J. A. (Jean Antoine) Dubois.

Hindu manners, customs and ceremonies online

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with your fingers ; and there is nothing impolite in audibly
getting rid of flatulency. Persons of all ranks, indeed,
seem to rather encourage this habit, as according to them
it is a sure sign of a good digestion. It is certainly an
original, if somewhat disgusting spectacle to a European,
to see a large number of Brahmins coming away from
a feast indulging in a sort of competition as to who shall
give vent to the loudest eructations, calling out at the
same time, with emphatic gravity, ' Narayana ! ' as if to
thank Vishnu for his favours.

After sneezing a Hindu never fails to exclaim, ' Rama !
Rama 1 ' and no doubt there is some superstition attached
to this pious ejaculation l . Again, when a Brahmin yawns,
he snaps his fingers to the right and left to scare away evil
spirits and giants.

To tread on any one's foot, even by accident, demands
an immediate apology. This is done by stretching out
both hands towards the feet of the offended person. A
box on the ear is not considered a graver affront than a

1 One knows that amongst the old heathen nations a sneeze was
supposed to contain a great mystery. Old writers mention many facts
which prove what superstitious deductions credulous persons drew from
it. The custom of uttering a prayer or good wish on behalf of a person
who has sneezed has existed from time immemorial. The Greeks said
to such a person tfOi ; the Romans, ' Salve.* Though with us the
fashion of saying, ' May your wishes be granted ! ' or ' God bless you ! '
has rather gone out, politeness demands that at least you should make
a bow. — Dubois.

M 3


blow given with the fist, or a kick with the bare foot ; but
a blow on the head, should it knock off the turban, is a very
gross insult. By far the greatest indignity of all, however,
is to be struck with one of the shoes or sandals that Hindus
wear. Whoever submitted to such an insult without in-
sisting on receiving satisfaction, would be excluded from
his caste. The mere threat of such an insult is often
sufficient to provoke a criminal prosecution.

It is a mark of respect when women turn their backs on
men whom they hold in high esteem. At any rate, they
must turn away their faces or cover them with their saris.
Again, when they leave the house, propriety requires them
to proceed on their way without paying any attention to
the passers-by ; and if they see a man they are expected
to bow their heads and look in the opposite direction.
There are a good many, however, who are not always
quite so modest.

Any one who sees a person of high rank coming towards
him, must go off the road, if he is on foot, so as to leave
the way perfectly free, and if he is on horseback or in
a palanquin he must get down and remain standing until
the great person has passed and is some distance off. When
speaking to a superior, politeness demands that an inferior
should put his right hand before his mouth to prevent any
particle of his breath or saliva reaching and defiling him.
If an inferior meets a superior out of doors he must take
off his shoes before greeting him. A Hindu, moreover,
must never enter his own house, much less a stranger's,
with leather shoes on his feet.

In several of the Southern Provinces the Sudras are in
the habit of taking off the cloth which covers the upper
part of their bodies, winding it round their waists, and
standing with arms crossed on their chest while speaking
to a superior. The women of certain castes do the same
in the presence of their husbands, or of any man to whom
they wish to show respect. Their rules of propriety oblige
them to appear before men stripped to the waist ; and to
omit to do so would show a great want of good breeding.

When Brahmins are talking to a man of another caste,
or to a European from whom they have nothing to hope
or to fear, they stand with their hands behind their backs


— a position which signifies contempt for their interlocutor,
and which they are always very pleased to assume, to show
the sense of their own superiority. When they pay a visit,
no matter what may be the rank or dignity of their host,
they never wait till they are asked to take a seat, but do
so the instant they enter the room. People of all castes,
when visiting a superior, must wait until they are dismissed
before they can take leave.

There are several ceremonious visits which must be paid,
such as visits of condolence, visits at pongul, and several
others of which I shall speak later on. The feast of pongul
and the following days are mostly celebrated by presents
which near relatives make to each other, and which consist
of new earthen vessels on which certain designs are traced
in lime, also ground rice, fruit, sugar, saffron, &c. Such
gifts are conveyed with much solemnity and accompanied
by instruments of music. These little attentions are in-
dispensable in the case of certain individuals. For instance,
a mother must not neglect giving presents to her married
daughter ; otherwise the mother-in-law would resent the
omission to her dying day.

With them letters of condolence on occasions of mourning
can never take the place of a visit, as they so often do with
us. Some member of the family must go in person to wail
and lament, and perform the other ridiculous ceremonies
that are customary on such occasions, even though a journey
of fifty miles or more has to be made.

When a Hindu visits a person of importance for the first
time he must not omit to take presents with him, which
he will offer as a mark of respect, and to show that he comes
with friendly intentions. It is generally considered a lack
of good manners to appear with empty hands before any
one of superior position, or from whom a favour is expected.
Those whose means do not permit of their offering presents
of great value may bring such things as sugar, bananas,
cocoanuts, betel, &c.

In conclusion, it must be admitted that the laws of
etiquette and social politeness are much more clearly laid
down, and much better observed by all classes of Hindus,
even by the lowest, than they are by people of correspond-
ing social position in Europe.


The Ornaments worn by Hindus. — The Different Marks with which they
adorn their Bodies.

Every Hindu, even including those who have made
a profession of penitence and have renounced the world,
wears earrings. The sannyasis or penitents, who are sup-
posed to have given up the three things which most natur-
ally tend to excite man's cupidity — that is to say, women,
honours, and riches — wear copper earrings in token of
humility. But generally such ornaments are made of
gold, and are of different shapes, though most frequently
oval. Occasionally these pendants are so large that one
can easily pass one's hand through them. Some are made
of copper wire, round which gold wire is so twisted as to
cover the copper completely. Those who are fairly well
off wear them with a large pearl or precious stone in the

These ear ornaments, which are sometimes of enormous
size, are another proof of the Hindu's strong attachment to
his old customs. All writers, both sacred and profane, bear
witness to the fact that similar ornaments have been worn
from time immemorial. On grand occasions, such as
marriage feasts, they put four or five pairs into their ears,
and at the end or in the centre of each of these is added
another small ornament set with some precious stone. In
some parts of the country a gold ring is also attached to
the cartilage which divides the nostrils. Poor people,
Pariahs included, who cannot afford to buy such valuable
ornaments, wear some small inexpensive trinket in their
ears. But, no matter what their caste or circumstances,
fashion decrees that no one shall be without this species
of adornment.

Rich Hindus wear round their necks gold chains or
strings of pearls with large medallions set with diamonds
which reach to their chests ; and you often see them
wearing gold finger-rings set with precious stones of great
value. They also frequently wear round their waists a
girdle made of gold or silver thread woven with much
taste and skill, and carry massive gold bracelets on their


arms, which sometimes weigh as much as a pound each.
Married men wear silver rings on their toes \ Many,
again, tie above their elbows little hollow tubes of gold
or silver containing magical mantrams, which they wear as
charms to avert ill luck.

They have many other baubles of the same kind 2 . Even
the private parts of the children have their own particular
decorations. Little girls wear a gold or silver shield or
cod-piece on which is graven some indecent picture ; while
a boy's ornament, also of gold or silver, is an exact copy
of that member which it is meant to decorate.

Then there is the custom of painting the forehead and
other parts of the body with different figures and emblems
in various colours, a custom unknown elsewhere, but which
appears to have been common enough among ancient
nations. The simplest of all and the most common is the
one called pottu, which consists of a small circular mark
about an inch in diameter, placed in the centre of the
forehead. It is generally yellow, but sometimes red or
black in colour, and the paint is mixed with a sweet-smelling
paste made by rubbing sandalwood on a damp stone.
Instead of the pottu, some paint two or three horizontal
lines across their foreheads with the same mixture, and
others a perpendicular line from the top of the forehead
to the nose. Some Brahmins and some of the Hindus of
Northern India apply this paste to their cheeks rather
effectively. Others use it to decorate the neck, breast,
belly, and arms with different designs, while others again
smear their bodies all over with the mixture.

