’s new responsibility to himself and the community’s recognition of their altered responsibility to him. And in recognition of his new stature in the community, he is given religious privileges - or spiritual responsibilities, depending on how you look at it.
So the social impact of the bar mitzvah is profound. It draws into consciousness a clear demarcation line between childhood and adulthood but even as he takes that first perilous step out of childhood, the teenager sees himself surrounded by a willing display of support and love. And at the very moment of separation into individual responsibility, the bar mitzvah links the boy with his history and roots.
Recently in North America there has been criticism that some bar mitzvahs have degenerated into a crass display of wealth, with the religious and social meaning of the event buried under piles of gifts. But there are still many Jews who see the bar mitzvah as a way of enforcing their own and their children’s pride and confidence in themselves and their heritage.
Says one mother in Canada who recently experienced the bustle, preparation and exhilaration of her son’s bar mitzvah: ‘Every part of his world - his parents, extended family, peers, teachers, friends - gave him approval at precisely the time when kids are most confused. It was a way for all the pieces of his life to come together, at a time of celebration. It may not have changed him consciously but I think it gave him a tremendous amount of self-confidence at a time of life when a lot of kids just fall apart.’
FIFTEEN boys emerge from the bush. Their hair is wild and spiky, like the mulga trees and their ochre-stained bodies seem part of the red desert earth they walk on. They are naked, marked by last week’s circumcision.
Each is joined by a protector and they form a circle around Henry Cook Jakamarra. Jakamarra usually wears khaki army disposal clothes as he walks round Yuendumu, a settlement of the Walbiri people near the centre of Australia. But he has been transformed. In this hidden bush camp he has sloughed off the white man’s clothes to take on the ancient ceremonial dress of kirda (owner) of his clan territory. His body is patterned with ochre and blood-glued vegetable down. He is ready to perform the ceremony.
Henry Cook Jakamarra chants a complex song, dances an intricate dance, then kneels frozen in the dust. The boys, encouraged by the protectors, reach forward to touch him. There is power here.
Then they are motioned back into the mulga trees. They have not been allowed to watch the preparations for the ceremony and they are not allowed to see the swinging of the bullroarer, though they will hear its deep, mourning sound. These things will come in a year or two, when they are fully initiated.
The rite of passage I watched outside Yuendumu was part of the process of induction of the young boys into the clan, helping to bind them into the complex web of Aboriginal life. Circumcision is the single most important event. Anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt, an authority on the Walbiri, says: ‘Circumcision, with its accompanying ceremonies, firmly and unequivocally establishes a youth’s status in Walbiri society. Should he fail to pass through these rites, he may not enter his father’s lodge, he may not participate in religious ceremonies, he cannot acquire a marriage line, he cannot legitimately obtain a wife; in short, he cannot become a social person.’
With initiation, at 11 to 13 years of age, Aborigines leave behind a childhood world of freedom and toleration. They are secluded from the community and from their parents. They ‘die’ to them - and are reborn later into a system of responsibility and reciprocity. But between the death and the rebirth is a period of waking to another world. The doors to the Dreamtime open.
The Dreamtime is the Golden Age in Aborigine mythology, the heroic age when superbeings burst through the Earth’s surface and performed monumental deeds. These fables have been handed down, every detail carefully preserved for the instruction of future generations.
The accounts resolve the great mysteries of life: they elucidate the unity of living species, the relation of the past to the present and future, the distinction between the sacred and the profane, the juxtaposition of life and death, the ordering of social relationships, crime and punishment, and the rites of passage through the phases of one’s life.
Yami Lester has a son who is approaching the age for initiation. But Yami himself will not make the decision on timing: ‘That goes through the grandfathers and the tribal brothers. They will help and advise him through the initiation, and after. They are his relatives, some of them through blood and some of them through the rituals.’ In the Walbiri ceremony the initiates are told that their ritual relatives will always be their friends and must never be quarrelled with.
Rites of passage are an instrument in a society’s struggle to sustain itself, and that struggle is particularly intense for Australia’s Aborigines, surrounded for 200 years now by a brutal and arrogant colonising power.
Unless young men go through initiation and young women receive their own ritual education - the culture will die. It is as simple as that. And initiation, even at its lowest level, establishes authority and enables discipline. The saddest sight around Aboriginal settlements is that of young boys, smiling, lost in their minds and a haze of petrol sniffed from a tin they carry round, lost to their parents and culture.
Frequently, even Europeans of goodwill have undermined the authority structures of Aboriginal groups, looking to the younger men when they want to fill positions of power in imposed European-style structures. But some at least of the young Aborigines who are members of ‘councils’ and deal with Europeans stress constantly that they are acting on behalf of the old men. Besides ageism Europeans have also introduced sexism, ignoring the important role of Aboriginal women in the traditional decision-making process.
Some traditional Aborigines want nothing to do with white society. But even those who move confidently through the white man’s world stress the importance of initiation. Gallarrwuy Yunipingu, chairman of the Northern Land Council, is a businessman who now lives with a European woman. ‘If my son did not go through the ceremonies,’ Gallarrwuy says, ‘and lived lost to his people, it would be the saddest day of my life.’