Seemantham, also known as Pumsavana Seemantham is an important traditional samskara in the Indian traditions but more popular in South Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, carried out during odd pregnancy months of 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th. Although in ancient times Seemantham was performed on the birth each child, today it may be restricted to the first born. Certain sites list that this ritual is similar to the "baby shower" performed in the west however, it is different in intention.
The word "Seemantham" refers to parting the hair just above the eyebrow where the Goddess of Wealth, Sri Mahalakshmi, resides. This leads to the practice of applying kumkum to the parting in order to propitiate the Goddess Sri Lakshmi such that when a woman delivers a child, she is considered the embodiment of the Goddess Lakshmi herself.
From the day of formation in its mother's womb, a child grows in different stages, each with a stipulated time frame. Accordingly, although brain formation takes much earlier, memory cells are said to start activating on the completion of seven months of pregnancy. Thereafter, the unborn child can record sounds and vibrations from its surroundings.
Vedic tradition calls for the recitals of relics and verses known as Udhagasanthi or Uthakashanthi Japam in a soft but powerful mantra recital that lasts for about an hour and a half. On completion of this japam (recitals), the pregnant woman is bathed in cold holy water, without the addition of any warm or hot water. This takes place even late in the evening, whereupon the child in the womb shakes and jerks from the stimulation of the cold water. The specific function of japam is to give a solid state of mind in preparation for the child's birth through a positive vibration from the recited mantras that provide sufficient strength to the child in the womb, and create an atmosphere conducive to the earthly possessives on his or her birth.
Each Vedic mantra is designed for a specific stimulation, so that its phonetic vibration attains its fullest value. Udhakasanthi Japam gives confidence to the pregnant women and also increases her mental strength, with supportive gathering members blessing the child and mother for a normal delivery. Following the recital, the function continues with a veena recital of carnatic instrumentals and songs that create a calm and pleasant atmosphere.
Nowadays Seemantham is often combined with a "Valaikaapu" ritual hosted by the pregnant woman's mother. The Seemantham ceremony is more religious in nature than the Valaikaapu, which is a more informal function. The ceremony itself has its roots in olden times when a woman would depend on the local midwife to deliver her child. In order to ease her passage, this ceremony would be performed to invoke blessings. However, the traditional ceremony is not of relevance today, since some doctors believe that mothers-to-be should avoid crowds towards their ninth month of pregnancy in order to avoid infection risks. Rituals such as pouring cold holy water on the mother may also be harmful to the fetus in some cases.
The original ceremony was also meant to invoke the birth of a male heir, as is seen from the words uttered during the rituals, and some couples therefore prefer not to go through with it if their preference is for a girl child.
These religious rituals may also be performed in a temple to avoid elaborate ceremonies.
(From "Growing Up Global: The Changing Transitions to Adulthood in Developing Countries")
In Karnataka, Seemantha refers to the occasion conducted in pregnant women's parents' homes to seek blessings by the lord for safe delivery and happy life. The pregnant woman is presented with various gifts. This celebration in some ways is similar to the western practice of the baby shower. The ideal goals aside, in these times it has become increasingly a display of gold ornaments, lots of foods and an extravagant spending ritual. This was not the original intention of the function.
In Tamil Nadu, the Seemantham ceremony marks a woman’s passage into motherhood and celebrates her fertility. Seemantham is a ritual performed widely throughout Tamil Nadu by Hindus, Muslims, and Christians in preparation for a woman’s first delivery, and its primary functions are to satisfy the pregnant woman’s desires, bless her, and ensure a safe delivery and a healthy baby.
Seemantham has become much more elaborate and expensive, according to the women, scholars, and religious figures interviewed by Van Hollen. Food has always been a central feature of the ceremony, but the amount of food has multiplied and sweets have taken on a more important role. Expectant first-time mothers are now more likely to receive cash, gold, and consumer items like household appliances, and in greater amounts. The husbands’ families often request certain gifts, unlike in the past when guests brought gifts they had chosen. There is an increasing emphasis on displaying food and gifts at the Seemantham, which was not the case in the past.
The reinvention of the Seemantham tradition is associated with the rising trend of conspicuous consumption that has occurred along with growing privatization and economic liberalization in Tamil Nadu and throughout southern Asia. According to Van Hollen (2003:78), Seemantham has come to represent a “convergence of the desires for new consumer technologies and for the display of wealth through ritual,” a trend that parallels the intensification of dowry practices throughout India. She discusses how these changes create a double burden for the families of first-time mothers: “The growing economic burden of Seemantham (and other ritual gifts associated with the reproductive continuum) was compounded by the fact that the pregnant woman’s family in Tamil Nadu was also largely responsible for the medical expenses associated with childbirth. This was particularly true of the first delivery, since the pregnant woman almost always returned home for that delivery but not necessarily for consecutive deliveries” (p. 111).
The Seemantham ceremony is usually conducted by the father's parents.
In the AP state, Seemantham is a celebration performed for the pregnant lady on an auspicious day, mainly in either the fifth, seventh or ninth month. Long ago, Seemantham was performed twice: once by the pregnant lady's in-laws and the other time by her parents. These days, it’s all combined into a single elaborate celebration performed by the parents and the gifts are brought over by the in-laws (during her first pregnancy only). The gifts include a saree with two blouse pieces, baskets full of between five and nine kinds of sweet and savory food items and fruits for the pregnant woman, towels or clothes for the man, and clothes for the in-laws. The savory items include sakinalu and madugulu; sweet items include arasalu, garjalu and laddulu.Fruits include apples, oranges, pomegranates, mosambi, and others, but no bananas. The elaborate lunch or dinner is served by the in-laws.
The pregnant lady and the man are made to sit in chairs facing east. She is anointed with kumkum (vermillion) and gandham (sandal), paspu (turmeric) is offered for mangalyam, and paspu is applied to her feet by her mother. Then she is given a saree and blouse and a string of mallepuvu (jasmine flowers), all placed in her saree kongu/wollu. The man is anointed with kumkum and given clothes by the lady's father. Then the in-laws are seated adjacently and also marked with kumkum and given clothes by the lady's parents.
The pregnant lady takes all these gifts, adorns herself, and goes to the Deity and offers a prayer. Meanwhile, all ladies present are offered kumkum and paspu. The pregnant lady and the man come back and sit in the chairs. The lady's mother applies kumkum, gandham, and offers paspu for mangalyam. Then she places two green glass bangles on each hand. The mother places four kinds of fruits, and five savory and sweet foods (for a total of nine items) in her wollu/kongu. Then she blesses her with akshanthalu for safe delivery. The mother then places five varieties of sweet and savory food items in the man's wollu. Then he gets up. Now a little girl, adabidda, is made to sit beside the pregnant lady in the chair. Four older ladies perform the same ritual - they offer just one fruit and four savory and sweet items, totaling five items, to the pregnant lady.
The pregnant lady is then given mangala aarthi by these five older ladies and traditional songs are sung. She is assisted in getting up carefully with all the goodies in her wollu intact and taken to the Deity's place where she offers a prayer and places all the goodies (leaving five foods in the wollu) in a tray (these are consumed by the pregnant lady, man and children). Then the lady is fed with sweets and pulihora rice. She returns with her wollu and takes blessings from her in-laws, husband, sister-in-law and parents by touching their feet, with assistance. Then she places the rest of the food items in her wollu with the rest of the goodies near the Deity.
The in-laws will offer the lady guests kumkum, paspu, flowers and thamboolam, goodie bags which consist of betel leaves, betel nut, sweets and a coin (optional).