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Janet Chawla
Presented at Indian Institute of Advanced Study
Rashtrapati Niwas, Simla
November 1998
(In press, see CV)


HAWA, GOLA AND MOTHER-IN-LAW’S BIG TOE:
ON UNDERSTANDING DAIS’ IMAGERY OF THE FEMALE BODY

All over the world women rise to their daily work, care for their families and participate in community life. Too often, women must face these challenges while struggling against illness—lacking even basic information about their health. (advertisement for Where Women Have No Doctor, a health guide for women)

Subjugated knowledges are insufficiently elaborated and naïve knowledges located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity. (Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-77, M. Foucault)

Locating Dais: A context for understanding dais’ imagery of the female body

I choose to begin this paper with the above quotes because they foreground the issue of what we might label the subaltern1 or subjugated knowledges of traditional Indian midwives, dais—and the exclusion of that knowledge and those who hold that knowledge from forums such as this. The first quote represents the dominant discourse on women’s health in India today and includes the presupposition that the majority (read poor, non-literate, non-English speaking) of women in such ‘underdeveloped’ countries as India lack even basic health knowledge. Also included in this assertion is another presupposition—that allopathic medicine is the source of all health information. The “doctor” referred to is not a nurse-midwife or an ANM (auxiliary nurse midwife), a homeopathic practitioner, a vaidya or unnani doctor, an oja or ritual specialist, a masseuse, a herbalist or a dai nor even an elderly family member who has imbibed, over the years, her family and community healing modalities. No, the assumption is that “basic information about health” is available through doctors—that is, western bio-medically trained doctors.

These commonly held assumptions disturb me and belie much of what I have learned in my 20 years of living, learning and working in India. MATRIKA (Motherhood and Traditional Resources, Knowledge, Information and Action) is a three year research project which I have initiated in order generate less bio-medically biased data. We have interacted with midwives and non-government organizations in three parts of North India: Bokharo District, Bihar; Lundkaransar District, Rajasthan; and slum areas of Delhi. In our workshops we have attempted to document, understand and reclaim indigenous women’s ethno-medical knowledge, practice and religio-cultural body imagery. This paper emerges from the Matrika effort.
My contentions in this paper are:

  • Health and body knowledge systems about the female body which are internally coherent, empirical and culturally embedded, exist within indigenously oriented (as opposed to cosmopolitan and globalised) communities. Indian women, generally, and midwives, particularly, have been the inheritors of rich and varied health information and body knowledges.
  • Dais can be seen as indigenous specialists in women’s well being and cultural repositories of such body knowledge/practice. These knowledges are decentralised and collectively held; non-textual and orally transmitted; usually acquired by apprenticeship with an older relative and often caste based.
  • Dominant, urban, English-educated elites, as well as global establishments have had considerable difficulties accessing, understanding, and appreciating indigenous body knowledge and its holders, dais, because of macro-level historical forces and because of epistemological (i.e. grounds of knowing) problems
  • The historical forces (poverty, colonialism, Brahmanism and casteism, modernisation and development, social and intellectual neglect) have also eroded the quality of care offered by the midwives as well as their confidence in their own knowledge and customs. Dais, in their project of caring for parturient women, also cope with problems of ecological devastation (making access to food, water and healing herbs more difficult) and gender biases (spousal abuse, familial pressures for male offspring, female infanticide, etc.)
  • Inadequate food, hunger and starvation of women and their families must be named as the crucial problem it is. It is absurd to tout Safe Motherhood and critique dais ignorance when the women whom they serve eat rice and salt for the nine months of their pregnancy.
  • The reclamation, decoding and ‘rehabilitation’ (because in our research we have seen much which needs rehabilitating) of indigenous knowledge and practice is not only important for poor and marginalised women. But also it is relevant to women’s health initiatives at all levels in India, as well as other ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ nations.
  • Accessing and interpreting women’s body knowledges involves acceptance of blurred boundaries between categories sometimes considered mutually exclusive: mind/body; medicine/religion; sexuality/spirituality; woman-as-mother/woman-as-sexual being; purity/pollution; swarg (heaven)/narak (hell, demonic, underworld). Thus our reclamation involves an epistomologically challenging task!
  • An empathetic understanding of body imagery requires a step outside of biomedical anatomy and physiology and an entree into a radically different ‘poetics’ of bodies.