1 Brahmin men never wear such rings. — Ed.

2 The variety and number of ornaments is almost bewildering ; but
they all have their proper names and shapes. Indian artisans do not
need to rack their brains to invent novelties. There are no changing
fashions, either in dress or in ornaments. A woman can wear what
once belonged to her grandmother, or to one removed very many degrees
further back, for the matter of that, either clothes or jewels ; and this
without any incongruity, or exciting remark. There is a perpetual
recurrence of old patterns, improved, it may be, but the design will be
the same. Of course it is in jewels for females that the variety occurs
most. — Padfield.

It is a common belief among Hindus that there must always be at
least a speck of gold on one's person, in order to ensure personal cere-
monial purity. — Ed.


Vishnavite Brahmins, as well as those of other castes
who are particularly devoted to the worship of Vishnu,
paint their foreheads with the emblem namam l , which
gives their faces a most extraordinary, and sometimes
even ferocious appearance. The most enthusiastic devo-
tees of this sect paint the same design on their shoulders,
arms, breast, and belly ; and the Bairagis, a sect who go
about stark naked, often draw it on their hinder parts.

The worshippers of Siva cover their foreheads and various
parts of their bodies with the ashes of cow-dung, or with
ashes taken from the places where the dead are burned 2 .
Some of them smear themselves all over from head to foot ;
others content themselves with smearing broad bars across
the arms, chest, and belly.

Many Hindus who do not belong to any sect in par-
ticular smear their foreheads with ashes. Brahmins, with
the exception of a very few who belong to some special
sect, do not follow this custom, though sometimes, after
they have performed their morning ablutions, they draw
a little horizontal line with ashes across their foreheads.

The Hindus also display on their bodies many other
marks and devices of different colours and designs, which
vary according to the different castes, sects, and provinces.
It would be difficult to explain the origin and meaning of
the greater number of these symbols ; those who wear
them are often themselves ignorant of their meaning.
Some, the pottu amongst the number, appear to have been
invented solely for ornament, but there is no doubt that,
as a rule, some superstitious meaning is attached to them.
Thus the ashes of cow-dung are used in memory of the
long penance of Siva and of several other holy personages,
who always covered themselves with these ashes in token
of humility.

Anyway, the Hindu code of good breeding requires that
the forehead shall be ornamented with a mark of some
sort. To keep it quite bare is a sign of mourning. It is
also a sign that the daily ablutions have not been per-
formed, that a person is still in a state of impurity, or that

1 See Chapter IX.

2 Ashes taken from burning-grounds are not usually employed now-
adays. — Ed.


he is still fasting. If one meets an acquaintance after
noon with his forehead still bare, one always asks if it is
because he has not yet broken his fast. It would be rude
to appear before decent people with no mark whatever on
the forehead.

Women attach much less importance than men to this
kind of decoration. As a rule, they are satisfied with
making the little round pothi mark on the forehead in red,
yellow, or black, or else a simple horizontal or perpendicular
line in red. But they have another kind of decoration of
which they are very fond. It consists in painting the face,
neck, arms, legs, and every part of the body that is visible
with a deep yellow cosmetic of saffron. Brahmin women
imagine that they thereby greatly enhance their beauty,
since it makes their skin appear less dusky. Love of
admiration no doubt has taught them that this paint gives
them an additional charm in the eyes of Hindus, but it
produces quite the contrary effect on Europeans, who think
them hideous and revolting when thus besmeared.

No doubt all these daubings appear very ridiculous in
our eyes, and it is difficult to believe that it can render
any one more attractive, at least according to our way of
thinking. But amongst the many artificial means of
adornment which caprice and fashion have forced upon us
there are several which excite just as much ridicule amongst
the Hindus. Thus, for instance, in the days when it was
the custom to powder the hair, they could not understand
how a young man with common sense could bring himself
to appear as if he had the white head of an old man. As
to wigs, Hindus are absolutely horrified at seeing a Euro-
pean, holding some important position, with his head
dressed out in hair which may have been taken from
a leper, or a corpse, or at best from a Pariah or prostitute.
To defile one's head with anything so unclean and abomin-
able is regarded by the Hindu as most horrible ! It would be
no great hardship to expose a bald head to free contact with
the air in such a warm climate, but were they all doomed
to severe colds, nothing would ever persuade the Hindus
to adopt the fashion of wearing wigs. And so we laugh at
them, and they at us. And this is the way of the world.
Yae tibi ! vae nigrae ! dicebat cacabus ollae.



