What does ‘coming of age’ mean to you? For many communities across the world, it’s not as drab as throwing a birthday party or getting a driver’s license. Some young men and women have to go through extreme hardships to be deemed worthy of adulthood. As if going through puberty is not enough hassle!
1. Princess for a Day in the Philippines
Philippine debut is a celebration of a girl’s transition to womanhood, not unlike the Latin American tradition of quinceañera. But whereas the latter is held when the girl reaches 15 year old, a debut party is held when a girl reaches 18, considered to be the age of maturity in the Philippines. There is a lot of work, planning and money that goes into preparing a debut, scouring physical stores and the Internet for just the right dresses, accessories and decorations to bring the ceremony together.
All the hard work pays off at the very special day when the debutante makes her grand entrance in her princess-like dress as a large crowd of guests gathers to welcome her. After 18 toasts are made for her, she then dances with 18 male friends and relatives who present her with 18 roses. Next, 18 of her closest female friends and relatives present 18 candles and make wishes to the debutante. The grand finale is the cotillion, where the debutante and her escort perform a ballroom dance along with eight other pairs. Being a princess is a lot of work!
2. Tip-off in Malaysia
Baligh in Islamic jurisprudence means when someone hits puberty and becomes accountable for his or her own actions, and for boys it usually happens between 12 and 15 years old. In Malaysia khatan (circumcision) is seen as a mark of their journey into adulthood, and there is an elaborate celebration called kenduri berkhatan to welcome it.
The day before the circumcision, the boys parade around the village in fancy traditional attire. They also need to read several last verses of Quran as a part of khatam Al Qur’an, a ceremony that indicates the completion of the 30 chapters of the holy book of Islam. The morning after, the boys traditionally perform ablution before getting ushered to a stage where they are doused with water, a symbol of purification. It’s always a mixed of feelings for the boys as they know what is waiting for them at the end of the line. Thankfully, kenduri berkhatan is a communal affair with friends and cousins partaking in the ritual at the same time.
In the olden days, boys took pride in maintaining a stoic expression and not flinching when the deed was carried out by the tok mudim (traditional circumcision specialist). Nowadays, circumcisions are performed in sterile conditions with anaesthetics administered. If all goes according to plan, they are home in time to join a celebration luncheon with the whole village, ready to accept the religious responsibilities of an adult.
3. Becoming a Warrior in South Africa
Not all circumcisions are created equal, some are harsher than the rest. Ulwaluko is traditional a circumcision and initiation ritual into manhood observed by some South African ethnic groups, especially the Xhosas. Males who have not undergone the ritual are not considered real men, no matter how old they are.
Boys as young as 13 years old, who are going through the initiation have to throw out everything they own from their boyhood, including school books and cellular phones. On the day of the circumcision, they shave their heads and smear their faces with white chalk. The circumcision is done without anaesthetics and the boys have to endure the pain. After the circumcision, they have to stay in a secluded area for an average of six weeks. After this period of time, they are re-admitted into society as men and warriors.
Botched circumcisions have led to many deaths. There are also instances where the boys’ genitals are so badly damaged that they have to be amputated. In spite of this, ulwaluko is not going to be replaced by modern circumcision anytime soon. The sentiment around ulwaluko is still very strong, and circumcisions done in hospitals or clinics do not carry with them the same cultural meaning.
4. A Leap of Faith in Vanuatu
You might see bungee (or bungy) jumping as something you challenge your friends on while vacationing in an exotic place. One of the world’s most popular extreme sports, the modern bungee jumping started in New Zealand by a man named AJ Hackett. But Hackett himself was inspired by the land diving ceremony practised in the South Pacific country of Vanuatu.
Known as naghol, ngol, gol or nanggol in the country’s various languages, land diving is held every year between the months of April and June, when local men work together to build makeshift towers made of freshly cut wood bound by vines. The soil is cleared off from rocks and tilled to soften. The vines are selected by a village elder and matched with each jumper’s weight without any mechanical calculations. The vines tied around the ankles of the jumper need to be supple and full of sap. Each participant leaps head first, trying his best to ensure that his head only slightly touches the tilled ground – a sign of good yam harvest. These brave men must submit themselves to the ritual as a true testament to their manhood and strength as well as to ensure a prosperous yam harvest. A testament to manhood, land diving is used as a rite of passage for boys. Only circumcised boys are allowed to participate. But unlike in other cultures, those who choose not to partake are not ridiculed.
Despite the extreme nature of land diving, there’s only one fatality recorded in living memory, and it was during the visit of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth in 1974. As it was the wrong season, the vines used for the ceremony were dry and they snapped.
5. Pomp and Pageantry in Myanmar
There is a belief in Southeast Asian countries with Theravada Buddhism traditions that a boy must become a monk first before he can become a man. It is an honour of parents to let their sons spend some time in a monastery, as it is an opportunity for them to gain merits that will benefit the whole family.