In most cultures birth has been handled primarily by women. The biomedical model of childbirth began to rely on technology (forceps and chloroform for Queen Victoria) rather than touch (massage and female support). Likewise this European ethno-medical approach to pregnancy and birth pathologised the female body—viewing it as a potential site of disease. European knowledge of anatomy was attained through the dissection of cadavers—hardly a good way to know about life and life-bearing bodies! Simultaneously women were eased out of their roles of caregivers and definitive knowers of their own bodies. Cosmopolitan obstetrics and technology can provide powerful, life saving interventions—but it is currently functioning to contaminate what is essentially a normal, natural life event (constructed differently in different cultures), not a medical one.

In many parts of India midwifery was a part of the feudal jajmani system where dais, along with other artisans and service providers, were affiliated to a patron family.2 In this context dais were compensated by gifts (grain, saris, etc.) not by money. Traditionally dai work is women’s work—an extension of household work and not given monetary value. Many traditional dais find negotiating commercial exchange networks difficult, if not impossible. Today this lack of skill and tradition is further complicated by the extreme poverty of those women whom they serve. Many of the older and more ‘traditional’ dais say that their work is done with the feeling of service. One dai asked “How can I refuse to help a woman in labour just because she has no money and is poor—so has nothing to pay?” Three elderly and very experienced Rajasthani dais with whom we interacted had worked for years breaking stones for road building because the earnings of their traditional occupation could not sustain them.

The undervaluation of dai’s contribution was a part of British colonial devaluation of indigenous health practitioners generally. Midwives were negatively impacted by two ideological thrusts of imperial rule: the superiority of western notions of health and the backwardness of women’s status. Operationally vast armies of ‘lady health visitors’ were loosed on the countryside to clean up and educate ignorant, ‘backward’ women and the dais who served them. Surely the bleak picture of traditional midwives which we have today has come, in part, from that very successful colonial enterprise which rescued Indian women from their ‘barbaric and superstitious’ body knowledge and traditions. 3 At the same time obstetric biomedicine, a model of childbirth now being contested and negotiated by many in the west, was promoted as modern, hygienic and safe.

Who is a Dai?

Approximately one million women work as traditional midwives in India and attend 60% of births. In poor and rural areas, as many as 90%. Dais share the cultural and ethno-medical orientations of the women whom they serve. Dais are also often the only affordable and accessible practitioners available to poor urban and rural women.

However, we encounter many problems when attempting to speak about traditional midwifery. The first one is who is a dai? And what is dai work? In Labour Pains and Labour Power, by Roger and Patricia Jeffreys and Andrew Lyons (considered by many to be a definitive work on childbirth in India) the dai is presented as a substandard obstetrician. Not surprisingly these materialist sociologists do not look at culture and also did their work where women never return to their natal homes for even first births—surely an anomaly in traditional Indian families.

About five years ago the head of UNICEF in Delhi told me that they had cut back on funds for dai training because their anthropological studies showed that nobody could identify, precisely, who was (and who was not) a dai. He went on to say that UNICEF was thus funding efforts to educate pregnant women as to the danger signs of childbirth—because she was the only person they were absolutely certain would be present at the time of the birth! I felt this was a terrible decision for many reasons:

  • mothers who are haemorrhaging do not have the capacity to influence decisions regarding their care;
  • not being able to anthropologically describe indigenous, ethno-medical support systems does not mean that they do not exist;
  • modern institutions which bypass indigenous practitioners’ support and knowledge serves to undermine and replace them, often with ‘sui-goli’ (injections and pills) medicine dispensed by ‘quacks’. Such quacks are compounders, RMPs (rural medical practitioners), traditional vaidyas (who sometimes dispense allopathic drugs as well as Ayurvedic remedies).

It should not surprise us that modern institutions and their representatives have been confounded by the phenomenon of traditional midwifery. Especially when we consider Sukumari Bhattacharji, Sanskrit scholar and historian, on the dai:

The dai is a substitute priest working between two worlds (like the priest’s intermediacy between the sacred and the mundane). She mediates the prenatal, foetal, and the parturition/ postnatal. And, like the priest, or more like the shaman, she discharges her function through control of the spirit world. This is because there are demons which seek to delay, prevent or muck up the birth (causing a defective or stillborn babe or the postpartum diseases or death of the mother). Birth means the advent of a departed soul in a new incarnation, a fact which has cosmic significance, hence other hostile souls/spirits/persons seek to prevent it.

The dai’s unique position is equivalent of a shamaness’s. She pre-empts male intervention in a literal rite de passage. She was allowed this privilege possibly because the whole process is ‘dirty’. The Asvins, the divine physicians, were deprived of the soma drink in the later Vedic-Epic literature because as physicians they had to touch uncleanness connected with disease. Later Indian literature lays down that doctors may not be ritual guests.

The role of the initiating priest, the acarya, in the Upanayana (sacred thread) ceremony, is similar to the dai. The sacred thread is a replica of the umbilical cord in reverse: the dai removes it, the acarya winds it on the ritually newborn.

The birth rite is the only wholly female rite where male presence is precluded; yet it is solemn, awesome and throbbing with tension. Birth rites uniquely empower the female assistant and are the only rites where a new life enters the earthly plane. The dai is symbolic of mother earth. Whereas the earth gives birth unaided, in a human birth she symbolically splits herself in two: the mother and the dai. This is because human mothers, unlike the prima dea, are not self-procreative and are also exposed to dangers from the spirit world.4

Locating the dai is a bit like the story of the men touching the elephant and each feeling a different part!

Entree into Imagery: Hawa, Gola and Mother-in-law’s Big Toe

During the workshop phase of our MATRIKA research I visited a respected Ayurvedic physician in order to discuss our initial findings. He opened the conversation by stating that dais’ and Ayurvedic knowledge and practice were similar. I have learned much from dais about the female body and birth which is not in the Ayurvedic texts (at least the English translations available to me) and which seems quite different from vaidya’s practice. So I stated that there were major differences between the textual and the folk streams of indigenous body knowledge and I gave an example. In a workshop in Gomia, Bihar, we were told that if a woman’s labour was not progressing she was made to drink a glass of water in which her mother-in-law’s big toe had been dipped. Of course this ritual facilitation of labour had pushed both our hygiene and feminist buttons. How dirty! How demeaning! But nonetheless we noted it down and it is this rite which came to my mind as an example of something dais might do, but surely would have no place in dignified Ayurvedic practice.

It is always a good thing for a researcher to have her hypotheses challenged. And that’s exactly what happened. Respected vaidya, when he heard the above folk facilitation, immediately noted that in Ayurveda the nadi for pran vayu (which is understood to be a carrier of knowledge and experience) exits the body via the big toes. Thus the custom of touching elders’ feet allows for the transmission of their knowledge to those of lesser knowledge-experience. It is logical to assume, thus, that the mapping of the body implicit in the mother-in-law’s big toe ritual is similar to the mapping in Ayurvedic understanding. The social hierarchy of mother-in-law/daughter-in-law is perhaps encoded in this rite, transmitting the respected female elder’s permission for the birth to proceed—granting the status of maternity to the bahu, but at the same time asserting her authority and primacy. Certainly the folk understanding of the inner terrain of the body is closer to that of Ayurveda than it is to the anatomy and physiology of allopathic medicine.

During another interview with a dai in Bihar she said “If labour is getting delayed then I make her wash the toe of the person with whom she had fought during her pregnancy. She drinks this water.” It appears that conflict resolution, in order to facilitate the labour, is also affected through the toe-water ritual! I have also learned from a scholar of Tantra that sadhus are loath to have their feet touched, perhaps fearing this transmission and the diminishing of their powers.5

Hawa-gola as energy, not anatomy-physiology

In our very first workshops we began hearing some unfamiliar terms such as ‘hawa’ which is loosely translated as wind, but more specifically in Ayurveda means movement or motion. Colloquially hawa can refer to the activities of spirit forces, usually with negative associations, as in ‘burra hawa’, a bad wind.

We initially understood another term ‘gola’, meaning ball or something round, as a clot, but now think of it as matter associated with force or energy. It was, and still is, difficult to ferret out what the meanings of hawa-gola are—but one thing was perfectly clear. The dais emphasised that hawa-gola are threats to the woman’s well being postpartum as they are some kind of matter, force or energy which must come out of the body (through the vagina or birth canal), and by all means not go up into the upper part of the body.

