Preparations for the Upanayana
A śālā (canopy, pavilion) was built under which the saṃskāra would be conducted.
On the eve of the upanayana, Purāṇic performances took place. Gaṇeśa was invoked and the various goddesses Śrī, Lakṣmī, Dhṛtī, Medhā, Puṣṭi, Śraddhā, and Sarasvatī were worshipped. Often this is accompanied by the recitation of the udaka-śānti mantras.
In some provinces, there is a custom of smearing the vaṭu with a yellow paste, possibly made from turmeric. After this, he was to spend the night in absolute silence. This is perhaps a symbolism for the ‘second birth’ – the yellow paste recreated the embryonic atmosphere and the silence was akin to the speechless infant in the womb.
Mātṛbhojana – The Last Meal with his Mother
On the morning of the upanayana, the vaṭu ate with his mother for the last time. It was an important event since the brahmacārī would go away to the guru’s house for learning. It would be a long time before he ate a meal at home prepared by his mother.
This event marks the end of childhood with all its fun and carefree living. From this point onwards, the boy was to lead a life of discipline and study. This was an emotional moment for both the mother and the son.
In some cases, other brahmacārīs were invited for the meal to give company to the young boy.
Snāna – The Ritual Bath
Following the mātṛbhojana, the vaṭu’s parents took him to the śālā, where the agni (sacrificial fire) was raised in an enclosed altar made from bricks. Then the boy was shaved. In the earlier days, the ācārya himself would shave the boy but in later days, the family barber was given the task. After the shave, the vaṭu was bathed. Bathing is an essential part of every religious ceremony since it was seen as purification not just of the body but also of the mind.
The Dress Code for the Vaṭu
After his bath, the boy was given a kaupīna (loin-cloth), a form of underwear. He had to be conscious of social decorum and maintain his dignity – not merely of body but also of behaviour.
The boy then went to the ācārya and announces his intention to become a student. He says, “I’ve come here to be a student. I want to be a brahmacārī!” The ācārya accepts his request and offers him two garments—one for the lower part of the body (vāsas) and one to cover the upper part of the body (uttarīya)—while reciting the verse: “Just like Bṛhaspati put the garment of immortality on Indra, I put this garment on you – for the sake of long life, strength, and brilliance!”
The tradition prescribes that a person who is engaged in any religious ceremony should cover the upper part of his body. It was quite natural therefore that the young vaṭu was given an uttarīya; this ceremony was after all the starting point of his religious life.
The upper garment in ancient times was ajina (deer-skin). It was a symbol of sacred lustre and intellectual pre-eminence. Wearing the ajina was a constant reminder to the student to become a young man of good character emulating the ṛṣis of yore.
In the forest life of the ancient Indians, it was common to use deer-skin. During the course of time, as they began agriculture and weaving, it was replaced by cotton. Deer-skin was no longer required but its antiquity gave it sanctity.
A remnant of the hoary antiquity of using deer-skin survives to this day (in some communities) in the form of tying a small piece of ajina or kṛṣṇājina (skin of a black antelope) to the yajñopavīta (sacred thread) of the boy during the upanayana ceremony.
Mekhalā-bandhana – Tying the Girdle around the Waist
The ācārya ties a mekhalā (girdle, belt) around the boy’s waist while reciting the verse “I tie the belt; it will keep away evil words, it will purify everyone; clothing herself by the power of prāṇa (in-breath) and apāna (out-breath), with strength, this sisterly deity, the sacred mekhalā!” or with the verse “Come here, the well-dress young boy! May he—the one being born—become victorious! Seer-poets praise him, turning their minds to the deities” or he may do it silently.
The mekhalā was typically made from grass (often the muñja grass, which is why this ritual is popular as mauñjī-bandhana); depending on the varṇa of the boy, a particular kind of grass was prescribed. The practical use of the mekhalā was to hold the kaupīna in place but it also had a symbolism. Since it was made out of three cords, it symbolized that the student was encircled by the three Vedas.
To be continued…
Thanks to Pradeep Chakravarthy for getting me to write this essay. Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh and Dr. Koti Sreekrishna, who have always supported and encouraged me, were kind enough to go through the essay and give their detailed feedback. Shashi Kiran B N, a young scholar-poet went through the essay and offered valuable suggestions. Yet another scholar-poet, Arjun Bharadwaj, helped me with getting some of the reference books needed for this essay. My heartfelt gratitude to all of them.
Achari, Sri Rama Ramanuja. Saṁskāras: The Hindu Sacraments. Srimatham, 2015 <http://www.srimatham.com/uploads/5/5/4/9/5549439/hindu_samskaras.pdf>
Devuḍu. Mahādarśana. Bangalore: Devuḍu Pratiṣṭhāna, 2009
H H Sri Rangapriya Swami’s lecture on the Gāyatrī mantra
Harshananda, Swami. Upanayana: Sandhyāvandana and Gāyatrīmantrajapa. Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math.
