Typical American first birthdays follow a basic routine: the baby smashes some cake on their face, giggles gleefully and waddles off. However, for followers of Hinduism, a child’s first birthday is a chance to host a lavish birthday party during which the main event often involves inducting their child into the religion to ensure a blissful life. These are the stories of how three Indian students celebrated turning 1 year old.
‘My father carried me to the top of a summit’
The family’s two-car garage was packed to the gills with relatives and friends in February of 2004, for freshman Keshav Anand’s (Dec. 9) first birthday party.
Also in attendance were seven of Anand’s family members, who had traveled all the way from Chennai, Tamil Nadu, (a state in southern India) for his birth and returned for his birthday party. (They did the same when Anand’s little sister was born.)
“There was a ton of Indian people that came just to witness (my sister and me) coming into the world,” Anand said, laughing.
Anand’s first birthday party had been planned two months in advance by his mother, Vasudha, father, Anand Chellam, and grandmother, Kamala, because, according to Anand, a big first birthday party is a family requirement.
A few weeks before the party, Anand and his family, who are practicing Hindus, had gone to India to visit Venkateswara Temple in Tirupati. The Hindu temple is located at Venkatadri, one of the seven peaks of the Seshachalam Hills.
Anand said that his father carried him the entire distance (5.6 miles) to the summit. Anand’s mother, grandparents and other family members also made the four-hour climb.
At the summit stands the world’s most-visited Hindu temple, which receives 50,000-100,000 visitors daily. There’s also a neighborhood for the temple’s caretakers.
Visitors line up outside of the temple and wait for a few hours before entering, according to Anand, who has visited the temple six times.
When Anand visited that first time, his father placed him upright on his back like a backpack and tightly held Anand’s hands on his shoulders. Anand said that parents carry their babies in this particular way instead of in their arms because the paths leading to the temple are so narrow and congested. Also, the massive crowds make it dangerous for a toddler to waddle around on the floor, according to Anand.
Once inside, visitors view the shrine for what feels like only a few seconds, Anand said. In Hindu temples at least one statue of Vishnu, one of the principal gods responsible for the creation of life in Hinduism, is located off to the side. The main focus is on the shrine dedicated to another god in the center of the room. At Venkateswara Temple, the shrine is dedicated to a form of Vishnu.
Anand said that visitors pray, place money or flowers on the shrine, and then receive an offering from a caretaker on their way out. The offering, or “prasad,” is a food that is eaten by worshippers following prayer. At Venkateswara Temple, the “prasad” is “laddu,” a sweet ball of dough with cashews, raisins or spices.
“You have to take the offering because it’s from the gods,” Anand said. “You gave to the gods, so now the gods are giving to you.”
This concludes a baby’s first prayer, which Anand said is a big deal.
After exiting the temple, one of the temple’s caretakers shaved Anand’s head for the first time (“mundan”) and pierced his ears with a needle (“karna vedha”).
“There was probably a lot of crying then!” Anand said. “But (Hindus) pierce babies’ ears to get rid of the bad omens and give the baby a good, happy life.”
The hair from the “mundan” is donated to the god of the city where the first haircut took place. Because Anand was in the city of Tirupati at the time, his hair was donated to the native god Lord Venkateswara.
“My grandma Usha Padmanadhan said both rituals are a form of surrendering to God, thus praying to take care of the baby and the family,” Anand said.
Anand’s next visit to Venkateswara Temple was for his little sister’s “mundan” and “karna vedha.” But, according to Anand, repeatedly visiting is not essential for Hindus.
And neither is the trip that Anand’s parents took to India several months before Anand was born. On this trip in 2002, the couple climbed Vaishno Devi, a steep mountain that Anand hiked with his uncle last summer. Anand said that at the summit, his parents prayed to the goddess Shakti that their child would be successful and happy.
Anand said that if he were to ever have children, he would probably continue these traditions.
“I don’t want to get my grandparents mad!” he said, laughing.
Anand said that there are hundreds of similar Indian traditions and rules unique to families and regions, but the reasoning behind some customs has now been lost.
“There (are) really strict rules for Indians, like you can’t cut your hair on Tuesdays or Fridays,” Anand said. “There’s no explanation behind it. Our family just won’t (cut our hair on Tuesdays or Fridays)!”
