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This paper was presented at the Conference on Indic Religions and Civilization in a panel on indigenous healing in New Delhi, December 2005

“Raab is the Doer, the hands are mine”—
On Understanding the Sacred in Dais’ Handling of Birth


This utterance, by a Mazbi Sikh dai in a MATRIKA workshop with 24 dais held in Fategarh Sahib Gurdwara provides an entry point for investigation of the sacred in these mainly low and outcaste women’s birth work, ritual and beliefs—and the three are an inseparable whole. This holism is as incomprehensible to the bio-medical health establishment as it is to priests, mullahs, pundits and others functionaries of ‘religious’ authorities. Actually the rupture of healing and spirituality, of the doctors and the priests, a product of modernity is even displayed in the offerings at this conference. How can we represent Indic religions, without reference to its thousands if not millions of dais, malish wallahs, herbalists, ojahs, pirs, hakims, vaidyas, etc and their religious and indigenous medical practice?

MATRIKA (Motherhood and Traditional Resources, Information, Knowledge, and Action) was a 3-year participatory action research project in collaboration with four local NGOs. MATRIKA is named after a group of female figures, usually either seven or eight, depicted in sculpture and myth as collective and semi-divine beings—and associated with mothering. The Matrika ../images include voluptuous beauties—one with an infant, theriomorphic (human body with animal head) figures and a wizened crone (for more detail see Panniker, 1997).

We collaborated with grassroots based NGOs: Action India (working in the slums of Delhi); Mahila Jagriti Kendra (South Bihar); Voluntary Health Association of Punjab (Fategarh District) and URMUL (Rajasthan). The NGO called together dais who were considered by local women to be experienced and knowledgeable for a series of three workshops. In these workshops we posed the question ‘what does a woman need during pregnancy, birth and postpartum?’
The attitudes of our team members were crucial to the success of the research work. We consciously cultivated an ethos in which we were open to religio-cultural ways of thinking and doing ‘health’ and assumed that these poor, illiterate, low caste women were the inheritors of India’s midwifery traditions.

Our activities included role-plays, ritual drawings, body mapping, singing of birth songs, sharing of birth experiences (ours and theirs) as well as dais’ life narratives. . Group discussions, interpreting role-plays and other data, were at the heart of our activities. We were able to access, and remain with, this alien (to us) information because we did not limit ourselves by separating data into mutually exclusive categories of ‘medicine’ and ‘religion’. Rather we were receptive to diverse ways of facilitating birth, diagnosing and healing—to ritual enactments, 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. This paper is drawn from that data

In this paper we are not just demolishing the line between the sacred and the profane, between the pure and the impure, between swarg and narak—rather we are asserting the lived sacrality inherent in beliefs about and rituals accompanying women’s biological processes--menstruation and childbirth.


Ritual is belief in practice. It is very tempting for us modern women to stand outside of ideas of the ‘dirty’ female body and critique the ‘confinement’ of women at the time of menstruation and birth as archaic and misogynist. Having listened carefully to dais’ voices, and paid attention to Indian and sub-continental representation systems for almost 30 years I am now adamantly against doing so. The project of modernity has displaced valuable indigenous resources, ‘cultural capital’

Most of us are aware of the critical evaluation and devaluation by the Arya Samaj of household ritual and devotional puja in their return to the ‘original’ and ‘pure’ Vedic Hinduism. Their re-scripting of hymns expunged passion and metaphors of the body. Dualistic, god- disembodied and devotee as well. In this theology ‘aap’ rather than ‘Tu” were used to address the divine

Likewise the Brahmo Samaj did away with ritualism, in weddings the calash was banished along with the saptapadi, seven steps. Of course Tantric and Shaktic rites and beliefs were also ‘impure’. Both movements valorized the rational, scientific temper and drew from urban upper castes and classes. And furthered the chasm between co-religionists—fragmenting common religiosities. But few are aware of the negative impact that this ‘progressive’ ideology had on women’s bodily observances, beliefs and rituals.

Displaced Ontologies and Epistomologies

The sacred other, sacred nature and the ontology of ‘inanimate objects’

Dai Ma, Dharti Ma

Dai pyar se samjhati hai
Sahalati hai aur sambhalti hai.
Ghanton jachche ke paas rahti hai
Dai jachche aur bachche ko sahara deti hai
Jaise Dharti humko sahara deti hai

O! Mother Dai you are like the Earth
You care for us, understand us.
You sit with us for hours and support us
Just like the earth gives us support.

Similarly we find this ontological perspective in the theology of Bemata, the divine, and sometimes demonic, figure traditionally invoked by dais at the time of birth.

Bemata is not like Durga or Saraswati, Lakshmi or even Santoshi Ma. To my knowledge there exist no temples, pilgrimage sites, texts, icons relating to Bemata, nor does she have a place in the ritual calendar. She cannot even be said to be aniconic—found in the form of a stone or a cave. If she represents anything, it is female reproductive physiology. As mentioned above she manifests as both a creative and a destructive force—procreativity while growing the baby, and pathology if she does not leave when her work is done.

