By Divya K., Long Beach, CA
I was seated all by myself in the small room. The air-conditioner was on, but I could still feel the heat seeping through the crack in the door. I had sat there for an hour and a half, from the time the first guest arrived, since it would have been “improper” for anyone to see me before the ceremony. My stomach was doing an acrobatic routine. It was the night of my Samathiya Sadangu, a Hindu ceremony that marks a girl becoming a woman. My ammama (grandmother) had been planning this since she heard we would be coming to visit her in Malaysia. Having lived in America my whole life and never embracing any religion, especially not Hinduism, the idea of the ceremony was nerve-wracking.
When I was finally allowed to come downstairs, I saw all eyes in the room turn to me. I was wearing a silver chemise and the traditional Indian bindi on my forehead. A white cloth was put over my head and I was seated on a stool. Even with all the preparation for the event, everyone had forgotten to explain to me what was going to happen. I noticed a large bowl of what looked like milk sitting next to me. I looked closer, and noticed some leaves. And some coins! What could they possibly be doing with these items?
Soon, twelve close friends and family members (close, as in people I had never met, but according to my mom were close) each ceremoniously put the mixture of coins, milk and leaves on my head! I was afraid I wasn’t supposed to wipe the cold milk off so I sat there as it made a slow path down my face.
Once everyone had put the mixture on my head, I was led to the bathroom, where these twelve people poured three buckets of cold water over me. Each smiled at me as they poured the water, but no one’s smile was as amazing as Ammama’s. Hers was one of the biggest. It left her eyes gleaming with pride and happiness, and I immediately understood why she had spent all those weeks preparing for these few hours. She had gotten to watch her granddaughter become a woman, and to her that was worth all the headaches in the world.
Once the guests left the bathroom, I took a real shower and put on the dress we had bought for the second half of the ceremony. It was called a lanka suit, and it was the most beautiful thing I had ever worn. The top was short, falling to the bottom of my rib cage. It was dark red with intricate beadwork in gold and white. The skirt went to the floor and had a thick beaded border that matched the top. To finish the outfit, a thin scarf called a dupita was draped over my right shoulder. I was also wearing more jewelry than I had ever worn at one time. The first piece was a sapphire and diamond flower that lay gently on my forehead, held in place by a thin gold chain intertwined with my hair. That flower was once my grandmother’s, then my mother’s, and now mine. Next came gold earrings, and gold necklaces of varying lengths. No Indian look is ever complete without bangles, and I wore 15 on my left hand. The finishing touch was a bunch of jasmine flowers in my hair.
Thus attired, I knew I was ready for anything that could happen downstairs, because for that moment I was beautiful. Not just pretty, like you feel when you’re wearing jeans to the movies that you think make you look thin – no, in this outfit, I felt like everyone would turn and be stunned by how I looked. I felt like you do when you’re four years old and dress up like Cinderella for Halloween. You swirl down the street with the puffy blue dress and tiara because you are sure that you are a princess. I definitely felt like I was a beautiful Indian princess.
After I was dressed, I was led back downstairs and instructed to stand in front of 13 plates of food. One by one, family and friends took each of the plates and circled three times around me and then passed it over my head. Then the food was dumped into the trash to be thrown into a river or other moving water.
Now that the religious part of the ceremony was done, it was time for the gifts. As I sat on a chair holding a silver tray, each of the guests came up, placed a small gift on the tray, and talked to me for a few moments. I received gifts ranging from money to gold earrings.
When the ceremony ended it was time to eat. All the guests waited in line to get some of the catered food. The meal consisted of curry, rice, Indian breads, and a dessert called ice kachang. I couldn’t eat, partly because I was afraid I would spill something on my dress, and partly because I didn’t have a chance while meeting all the guests, but mostly because my emotions were too mixed up.
I was relieved when the day was over, but also sad. This was an experience I will never forget, and a look into a world so unlike my own that I am still somehow a part of.