I was not totally unfamiliar with the concept of things going up in the body. As a natural childbirth instructor I had interacted with a few traditionally-oriented mothers and mother-in-laws of pregnant women who used to talk of the uterus moving up into the chest during labour. It occurred to me that that these women were not speaking of the literal organ, the womb, shifting position upward—but of a bodily energy which was supposed to be in the belly, being in the chest. This was not a strange idea because childbirth educators, and those experienced in helping women give birth, are familiar with mothers’ bearing down efforts being misplaced—and the need to help women direct their efforts toward the abdominal area rather than the throat or chest. I have also heard many doctors scoff at ‘ignorant’ women’s references to ‘the uterus moving up’ thinking they were simply unfamiliar with their bodies. They were not aware that women were using an anatomical term to refer to a process-oriented phenomenon. This seems to be a key in understanding some of dais’ language which refers to a life energy rather than anatomy.

Notions of direction are important in body mapping in Indian spiritual traditions as the male is counselled to conserve his semen so the reservoir of energy, called kundalini, can be directed upwards, towards the crown chakra and enlightenment, rather than downwards in the service of sexual pleasure and procreation. That this mapping is hardly confined to yogis and sadhus is displayed by the popularity of traditional sex clinics, which treat impotence. Young males, it seems, are often fraught with conflicts and insecurities, I would suggest, relating to this battleground of mappings involving the meanings and valuations of sexual bodily fluids and ‘directionality’.

In our first Delhi workshop Ram Pyari, a 70ish dai from Rajasthan who had lived and practised in a resettlement colony of Delhi, for many years, said:

In the hospital no one is allowed to accompany the pregnant woman. If the labour is very long they make a cut. This can get infected. Hospitals cause a lot of infections. The woman can get swellings and golas. If there are golas we should give hot fomentation to clear the tubes

Ram Pyari names a crucial need of the labouring woman—by its absence in the hospital context—that of someone to accompany the woman during the process of the labour. All dais emphasise that empathetic, knowledgeable women are needed to support the jachcha (literally she who births) physically, psychologically and also to negotiate the dangers which threaten the process. This negotiation often involves diagnostics and ritual interventions which we moderns label ‘superstitious’.

Bhagwania, an experienced and confident dai from Gomia, Bihar, in our second Bihar workshop claimed:

After the placenta is out we try to get out the dirty blood by pressing her stomach with our hands and even using the head. Two clots of blood come out—gangi and jamuni. The woman gets a lot of relief from this.

As much as we discussed and tried to understand these terms in our own, basically biomedical, framework, our Matrika team made little progress and just kept questioning and searching for possible linkages with our world—as well as simply listening and trying to enter theirs. At this second Bihar workshop we also gathered information about a maternal death, which occurred within a few hours after birth. This investigation, funded by UNFPA, led to a report, Saroj’s Death: Multiple Perspectives on One Maternal Death, in which we probed possible meanings of postpartum embolism and thrombosis—obstetrical diagnostics. We followed an interpretative path that gola might be equivalent to a blood clot; and hawa, a pulmonary embolism—both of which can be fatal.

Bhagwania used the nomenclature ‘gangi-jamni’ for these ‘clots’ of blood. This language shows a correlation between energy or blood pathways in the body and the great rivers of the Gangetic plain. This way of speaking, and diagnosing, reveals the dais’ ethno-medical tendency to hold knowledge in terms of correspondences between natural processes’—here the cleansing and circulatory functions of the female body and the earth body are rendered as analogous.

Both dais’ ethno-medicine and obstetrics advocate the mother’s physical movement immediately postpartum. Obstetrical rationale is that because of the increased venous activity, extra blood in the uterine, vaginal and thigh area, the circulatory system needs to be stimulated in order to prevent thrombosis and embolism formation. The dais explain that ‘stagnant’, ‘bad’ or ‘kala’ blood needs to move and be expelled so that golas will not move upwards in the body and cause problems for the new mother. (It is fascinating to hypothesise, but impossible to prove, that the original impulse behind so-called ‘pollution taboos’ is this conceptualisation that the blood of menstruation and childbirth are cleansing functions of the female body. According to this logic this blood is ‘bad’ because it is no longer needed by the body and if retained, is dangerous to the woman.)

We learned more about gola in our first workshop in Rajasthan, Lundkaransar District. Here the dais were particularly homogeneous in their practice and culture. The following is a discussion from that workshop in which they are trying to help us understand what gola is and how they handle it.

