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Linking modern with traditional understanding and practice can be a despairing task…. At times, we just cannot do it. This may be because we see something wrong--anti-woman-in a tradition being followed with devotion by many women. Or, we may feel we do not know enough or anything at all about a set of practices and the belief system behind them.
Dr. Mohan Deshpande,
(Curriculum Revision and Development, Women and Health Programme, February 1996)

MATRIKAS: The Group Mothers

This name was chosen for the NGO stepping out of the bio-medical and public health model of birth—into the cultural and sacred and indigenous medical traditions. MATRIKA is an acronym for Motherhood and Traditional Resources, Information, Knowledge and Action. The word ‘matrika’ is drawn from Indian traditions of image and text where it signifies the concept of the group mothers, semi-divine beings (and also semi-demonic! —in other words they could bless you or curse you.)
The Matrikas are
  • Often voluptuous figures,
  • Usually seven or eight in number
  • Accompanied with a crone or hag (old woman)
  • Sometimes ‘theriomorphic’ or a human body with animal head, or depicted with their vahan or vehicle
  • Shown with an infant (but only one or two)
  • Often with Ganesh
  • Similar to the group yogini sculptural images
Interestingly this image/text does not insert motherhood in a patriarchal or patrilineal context. The females are not ‘spousified’ or made the consorts or wives of Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu—and yet the mother identity is invoked.


MATRIKA had its origins in Janet Chawla’s experience in teaching natural childbirth classes in Delhi to middle and upperclass women. These women were not able to achieve the births they had prepared for because of the obstetrical overuse of drugs and surgery. And the fact that women’s basic physical, emotional, social, spiritual and personal needs were not met during their labours. Janet heard about dais from her friends active in women’s health in rural and slum areas and she began investigating and documenting women’s experiences and birth traditions 20 years ago.

The Research Project


With help from friends and health professionals Janet drew up a proposal and found start-up funding from Unicef and the Rockefeller Foundation. Canadian CIDA funded the major part of the research. UNFPA provided a small grant for the Report “Saroj’s Death”—our investigation into the causes of a maternal death in Gomia District, Bihar. Janet was a longstanding member of Sahaj, a health and development NGO based in Baroda, and they channeled the funds for the MATRIKA research.


MATRIKA’s methodology was to reverse the common TBA (Traditional Birth Attendant) training model by asking groups of dais to ‘train us’ and answer the question ‘What does a woman need during pregnancy, labour and postpartum?’ We did interviews, group discussions, role plays, sang birth songs, did body mapping. We relied heavily on the techniques of “active listening” and positive reinforcement. We documented dais’ perceptions of their own strengths and problems, religious and social experiences, caste oppression and poverty, interactions with bio-medical facilities and dai trainings, and what factors compromise their communities’ health.

We were able to access and remain with this alien (to us) information because we decided that we must not follow the common approach of limiting ourselves to modern categories of health and medicine. We thought that we must be open other ways of facilitating birth, diagnosing and healing--to ritual practices, notions of deities and demons, bhut-pret (ghosts and spirits), and the nazar or evil eye. We attempted to let the data speak the categories rather than the categories shape the data. We now have ample data demonstrating a radically different understanding of the world and of bodily processes than that underlying modern medicine and public health.

The Research Team

Janet Chawla, Masters in Theology, childbirth educator, writer and researcher on indigenous birth and misuse of obstetrics, conceived of, found funding for, and directed the project.

Deepti Priya Mehrotra, PhD in Political Science and post Doc in Philosophy, with a background in street theater, grassroots NGO work and feminism coordinated research and translation activities as well as facilitated workshops in Delhi.

Madhu Aggrawal, PhD in Art History, had 18 years of experience in art and culture related projects. She facilitated workshops and documented them by note taking, photos and tape recordings. She is a native of Rajasthan, one of our project areas and was fluent in Marwari.

Renuka Ramanujam, MPhil. Sociology, worked with Indian Social Institute organising domestic workers of tribal origin. She is fluent in Kota and is from Bihar, a MATRIKA project area. She did facilitation, documenting, transcribing and translating workshop data and personal interviews.

Lola Mathai worked with CARE, UNICEF and Grail doing grassroots fieldwork. She did documenting, transcribing and translating workshop data as well as handling accounts.

