Growing up in an orthodox Tambrahm home, the current COVID-19 hygiene-compliance seems rather familiar. Social distancing, washing one’s hands and feet after coming from outside, leaving one’s footwear outside the door, taking bath before coming into the kitchen to cook in the mornings and most of all, washing one’s hands every time one came into the kitchen to take anything, quarantine….Yes, that too! they did it all. Believe me, they would have been best at Corona-compliance!
We rebelled at a lot of those customs while growing up and even later, but today the entire world is following them and more strictly than even our elders ever did!
There are still lakhs of orthodox families around the globe, many of them Brahmins, but Jains and other communities too, most notably the rural populace of the country, for whom strict social distancing and washing routines are everyday affairs. While some customs like ‘madi’ are uniquely Tambrahm (though it goes by other names in the other southern states), there are many that cut across communities and regions across the country.
Washing hands, feet and face were compulsory when one came from school, office or college. In many houses there used to be bucket of water outside the house to wash the hands and feet before entering the house. We lived in houses, not flats, in those days. The houses might have been small, but they were still houses, not the matchboxes we live in today. We also had to change all our clothes and get into home clothes. It irked me no end then, but now not only do I follow it diligently, but am sure most of the world does too.
Talking of clothes, elders in our families would remain in a state of ‘madi’ once they had their bath. Madi is a ‘touch-me-not’ condition, when one is not supposed to touch the person or even their clothes. There are some exceptions to the rules: children up to their teens could touch the elders but not hug them since their clothes would come in contact with the ‘madi’ person’s clothes; new clothes that had not yet been washed were exempt from this rule.
The madi clothes themselves became so as they were dried by the elders on clotheslines much above head-level to prevent even raised hands touching them. The clothes were hung up with a bamboo pole and were similarly taken down to be worn the next day. (houses had high ceilings back then, unlike flats of today). Clothes that were on the line longer than 24/48 hours were considered to have lost madi!
Crowded places were avoided by madi persons or if unavoidable as in a market or some such place, they would have a complete bath after coming back before eating or drinking anything.
Did you say ‘social distancing’ and not touching another person? What could have been a better example?
Not more than a couple of generations ago elders stayed put and the children visited them. Today it is the reverse. Also affordable world tours have got elders jet-setting! Today, corona advisories repeatedly exhort seniors to stay home and avoid social contact. The reason being that their immunity is often compromised due to their age and other health issues, which makes it necessary to protect them from exposure to all kinds of viruses. Which is also why international travel is not advisable for the very elderly. Experts now say that viruses like the COVID19 become pandemic due to international travel, as the Chinese virus had travelled all over Europe and other countries along with those coming in and out of Wuhan before China chose to announce to the world about the spread of the virus.
Coming back to the post, visiting a bereaved family had its own rules. One had to completely change out of the clothes after returning and having a head-bath (as we Tambrahms call it). While this is mandatory if the deceased has not been cremated, it has to be followed if one visits the house within 10 days after death. I am not sure whether any germs/virus/bacteria would survive for those many days, we still follow the custom as it is connected to health and hygiene. Why take chances, when we don’t know how the dratted parasites behave?
There were also times of ‘quarantine’. A post-partum woman used to be kept in isolation for several weeks after giving birth. It was not because she was ‘impure’, though elders called her theetu (sutak). It was to prevent her or the baby from getting exposed to any infection from visitors. Only the mother or a very close relative could go near and take care of the baby and her for at least some weeks. Perhaps our elders felt it would be nicer to warn visitors that they would have to bathe if they touched the mother and child as they were theetu, than saying that they might bring germs and bacteria into the room! Of course, today with more health awareness about infections and bacteria, one can expect the visitors to be more understanding. Even today, many families, especially the vast rural population of the South observe such customs.
Another occasion for ‘social distancing’ and ‘quarantine’ similar to the above had to do with menstruating women. Again, the reasons are health and rest oriented, though they were turned around to make the woman ‘impure’ in order to give her the much-needed rest and respite from domestic duties, perhaps for the same reason that a post-partum woman was!
Eating and drinking had many do’s and don’ts too. Corona advisories tell us to avoid using the same drinking cups or sharing food from the same plate. We had followed those rules all those many years ago! We did not sip water, as that meant that the cup or glass came in contact with the lips and possibly saliva. We had to tilt out heads and pour the liquid from a couple of inches above the mouth. A majority of Indians even today drink water this way.
We were not allowed to serve food by ourselves while eating. Instead, we were served the food by mother or some other elder who was madi, taking care to not touch the plate or our hands as they did. We also were told not to use both hands for eating. If we did or touched the plate with the other hand, we had to hold it away from the body and wash it after eating. Sounds familiar to some of the Corona routines?
Elders never ate outside the home, even while travelling. My parents carried only certain foods that they ate during long journeys. No puliyodarai, curd-rice, idlis or dosas. There is a complicated system of classifying ‘eatable’ and ‘non-eatable’ food items, which, like madi, follows a very complicated set of rules. Since it will make this post very long, I am not going into them. By avoiding outside food they safeguarded vulnerable constitutions from bacterial infections. How many of us today dare to eat out in a dhaba?
