By Anindita Mukhopadhyay
As children, we can all remember wanting to grow up as fast as possible. Being ‘grown up’ was associated with respect and freedom. It was only later in life, that we were introduced to the third aspect—responsibility. Coming of age rituals and traditions are generally a celebration of a youngster’s transition from childhood to adulthood, marking the taking up of responsibility and accountability for one’s actions. In the past, and in some societies today, such a change is associated with the age of sexual maturity. In others, it is associated with an age of religious responsibility.
Tribal initiation rituals
Initiation rituals or rites of passage followed by tribal communities allow young men and women to become active and full-fledged members of their communities. These rituals often include extremely painful, physically and mentally gruelling tasks. Undergoing such a task showcases the strength and masculinity of the young men, while proves the spiritual and sacrificial capacity in the case of young women.
A textbook case of such a painful male ritual is the bullet ant glove initiation ritual of the Amazonian Sateré-Mawétribe. Paraponeraclavata, the bullet ant, known for its extremely potent sting, are sewn into gloves, their stingers pointing inwards. The young men must wear these gloves while performing a dance. The ceremony, the tribe chief says, is meant to show the men that a life lived ‘without any suffering or effort’ isn’t worth anything at all. These rituals are often mentally harrowing experiences such as the Algonquin Rite of Passage. Young boys of the Algonquin Indian tribe of Quebec are forced to ingest wysoccan, a potent hallucinogen derived from the Datura plant. The purpose of this ceremony is to completely erase the boy’s familial and childhood memories as they are believed to be ‘weaknesses’ that limit their masculinity. However, these boys often risk losing their ability to speak, as well as any sense of self-identity. Moreover, any sign of recognition of their family is treated with another dosage of the drug.
Female rituals are no exception to the rule. Painful and torturous acts are carried out in the name of beautification and spiritual significance. Female genital mutilation is a common ritualistic procedure in the African countries. Likewise, the Mentawaians of an Indonesian rural community believe that chiselled, sharp, and pointed teeth make their women more beautiful. Young girls, on attaining puberty, are made to undergo the process of teeth-filing, wherein their teeth are filed to points, resembling those of sharks. It is believed that humans are always under the threat of joining the spirit world if the soul is not pleased with its body. Hence, such beautification rituals are thought to prolong life and avoid death for as long as possible.
Religious and spiritual ceremonies
Religions and cultures often define specific traditions that mark the transition from childhood to adulthood, typically at the onset of puberty. These rituals are rooted in religious history and spiritual significance. The transition is generally observed in terms of a change in hairstyles, vestments, and social conduct. The purpose, typically, is to signify the sexual maturity and marriageable age of the adolescent.
Young men aged 20 and girls aged 15, transition en masse into adulthood as part of Gwan Rye, a Korean coming of age ceremony. The adolescents typically wear traditional attire accentuated with the traditional topknot and cylindrical hat for men, and braided hair held up by a hairpin for women. They receive three symbolical presents—perfume, roses, and a kiss to mark their transition. Although they all mark the transition into adulthood, the Jewish coming of age ceremonies—Bar and Bat Mitzvah—are far more steeped in religious significance. These include the first performance of the Jewish commandments (mitzvot), recitation of blessings (get an aliyah) at the Torah, and chanting of the prophetic readings (haftarah). They mark the age of self-responsibility in adolescents, as they are now held accountable for their deeds, as well as for responsibility in upholding laws and traditions.
A major aspect of coming of age in girls is the onset of menstruation. The puberty ceremony in Tamil culture is a celebration of this transformation of a young girl into a woman who is ready for marriage and, ultimately, childbearing. The young girl is bathed and dressed in a sari, which connotates her new identity as a sexually mature young woman. Traditionally, the ceremony played the role of showcasing the young woman’s matrimonial availability. However, today it is seen as a celebration of womanhood.
The modern-day equivalent of coming of age ceremonies have all but eroded the significance of the rituals. We have completely lost the spiritual aspect of the ceremonies, and instead, youngsters have chosen to lay emphasis on their new-found freedom to do as they please. This has led to a certain confusion about youth, wherein, though they are given the status of legal adult members of society, their behaviour and actions mark them as adolescents.
Seijin No Hi is one such annual Japanese holiday created by the government to honour and congratulate all those who have reached the age of majority—20 years, during the past year. Festivities include the coming of age ceremony—Seijin Shiki. Young women dress up in furisode, while men don a hakama, both being traditional versions of kimonos. The ceremony reflected the additional rights as well as responsibilities of the new adults. However, the festival is now looked upon as bestowing the right to smoke, drink, and vote.
On a positive note, female rituals that typically indicated a young woman’s marriageable age and status, are now instead, meant to prepare them for a new stage of life—womanhood. Mexican culture celebrates a young girl’s fifteenth birthday—her quinceañera—to mark her passage to womanhood. The adolescent woman—the festejada—expresses gratitude for a completed childhood, while welcoming her new life as a young adult, followed by a lavish party. In addition, parents and elders impart special messages, transferring wisdom and life-experience to their child. Today, the tradition remains a celebration of womanhood, family, and commitment. However, in the Western world, this act of celebrating womanhood has been eroded to nothing more than a lavish birthday party with music, dancing, and drinks. At a young girl’s sixteenth birthday—her ‘sweet sixteen’—parents typically gift their young daughters a car to signify her new-found freedom.
Changes in the social atmosphere and widespread consumerism have robbed these coming of age traditions of their true significance. Rites of passage have now been relegated to mere consumerist events like Valentine’s Day. Maturity is what essentially marks the transition to adulthood. However, the youth view these traditions as mere events that have no real bearing on their behaviour and personality. In fact, it is taken as a license to partake of normally forbidden activities like smoking, drinking, and unlimited freedom. This represents a period of identity exploration for these youngsters that is a pre-requisite to adulthood. True transition to adulthood is observed when adolescents undergo hardships and learn from these experiences, translating it into maturity and responsible behaviour.
Featured Image Source: Pixabay
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius