The mood is festive; the atmosphere wedding-like. The elders are busy overseeing last-minute arrangements. A floral awning has been erected in the family room and fresh flower garlands line the hallway of the Karunagarans' Markham residence. Children scamper around.
Senthura and Srwna Karunagaran, 13 and 12, happily soak up this attention. "All my friends had it, so I am happy to have it too," says the lively elder sister, Senthura.
The sisters acknowledge that it is no big deal for most girls who reach puberty in this part of the world. It often goes unnoticed in many homes. But in the Sri Lankan Tamil culture, the occasion is marked with a joyous ceremony, called poopunitha neerathu vizha. It is a vehicle to pass on cultural traditions and maintain their distinct identity in their adopted homeland.
For Senthura and Srwna, it will involve a stretch limo; they will wear their hair braided with flowers and 400 family and guests will be in attendance, some from as far away as Europe.
With the growing number of Sri Lankan Tamils in the Greater Toronto Area (they have been arriving for 2½ decades, but many more recently, as refugees flee the conflict back home) and the community's growing wealth, the celebrations have gone from festive, village-wide events to the opulent Canadian version. It's a mini-industry that includes aestheticians, florists, makeup artists, caterers, photographers, videographers and banquet-hall owners. Budgets can range from $5,000 to $30,000.
Harry Pathmarajah of Princess Banquet Hall in Scarborough says, "In the past decade, the community has prospered financially and they have the means to organize functions of this scale." He says that in the past year he and his partner, Jeya Ponnuchamy, have held more than 60 celebrations and sometimes the decorations for the mandap (a raised platform roughly corresponding to an altar) alone cost $2,500.
The festivities, explains the girls' mother, Malarvilly Karunagaran, have two components: a private religious ceremony at home, followed by a public get-together.
When a girl gets her first period, close relatives are informed and she is given a bath with saffron and milk (the "bath" is symbolic; some families merely sprinkle tinted milk over their daughters). A few days later, a priest is invited to perform a small ceremony to bless her. She also wears a sari for the first time, marking her transition to womanhood.
A big function is held later.
Senthura got her first period last year, but she was holidaying in India at the time. When her sister Swrna got her period in January, the family decided to host a joint celebration.
"There are regional variations," Ms. Karunagaran says. "It could be held at any time ... but it has to be on an auspicious date." The auspicious date, Aug. 11, was chosen by the family priest.
It took almost six months to plan, as the Karunagarans wanted their extended family's participation. "My siblings and those of my husband live in Europe and we wanted them and their children to come. It is important to keep the family ties," Ms. Karunagaran says.
THE SPECIAL DAY
The festivities begin very early. An aesthetician will arrive at 4:30 a.m. to prink the sisters for the ceremony that starts at 11 a.m. (The girls had their hands henna'ed the previous day.)
At 9 a.m., a stretch limo pulls up and, having wrapped up a photo shoot, the sisters leave for the Crystal Fountain Banquet Hall. There, they will wait in an anteroom as their mother, relatives and friends get things ready.
Clad in identical pink-and-red saris, their faces made up and hair braided with flowers, the girls engage in subdued chatter with their cousins. Meanwhile, the flower girls, dressed in identical skirts and tops ordered from India, are lined up. Unusually, boys are included. "It was the youngsters' decision," says Ms. Karunagaran, a fond smile creasing her face. Married women, carrying 11 trays with sweets, fried snacks, fruit and coconuts for the aarti ceremony, are part of the entourage.
Moments later, Senthura, her face veiled, is led through the doors. She smiles at the attention and says, "I am enjoying it." For the next half-hour, videographers and photographers take over. Instructions fly thick and fast as she walks to the mandap: how to walk, where to sit and stand and how to pose for the camera. Two giant video screens telecast the proceedings as Tamil songs play in the background.
A few rituals later, her veil is taken off and two married women perform the aarti ceremony. Senthura then lights a lamp given by her maternal uncle. "The idea is that she spreads light wherever she goes," explains her cousin, Sinthusha Nanthakumar.
Then it is Swrna's turn; she goes through the same rituals.
A cake is cut and the guests watch a mini-biography of the sisters. Then there's a lunch, the girls may receive cash gifts from relatives and the party breaks up around 4 p.m.
The entire package has cost the Karunagarans more than $20,000, but they are satisfied with the services of Manoharan Kandiah, whose Naveen Banquet Services in Scarborough co-ordinated the event.
"We organize one or two functions in a week, and the budget starts from $3,000 and goes up to $30,000," Mr. Kandiah says.
There are people like accountant Shanthi Veerakumar, the parent of one girl, who preferred to have a private ceremony at home. "Traditions are important, but not opulence," she says.
Montreal-based Jeyakumar Subramaniam, who was in Toronto for his own niece's function, shares Ms. Veerakumar's view. However, he adds, "Here, parents are not sure what kind of weddings their children will have. So they organize this function the way they want it.
"At this age, children are willing to listen. Later, who knows?"