Author Archives: Alex Tomkow

“Atithi Devo Bhava” – Indian Custom

Informant’s Background:

My informant, SV, is a recent graduate with a Master’s from the University of Southern California. He is 25, was born in Hyderabad, Telangana, India, and moved to the United States to attend a graduate program at USC. Post-graduation he remains in Los Angeles hunting for a job.

Context:

My informant is my roommate and a close friend of mine. I asked him if he could share some Indian traditions, customs, or folklore with me.

Performance:

SV: “Ok so… there’s this thing in India which is… predominantly for the Hindu culture, which is in one of the ancient Hindi texts called “Atithi Devo Bhava” which roughly translates to “guest is equal to God”. So the… in India the guest is considered holy and usually when they’re entering your house, when you invite a guest over there’s a kind of ritual kind of thing which is similar to like when your in-uhh… like you’re… when your inviting a God into your house there’s certain like religious things that they do. Like there’s something called an “Arti”, and then they usually like, uhh.. like light a lamp and then they sort of do a prayer and then they invite the guests over and then the guests usually are treated very respectfully and they’re given like as much comfort as possible, and like the host will adjust as much as they can. So that’s one of the common… I guess like, ideas or traditions that Indians have, mostly the Hindus, but I think that sort of permeated once India tried to make it like a tourism slogan so it sort of permeated through all religions so… in general that’s the common thing, so… but I guess more modern it gets and more people err-like become… less religious some of the things like they have the prayer when they’re entering and stuff gets turned down or completely removed but it’s still like a thing where you treat your guests well.”

Informant’s Thoughts:

SV: “Overall, I think its a positive thing, uhm… Like mostly it’s like treating people well, which is always good, because India has a lot of issues about like the caste system and there are other issues so at least this is one of the things that like helps reduce some of this inequality and like helps people treat others well.”

Translation:

  • Original Script: अतिथि देवो भव
  • Transliteration: “Atithi Devo Bhava” or “Atithidevo Bhava”
  • Translation: “The guest is equivalent to God.”

Thoughts:

I thought it was very interesting how what primarily started as a religious custom and practice has been so widely and readily adopted by India’s tourism industry. A quick search for the phrase brought up dozens of restaurants, vacation destinations, and the like that all state “Atithi Devo Bhava” as being their mission statement in order to please their customers. The adoption and outward marketing of what was initially an intimate and kind religious tradition, and it’s transformation into a promise of service to outsiders in order to make India appeal more to foreigners seems bleak, but not unexpected for the tourism industry.

Menstrual Taboos In Modern-Day India

Informant’s Background:

My informant, SV, is a recent graduate with a Master’s from the University of Southern California. He is 25, was born in Hyderabad, Telangana, India, and moved to the United States to attend a graduate program at USC. Post-graduation he remains in Los Angeles hunting for a job.

Context:

My informant is my roommate and a close friend of mine. I asked him if he could share some Indian traditions, customs, or folklore with me.

Performance:

SV: “So… One of the kind of, er, traditions in India… are like women are considered impure when they’re doing their periods. So they’re not allowed to a lot of places, or they’re not, for example, like temples or a lot of holy places, or they’re not allowed in the kitchen and to cook food. So this is a tradition that is probably more prevalent in more rural areas which isn’t as prevalent in other areas where people are progressive and aren’t as strict with these rules but this, uhm, used to be a thing maybe in older generations where women would have their, like I guess rights limited when they’re on their periods and they have limited things that they can do and they’re sort of oppressed in some sense. Another thing through this is also the fact that sort of like talking about it is considered taboo. Like I guess when I was younger I didn’t realize it but then later when I got older I understood that like, because my mom’s on her period, that’s why she’s missing temple. Because when I was younger I would just think that she was busy or she was tired. And it didn’t make sense to me when I did understand it, because I thought it, to me, was just a normal bodily function, so uhm… I didn’t quite understand it but trying to talk to her about it wasn’t something she was comfortable with. Same at school, it’s considered very taboo to sort of like, openly talk about it, so for example sometimes at school a girl might be on her period, and she forgot her pad, so like she’d borrow it from a friend, and it’s sort of like they’re passing drugs or something it’s like… it’s so secretive. They’d cover it up with newspaper or with a plastic bag because it’s something that for some reason is considered embarrassing.”

