PLAY AND SYMBOLISM IN RITES OF PASSAGE OF TAMIL BRAHMIN WOMEN: AN INTERPRETATION OF THEIR SOCIAL SIGNIFICANCE
DUVVURY, VASUMATHI KRISHNASWAMY
Doctor of Philosophy
Among Tamil Brahmnin Aiyars, the world of women is separate yet complementary to the world of men. These women, through their rituals comprising primarily non-Vedic (laukik, oral) life cycle rituals and vows (vratas/nombus), express their domestic concerns, their fears of widowhood and barrenness, and their ambitions of motherhood and eternal 'sumangalihood' (state of auspiciousness). This study, which deals with rural and urban south Indian Aiyar women aims to show (1) how the various symbolic and 'non-serious' elements in their rites of passage reflect their traditional as well as their contemporary tastes; (2) how the liminal period plays a significant role in molding the women; (3) how marriage leading to motherhood, and not simply marriage, is their most important goal; and (4) how this in turn is a commentary on their position and status in this society. Part One introduces the reader to the two research sites, highlights the important traditional life-goals of Aiyar women, and delineates the differences as well as the complementary nature of the Vedic and laukik traditions. In Part Two, Chapter VI provides indepth descriptions and analyses of their life cycle rituals, grouped as "separation," "transition," and "incorporation" rites. This reveals that the women are integrated into society in stages. The various 'playful' and symbolic elements clearly emphasize this fact. Chapter VII deals with the important vratas/nombus performed by Aiyar women. All the rites and vratas are explained by means of case studies and photographs. In Chapter VIII Aiyar women's rituals are viewed as a set and two common symbolic elements--colors and foods--are explored. In Chapter IX a brief description of the roles of 'auspicious' women (sumangalis) and widows in 'antyeshti' (last rites) as well as an account of the rite of widowhood are included to further exemplify the auspicious/creative/positive and the inauspicious/destructive/negative qualities of women and the importance this society attaches to the state of sumangalihood/motherhood. Women's rituals, basically performed by women ritual specialists, have hitherto received scant attention from scholars. This study is intended as a contribution toward rectifying this state of affairs.