Brahmin Wives. — The Education of Women. — Ceremonies which take
place when they arrive at a Marriageable Age, and during Preg-
nancy. — The Low Estimation in which Women are held in Private
Life. — The Respect that is paid to them in Public. — Their Clothing
and Ornaments.

The social condition of the Brahmanis, or wives of
Brahmins, differs very little from that of the women of
other castes, and I shall have little to say about it. This
interesting half of the human race, which exercises such
enormous power in other parts of the world, and often
decides the fate of empires, occupies in India a position
hardly better than that of slaves. Their only vocation in
life being to minister to man's physical pleasures and
wants, they are considered incapable of developing any of
those higher mental qualities which would make them
more worthy of consideration and also more capable of
playing a useful part in life. Their intellect is thought to
be of such a very low order, that when a man has done
anything particularly foolish or thoughtless his friends say
he has no more sense than a woman. And the women
themselves, when they are reproved for any serious fault
and find it difficult to make a good excuse, always end by
saying, ' After all, I am only a woman ! ' This is always
their last word, and one to which there is no possible
retort. One of the principal precepts taught in Hindu
books, and one that is everywhere recognized as true, is
that women should be kept in a state of dependence and
subjection all their lives, and under no circumstances should
they be allowed to become their own mistresses. A woman
must obey her parents as long as she is unmarried, and her
husband and mother-in-law afterwards. Even when she
becomes a widow she is not free, for her own sons become
her masters and have the right to order her about !

As a natural consequence of these views, female educa-
tion is altogether neglected. A young girl's mind remains
totally uncultivated, though many of them have good
abilities. In fact, of what use would learning or accom-
plishments be to women who are still in such a state of


domestic degradation and servitude ? All that a Hindu
woman need know is how to grind and boil rice and look
after her household affairs, which are neither numerous
nor difficult to manage.

Courtesans, whose business in life is to dance in the
temples and at public ceremonies, and prostitutes are the
only women who are allowed to learn to read, sing, or
dance. It would be thought a disgrace to a respectable
woman to learn to read ; and even if she had learnt she
would be ashamed to own it. As for dancing, it is left
absolutely to courtesans ; and even they never dance with
men. Respectable women sometimes amuse themselves
by singing when they are alone, looking after their house-
hold duties, and also on the occasions of weddings or other
family festivities ; but they would never dare to sing in
public or before strangers.

Such feminine occupations as knitting or needlework
are quite unknown to them ; and moreover any talents
that they might develop in this direction would be wasted,
as their clothing consists of one long piece of coloured
calico, without any join or seam in it, though most of them
know how to card and spin cotton, and very few houses
are without one or more spinning-wheels \

I have already described what takes place when a young
girl, who has been married in her early childhood, arrives
at the age when she is fit to live with her husband (Chapter
VI). These festivities are called the consummation of the

The young woman herself cannot appear, because she
is, for the first time in her life, in a state of uncleanness,
and for several days she is obliged to remain in a separate
part of the house. But after she has gone through the
usual rites of purification she returns to the family, and
numberless other ceremonies are performed over her,
amongst others several which are supposed to counteract
the effects of witchcraft or the evil eye. She is then con-
ducted with much pomp to her husband's house.

1 Many Hindu women and girls now do needlework of some kind,
and it is taught in most of the girls' schools. The old-fashioned mothers-
in-law complain that this new departure has proved detrimental to the
performance of the more ordinary household duties. — Ed.


