When A Goddess Is Unclean: Are Puberty Rituals Empowering Anyone?

Menstruation has long been taboo in India, but on the other hand, according to ancient Hindu teachings, women are a symbol of Mother Earth. As a result, menstruation is revered in some areas of the country as a symbol of fertility and rebirth.

Menstruation has long been taboo in India, but on the other hand, according to ancient Hindu teachings, women are a symbol of Mother Earth.

As a result, menstruation is revered in some areas of the country as a symbol of fertility and rebirth. Lets examines one of these celebrations: the Ambubachi Mela in Assam or Kamakhya Devi

At the sacred Kamakhya site in the Assam state of northeastern India, hundreds of devotees congregate each year to rejoice and offer respects on a significant ritualistic event.

Every year in the Asadha month, around June, the Kamakhya temple celebrates the earth menstruating, which is known locally as the Ambubashi Mela or Amoti.

This festival is thought to have given life to Earth. The start of the monsoon also falls on this occasion.

This contemporary caste-based Assamese Hindu society is still strongly influenced by this symbolic representation of the goddess’ reproductive cycle.

When a goddess is unclean

It is thought that the goddess Kamakhya menstruates for three days every year, and she is unclean at this time.

Hence, it is still forbidden to plough, till the ground, or engage in any other auspicious activity, according to common belief, and the shrine is still restricted to visitors.

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The temple reopens to worshippers seeking blessings and priests offering sacrifices on the fourth day. In order to remove the impurities from the goddess’ menstrual period, families clean their houses on this day, washing all worn clothing and kitchenware.

Through the ritualistic celebration of menarche and the subsequent observation of purity and contamination in menstrual activities in the culture, the divinity of this practise is transmitted to the ordinary world.

Aspects of the status of women in society that are crucial are also brought to light by reflections on the ritualistic festival of Kamakhya.

Both male and female creatures are given equal prominence in the spiritual world, and the female companion, shakti, is occasionally even thought to possess stronger mystical powers (Kakati 1948/2004: 35–39).

In addition to the frequently observed universality of female subjugation, the manner in which Assamese society observes menarche or tuloni biya suggests that women are subjected to constraints on movement in addition to rites of purity and pollution.

Does the celebration empower or raise worry?

The usual statement by a girl parents to the community that she has reached puberty, the stage marks the start of a woman’s menstrual cycle.

Menstrual festivities, such as the one at the Kamakhya Temple, I contend, symbolize more than just the social propensity to view periods as a symbol of fertility; they also elevate women’s sexuality to the status of a social concern.

A girl who reaches puberty is segregated and kept in her room for three days. She is bathed on the fourth day and brought before the community elders for blessing.

The event, which comes after the fourth day of the menstrual cycle, is generally reserved for female family members, neighbours, and visitors. After then, a woman is forced to observe rigid rituals of cleanliness and pollution during her monthly menstrual cycle.

Although there are other types of menstrual rituals among different other castes and tribal groups, the focus of this article is on those used by upper caste Hindus in Assam, such as Kalitas and Kayasthas.

Caste-related issues are reflected in the variations in customs between Brahmins and non-Brahmins, and in the case of “Brahminical patriarchy,” the caste’s and the female’s purity are intertwined (Chakravarti 1993).

The renowned author Mamoni Raisom Goswami, better known as Indira Goswami, has tackled similar aspects of Brahminical patriarchy in her different writings, most notably in A Saga of South Kamrup (1993).

Even after celebration, women’s standing in society has not improved

Menstruation is traditionally celebrated, although this does not necessarily reflect the standing of women in society. However, the extravagant celebration of menstruation rituals continues the socially manufactured idea that the female body is bound by her unique biology.

Since these misconceptions have a direct impact on the health care system as well as the beliefs and knowledge about female biology, the state has entirely failed to recognize the dangers of them.

There are numerous myths about menstruation, as a result of the social stigma attached to it and the traditions of cleanliness and contamination.

Celebrating menstruation also serves as a technique of restricting a woman’s sexuality because it places boundaries on her and her social interactions, instils a dread of the unknown, and violates cultural and religious norms.

It all boils down to control of female bodies

The philosophy of control and the dissemination of sexual norms made possible by the institution of patriarchy and religion are the sources of the obedient female body.

The social, economic, and other vulnerabilities that women experience only serve to exacerbate this failure, as the symbolic authority accorded to women in this situation does not convert into social power.

Furthermore, feminist politics’ emancipatory potential can only be realized when local actions are examined from a feminist perspective, exposing both patriarchal and global hegemonic discourses.

Women now have to shoulder the weight of cultural preservation

Women now have to shoulder the weight of preserving cultural norms and practices that are regarded as lucky and heavenly due to the menstruation customs associated with the Kamakhya temple.

The Kamakhya temple serves as the “seat of power,” and the cultural and socio-religious practices that surround it validate gender stereotypes and the subjection of women in various ways.

Given that sexuality is socially created, it is exceedingly challenging to discuss an independent subject without addressing the oppressive relationships.

Therefore, it is crucial to critically confront power that oppresses women in all spheres of society and culture, including the home, state, and political discourses.

Image source: Still from trailer of AAMIS, edited on CanvaPro

Bibliography: 

    • Sahapedia. “A Celebration Of Womanhood And Periods: Raja Parba And Ambubachi Mela.” Feminism in India, 30 Apr. 2021, feminisminindia.com/2020/07/06/menstruation festivals-india-raja-parba-odisha-ambubachi-mela-assam.
    • Chakrabarti, Udita. “Period Piece Official: Menstruation Through The Ages.” Feminism in India, 13 Dec. 2017, feminisminindia.com/2017/12/14/review-period-piece-official.
    • Kumaramkandath, Rajeev, and Sanjay Srivastava. (Hi)Stories of Desire: Sexualities and Culture in Modern India. Cambridge University Press, 2020.
    • Singh, Ravi S. 2011. The Kamakhya Devi Temple: Symbolism, Sacredscapes and Festivities; in, Singh, Rana P.B. (ed.) Holy Places and Pilgrimages: Essays on India. Planet Earth & Cultural Understanding Series, Pub. 8. Shubhi Publications, New Delhi: pp 81-104.

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