In traditional Moor society, childbirth very often took place at the parental home of the expectant woman where she was attended by a midwife. It was the practice in the rural areas until fairly recent times for the expectant mother to have her confinement in her parental home in which she usually dwelled with her husband. In case she lived separately with her husband or with his parents, it was the custom for her to resort to her parents’ house for the confinement. This usually took place around or after the eighth month of pregnancy.

Role of Midwife

In those days, it was the traditional midwife known as maruttavici (Lit.medicine-woman) who delivered the child. We were informed that such midwives attended to childbirths in the eastern districts such as Amparai and Batticaloa until about the 1970s. There was at least one midwife to be found in each village and she would visit the house of the newly delivered woman for seven days after which she would bathe both mother and child. The midwife, shortly after delivering the child, would hand over the infant to its father or sometimes its paternal grandfather or grandmother, after which it was shown to the parents of the mother.

The role of the traditional midwife has died out today since the practice nowadays is for the women concerned to have their confinement in government or private hospitals and nursing homes. That it was the midwife who attended to childbirth is also borne out by some early accounts. For instance, Simon Casie Chitty   writing of the birth customs of the Moors of his time in The Ceylon Gazetteer (1834 states that when the umbilical cord is cut, the midwife washes the child pronouncing the Islamic creed attesting to the oneness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad, and that the relations at this time throw into a basin, pieces of money, which are the perquisite of the midwife.

 A.T. Shamsedeen in his article ‘Ceremonies relating to childbirth observed by the Moors of Ceylon’ published in The Orientalist of 1888 likewise notes that it was customary among the Moors to have the first accouchement in the house of the woman’s parents and that it was the midwife who delivered the child. “When the time of delivery approaches”, he says “all the female relatives and connections of the family are invited; the woman is then brought to bed by the assistance of a midwife who is paid a sum of money varying from 5 to 20 rupees, besides being supplied with clothes and other presents”.

He notes that the moment a woman is delivered “she is made to swallow a nauseous drug, with the view of facilitating the expulsion of the placenta”. He adds that as soon as this is accomplished a preparation of certain drugs to act as a preventive against cold, and other puerperal diseases is administered to her. A cloth is then tied over her head, a tight bandage round her waist. She is then laid on a bed, with curtains. Underneath are placed an iron weapon, and a broom which remain there for forty days. A branch of a lime tree is placed over the entrance to the apartment where the woman is confined, all these precautions being taken to ward off the influence of evil spirits and apparitions.

We find from Shamsedeen’s description that the Moors of an earlier period were highly superstitious when it came to the birth of a child. The placing of iron weapons and brooms underneath the beds of newly delivered women and lime tree branches over the entrances of apartments where such women are confined clearly bear this out. Such practices no longer exist.

We also learn that in the Eastern districts it was formerly the custom for the birth to take place in the female section of the house which was sometimes known as ala-veedu. This room is said to have been provided with a provision for a rope or coir cord to be attached to the roof for the delivering woman to hold on to during parturition, a practice believed to facilitate childbirth.

Welcoming the Newborn with words, dates and honey

It was then as now customary to pronounce the azan (The Muslim call to prayer) in the right ear and the iqamat (Summons to prayer) in the left ear of the newborn by the father or a Maulavi (Religious teacher)

 that after the father has received the child from the midwife, he recites ‘Azan’ with his mouth as near the child’s right ear as possible, into which he blows gently at the conclusion, and the ‘Ikamet’ after which he blows likewise into the left ear of the child.

The tahnik, a ritual involving the rubbing of a softened date upon the palate of the infant’s mouth on the day of its birth has been the custom in local Muslim society for ages, though in the Eastern districts it may happen

E.B.Denham in Ceylon at the Census of 1911 (1912) records the birth customs of the Moors of Ceylon as it prevailed in his day, and he says that the newborn is given bees’ honey rather than dates, though we were also informed that there were occasions in the olden days when the newborn, after being given bees honey would also have ground vasambu (Acorus Calamus) paste rubbed on its tongue or palate.

Shamsedeen observed in 1888 that it is customary, especially among the religious sections, for a man of piety and erudition to dip his finger in honey, or chew a little of the date-fruit and insert a small quantity of is, thus masticated, into the infant’s mouth, before he is put to the breast “in order that the wisdom and learning of the sage may be imparted to him”.

It was the custom among the Moors of the Eastern Province for the sex of the newborn to be intimated to friends and relatives by the father of the child by distributing rock candy or sugar lumps (kalkandu) in the case of a male or jaggery (sakkarai) in the case of a female, though it is not uncommon nowadays for jaggery to be replaced with chocolate or toffees. In the South, it was formerly a fairly common practice to break a lump of kitul jaggery over the chest of the infant and distribute the pieces among relatives. This usually took place when the infant was three days old and was usually undertaken by a maternal uncle in the belief that it would contribute to stimulating affection in the infant.

Warding away the Evil Eye

It was also a common practice until fairly recent times to ward away the evil eye from the newborn infant by means of a ritual known as kannur kalikka. The ritual involved a variety of items such as a lime, three dry chillies, a few mustard seeds, a little salt and some grass and soil being wrapped in a piece of paper and circled over the child’s head and taken over the sides of the body while reciting a stanza beginning with the words ‘Vappa kannur’, 'Umma kannur’ followed by the recital of Qur’anic verses.

The purpose of these verses was evidently to ward away the evil eye of the parents of the child (too much doting and praise for a child can be a cause for evil eye to take effect which is why Muslims are required to say Masha Allah) as well as others who may happen to set eyes on him or her. This being done, the contents were burnt on a fire formed from three coconut shells. This ritual is hardly if ever performed nowadays. It is still a common practice to burn a yellowish form of incense known as gundarikkam and to hold the infant over the smoke. The practice however does not appear to have any spiritual significance and is probably meant to disinfect the infant’s tender skin.

Lesser known practices

We find that in the olden days, the mother undergoing various rites and being subject to various restrictions. Shamsedeen in 1888 tells us that on the third day after the birth, the woman was bathed with a decoction of aromatic herbs and that this was repeated on the 7th, 15th and other days.

She was also placed under a strict regime as to diet, being made to abstain altogether from the use of cold water or any cooling beverage. For three successive days, he says, the mother is fed with light food while the infant is nourished chiefly with sugar and castor-oil. On the fourth day, the mother resumes her usual diet of such animal and vegetable food as best agrees with her constitution. He also notes that in the houses of the rich, and of those in easy circumstances, the mother, after delivery, is not allowed to leave her chamber for forty days except for the purpose of bathing. He however notes that poor women seldom remain so long in it, but after a day or two resume such ordinary occupations as do not require great exertion.

Only a few of these practices mentioned by Shamsedeen survive today, though in a somewhat different form. Take for instance the bathing of the newly delivered woman with a decoction of herbs. It is still the custom in conservative families for the woman to be rubbed from the waist downwards with a veḍu or filtrating cloth containing a mess of herbs all boiled together and including murunga maratol (bark of the Moringa Oleifera), desikka ela (lime leaves), paccha manjal (raw turmeric), pavatta (Pavetta indica), adatoda (Adhatoda Vasica) and nocchi ela (Vitex Nigundo or V.Trifolia) after which she is bathed. This usually takes place on the 7th, 9th, 15th or 40th day after the birth of the child. The practice known as ottai or vedu otti kulikkira is usually performed by the mother of the woman.

In conservative rural areas such as Mannar, it is still the practice for the newly delivered woman to remain in the house for forty days, after which she comes out and bathes in water in which margosa leaves (veppilai) have been boiled.
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