The initiation ceremony is called shinbyu, and so vital and momentous it is, even orphans and boys from poor families are helped by the community so that they too can join in the fun. The two-day celebration starts with parents dressing their sons as royalty, to be paraded on caparisoned horses while the families follow in bullock-pulled carts. Arriving at the monastery, they trade their princely dresses for robes and let the monks shave their heads, reminiscent of the time when Prince Rahula, the son of Buddha, approached his prodigal father for his inheritance. From there on, they have to devote themselves to studying Buddha’s teachings, at least until after a few days or weeks later when they can choose to go back home as heroes of dharma, although they never quite go back again to be the princes they were once.
6. Strings of Thought in Laos
Just like in Myanmar, young men in Laos need to enter the sangha (the Buddhist clergy) before getting their social membership confirmed. As with any important event in a Lao community, the boys’ families hold a baci ceremony, also commonly referred to as su kwan or the ‘calling of the souls’, before sending them to the monastery.
The concept of kwan is an ancient concept of ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ that is common around Southeast Asia. It is believed that the human being consists of 32 organs, each with a kwan watching over it. It is of the utmost consequence that as many kwan as possible are kept together in the body at any one time. Unfortunately, these spirits sometimes abandon their duty and wander outside the body, causing the organs attributed to them to go out of balance leading to illnesses.
In a baci or su kwan, a mor phon (conductor of the ceremony) ties a white string to represent the tying of the kwan, calling them from wherever they may be roaming to re-establish equilibrium. After the conclusion of the ceremony, the guests follow suit by tying a single strand around the boy’s wrist, wishing him good luck, prosperity, and a tight resolve in following the teachings of the Buddha.
7. Crop of the Top in Thailand
Do you know why visitors to Thailand are often told that touching or putting things over people’s heads is a big no-no? Just like their neighbours in Laos, the Thais believe in the kwan or the spirits, who protect humans from harm and illness. The head is the most sacred part of the body where the kwan resides and it is considered to be sacred. This is true especially when it comes to a child head’s when the skull bones haven’t completely formed yet, the pulse that beats on the top of the head is believed to be the sign of the kwan.
Traditionally, children’s hair are shaven except for the top of the head, where the top-knot is left behind to protect the head. This hairstyle is synonymous with childhood and considered to be cute, and adults are usually affectionate with children with this kind of hairstyle. However, when the children hit puberty, which happens at 11 year old for girls and 13 for boys, the topknot is cut solemnly in a ceremony called kon chuk or topknot-cutting ceremony.
After consulting the astrologer to calculate the most auspicious day for the ceremony, the ceremony begins with an evening chanting on the first day followed by alms giving to the monks the next morning before the topknot-cutting. As it is considered an important spiritual event, kon chuk is usually held together with other merit-making ceremonies.
8. Enamel Instinct in Indonesia
Many ethnic groups across the Indonesian archipelago see the carnivorous canines and incisors as an indication of the savage and animalistic aspects of the soul and therefore need to be smoothed away. Filing the tooth to keep one’s animal instincts in check is an important rite of passage across the Indonesian archipelago which predates the arrival of foreign religions, as seen in sorongi’is ceremony from Eastern Lesser Sunda Islands, pinamuo / rujena from the Moluccas, or kompat from West Borneo.
In Bali, where it is known as mepandes / metatah / mesangih, the ancient ways merge with elements from Hinduism and Buddhism. Here, the ritualised tooth filing is obligated for everyone when he or she comes of age, ideally performed by a Brahmin priest and seen as a way to control kama (desire), kroda (anger), lobha (greed), moha (confusion), matsarya (jealousy) and mada (drunkenness). The actual tooth filing takes around 10 minutes and can be quite an uncomfortable experience, but cloves are administered to help with the pain. When everything is done, everyone gets to enjoy a buffet of delicious food and drink, although the one who just had his or her teeth filed might need to lay off hot tea for a while.
9. Turning 20 in Japan
Genpuku is a rite of passage practised during the Nara period (710-794 AD) of Japan. It is seen as the occasion when children step into the world of adults, which is signified by them taking a new, adult name (eboshi-na), as well as the wearing of adult hairstyles and clothing.
In modern Japan, it has been replaced with Seijin no Hi (Coming of Age Day). It is a national holiday that welcomes young people who have reached the age of 20, when they are officially considered adults. All the 20-year-olds attend a special ceremony held at their local governmental offices, where they have to sit down to speeches from government officials. They are then given small presents and afterwards family and friends throw them a party. It’s one of Japan’s most colourful events thanks to the sight of jubilant celebrants wearing elaborate kimonos.
10. A Fashionable Affair in Ireland
First Communion is a ceremony during which a child first receives the Eucharist, an especially important rite for Roman Catholics. Typically held for children between the ages of seven and 13, it signifies the increased participation in the religious community.
In several Catholic communities around the world, the First Communion is still seen as a big thing. In Ireland, for example, it is seen by some as the most important day in their childhood. Boys and girls are given the sacrament on the same day, but they are put in separate parts of the chapel for the rest of the day. The First Communion for girls becomes a different experience, as female family members and friends make it an appearance-focused event. Mothers spare no cost or effort to dress their daughters extravagantly. It is customary for them to wear gúna, the traditional Irish woman’s dress with the most elaborate pleatings.