Manori: After the birth of the baby the woman has pains in the gola. Because when the baby is in the womb then gola is the protector of the baby. Gola is located beside the baby. After birth gola is left alone so it looks for the baby in the womb. And this gives pain to the new mother. Therefore we immediately give warm halwa to the mother to eat and this foments the gola. A warm pot is placed on the abdomen for fomentation. This eases her pain.
Guddi: This is a gola of jama hua khoon (stagnant or clotted blood). It bleeds out in three days and the abdomen is cured.
Manori: Gola can be felt on touching the abdomen. After delivery the woman is made to stand and the dai puts her head against the woman’s abdomen. She takes out all the collected blood (jama hua khoon). This is called kala khoon (black blood). Later we make the woman sit and put our heel on her shareer (here perineum is meant). By this her shareer does not come out. (i.e. uterine prolapse is avoided)

Shifting meanings, nuances of goal are apparent here. Gola, on one hand, seems to be the womb—“pains in the gola” which we recognise as contractions. Gola seems to be both womb and womb energy—and consequences derived from that gestational power.

In our second Delhi workshop we also had discussions on postpartum and gola.

Praveen: Gola is not blood. Gola is the rakhwala, the protector of the baby. When the baby comes out, it (gola) searches for the baby, it goes around in the womb. Therefore there is pain. When it does not find the baby then it gets tired and defeated and settles.
Pushpa: Also, by eating this space gets filled up and slowly the pain goes away. By having food in the stomach pressure is applied and the space gets filled. This way the pain goes away.
Vidya Devi: Yes, by eating-drinking things like ghee, ajwain—whatever is the custom—the distension goes away.
Praveen: Amongst us, alongside the head of the woman a gola (i.e. something round), a coconut, is broken. This makes the pain go away. A small piece of coconut is given to the jachcha and rest is distributed among other people.
Kamala: Gola is the baby’s home. When the house becomes empty, only ganda khoon is left. When blood will come out then there will be pain. Ajwain, saunth, pipar—this is ground and mixed in boiling water with jaggery. If this is given to drink then the belly clears up.
Dhapo: Even when it moves a little it is like ‘pran nikal jata hai.’ (the life force goes out of you, like death.) The dai presses the place from where it moves. Then it stays on the side of the lower portion of the abdomen.

On one hand this gola, in obstetric physiological terms, is related to the contracting uterus. As a muscular organ the womb, which has stretched to accommodate the growing baby, begins to contract after the birth—involution it is called. Especially when women have many children (the womb having been stretched many times) postpartum contractions can be very painful. And yet this gola signifies in many more realms than simple anatomical functioning. I think it is important to note

  • There is an active notion of the space the baby has occupied. The gola is ‘the baby’s home’. It ‘searches for the baby’ after birth.
  • Pain is understood to be caused by this ‘search’ for the baby.
  • ‘Heating’—fomentation and hot foods are therapeutic interventions to deal with gola.
  • Massage to expel the ‘bad blood’ is also a postpartum therapy to manipulate the space and control it.

At our last Delhi workshop we also got the following information:

Dhappo: Bhagwan puts gola along with the bacha. This gola roams around.
Deepti: Is this anwal (placenta)?
Tara: This is gola. This roams around and by this, it is said that mother’s mamta (maternal love) increases. It is looking for the baby.
Naseem: After the birth of the baby, in the womb gabelan (gola or fire) arises. This searches for the baby.
Tara: It is for six days.
Pushpa: It reduces by eating.
Rani: There are four terms for it—gabelan, gola, aag, and mamta.

Above I have noted that one dai used the terminology of gangi-jamni to describe the
‘clots’ which needed to be expelled by the body after the birth. This way of naming phenomena and processes in terms of correspondences utilises microcosm-macrocosm analogues. In Ayurvedic understanding the theory of the panch mahabhuta (earth, air, fire, water and ‘ether’) explains how internal bodily forces and external cosmic forces are linked together. What is inside the body has its correlates externally in the natural world. The health of the body is represented as a balance of the panch mahabhuta which actually are viewed as forces rather than substances. Likewise all physiological processes involve delicate balancing acts between these forces. Dais descriptions of postpartum hawa-gola and also aag (fire) seem to use similar mapping of bodily forces which need to be kept in balance during labour and birth for the health of the mother.

In Ayurvedic thought the panch mahabhuta condense to the three doshas: vata, pitta and kapha which are, effectively air, fire and water respectively

Interestingly one Ayurvedic scholar writes:

In the mind vata retrieves previous data from memory for comparison with new data. Pitta processes the new data and draws conclusions, which vata then stores as new memories.