At home, the eating and cooking utensils were kept separately. Many families still do it. The plates and cups used for eating were/are never washed with the cooking utensils, but preferably in a separate sink. Cups or tumblers which were used for sipping beverages were also kept separately. One way of purifying them if someone accidentally sipped from a tumbler not meant for the purpose, was to scrub them with a little cow dung. Yes, yes, I know about the Hinduphobic ‘cow dung’ and ‘cow piss’ labels, but someday some western lab would find them to be antibacterial and recommend them for sanitising purposes! Cow dung was also used to clean the floor after eating. In days when homes had mud floors, they were swabbed with cow dung mixed with water. It not only firmed up the mud floor, but also kept insects out.
There was no room for laziness or putting off cleaning routines for later. They had to be completed immediately or at the end of the day, depending upon the item or surface to be cleaned. This routine kept out insects and pests. For instance, the kitchen platform, the chulhas and later, the gas stoves were washed and dried and decorated at night with a small rangoli on them to indicate that they were considered auspicious since they helped cook food.
And oh, most families in those days didn’t have maids, either as they couldn’t afford them or for cleanliness purposes. We swept, mopped and washed the utensils and clothes by turns. All the cleaning jobs had to be completed in the morning itself.
After reading all this, wouldn’t you agree that our elders and their customs were not regressive but ultra-progressive? Call them corona-compliance or good old-fashioned hygiene routines, please follow them diligently.
Stay home. Stay safe.
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very apt post for current phase we are all undergoing. As i was reading your post, at the same time it took be back in times of those days of our childhood and the practising of so called ‘Madi”. What we are following now is the one and the same, with new word called ‘quarantine’ which was unheard. I use to get angry when i was always watched and reminded by my grand parents and other elders, about not touching formula. i realised now, what they meant by ‘Madi’. If told as hygiene, probably we would not have listened. Hygiene was always attached with ‘God fearing’ and was easy to preach and also practice to larger extent.I have seen many families, still following,if not on daily basis, certainly on festivals and ritual like Shradham days. With nuclear family, flat system, economic independence, life style and thinking has changed a lot over the years. Everything has become a convenience d based.
Very relevant post, considering that we are currently in a crisis situation.
Yes, many Hindu practices of earlier days were for the purpose of promoting cleanliness & avoiding infections.
The custom of ‘madi’ that you have mentioned is called ‘sovale’ in Marathi. Silk clothes were allowed as an exception- even if not washed – though I have no idea why this was the case! They did have to be kept separate on a peg though.
The customs indeed were meant to be hygiene oriented but the way they were ensured made the young rebel. One of the things that was forbidden at home was to put the finger in one’s mouth or chew on a pen/pencil as it was ushta! Today the Corona message on the phone tells that! And oh, I know about sovala but haven’t mentioned that or the equivalents in other southern languages. Will update soon.
Sanatana dharma is scientific. But the problem is we never explained the reasons. Maybe if we had there would have been more acceptance. My father never loved us to touch the railing while climbing up or down the stairs. Stubborn as I was I refused to comply until one day he explained that so many people touch the railings and who knows where all their hands have been to. I never touched railings till the time I had to depend on my hands to guide me. Just a example.. A good read mami, made me nostalgic and also proud of my roots.
It is good that some parents and elders were patient enough to explain the reasons behind certain taboos. For instance, we are asked to sanitise everything that comes into the house today. When our parents told us at that time, we rebelled because we thought they were being discriminatory!
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I would agree to some extent but beg to differ others…Those rules are too extremist for a person like me..Minimum hygiene is needed but I can never turn into a gemophobic.
I can see the effects of the lockdown in your comment. Most of the customs were not germophobic, but followed simple hygiene rules.
In simple words you have written such a beautiful article while reading I felt as though I am reading Apne hi Ghar ki kahani , even in our family also all this costumes were followed and even now we follow many costumes..
There are many communities in various regions that observe these hygienic customs and most of them are not Brahmins. Wisdom existed among our ancestors cutting across caste and communities. Jains are the other community who follow many such customs too. It is just to malign the Brahmin community that it is being called discriminatory and patriarchal, without understanding the wisdom behind these customs.
It is unfortunate that we have begun to see ‘repression’ and ‘patriarchy’ where none exists. Simple routines had much wisdom behind them. I hope more people will take another look at Indian routines… not only with regard to hygiene but also in other areas.
Thank you for this very relevant post! ❤
We have to keep at it, not getting discouraged. I would consider my writing to have accomplished its aim even if I can make 10 people change their views.
Perhaps the elders then could have explained to the children the hygienic and scientific reasons behind the practices and then could have had greater acceptance among all communities.
Earlier generations expected obedience and discouraged questioning customs. So we have started explaining to the next generations, so that at least they would understand and follow them, instead of sneering and rejecting them as being regressive.