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MOTHER-CHILD BOND � PLACENTA and UMBILICAL CORD



Krishna in a winnowing basket, shortly after his birth. Note the placenta, lying in the basket, still attached to the baby. Even today, in parts of Uttar Pradesh, the newborn is ritually placed in a winnowing basket honouring the analogy of the fertility of the female body with that of the earth.
�We cut the cord only after the placenta is delivered and after the baby has cried. If cord is cut before placenta is out, it is dangerous because the placenta may go up.� (Bihar)

�Placenta is poisonous for the woman if it stays in her body. If it goes up in the belly the woman can die.� (Punjab)

�I consider cutting the cord a sin equal to the killing of a 100 cows. I have delivered so many babies but have cut only 12 cords � of my own 12 children. I always make the jachcha cut her own cord.� (Dhapo, Delhi)

�It is my job to cut the cord. However, I do not cut the cord of babies who are related to me. They are my own blood. The cords of these babies are like my roots, so how can I cut my own root? I handle the births but someone else cuts the cord.� (Satwant Kaur, Punjab)

�When a dai cuts the cord, she offers something to the Gods.� (Delhi)

�Anwal naal is buried in the house and a fire is lit near it to ward off evil spirits.� (Rani, Delhi)


The cutting of the umbilical cord and the handling of the placenta is a matter of utmost importance to traditionally oriented people. The cord and placenta which connected mother and child, are of cosmic significance and represent the mother-child bond�this relationship is almost a cultural icon. Even the Goddess is considered Ma! Whether considered dirty or sacred, the value placed on these body parts is important for us to recognize. (It is also interesting to note that placental blood and substances are now being used routinely in the United States for medical and genetic research and therapeutic value.) Of primary interest here is their indigenous medical use and concerns in managing the birth and the mother postpartum.

The practice of not cutting the cord until the placenta is delivered is common in all the areas we have studied. Doctors, health workers and anthropological literature report the custom throughout the country. Dais have the utmost respect for these parts of the female body usually considered as waste products by the bio-medical system or highly polluting by the Brahmanic religious texts. Dais consider the infant-cord-placenta as a package. They have been together for nine months with cord and placenta functioning to nurture the fetus�why should they be severed too quickly? The placenta is considered �another mother� to the baby. Sometimes this afterbirth is buried with rituals and prayers for the well being of the infant. It is believed that how the placenta-cord-sac is handled influences the child�s health in later life.

It is true that the act of cord cutting is looked down upon as dirtying and degrading by many traditionally-oriented people. Sometimes dais, family and neighborhood women will manage the birth itself and call in a low or outcaste woman only to cut the cord and handle the afterbirth. In fact a lot of young women from dai communities are not learning birth work precisely because of these attitudes and their own aspirations for modern, higher status jobs. Caste and gender biases intersect when the female body, the byproducts of pregnancy and the work of birth are denigrated.

But most dais handle these bodily parts and value their function in growing the fetus. Dhapo, a dai from Delhi, says that she never cuts the cord and that cutting the cord is a great sin. It is as though something alive, having jeevan, life, is being violated by being severed. According to Dhapo, the right to perform that act belongs only to the mother. Within her body the baby grew; she gave birth; and now it is she who has role of finally separating this new life from her body. A Punjabi claims she cannot cut the cord of family members because it is like cutting her own roots. We even heard of a villager whose right to inherit his family home was questioned because he was born in Safdarjung Hospital and thus his placenta was not buried in the compound!

Standard medical practice involves the cutting of the cord before the placenta is delivered. The biomedical reasoning behind this practice is rather obscure�most doctors are not aware of the rationale behind it. Many nurse-midwives and doctors in the west are questioning the need for quick cord-cutting. In India dais use the placenta as a tool to revive an infant who is not breathing. They stimulate it with heat and claim that life flows from the placenta into the child. Although we have no physiological understanding of how this practice might work, we must assume that, being so widespread it must be effective, at least sometimes. One dai in Rajasthan said �In hospitals you have machines and medicines. Here we don�t have those means to help a newborn who isn�t breathing�we need to be able to use what means we know. So we use the placenta.� Formal Dai training is often not taken seriously by dais because it teaches dais to cut the cord before the placenta is out. This is so contrary to all that the dais know that it undermines other, more valuable aspects of training. Also communities have been known to ostracize dais who have cut the cord prematurely and, according to them, this caused subsequent problems.

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