Informant’s Thoughts:

SV: “It’s a normal human function, right? So I guess I still find it odd they treat it this way, but I guess that’s just how it is.”

Thoughts:

Menstrual taboos are fairly universal, seen in a wide range of cultures throughout the ages and even up to this day. In this case, the informant notes that menstruating women are seen as impure, hence they are not allowed to cook food or be in the kitchen, as they are most likely considered to be contaminating the food by being in it’s presence or by handling it. Superstition often plays a role in the establishment taboos, in this case, the actual possibility of the women contaminating the food is negligible, yet the taboo lives on due to the superstition that the menstrual blood will somehow manage to contaminate the food and the kitchen, as well as the temple, in the case of this taboo.

Bread In Armenia

Informant’s Background:

My informant, AD, is an undergraduate student at USC who grew up in Glendale, California. Her family immigrated to the United States from the capital of Armenia, Yerevan, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Context:

The informant is my girlfriend and we share an apartment together. I asked her if she could share some Armenian folklore with me, and this is one of the pieces that she provided.

Performance:

AD: “This one time, I didn’t know this, but this one time, I like grabbed some lavash and I threw it into the trash, like really hard after dinner because it was like moldy and old. And I was like being stupid, and joking around with it, so I was like “PHEW!” and it landed in the trash and my mom gasped and my sisters gasped at me, and I felt… weird, and I felt like everyone was looking at me and that was because the bread… I was not supposed to do that with bread. Since it is very sacred in Armenian homes, especially lavash, uhm, you are supposed to treat them with respect because if you do not it is… a sign of like, disrespect, uhm, bad fortune, and like not caring about the things that are provided to you.”

M: “Is this bread specifically?”

AD: “Yes, bread specifically, like lavash bread, and like, like hats bread.”

M: “Why do you think it’s specifically bread?”

AD: “Because bread is so like common in Armenian tradition, and like most other cultural traditions, it is like the staple food that people eat when there is like no other food. It’s like, it is sacred in a way.”

M: “Ok, can you tell me about some of those kinds of breads you mentioned?”

AD: “Uhm, lavash bread is like the Armenian national bread, it is like a flat bread, that like, it is made by elder women in villages, in like a big pit that they have. Usually outside, in like a yard or a small hut or something, where they press the bread flat against the wall, and then cook it and eat it that way. And then there’s like hats, which is just regular bread. But there’s like specific kinds of hats, like matnakash, which is like bread where the dough has been, had a finger pulled through it, like a finger pulls through the dough, like a cooks finger, and it makes perforations in the bread. Yeah, that’s how you make it.”

Thoughts:

I think it is interesting and actually very important that it is bread specifically that is held to this sacred standard in Armenia. Sure, other foods may be more difficult to produce or cost more, but by holding the most basic and one of the most easily accessible food items to such esteem, it ensures that a family is thankful for even the smallest of things when it comes to putting food on the table and it seems to be to be a very good-natured and humbling tradition in this way.

The Valge Laev (The White Ship) Of Estonia

Informant’s Background:

The informant, in this case, is my mother, M, who was a first generation immigrant born to an Estonian family in the North-East of Canada. Her family had escaped from occupied Estonia, and had settled in Canada before she was born. She moved with my father to Los Angeles, in the United States, to take a job as a university professor. My brother and I were born a few years after.

Context:

I mentioned collecting folklore to my mother, who I regularly call on the phone now that I have moved out of our house, and she told me that she wanted to help. I told her yes, and she emailed me the following.

Performance (Written Over Email):

M: “This myth dates back to 1860 when a peasant preacher declared himself a prophet and called on his followers to leave Estonia to resettle in the Crimea in southern Russia. He went on ahead and promised that a white ship – the “Valge Laev” — would come to take them to this Promised Land. Several hundred families gathered on the beach to wait for the white ship, but it never came. Most Estonians were serfs, living under extremely harsh conditions, basically slavery, until 1811. Even after serfdom was abolished, life for the peasants was very hard, and there were several unsuccessful revolts against the German nobility who still owned most of the land. The White Ship was a symbol of hope, of escape to freedom and a better life.”

