This information might be useful for most Brahmin families who live outside of India.
Sumangali Prarthanai or Pondugal: A South Indian Ritual To Honor Ancestral Elder Women
Sumangali Prarthana is a ritual seeking the blessings of women of the family who are no more; something akin to the nandi sradham, only there are no vedic rituals or mantras in this ritual.
It is purely a ladies’ function. In most families this function is performed during important events like marriage, upanayanam etc, while in some families it is performed every year.
It is believed that performing this puja will satisfy the unfulfilled yearnings of all the girls and ladies who have passed away at young age and they would in turn bless the family. It is common practice to conduct the Sumangali Prarthana before the marriage if the daughter is getting married and after the new daughter-in-law comes home if the son is getting married. This function is not performed on Tuesdays or Saturdays.
Usually, 7 ladies and 2 young girls (preferably below the age of 10) are invited to participate in the function, partake the feast and receive thamboolam. There is no objection for near relatives of the hostess to participate. Now a days many people do with 7 (6+1) or (5+2) ladies as it has become difficult to get together the 9 ladies to sit for the function.
Different families follow different customs. The ladies who sit for the puja represent all the women of the family who are no more alive. Since there is no explicit avahanam through manthrams of any pithrus, ladies generally accept the invitation.
This function is very akin to the nandisradham performed prior to the upanayanam in many respects. While nandisradham is presided over and conducted by the purohitha of the family and the kartha is a gent; this function is presided over by the elderly lady members of the family.
Usually the kartha is a sumangali from the family. The gifts to the ladies vary among families and also depend on the financial status of the kartha, very similar to the nandi sradham. The menu for the feast is also very similar.
Though no vedic rituals are performed, Sumangali Prarthana is considered to be a very important and sacred function and all the preparations are done with a great deal of Shradha and Bhakthi. This is one function where the gents of the family are excluded from the rituals. They are asked to enter the hall only after initial puja is offered to do namaskarams and seek the blessings. Otherwise, they can stick around to offer any help around or in the kitchen and then await call for lunch, when the ladies have been fed and seen off.
The consent and convenience of all the prospective participants would have been obtained in advance and there would always be a few standbys for any unexpected dropouts. In the olden days, the preparations for the function had to start the previous evening. Armed with a bucket of oil and packets of turmeric powder, kumkum, flowers, betel leaves and nuts, and shikakai powder, we would go to all the invitees’ houses and invite them giving a measure of oil and the other things we carried. The items were for the lady’s bath and adornment the next day.
I am not sure if the custom is being followed anywhere today. Perhaps, these days one would have to carry, shampoo sachets, moisturizing cream, lipstick and the like. We did not have that invitation round this time at our home as most of the participants were from the family and immediate family.
All the participants are supposed to take an oil bath in the morning and come dressed in 9 yards saree only. There is no match to the beauty of the ladies all dressed in nine yards sarees and with no make up other than turmeric powder in their face and flowers in their hair, fresh from an oilbath.
In memory of those souls who are no more with us, a new 9 yards saree and pavadai as offering (these two would be used by some members of the family after the puja) are kept in wooden trays, along with oil, betel leaves, flowers, turmeric, kumkum and neem leaves early in the morning and the blessings are sought. This has to be done by a member of the family before taking bath! In all our rituals, I have not some across another ritual which is done before taking bath.
As I was staying at a neighboring house (not enough space for all invitees at home), my mother sent word for me at 5.30am. I sent back the messenger as I was yet to bathe.
My mother sent the messenger back saying, “I want her to come here before taking bath”. It has been a long time since I myself conducted this ritual. When my astute and blessed mother-in-law was alive, she used to take care of these little things and I used to be busy in the kitchen.
My mother made me offer the saree and pavadai with oil and other items to the elders (who are in heaven) and asked me to pray for their blessings for the family. This done, the saree had to be washed and dried before the actual function.
In some families new dresses for all the girls and ladies of the family are bought and kept at the puja and later on used by the family members. Anyway, not all the dresses are washed prior to the function.
Though the cooking for this function is usually done by the women in the family, the hired cook prepared the feast as all of us were quite tired after the poonool. An elaborate lunch (again samaradhanai vattam) was prepared including
The menu also included three types of fruits, mango, jackfruit and banana. Vadai and Neiyappam were also prepared. It is a practice at home to make polis which was discontinued this time as no one was in a mood to have more sweets.
When all the invited ladies arrive, they are received with kumkum, haldi, flowers and pachai (rouge!). This pachai is a paste made of kumkum and water and is applied on both sides of the cheek outside the earlobes.
They are then taken to the function hall where a place has been marked for each one with two places for the deceased seniors at the head of the hall. The saree and pavadai meant for the deceased seniors are kept in the palakai along with some gold chain and flowers and betel leaves, neemleaves, turmeric and kumkum.
Banana leaves are laid out for serving food at the place where the saree and pavadai are kept (this place is called pudavai kalam – meaning where pudavai or saree is kept) meant for the departed souls and also for all the invited participants, after having invoked the departed seniors. After all the items are served on the leaves, puja is done offering flowers, turmeric powder, kumkum betel leaves, neem leaves and water to the departed souls and all the invitees, by the eldest lady of the family .The other members of the family including male members offer puja and namaskarms at the pudavai kalam site only. Doopam and Deepam are offered at the place where elders are invoked, i.e., at the pudavai kalam and also to all the participating ladies by the eldest lady of the family.
This is one of the functions where ladies are served first. After lunch, the ladies are given a special mixture called Chukkumanam (mixture of dried ginger and jaggery) as a digestive aid after the heavy meal. They are also given paanakam to drink. They are offered thamboolam, dakshina and mehendi.
These days, people give more expensive gifts like sarees, bangles, and the like to the invited ladies. After the invited ladies are seen off, the other members of the family have their lunch. The food served at pudavai kalam ( the two places earmarked for the departed ) is partaken of by two ladies of the family.
After lunch the saree and pavadai are given to some family members who have to wear them and replace them at the same place. In the night a pot of water is also kept near the pudavai kalam to quench the thirst of the heavenly visitors.
In the olden days (during the time of my grandmother), the saree kept at the pudavai kalam was kept inside a trunk after the function and worn only after the next Sumangali Prarthana. The saree inside the box, kept after the previous Sumangali Prarthana was taken out on this occasion and worn by a member of the family.