Recently, I saw pictures of Odiya women in beautiful sarees on swings splashed across the social media. I came to know that at this time of the year, Odisha observes a three-day festival called Raja Parba which celebrates a girl’s onset of periods or menstruation. It is symbolic of harvest or fertility before the beginning of rain in June.
A celebration of this festival is not a new practice; it is celebrated in June since centuries. It is considered that Bhudevi (Goddess of land), wife of Lord Vishnu menstruates during the first days and on the fourth day ceremonial bath of Devi takes place. No agricultural work is done during these three days as it is considered that land is being regenerated just like menstruation of the girl.
Rig Veda also refers to the blood of earth which is the very essence of life and spirit.
Around the same time of the year, Ambubachi Mela, an annual fair is held at Devi Kamakhya temple in Assam. It is considered that Goddess Kamakhya goes through her annual cycle of menstruation during this time and the monsoon rains increase the creative and nurturing power of the earth. The Goddess ‘is worshipped in the form of ‘Yoni’ (vulva or the external opening of the Vagina) which represents life. The yoni is carved in stone and is smeared with red signifying Devi’s menstruation.
In Tantra, Yoni is the creative force of the entire universe and represents the feminine form of God.
Alexis Sanderson in his analytic survey of the surviving religious literature of the Śaivas of India, mention about Jayadrathayāmala, a tantric text which talks about menstrual blood which was considered auspicious and potent. It says for the protection of crops from storms and snakes; a trident was smeared with the five jewels and menstrual blood; the goddess is installed in it and worshipped.
Not just in Indian culture, there are goddesses and rituals associated with periods in many cultures. Juno is an influential Italian Goddess who was invoked to enliven the inner feminine spirit. Patricia Monaghan in The book of Goddess and Heroines writes that she was worshipped as the daughter of Saturn and was the symbol of the menstrual cycle. Kapo is a Hawaiin Goddess of fertility and dark powers. The Goddess is dressed in red attire and has a detachable vagina. Jaki is an ancient Persian menstruation spirit, who urged men to do evil. Adamu is an ancient Chaldean blood Goddess who represents womb and menstruation. Her name means red and is the female principle and source of life.
Though menstruation was always considered a taboo and a spirit of evilness was associated with it. But still, there is enough evidence that the ancient society celebrated blood, and gave full respect to the menstruating women. Women were given full resting time, away from the hard work associated with traditional household chores and agricultural work.
In Pakistan’s Kalasha Valley, a group of people practice many Hindu customs. Menstruating women are meant to live in a hut called bhashali, and if anybody touches or come in contact with a woman during this time, they have to purify themselves.
Chhaupadi is a Nepalese social tradition which prohibits women and girls from participating in normal family activities and are kept in a secluded hut while periods, as they are considered impure.
Though these practices were initiated with female interest, over the time patriarchy overtook everything, and these very empowering practices were being used against women.
The whole Sabarimala temple issue in India revolves around restricting the entry of women to temple who are having periods. It involves matter relating to individual liberty, gender justice and equality and the age-old religious practices regarding the impurity of women. The devotees on both the sides have their valid arguments regarding the celibacy of the Lord vs. equal gender rights. These are tough and sensitive issues, and we need an open and frank debate to settle such questions.
I don’t know how vagina and menstrual blood came to be considered impure and unclean? How periods became a tool for women’s suppression is not very clear.
A few months ago, I read local authorities in Ghana have forbidden girls from crossing a river for going to school while menstruating as the local river god does not like it.
In the Jewish culture, a woman who has menstruated and not yet completed the associated requirement of immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath) is called Niddah. Menstruating women must remain isolated, and anything that comes in contact with them becomes unclean.
In Islam, it is haram for menstruating women to read Quran, fast or go to a mosque. Even sexual intercourse is haram for both husband and wife.
Even in Christianity, women in periods are considered unclean, and anyone who comes in touch with her is deemed to be unclean.
Vagina somehow terrifies the patriarchal society. A vagina is considered as dark, unclean, impure and a taboo. We are told to keep it a secret. Even the advertisements for sanitary pads don’t show blood instead they use a blue liquid.
Why do we need to hide it? Why talk about in hush tones?
We all have felt period cramp during the mornings before going to work. And we have all lied to the male boss that we all unwell and can’t come to work. The usual excuses are fever, headache, etc. Why are we scared of telling the truth that it’s our period day and we wish to rest.
Though many organizations have started period leave, it has raised a sexist debate which deserves another post.
It is time to review the age-old practices of considering the women unclean and impure especially, in the age of sanitary napkins.
Even our Goddesses have periods, and it is entirely natural and life-giving creative phenomena.
So, let’s celebrate our vagina and the creative power universe has bestowed upon us.
See my other post on Vagina here