Informant’s Thoughts (Written Over Email):

M: “My mother was a young girl in Estonia during World War II, surviving two occupations, the first by the Red Army in 1940, the second by Nazi Germany, from 1941 to 1944. In the late summer of 1944, as Germany was losing the war and German troops were leaving Estonia, the “Soome Poisid” (“Finnish boys” – Estonians who had volunteered to fight with the Finns during the Winter War with the Soviet Union) came back to Estonia, ready to make a last stand for Estonian independence. My mother’s brother Rein was one of them. The situation was hopeless; the Red Army was closing in. But Estonians remembered that the British had come to their aid during the War of Independence (1918-1920). And so the myth of the White Ship returned.”

Thoughts:

I think this myth makes total sense given Estonia’s troubled history. The frequent invasions and occupations by foreign forces throughout Estonian history have no doubt led to many myths and tales created with the intention of spreading hope of freedom for the Estonian people. The fact that this myth was able to survive and be retold a century later speaks to Estonia’s dependence on folklore as a means of maintaining its cultural identity, and to the need for hope and resilience during it’s many occupations.

Gendered Dining Customs In India

Informant’s Background:

My informant, SV, is a recent graduate with a Master’s from the University of Southern California. He is 25, was born in Hyderabad, Telangana, India, and moved to the United States to attend a graduate program at USC. Post-graduation he remains in Los Angeles hunting for a job.

Context:

My informant, SV, is my roommate and a close friend of mine. I asked him if he could share some Indian traditions, customs, or folklore with me.

Performance:

SV: “So… There’s an Indian tradition where during uh festival or if like, if you’re inviting guests over, like at a gathering the… women are expected to, uhm, when people are having to eat, the women are expected to be the ones to serve, and the men and children are expected to eat first. The women are not allowed to eat until the men and children finish eating. Only once the men and children finish eating, they usually eat, and sometimes they may not even eat at like, the table, they may just eat in like the kitchen. So… this is kind of like, mmm, sort of a general kind of important sort of hierarchy and level of importance that’s sort of present that even when you’re like visiting a house, or like you’re invited to a person’s place as a guest you’re sort of expected to greet people based on their age, that’s one of the criteria, like the older they are the more important they’re are as people and you’re to prioritize them. And also the men are more important than the women, so it’s like you greet the oldest man first and then go down to the youngest man, and then you go down to the women if you’re greeting someone.”

Informant’s Thoughts:

SV: “That’s uhm, kind of a very… I guess sexist way of thinking. Which… was quite prevalent like in older times, where I think more urban and more modern a setting this is less and less common. And for the younger generations, it’s getting close to being more and more equal for men and women, and there’s no kind of like, oh women have to serve and the men just have to chill and wait to get served. Like my grandad, cause he’s quite old, and he follows these traditions a little more like strictly, like even though me and my sis would both be in the room, he kind of rather expected like my sister to be the one to serve and I didn’t have to do anything, and I used to find that odd. I was like “what’s the difference?” Like they’re our guests, and we can both like, serve if we have to serve them. So that’s my kind of-my personal experience with that. “

Thoughts:

Separation of women and men is common in many cultures, especially historically, but the ways in which these gender groups are divided are changing as we move into the modern world. The rate at which these changes occur of course differs from culture to culture, in this case this is a tradition that would most likely be seen as near appalling by Western audiences, yet in India it is still being gradually phased out more recently, but was still by the sounds of it surprisingly common up until not that long ago. The health consequences should also be considered alongside the social ones in this case, as this tradition has to do with the consumption of food. Waiting until after the men are finished eating could easily lead to the women only ending up with scraps of the original dinner, leading to malnutrition, both in themselves and potentially in any babies that they might give birth to. So not only is this tradition without a doubt considered sexist by today’s standards, as SV noted in the interview, but it also could easily lead to negative health effects as well.