‘A priest told me to throw a coconut in the river’
Unlike other Hindus, freshman Om Sharma didn’t have his ears pierced to mark his first birthday and erase bad omens because his parents didn’t want to. Instead Sharma said that the Hindu ritual known as “puja” was performed at his first birthday party.
“Puja,” which is usually a feature of milestone celebrations or festivals, is not required for Hinduism and can be performed at home or at a temple.
Sharma said that the three-hour-long ritual is still performed every year on his exact birthdate (June 25) by the same Hindu priest. Sharma’s parents, brother (seventh grader Shivom) and extended family attend the ritual at their house.
“It’s my birthday, and I’m sitting through a three-hour ritual,” Sharma said. “It’s not really the thing I want to do, but I’ll do it!”
After the priest lights a fire in a fireplace, he recites long, complicated prayers that can go on for 10 minutes at a time. Sharma said that he has no idea what these prayers mean since they are in Hindi, but he knows they’re for good luck and prosperity in the coming year.
After a while, the priest takes a break, hands Sharma some oil and asks him to pour it into the fire. Later he asks Sharma to mix some fruits and pour the mixture, along with handfuls of cashews and almonds, into the fire. This food makes up an offering that Sharma gives to a specific Hindu god. The god that Sharma prays to depends on which quality (such as wisdom or strength) he wants.
Sharma said that Shivom and his cousins undergo the ritual as well, but he has never attended a birthday “puja” for an adult.
Once a Hindu becomes a teenager, the priest asks them six weeks after their birthday to perform a special task to ensure that the good luck from the “puja” sticks around. Making sure that the blessing from the ritual stays is important particularly for teenagers because they are transitioning from children to adults, according to Sharma.
“The priest came to my house and told me to throw a coconut in the American River,” Sharma said. “So I did. Is that legal?”
After turning 13 last year, Sharma was instructed to go to a river and feed its fish with coconuts to help the environment. Sharma said that priests assign this task to many people for good luck, but he is unsure of where the inspiration for this ritual came from.
Before chucking each coconut, Sharma closed his eyes and prayed. He did this every week for a couple months. Sharma said that when the coconut’s shell breaks down, the fish can eat the meat inside. But joggers, bikers and dog walkers along the American River didn’t know that.
“People asked what I was doing, and it was embarrassing,” he said.
Since Sharma was not given a special task following his 14th birthday, he said that he doesn’t know if he will be given a task for his upcoming 15th birthday.
Sharma first underwent “puja” at his first birthday party, which was surrounded by much fanfare.
Of the 150 partygoers at Sharma’s first birthday party, about half had traveled from India. The party was held in a rented banquet hall in Fairfield and included Indian music, dancing and food, such as naan, curry and vegetables and a huge cake.
Guests also participated in karaoke, a popular activity at Indian get-togethers, according to Sharma.
‘I said prayers in front of a religious fire’
Sophomore Anu Krishnan said that her parents performed the ritual“Ayush Homam” with the help of a Hindu priest on her first birthday (April 29) to bless Krishnan and give her health and longevity.
During the ritual, Krishnan’s parents, as well as the priest, said prayers in Sanskrit in front of a small fire. Intermittently rice, “ghee” (clarified butter) and small sticks were offered to the gods by placing them in the fire. Because of the offerings and prayers, the gods in turn will bless the child.
While some Hindus participate in this ritual on every birthday, Krishnan’s family does not.
Even so, for generations members of Krishnan’s family (including her parents, grandparents and brother Arvind, ’17) have performed “Ayush Homam” on their first birthdays.
Krishnan said that besides immediate family members and close family friends, all the family elders were invited to the ceremony to bless her.
The religious fire ritual took place in the morning and, after two or three hours, was followed by a traditional Southern Indian lunch and reception. In the evening more guests arrived and cake was served.
Instead of blowing out candles on the cake, Krishnan lit a lamp with the help of her parents as the guests sang the Sanskrit and English versions of “Happy Birthday.” Krishnan said that light symbolizes knowledge.
—All stories by Sonja Hansen
Originally published in the March 6 edition of the Octagon.