Sudha S. Marwah worked with Women’s Feature Service and Media Advocacy Group. She handled basic office administration: including accounts, email, and team co-ordination.

Devaki Khanna has worked with the India magazine, PC Quest and Computers @ Home on the copy desk. She worked as a computer consultant.

Anuradha Singh from NISTADS (national Institute of Service and Development) works on Traditional Systems of Medicine, particularly on Mother-Child health care. She consulted with us on dais practices and Ayurveda.

After Research—Advocacy

After completing the research, the idea was ‘to operationalize’ our findings. Ideally we would have moved on to help NGOs and others to understand, evaluate the skills of, and cooperate with local dais in their areas. However at the same time the global health establishments (WHO, Unicef, UNFPA) the Indian government, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, and funding agencies adopted and promoted the policy of “Skilled Attendance at Birth” and this policy excluded dais from being considered skilled—or even to be able to be trained to be skilled. Thus MATRIKA’s data was of little interest to those in the health sector, public or private. There was no market in maternal health or Safe Motherhood programs for our approach of building bridges between indigenous medicine and bio-medicine.
Nevertheless in 2002 MATRIKA Charitable Trust was registered. Trustees were Dr. Kanwarjit Singh Chawla, Dr. Leila Caleb Varkey and Ms. Vidya Rao. (see mission statement)

Matrika Activities 2002-2006

MATRIKA collaborated with Sampurna Trust to support Chetanbai, an accomplished masseuse, healer and dai, to teach Sheela, Bhagwati, and Pushpa from August, 2003-December 2005. The center in Dakshinpuri was operating as a clinic for basti residents from August 2003-June 2004 and they worked there as well as serving a more well off clientele. We documented the process and problems encountered in this transfer of massage and dai skills and knowledge.

MATRIKA contracted with Magic Lantern to distribute our film “Born at Home”, as well as privately distributed the film and Janet’s edited collection “Birth and Birthgivers: the power behind the shame” and MATRIKA’s “Hearing Dais’ Voices: Learning about Traditional Birth.”

MATRIKA organized and presented the play “Birth” scripted by a New York playwright and based on her interviews of women on their experiences of giving birth. The play was amazingly relevant to the urban Indian situation in major hospitals. It was performed 1st and 2nd September to an appreciative audience. The 9 women performers, although amateurs, were excellent and enjoyed being part of the project.

An Exhibition “Dharti Ma, Dai Ma: A Remix” created by MATRIKA was displayed at the Palm Court Gallery, Habitat Center, New Delhi, December 2004

A Seminar, organized by MATRIKA Dharti ma, dai ma – indigenous birth knowledge as a cultural resource, December 2004 at the Habitat Center, New Delhi, was attended by NGOs, scholars, and public health professionals.

Matrika Presentations

A conference on the Dai and Ayurvedic Tradition November 2006. Organized by AVTAR in collaboration with the Department of Prasuthi and Stri Roga, RVS Ayurveda College, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu

A workshop for the development of a research methodology for documenting local health traditions at birth November 2006. Organized by the Arya Vaidya Pharmacy and Hospital, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu

A meeting to develop a research methodology for documenting pregnancy, labour, birth, postpartum practices among the Bondo tribals, November 2006 at Asha Kiran Hospital, Lamtaput, Koraput District, Orissa

Seminar on Contemporary Relevance of Indigenous Medicine at Jawarlal Nehru University, February 2006

The International Conference on Indic Religions and Cultures in the panel on “Healing and Spirituality” in Delhi, December 2005

An International Conference on The Challenge to Globalization: Education for Tolerance, Democracy and Sustainable Development at Teen Murti in January 2005

The 10th International Conference on Women’s Health, Delhi November 2005 in a panel Indigenous Women’s Healing Knowledges

Pollution and Safety: Exploring the ‘dirty’ side of women’s health, at the
School of Nursing and Midwifery, University of Sheffield, June 2004

Shaktika on the Ascent, Reframing Gender in the Context of the Culture of India organized by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and Utkal University, Bhubaneshwar, Orissa, March 2003

“Mutual Learning: A Methodology for Conversing with Indigenous Midwives” at a White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood, Delhi October, 2002

