“If we stand tall it is because we stand on the shoulders of many ancestors”
A Yaruba Proverb
Today is Karkidda Vavi or the new moon in lunar month of cancer – a day when in Kerala the Hindu community will remember the ancestors through an elaborate ritual in the early hours of dawn, and through the day. The ritual is performed at temples or areas close to a water source. Women and men both make the offering. Every “Hindu” community in Kerala has a space in and around their home for the ancestors where a lamp is lit, offerings are made.
My first visitation with ancestors in an aware, conscious way happened almost a decade away. Prior to that it was more in the dreams which was also, quite vivid. and it helped me reach closure on many things. So here is a short story from my memory as to how I received guidance in my life from my ancestors.
In the old Marumakkathayam (matrilineal, matrilocal & matrifocal) system of Nairs of Kerala, the lineage was not just carried forward through the daughters, but the prosperity of the lineage was directly connected to the happiness, well-being, and good health of the daughters of the lineage. Within this system, the land and everything from it belonged to the daughters, and the brothers were the caretakers. This provided women and children with a lot of support and backup. Marriages as we know today did not exist. Women and men continued to stay in their respective homes following a marital relationship because they had responsibilities in their mothers house. The most important male relationship for a woman was that of her maternal uncle, brother, and sons (hers and those of her sister), and the most important female relationship for man was his mother, his sisters, and his maternal nieces. Paternity as we know today did not exist within the marumakkathayam system. All the children born to the women belonged to her matriliny. The father of the children had no obligation to care for them. The maternal uncle fulfilled the role of the male figure in the lives of the children. The ancestors were revered and remembered in the form of maternal uncles, grandmothers and often consulted through divination when the balance of the system was affected or especially when the daughters were unhappy.
In 2008, most of the daughters and granddaughters in my matriliny were going through some challenges in their life especially around relationship. So in an effort to seek solution, my maternal aunt consulted a local shaman with divination. It came out in the divination that the maternal ancestor was not being honored or remembered. That took my aunt into further investigation mode to figure out which ancestor was not being honored as we had no idea what the shaman was speaking about. I think it was one of the best things she did because life after that has dramatically shifted for all the daughters in the family.
This investigation brought to light that seven generations in the past my maternal grandmother was adopted from another taravad into the one she was presently in. Taravad refers to elaborate living spaces of the matrilineal nairs where all the maternal kin from the same female ancestor lived together. In old days it was quite natural that if a taravad or family didn’t have a daughter, they would bring home a daughter from one of their maternal relatives home and she would become the daughter of the one she was adopted into. At the same time, she was expected to stay connected with the taravad from where she was adopted so as to do her ancestral rituals. Although my grandmother knew about this situation and continued to secretly offer her prayers following marriage, she never mentioned it to any of her children. That was because of changing situations in the society as it was then.
My maternal grandmother got married at a time when Marumakkathayam (or the matrilineal system existent in Kerala) was disintegrating or collapsing under the new laws which required marriage to be legalized, husbandry established, men legally required to care for their wives and establishment of paternity through fatherhood had become mandatory. This entire situation brought such deep pain in maternal relationships who got entangled in lawsuits, property division, intense shame and disconnectedness. So it was during these times that my grandmother got married to my grandfather who was almost twenty years older. It was his second marriage. The reason my grandmother’s maternal uncle decided to go with this alliance was because my grandfather was the karnavar (maternal uncle and matriarch) of a prosperous and wealthy taravad. What he did not know was that my grandfather was matrilineal man who considered his responsibilities as a maternal uncle to be more important over those of a father or husband. In fact, I feel that having a wife and children must have been something really new to his reality with no existent role models.
In those days, daughters never left their matriliny but my grandmother had to move into my grandfather’s taravad because my grandfather had 5 children from his first marriage, and she couldn’t care for them from her matriliny because these children were part of a different matriliny. That must have been a really challenging time for Nairs and other matrilineal communities in Kerala. As a matrilineal man, my grandfather gave away all the maternal land and wealth to his sisters and brothers without taking anything for himself. So even though he was from a rich matriliny, his children did not experience any of that richness because they were raised on his retired pension. When I think back, I feel that my maternal grandfather did not know how to be a husband and father. His children never received his love and generosity like his nieces and nephews who to this day see him as god while his own children feared him and were also traumatized by him. On top of that, my grandmother’s matriliny was caught in the middle of property lawsuits causing maternal kins to disconnect from each other, and this was also a cause of discord between my grandparents. Being English-educated my grandfather was also, opposed to rituals and saw it as blind belief and superstition. So all these reasons affected my grandmothers and her children’s connection to her matriliny. However, she secretly sent offerings through her sister to the ancestral shrine without anybody in the family knowing.