I first encountered Bemata 15 years ago in a collaborative research project with NGOs documenting women’s experiences of childbearing. In these interviews, conducted by health workers who were themselves basti residents, women spoke of Bemata as she was invoked during a ritual I call “the cutting of the atta”. Moti Dai describes the rite invoking Bemata emphasizing that the dai, herself, is empowered by Bemata.

There is the custom of cutting the atta or rice. When the labour pains have come and the dai has arrived, the jachcha puts both hands full of atta in the thali. The dai holds the wrist of the mother while she, with her hand, separates the atta into two parts from the middle. Bemata is worshipped by putting money and gur on top of the atta, offering it to the dai, and saying “In this way separate the mother and the child so that the child is born without any difficulty.” It is said that when Ram and Lakshman were born Bemata herself came and acted as dai. Now it’s the dai, herself, who represents the shakti of Bemata. (Moti Dai—an upper caste midwife)

Moti Dai, a rare high caste midwife, connects the ritual with the midwife who assisted Sita at Ram and Lakshman’s births. Shakina Dai, a Muslim midwife, mentions offerings to Sayyid, an Islamic figure, but similarly invokes Bemata. She also refers to the labouring woman as having one foot in heaven and the other in narak or hell.

Look, sister, at the time of birth it’s only the woman’s Shakti. She who gives birth, at that time, her one foot is in heaven and the other, in hell. The woman’s Shakti is indeed a lot when she gives birth to a child. Before doing a delivery I.get the woman to open all the trunks, doors and so on. I pray to the One Above to open the knot quickly. I take off the sari, open the hair and take off the bangles or any jewellery. I put the atta on a thali and ask the woman to divide it into two equal parts. Also I get Rs.1.25 in the name of Sayyid kept separately. But mostly I remember Bemata. Repeatedly I pray to the Bemata “Oh mother! please open the knot quickly.” (Shakina Dai—a Muslim midwife)

Dais from all religions have invoked Bemata. In workshops in the Punjab, Mazbi (outcaste) Sikh dais said that they, too, pray to Bemata.

In our first MATRIKA workshop with dais from Delhi slums we were told:

Bemata is an old woman, has white hair and walks with the help of a stick. She stays under the earth and makes putle (puppets) and gives them to people. She gives to some people and does not give to others. When a baby smiles, it is believed that Bemata is making her smile.

Imaged as a playful and rather fickle old woman, Bemata is amazingly familiar and at the same time a divine persona. She is invoked at the time of childbirth being the special patron of dais and parturient women. Living underground, she creates human beings out of earth, breathing life into them and writes their fate on their foreheads shortly after birth. Bemata is immanent in all nature, grows and protects the baby in the womb, but also seems to be responsible for complications if she does not ‘exit’ the mother’s body via postpartum bleeding. She is understood to leave the birth home at the time of the Chatti rite, six days after birth when she is thanked for growing and protecting the baby. However, she is also perceived as being responsible for diseases of mother and child in the postpartum period. Theologically, it is important to note that the presence of the same force that is seen as benign and fecund at one time (pregnancy and birth) becomes destructive and dangerous at another (post birth) if she is not in the process of diminishing or leaving. Thus the divine/demonic valence of Bemata is entirely contextual and time-dependent.

These kinds of conflations, were de-ligitimized by the rationalist, scientific mindset and the disembodied religiosity propounded by the modernists.

The conflation of the female body and the earth—Reclaiming narak

Narak Quotes
The following data from our workshop transcripts present meanings of narak. These quotes from Bihar speak explicitly, using the word ‘narak.’ In other areas the meanings are more implicit in the practices and the ‘dirtiness’ associated with times of female fertility.

Girls are considered holy before puberty. The marriage of a young girl, who has not had her periods, is performed with her sitting on her father’s lap. After puberty the woman is considered unclean, and is unholy, because she bleeds, and this is narak.

On Chhati day the narak period ends. The Dai checks if the umbilical cord has fallen off. Then she bathes the baby and beats a thaali (plate). After this the woman is bathed and wears new clothes. The dai cleans the room where the delivery took place and the woman was kept separately for six days. The dirty clothes of mother and child are washed. After this the dai is given soap and oil for bathing. All this is on the sixth day after delivery.

Although often translated as hellish or demonic place, narak can be understood as the site or energy of the unseen inner world - of the earth and of the body, particularly the fertile and bleeding female body. Narak has the connotation ‘filth’ but also signifies the fertility or fruitful potential of the earth and woman. 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 this uncleanness, this narak. To her the placenta, the ultimate polluting substance in the shastra literature, 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.