Consultant for Pathfinders, International at workshop for developing innovative Dai-Training curriculum November 2002: Patna, Bihar, Kurja Holy Family Hospital

Training of Trainers workshop given by Catholic Health Association of Bihar and Jharkhand for health workers and nurses doing dai training November 2002: Koderma Holy Family Hospital, Koderma, Jharkhand

The 100th Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Washington, DC, December 2002

The mission of MATRIKA Charitable Trust is

  • The preservation of traditional Indian birth knowledge and skills and the promotion of the elderly dais, who hold this knowledge. They are cultural and medical resources who are fast disappearing.
  • Build linkages between doctors and dais, utilizing Ayurveda as a tool to explain much of dais’ practice.
  • To question, criticize and provide alternatives to the overuse of medical interventions at birth. Caesarian rates of 80% at the best hospitals are unnecessary and cause untold suffering. Even the World Health states that rates over 20% are unnecessary and dangerous.

MATRIKA Charitable Trust Mission Statement

(Recorded with the Registrar of Societies)
MATRIKA’s goal is the linking of indigenous skills, attitudes, diagnostics and therapeutics with modern allopathic medicine—both in theory and in practice. Dais still handle the majority of childbirths on the Indian subcontinent. Linkages with indigenous body knowledge and practitioners are vital if Safe Motherhood and Reproductive Child Health Programs are to meet their goals of reduction of maternal-child mortality and morbidity.


  • To bring forward the indigenous health knowledge of traditionally trained midwives, dais, into the mainstream of current health and healing efforts—putting these midwives back on the map as health care practitioners.
  • To make visible the skills, knowledge and cultural framework of dais in order that their heritage and contributions be recognised and compensated.
  • To promote the well being of mothers and children from all strata of society, but particularly the poor and marginalised.
  • To contribute MATRIKA’s findings from three years of research to the development of caste, gender and class sensitive health care and training initiatives.
  • To advocate caste, class and gender sensitive approaches in research, public health information, advocacy and health care facilities.
  • To advance affordable, sustainable, culturally appropriate and safe approaches to maternal-child health.
MATRIKA is committed to a gender sensitive process involving resisting unequal power relations at every level: from the personal to the political; from family to governance; from local to global economic policy. This means recognising that poor, low caste and marginalised women also have rights their body knowledge, cultural forms, ritual and ethno-medical specialists and worldview. We strive to engage institutions of governance and health programs to empower marginalised women by listening to, and respecting their cultural orientations toward the female body and indigenous pregnancy, birth and postpartum knowledge. Dais are essential mediators in this process, as they are carriers of traditional knowledge and care-giving custom. We act as advocates--motivating health policy makers, GOI, funders, and NGOs to include the participation of dais in all government reproductive health initiatives as knowledgeable and competent resource people.

NGO Research Collaborators Were

Mahila Jagriti Kendra Gomia, Bihar (now Jharkhand) had worked with women for 8 years and was affiliated with the Bihar Mahila Samakhya program for women’s education and empowerment. Their health initiatives included herbal medicine training for their workers, reproductive health workshops and our MATRIKA workshops. Our interactions with their grassroots workers oriented them on pregnancy and birth as well as enabled them to establish working relationships with the dais.

Action India, Delhi was formed in the mid – 1970s and initiated a Women’s Health Program in 1984, in four urban slums – the ‘resettlement colonies’ of Nandnagari, New Seemapuri, Jehangirpuri and Dakshinpuri. Community based health workers organized action for civic amenities (water, electricity, sanitation), primary health care education, and action against domestic violence. Action India evolved fertility awareness groups, self-help methods relying on natural healing, including women’s traditional knowledge.

Voluntary Health Association of Punjab, Chandigarh, is a partner of the Delhi-based Voluntary Health Association of India. Their main aim was to strengthen the NGO sector in Punjab by supporting grassroots members and liaising between government functionaries and NGOs. VHAP surveyed districts of Punjab to assess where most dais were practicing ‘traditionally’ and identified blocks in Fategarh District which are 50% Mazbi or Dalit Sikhs.

URMULBikaner, Rajasthan, was a grassroots rural organization working in several hundred villages in the Bikaner district. They had been training dais to work as village level health workers. Sensitivity to dais’ traditional knowledge was to be combined with enhancement of their skills.
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