Harshananda, Swami. A Concise Encyclopaedia of Hinduism. Volume 3. R-Z. Bangalore: Ramakrishna Math, 2008
Kane, Pandurang Vaman. History of Dharmaśāstra. Vol. II, Part I. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1941
Pandey, Rajbali. Hindu Saṁskāras: Socio-Religious Study of the Hindu Sacraments. New Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, 1969
Ṛgvedasaṃhitā. Vol. 17. Ed. Rao, H. P. Venkata. Mysore: Sri Jayachamarajendra Vedaratnamala, 1948-62
Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh’s seven-part lecture series in Kannada titled Ṣoḍaśa-saṃskāragaḻu at Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA) in December 2005
The Sixteen Samskaras <http://cincinnatitemple.com/articles/SixteenSamskaras.pdf>
 HS, p. 128
 Pañcasu bahiḥśālāyāṃ vivāhe cūḍākaraṇopanayane keśānte sīmantonnayana iti – Pāraskara-gṛhya-sūtra 1.4.2
 This, however, is not found in the gṛhya-sūtras and seems to be a later development
 HS, p. 128
 This is described in later works like Saṃskāra-ratnamālā
 HS, p. 129
 Some authorities mention that brāhmaṇas are to be fed before the start of the ceremony and their blessings must be sought. See Āpastamba-gṛhya-sūtra 10.5, Baudhāyana-gṛhya-sūtra 2.5.7 and Pāraskara-gṛhya-sūtra 2.2
 See Sudarśana’s comment on Āpastamba-gṛhya-sūtra 10.6-8
 HDS, pp. 278-79 and HS, pp. 129-30, 134
 Paścādagneravasthāpya brahmacaryamāgāmiti vācayati brahmacāryasānīti ca – Pāraskara-gṛhya-sūtra 2.2.6
 This is like the modern-day school uniform. There is a lot of discussion about what material has to be used for the vāsas and the uttarīya. Different materials (hemp, flax, deer skin, tiger skin, wool, cotton, sheep skin, etc.) and different colours were prescribed by various texts for boys of different varṇas. The rules about vāsas and uttarīya are ancient. We find the reference to a Brāhmaṇa passage—’Brahmavṛddhimicchannajinānyeva vasīta kṣatravṛddhimicchanvastrāṇyevobhayavṛddhimicchannubhayamiti hi brāhmaṇam. Ajinaṃ tvevottaraṃ dhārayet.’—in Āpastamba-dharma-sūtra 184.108.40.206-10. Also see Bhāradvāja-gṛhya-sūtra 1.1 (‘Yadajinaṃ dhārayedbrahmavarcasavadvāso dhārayetkṣatraṃ vardhayedubhayaṃ dhāryamubhayorvṛddhyā iti vijñāyate’) and Gopatha-brāhmaṇa 1.2.4 (‘Na tāntavaṃ vasīta yastāntavaṃ vaste kṣatraṃ vardhate na brahma tasmāttāntavaṃ na vasīta brahma vardhatāṃ mā kṣatramiti’)
 Athainaṃ vāsaḥ paridhāpayati yenendrāya bṛhaspatirvāsaḥ paryadadhādamṛtaṃ tena tvā paridadhāmyāyuṣe dīrghāyutvāya balāya varcasa iti. – Pāraskara-gṛhya-sūtra 2.2.7
 Gopatha-brāhmaṇa 1.2.1-8
 Even in ancient times, deer-skin seems to have been replaced by cotton cloth. According to the Baudhāyana-gṛhya-sūtra and the Āpastamba-gṛhya-sūtra, this piece of cloth must be woven in the house of the brahmacārin just before the ceremony (‘Vāsaḥ sadyaḥ kṛttotam’ – Baudhāyana-gṛhya-sūtra 2.5.11, Āpastamba-gṛhya-sūtra 11.16)
 HDS, p. 280 and HS, p. 131
 Mekhalāṃ badhnīte. Iyaṃ duruktam paribādhamānā varṇaṃ pavitraṃ punatī ma āgāt. Prāṇāpānābhyāṃ balamādadhānā svasā devī subhagā mekhaleyamiti. – Pāraskara-gṛhya-sūtra 2.2.8
 Yuvāsuvāsāḥ parivīta āgātsa u śreyānbhavati jāyamānaḥ. Taṃ dhīrāsaḥ kavaya unnayanti svādhyo manasā devayanta iti vā. – Pāraskara-gṛhya-sūtra 2.2.9
 Tūṣṇīṃ vā. – Pāraskara-gṛhya-sūtra 2.2.10
 Vedatrayeṇāvṛto’hamiti manyet sa dvijaḥ. – Āśvalāyana quoted in Vīra-mitrodaya Saṃskāraprakāśa, Vol. 1, p. 432