Unlike the topic regarding which God is true, the holy scriptures are in unison on the topic of menstruation, inculcating taboos in their respective societies. All the major religions without exception have labelled menstruating women as impure or have even viewed them as physical or spiritual threats to men. These taboos arose in primitive religions and from our superstitious forefathers as a function of the prevailing ignorance at the time about the basic biology of menstruation. But to continue to observe these primitive taboos is a shame on modern society.
The Menstrual Taboo
When menstruation is stigmatized, it both reflects and reinforces misogyny. Such stigmatization occurs when the menstrual blood is perceived as an abomination of the female body. Menstruation is perceived as unclean or embarrassing extending even to its mention in both public and private. On “those days” the woman becomes “untouchable”, leading to prohibitions on attendance of places of worship, and participation in other social rituals. Further, physical intimacy during menstruation may be prohibited, even in some cases requiring women to be separated from men either in a different room in the same house, or in a special “menstrual hut”.
Recent controversies about the entry of women into the Sabarimala Temple of Kerala and the “Saneeshwara (Saturn) Temple” of Maharashtra have received prominence in social media. People are becoming increasingly aware of the patriarchal way in which religious institutions and their administrative machinery function in society.
The Bleeding Kamakhya Godess
Despite these taboos, menstruating women in some cultures have been considered as sacred and powerful, with psychic abilities capable of healing the sick. In India, there are female deities whose menstrual rituals are the basis of major festivities, while the menstruating devotees still remain “untouchable”.
At the Kamakhya Temple, the “Shakti” worship is associated with the legend of Sati, who was the wife of the ascetic god Shiva and daughter of the Puranic god-king Daksha. Sati Devi, insulted by Daksha, threw herself into the holy fire during Daksha’s yaga, the grand Vedic sacrifice. Shiva was stricken with grief and rage at the loss of his wife and began Tandava, the dance of cosmic destruction, carrying Sati’s body. Vishnu, with his Sudarshana, destroyed the body of Sati into 108 pieces. According to tradition, 51 pieces of her body were scattered across the Indian subcontinent. The sites where these parts fell are called shakti peethas and are dedicated to various goddesses.
Assam is the region in which the yoni (vulva or womb) is said to have fallen to earth, where the Kamakhya Temple was constructed. The Goddess of Kamarupa (Kamakhya Devi) is believed to menstruate every year during the month of Aashada (June), and this is celebrated in the annual fertility festival Ambubachi mela, the “Earth’s Menstruation”. The temple stays closed for three days and reopens on the fourth day, the major festive day of Ambubachi mela. The water in the river Brahmaputra, near to the Kamakhya temple is said to turn red during these days and this “holy water” is distributed as “Prasada”.
The Legend of Chengannur Bhagavathy’s Thripputh
The Chengannur Bhagavathy Temple is one of the major temples in Kerala, and is popularly known as Dakshina Kailasa. The temple celebrates a rare menstruation festival for Bhagavathy, called “Thripputh” (period), during which the temple is closed for three days, representing the menstrual period of the deity. Thripputhu aarattu is not a regular festivity; the menstruation of the deity happens once in three or four months, but its timing cannot be predicted. Nevertheless, people from all across Kerala and outside the State throng to Chengannur once the Thripputhu aarattu is announced.
Devotees believe that during the time of the Goddess’ menstruation, most prayers will be answered. For example, prayers are offered for menstrual disorders. Moreover, the Goddess’ menstrual cloth is considered highly auspicious and people used to travel from afar to secure it. The auction of the udayada (inner skirt) was stopped two years ago, as the prices became too high. Now, the udayada worn on the first day is kept in the temple and that worn on the other days is kept with the supreme priest. However, there is no means for the public to inspect the udayada for the menstrual stain, which might allow them to debunk the ‘miracle’. In reality, if a Goddess was to menstruate, she would experience PMS (Pre Menstrual Syndrome) and would be revengeful ‘on those days’. And instead of blessings, devotees would ironically risk invoking her wrath!
An interesting story about the Thripputhu aarattu concerns a British resident, Colonel Munro. Scorning the concept of a menstruating Goddess, Munro stopped all grants for Thripputhu Aarattu. Thereafter, it is said that Munro’s own wife suffered menorrhagia (abnormal uterine bleeding), despite medical attention. A well-wisher then told Munro that the malady may have arisen in response to his stopping the grants for the Chengannur temple. Recognising his “error”, Munro created a Trust specifically for the celebration of the Thirupputhu of the Goddess. His wife was apparently cured soon after.
Apart from a creating the Trust, Col. Munro also presented two golden bangles to the Goddess. Munro’s family continues to sponsor the first period of the Goddess even to this day.
Religious Customs and Modern Society
Society has now begun to recognise the dichotomy between the progressive values towards women in our constitution and the regressive traditions which continue under the garb of the religion. Religious traditions should no longer take refuge in the notions of unchanging antiquity.
Religious customs, like society, must be dynamic and should adapt to be inclusive and egalitarian. Menstruation is not a taboo – it is simply a normal physiological process defining a post-pubertal or sexually mature woman. It is totally unacceptable for women to be worshipped as Goddesses on the one hand and then to deny them the right to enter a temple on the other hand. If religious customs are not in tune with contemporary ideas of Women’s Rights, then for every step forward there will be two steps back.
Malayalam translation of this post – ഹിന്ദു മതത്തിലെ ഫെമിനിസ്റ്റ് ദേവിമാര്!
More Reads & Image Sources :
- In search of the menstruating goddess
- Menstrual Taboo
- Culture & Menstruation
- Secrets of Khamkya Devi