Flashback 24 years ago: My mother-in-law was not too happy when my baby grabbed a lump of soil from the plate in front of him. She had hoped that he would instead reach out for a big, colorful book that she had placed among many other items. Rather than him bonding with the land, she nurtured the dream of him being an erudite scholar! For reference, it was my son’s Annaprasana. Of the many birth rituals followed in India, this is a ceremony I have always seen being celebrated in a grand way in my home state of Assam.
Understanding the tradition calls for an etymological reference. ‘Annaprasana” is a Sanskrit word, where “anna’ means boiled rice, and “prasana” means feeding. So it is a ceremony when a baby is inducted to solid foods like rice for the first time. An auspicious date is selected for the event, and although the infant obviously is too tiny to enjoy the delicacies, friends and relatives are treated to a sumptuous feast. Annaprasana is usually carried out when the child is six to eight months old with an odd month being picked for a girl, and even for a boy.
Going back to the story where my little boy picked the brown dirt, the act was related to an interesting game that is played during an Annaprasana ceremony. Several objects are kept before the child, and it is believed that whichever item the baby first picks is an indication of his or her future career.
It is up to the family members what items they place. But among the things that are commonly kept are a pen which symbolizes wisdom, a book which stands for knowledge, soil which represents property, and gold which signifies wealth. This is a game that everyone enjoys watching. So in recent times with technology progressing at such a rapid pace, people in order to accelerate the fun, have started adding even stuff like cell phones to see if the child is attracted to those gadgets!
There is obviously no sound logic behind this game. No way can it predict one’s profession in the future. It simply provides a few entertaining moments. Now, what is interesting is the fact that I happened to discover that quite a few nations do something similar although it is done on the child’s first birthday!
The Birthday Grab Across the World
Prevalent since dynastic times, Zhuazhou is a first birthday coming of age ritual in China that foretells the future. In an interesting article titled “Chinese First Birthday Marks Cultural Rite of Passage”, Zhantao Yang makes a point that while some of the symbolic items are easy to understand, for others it mandates a proper understanding of the Chinese language and culture to comprehend the emblematic significance. For instance if a child grabs a stethoscope, it is visibly indicative of a medical career. If he or she picks a calculator it could mean a career in the sciences. However, to an outsider who is not knowledgeable about the Chinese ethos, it will not be easy to guess that if a child picks a celery it will hint at his hardworking nature, or if he reaches out for green onions it will speak about his intelligence.
The Korean fortune telling custom is known as Doljabi . Parents place before the child objects that most households use in their daily lives. A child is believed to be smart if he or she picks a calligraphy brush or book, and deemed to be wealthy if it is money. They are supposed to have a long life, if a thread is picked, and grabbing food means they will never be hungry. Over time, there has been a change in the items placed because society has become aware of many successful occupations that have evolved.
The Japanese take a peek into their child’s future with the first birthday tradition of Erabitori with the baby being allowed to pick an item he or she fancies. Money means wealth and business, picking a pen might symbolize a future writer, grabbing a chopstick could mean the child is destined to be a chef or a foodie!
Tracking down a similar tradition beyond Asia
We are inclined to draw an inference that the fortune telling custom exists in many Asian countries owing to cultural similarities in their way of life. However, this ritual is not confined to Asia alone. I was intrigued to find Armenia, and the island country of Malta following a similar tradition. I will not be surprised if there are others too that play this game!
Agra Hadig is a teething party that the Armenians celebrate. The child is made to sit on the floor and objects symbolic of different fields are arranged for the grab. There is no specific list and to name a few there could be a globe to symbolize a traveler, a wooden spoon to refer to a chef or baker, and a paintbrush to represent an artist.
The Maltese tradition of Il-Quccija dates back to the eighteenth century and is still an integral part of the first birthday celebration. In the past, items placed before a child were gender specific. If it was a girl, the list entailed things like a pair of scissors, which if picked indicated that she would be a future seamstress. The choice of a ribbon meant the girl would be a beauty. And if she picked an egg, it was believed she would have a big and prosperous home. The items that were kept in front of a boy stood for totally different professions. An inkstand can be identified with the vocation of a lawyer or a magistrate, a stethoscope represented a doctor, and a geometry instrument if picked meant that the boy would be a future architect or engineer. In present times however this differentiation is not made and the same items are placed before the girl and boy child.
Looking for a reason to explain the commonality in traditions across the world.
What could be the reason that the fortune telling tradition is followed by so many different nations? This can be explained by falling upon the concept of cultural universal. Anthropologist George Murdock while researching systems of kinship around the world arrived at a finding that cultural universals existed among mankind. There are patterns or traits that are globally common to all societies. Cultural universals revolve around the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter and also involve human experiences like birth and death or illness and healing. Murdock recognized the importance of humor too as a universal medium to ease tension and create camaraderie among people.
To quote Donald Brown from his book (Human Universals, 1991), human universals comprise “those features of culture, society, language, behavior, and psyche for which there are no known exceptions”. And this tradition of trying to predict a child’s future could be listed under belief which qualifies as a cultural universal.
All parents wish for their children to do well in life. This is a universal trait. It is this investment and interest in the child’s future that makes parents so inquisitive and indulge in a funny game during Annaprasana in India and in other culture parallels across the world.
(This article was featured in India Currents )