Certainly the female bodily shift from pregnant to not-pregnant is one of the most profound normative changes the human body could undergo! It seems that the dais are describing this shift in indigenous ethno-medical terminology—and this involves notions
fire, wind and energy.

The now-empty womb is also a potential problem because the space must be filled (by food and drink, warm fomentation, massage). Excessive empty space in the body with insufficient power of movement can result in stasis (gola?) with adverse implications for health.

In all the areas in which we have worked--Rajasthan, Delhi, Punjab and Bihar—as well as in reports from South India, dais do not cut the umbilical cord until after the placenta is delivered. They use the placenta, still connected to the baby, as a resuscitation device if the child is not breathing—stimulating it by heating. It is important for us to notice that these ethno-medical practitioners have extensive knowledge of, and use interventions based on, bodily parts considered highly ‘polluting’ in the brahmanic texts and the high caste Hindu mind. One Delhi dai, Kamala, stated that if the naal (cord) is cut then there is the danger of the placenta climbing up. Furthermore she stated that

We never throw away the placenta. The way the child is dear to us, so is the anwal is also precious. For nine months it has protected and sustained the child, so how can we just throw it away?

A feminist hermeneutics demands that we consider carefully this valuation of the flesh and blood bonds between maternal and child bodies and not simply turn away in civilized distaste.

Furthermore it seems that in these representations the womb is rendered as a sensate, perceptive organ. This is a radical departure from western anatomical understanding
of the uterus which considers the organ incapable of sensation—the pain of childbirth is considered to be cause by pull and pressure on other surrounding body parts. The dais imagery attributes to the womb a capacity to sense and to know (of course the womb is not dislocated from the person of the mother, as in western anatomy).

For our purposes, the representation of space and womb as active attributes a kind of agency lacking in bio-medical obstetrics—and is congruent with hands-on, non-invasive and woman-centered post birth care. The womb, or gola, is depicted as searching for the baby—thus the use of the word mamta—motherly love—attachment, literally.

These mappings of the body are holistic or non-dualistic. Finally the gola is the rakhwala of the baby—its keeper, responsible for it. I would interpret this gola energy to be the life force sustaining and growing the fetus. And it is precisely that same energy which has the potential to turn against the mother and harm her if it stays in the body and moves upward. This gola energy must be released by the maternal body down and out—with the help of the dais. And it is related to the bad blood or kala, ganda khoon which signifies that no-longer-needed channel for the life force energy.

Narak ka Samay—Priestly defined impurity or dai’s ethno-medical terrain?

Dais use terms such as ‘narak ka samay’ and ‘nau mahenae ka narak kund’ to speak of the postpartum period. Strictly speaking from the time of the cutting of the umbilical cord to chatti or the post-birth ritual (time differing among different castes and communities) the woman, baby, dai and woman’s family are unclean or untouchable. We moderns view these ‘superstitions’ through lenses constructed by brahmanism, colonialism and orientalism. Our Matrika project is attempting to explore this ritual construction of time and mapping of the female body in non-value laden terms (i.e. devoid of their negative caste and gender associations). We are attending to the dais’ words within their own context in order to understand them as purely descriptive language for female life-body events. My own working hypothesis is emerging that ritual uncleanness is the language of brahmanic sacerdotal and textual tradition and that women’s work of birth involves different forms of sacrality and ethno-medical rite and practice.

Repeatedly dais use the word narak to describe the birth time. They also use narak in relation to the lower part of the body—including reproductive organs. In Bihar, at least, women were clear that that the mundane, ordinary world is equivalent to the midsection--chest, arms and back and the heavenly realm, to the head. We recognise a similar division found in the Rig Vedic Purush, the cosmic man divided up, considered to be prototype for caste delineations.

During our second Bihar workshop we learned

On Chhati day the narak time ends. The dai checks if the umbilical cord of the baby has fallen. Then she bathes the baby and beats a thaali and gives the baby to chaachi who does namaskar to Bhagwan and gives the baby to jethani. The jachcha is bathed and she wears new clothes. The dai cleans the room where the delivery took place and the woman was kept separately for six days. She washes the dirty clothes of mother and child and then is herself given soap and oil for bathing. Then the woman’s sasural (husband’s home) people go and invite maike (wife’s natal home) people—they come and are welcomed by sprinkling of water and being embraced.

The woman’s mother brings new clothes for her son-in-law and samdhis. The new mother is dressed up, puts sindur and kaajal. Different types of food are cooked—from today she can eat everything. Next day the dai takes leave. The saas puts sindoor and kaajal for her. The dai is given a new sari, rice and sometimes money. On the third day after the chhati puja they have simple kuan puja. The new mother puts tika on a well or pond.

Ritual, birth time, and women’s bodily knowledge and practice are interwoven with concepts of narak. From an interview with Saubatia, a Bihari dai

We do not give any medicines for swellings. We give hot fomentation with arandi oil. The placenta and cord are buried near the chula. We see that during pregnancy water is retained in a woman’s body. Food is only given on the second day after delivery. The two days of fast is called narak upwaas. Food is only given after all the dirty blood comes out. If she has delivered in the morning then in the evening tea, bread and gur-haldi sweet is given. Nothing is given at night. She only drinks warm or hot water. The stomach bloats if one drinks cold water.

Although often translated as hellish or demonic place, Narak can be understood as the site/energy of the unseen inner world - of the earth and of the body.6 Narak has the connotation ‘filth’ but also signifies the fertility or fruitful potential of the earth and the female body. So called ‘pollution taboos’ are related to narak—where the idea of the sacred is radically separated from the reproductive potential of the female body. During menstruation and post birth women are ‘unclean’. However the dai speaks with a very different voice than the pundit about narak. To her the placenta, the ultimate polluting substance in the shastras, is spoken of reverently. It is no coincidence that dais are mainly from low and outcaste communities. Both caste and gender are involved in concepts of narak. , (Ayurvedic and naturopathic practitioners often employ low caste people to apply the hands-on therapies which prescribed by them).

The concept of narak is a foundational idea which also allows for a host of therapeutic interventions. Narak seems to signify the inner world of the body, which is invisible to the eye-- particularly to the mysterious procreative power of the female body. This concept then provides a mode of understanding which allows practitioners and therapeutics which can negotiate and affect the inner body without violating the integrity of the skin/body/life force. And indeed the dais’ health modalities are high-touch (massage, pressure, manipulation); use natural resources (mud, baths and fomentation, herbs); and application of ‘hot and cold’ (in food and drink, fomentation etc.); isolation and protection (from household work and maternal and sexual obligations).

And repeatedly we heard how integral the notion of uncleanness is to dai’s management of mother’s postpartum care. From our last Delhi workshop

Kamala: According to me, the baby is born. Then gola roams around. This gola took care of the baby. Warm fomentation is done and gola finishes—this is maila (dirt), it gets cleaned and the gandh (filth) comes out.

Kaushalya: My thing is that whether you say gola or you call it lothara (lump) or call it anything, it is inside the bachadani (womb, literally holder of the baby). The gandigi (filth) is blocked because of this reason. It roams around everywhere and then the pain comes—with this the gandigi comes out. This cleans the whole womb.

I would suggest that this gandigi and narak is diagnostic nomenclature in the language of midwives and does not partake of the pejorative caste and gender laden meanings of the twice born.

Dais imagery of the female body involves analogies and correspondences—the placenta being analogous with the kund or spring. Narak emerges as meaning unseen source, of water and of human life—the underworld is demonic or hellish only in that it is the nether, chthonic world of the body of the earth/woman—both fertile and finally outside of patriarchal control.

In concluding I would like to distance myself and our work from two popular misconceptions about women such as dais. First is that they are individual ‘wise women’ who suddenly seem to appear out of nowhere. Such women are represented as being extremely intuitive and devoid of any ‘learning’ or cultural context. Dais’ knowledge and practice is embedded in a shared, collectively held religio-cultural context. Dais, although they may rely on ways of knowing we might label intuition, have learned their skills through experience and/or apprenticeship. For this reason it is very important to refer to indigenous knowledge traditions. Secondly, that somehow lower class and poor women are simply closer to nature and thus birth easily. Although this may have a modicum of truth in it, humans have a tremendous capacity for learned behaviour—which will override ‘nature’. We must not confuse a culture of birth and of the body (which may be more congruent with ‘nature’) with primitivism and doing things au natural.

These myths demean the sophistication and complexity of dais’ knowledge and body imagery—which I have hopefully demonstrated above.


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