So when my maternal aunt unearthed this ancestral taravad and the ancestral shamanic (Theyyam) ritual that happened in that taravad every year in the month of march, it was news for everyone in the family. Can you imagine this: the ancestral ritual was visited by maternal kin from across seven generations coming in from different parts of the world and my grandmother’s family was like the only one who were neither there nor did they know about it. In this ancestral ritual of Theyyam, one of our maternal uncles from 250 years in the past made an appearance in the body of the shaman, met all his kins from seven generations across, gave them counsel, addressed any issues and so on.
Without any of her family knowing, my grandmother used to send oil regularly for the shrine. Since her passing in 2000, that was not being done. Finally with this new revelation, the oil sending practice got restored. Following that, so many things dramatically shifted in the lives of the daughters of the matriliny bringing more happiness into their lives. My own life catapulted in a way that I would never have imagined to happen to me because it brought me to the doorstep of my own purpose. A series of events led me to choose M.A in women-centered spirituality at Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto. It was like floodgates to my ancestral realm opened up. In the first year itself, it became evident to me that I had to visit the ancestral shrine. I flew to Kerala but when the day of my visit came, I began to menstruate. I was sad because I knew that I could not go to the taravad when I was menstruating. So here I was with my mother, sister, maternal aunt and her husband right on the land of the taravad, could see it ahead of me in a distance but had to sit in the car while the others made their way into the taravad. My heart was heavy. I was bleeding profusely, had severe cramps and deep exhaustion in the body. As I sat back in the rear seat of the car, I decided to meditate for 20 minutes. All I remember is closing my eyes, and then there was a tap on the window. I opened my eyes to see my sister asking me if I wanted some tea as they were about to leave. I blurted out in surprise as to why they were leaving so fast! My sister looked at me confused and said, “What do you mean ‘leaving fast.’ We have been here for over 2 hours.” In that moment there was a deep presence, stillness and serenity that enveloped me. I realized that I had forgotten that I was menstruating – my pain had completely gone and there was this sweet relaxedness and pleasure in my entire body like I was in heaven and back. I knew in that moment that I had the most profound meeting with my ancestors and they had blessed my journey.
Another instance was when I setup my first ancestor altar on October 31st, 2011 on the occasion of ‘Day of the Dead’ as part of my Divination class. I had pictures of my paternal and maternal grandparents, and my recently acquired image of my great maternal grandfather. I knew what my immediate grandparents liked as I grew up knowing them. However, I had no clue what to offer my great maternal grandfather. I had no knowledge about him except for the fact that he was a well-known vaidya (physician of natural medicine) in his time. In fact, my cousin who was doing her Ayurveda was told to place the picture of any Ayurvedic ancestor on her altar to expand her blessings and knowing in the field, and that is how we all came into possession of this picture. My mother also, couldn’t recollect anything in her memory of her grandfather that would help me in making an offering. So as I learned from the class, I surrendered my request to my ancestor and asked him to guide me in what I can offer him on the altar. So as I was setting up the altar, there was this voice in my head which said, “Rekha, you have dates. Why dont you offer that?” I was not sure but offered it nevertheless because I know to trust my instincts. In my usual late night conversation over the phone that evening with my mother in India, I sharad casually all that I offered and when I mentioned “dates”, my mother almost exclaimed and said that her grandfather had on more than one occasion brought dates for her when he came to visit and she had completely forgotten about it. She was so amazed that I was guided to make that offering. I felt so seen, acknowledged and held.
My entire masters thesis at that point was slowly beginning to unravel and I knew it had to do with grandmothers but had no clarity on it. I woke up the next day following my first ancestral altar and offering – with the topic of my research written in my mind like I could read it clearly – “Rising Daughter, Silent Mother, Fading Grandmothers”. I knew it was another gift from another dimension, and I was filled with deep gratitude.
In 2012 I attended the Ancestral ritual with my mother, sister, maternal uncle and aunts for the first time. In fact, it was a first time for everyone and it was in that theyyam ritual that I found the first grandmother to interview for my research. She was the wife of the oldest karnavar in the family. I also, met my 250 year old maternal uncle in the body of the shaman that night. It was an experience beyond time and space! Well, More about that in another blog entry!
Remember your ancestors! Offer your deepest gratitude to them.
We have received much from them. They can guide us in becoming more aware of our deepest blocks, acquired patterns, impressions, our strengths and weaknesses so we can work on it and become free of it. As we deepen and expand, our ancestors benefit too. They receive the merits of our meditation, growth and spiritual expanded-ness!
There is so much that we do not know, and just because we donot know doesnt mean it ceases to be!