The Sudras, and even the Pariahs, have grand festivities
when their daughters, though still unmarried, arrive at
a marriageable age. The event is announced to the public
with all the outward show that accompanies the most
solemn ceremonies. A pandal is erected ; toranams or
strings of mango-leaves are hung in front of the entrance
door of the house ; feasts are given ; much music re-
sounds. In fact, it is a kind of advertisement or invitation
to young men in want of a wife.

When a Brahmin's wife becomes pregnant there are
endless ceremonies to be performed, some indeed for each
separate month. In any caste it would be considered a
disgrace to the woman, and in a less degree to her parents,
if her first child were born anywhere but under the paternal
roof. Her mother accordingly comes and fetches her about
the seventh month of her pregnancy, and she is not allowed
to return to her own home till her health is entirely re-
established. When she departs her mother is supposed to
give her a new piece of cotton cloth and some more or less
valuable ornaments according to her means and her caste.
But in no case would the woman, to whatever caste she
might belong, return from her parents' to her husband's
house unless her mother-in-law or some equally near
relation came to fetch her. Her husband has to conform
to this custom when his wife chooses to leave him and
takes refuge under the paternal roof, sometimes for a mere
whim, or for some very trifling cause. But in any case,
even when the fault is all on her side, the husband must
go and fetch her back.

These domestic quarrels and separationsoccur frequently,
and are generally the fault of the mother-in-law, who looks
upon her son's wife as a slave that has been bought and
paid for. The elder woman, indeed, lives in constant
dread of her daughter-in-law obtaining too much ascend-
ency over the husband, and by this means contriving her
own emancipation ; and accordingly seizes every oppor-
tunity of breeding discord between them. This fear is,
as a rule, perfectly uncalled for ; for the men themselves
show very little inclination to be ruled by their wives, and
condescend to very little of what we call conjugal tender-
ness in their relations with them.


The women, on the other hand, are so thoroughly accus-
tomed to harsh and domineering treatment from their
husbands that they would be quite annoyed if the hus-
bands adopted a more familiar tone. I once knew a native
lady who complained bitterly that her husband sometimes
affected to be very devoted to her in public and allowed
himself such little familiarities as are looked upon by us
as marks of affection. ' Such behaviour,' said she, ' covers
me with shame and confusion. I dare not show myself
anywhere. Did any one ever see such bad manners
amongst people of our caste ? Has he become a Feringhi
(European), and does he take me for one of their vile


i I

As a rule a husband addresses his wife in terms which
show how little he thinks of her. Servant, slave, &c, and
other equally flattering appellations, fall quite naturally
from his lips.

A woman, on the other hand, never addresses her hus-
band except in terms of the greatest humility. She speaks
to him as my master, my lord, and even sometimes my god.
In her awe of him she does not venture to call him by his
name ; and should she forget herself in this way in a moment
of anger, she would be thought a very low class of person,
and would lay herself open to personal chastisement from
her offended spouse. She must be just as particular in
speaking of him to any one else : indeed, the Hindus are
very careful never to put a woman under the necessity of
mentioning her husband by name. If by chance a Euro-
pean, who is unacquainted with this point of etiquette,
obliges her to do so, he will see her blush and hide her
face behind her sari and turn away without answering,
smiling at the same time with contemptuous pity at such

Politeness also forbids you to address a person of higher
rank by his name.

But if women enjoy very little consideration in private
life, they are in some degree compensated by the respect

1 It may be noted that at marriage feasts, &c., the males and females
keep apart ; and furthermore the usual personal invitations to such
feasts are invariably conveyed to men by men, and to women by women.


which is paid to them in public. They do not, it is true,
receive those insipid compliments which we have agreed
to consider polite ; but then, on the other hand, they are
safe from the risk of insult. A Hindu woman can go any-
where alone, even in the most crowded places, and she need
never fear the impertinent looks and jokes of idle loungers.
This appears to me to be really remarkable in a country
where the moral depravity of the inhabitants is carried
to such lengths. A house inhabited solely by women is

Online LibraryJ. A. (Jean Antoine) DuboisHindu manners, customs and ceremonies → online text (page 34 of 72)