Despite the pejorative connotations of the word narak, the concept has allowed for abiding female spaces and birth cultures. In the ‘male’ or ‘dominant’ view these female times are ‘filthy’ or polluted, but they are also times when masculine, social and even familial demands on women are suspended. And traditionally older women guarded these spaces from any incursions—perhaps with the help of ‘demons’ and nether forces!? Within this imagistic representation, the nature of female bodily energy is understood as ‘out of control’—women are presumed to be more emotional and have special physical needs at this time—so the usual social constraints are suspended. Of course we need to interrogate the priestly voice and de-sacralisation of menstruation and birth—but we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. We should not ignore the traditional birth knowledge of India.

Conversely the fertility of land and woman are acknowledged and honored. Both are ‘fruitful’ and this is not simply a symbolic device. Within indigenous medical traditions such as Ayurveda, and with the dais, a totally different ontological system is at work. Woman is not a ‘symbol’ of the earth. Nor is the earth a ‘symbol’ of woman. Rather they both partake of the same nature of fecundity. Just as the wind outside my window partakes of the same essence as the breath which flows in and out of my lungs.

During narak time what is usually closed, the womb, is open, raw, vulnerable and bleeding. Narak allows for the imaging of the unseen—and the use of other senses, besides the visual, as well as the human capacities of empathy and imagination in diagnostics and therapeutics. And in fact narak is deeply implicated in the handling of postpartum care.

After delivery a woman is not given any grain or heavy food. This is called narak fasting. Grain is only given on the third day after all the dirty blood comes out. On first day, she eats biscuits with tea. She drinks warm water. Second day, heat-producing balls made out of ginger, pepper, turmeric, roasted rice, milk and jaggery (saunth laddos). On the third day, rice, dal and vegetables. (Bihar)
It is called dirty blood because it has collected over nine months in the body. It is dark, smelly and clotted. It comes out first and then fresh clean blood comes out.

With a little pressure and massage we take it out completely, and when the color of the blood becomes clear like monthly cycle we believe that it is clean. (Punjab)
Gola is baby's home. When the house becomes empty, only dirty blood is left. When this comes out there is pain. Hot drinks (of ajwain, saunth, pipar and gur) are given. This drink cleans the belly. After the baby is born, the gola roams around. This gola has taken care of the baby, now it must leave. If the pain is intense then warm fomentation is done and gola melts away (pighal jata hai). This is dirty blood and needs cleaning up. (Delhi)

Perhaps in the dominant world religions (Judeo-Christian-Islamic and Hinduism, or more correctly Brahminism) the concept of narak or ‘hell’ overlays previous meaning systems which

Concepts of ‘pollution taboo’ mask sophisticated bodily praxis involving parturient women. Isolation postpartum and during menses allows a woman to withdraw her attention from the everyday world and its demands into the experience of female physiological functioning, thus providing not only rest but also a kind of meditation on body cosmos connections. Interestingly these changes are understood to produce a cleansing ‘heat’ within the body, akin to the yogic tapasya.

Dais’ work as ‘Sewa ka Kam’

Dais with whom MATRIKA interacted spoke of their work attending births as ‘sewa ka kam.’ Inserted within its own religio-cultural and indigenous medical, as well as socio-economic context the work of birth is one of service. As one dai said to us “How can I not come to the side of a woman who is giving birth just because she is poor?” Another spoke of using her own oil and actually giving money to a new mother totally without resources. Subhadra Rai elaborates this orientation towards dai work.

Dais’ own perceptions of their care work are couched in socio-cultural terms of poonya ka kaam (good work), dharm (duty, religion), blessings, happiness, help the poor, and reciprocity. These terms take precedence over other valuations of their work. It is not that monetary payment is unimportant or secondary, but contextualising their work within the sociocultural framework becomes easier in the society in which they operate.

The ritual practice, conflations of female body and earth, dai ma and dharti ma, as well as notions of narak as embodied female experience all allow us to reconfigure the conventional notions of female ‘impurity. The dai, and traditional women’s bodily praxis during menses and postpartum express a poetics and sacrality of the body foreign to the modern, scientific and ‘rational’ mind, as well as the Brahmanic and textual orientation of ‘Hinduism’. Unfortunately displacement of these religio-cultural practices and beliefs has abdicated definitions of the procreative female body to the pollution of the priests and the pathology of the bio-medical practitioners. We are all bereft of positive imagery, the hands on care-taking and location in the cosmic play of creativity and generativity which has marked women’s ritual performances and the beliefs they celebrate.

iOur methodology was derived from counseling—usually practiced in a one-to-one setting—which we transposed to our workshops. ‘Active listening,’ when practiced by the interviewer or facilitator, allows the person (or group) to speak in a non-directed manner—with topics emerging from the informant/s rather than using a questionnaire with a specific agenda. Active listening also involves feeding back what has been understood by the researchers in order to allow the group/person to go deeper into the subject or refine or correct misunderstandings.

iiWith the notable exception of a kuchcha image of gobar made by women and worshipped at Chatti. Bemata is by nature a transient presence who must move on to continue her work elsewhere.

iiiThis data was generated collaboratively with non-governmental organizations, Action India’s Sabla Sangh Health workers, Jagori and the author.

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