Attitudes towards Menstruation – Notes from Assam: Priyanka Chakrabarty

This is a Guest Post by PRIYANKA CHAKRABARTY 

GOOD NEWS, GOOD NEWS…They are blessed with a child! Oh, what child, boy or girl? This is the most common response that new parents will encounter, one that indicates what people find most interesting about a new birth. We examine its genital parts and then say, it is a boy or girl. During this time, the difference between male and female is only the biological difference of sex,  of the presence of the penis or the vagina. Gradually the child is ‘socialised’ (read normalised) into a ‘woman’ or a ‘man’.

One of the key aspects of a girl’s socialization is her introduction to the bodily process of menstruation. Superficially, and as a purely biological process, menstruation is the discharge of blood from the vagina. This is widely considered to be the ‘development’ of the female body and after the start of menstruation, a girl is believed to have attained womanhood –attained puberty.
The attainment of puberty is expected to change a girl’s life.
Anthropological research into menstruation rituals in India have mostly focused on the norms of purity and pollution. The rituals associated with menstruation in India are numerous and they are usually conducted at the onset of menarche. They are ‘meaningful’ and ‘symbolic,’ and herald the arrival of new restrictions around pollution that now begin to shape the girl’s life.
In some languages, menstruation is compared to blossoming or ripening of flowers for bearing fruit. This is probably related to the girl’s attainment of reproductive potential. In various Indian States, there are rituals and ceremonies around the first menstruation, discussed, for example, by Leela Dubey in her article “On the Construction of Gender Hindu Girls in Patrilineal India”.
In Karnataka, at her first menstruation a girl is fed with dry coconut, milk, ghee, certain fruits, a mixture of jaggery and sesame seeds and meat and chicken soups, among meat-eating groups. These celebrations also exist in Maharashtra and Orissa. The rituals related to puberty mostly involve the confinement or seclusion of the girl for a certain number of days. She is served specially prepared food and after the stipulated period, she is given a ritual bath.
In Andhra Pradesh, there is a practice where jaggery and sesame and crushed by women, accompanied by songs. Out of the crushed mixture, small balls are made which are fed to the menstruating girl. This is again distributed among women and girls. Among the Vokkaligas in Mysore, a girl attaining her first menstruation is confined for sixteen days. At the end of this, there are celebrations. However, whether such rituals continue to be observed fully in the present needs more investigation.
In North India, this occasion is taken care of by female relatives of the home and all rituals are introduced quietly. The girl is kept away from the sight of children and men in the family as well as outsiders. A menstruating girl is expected to avoid hot and cold food and not stand in cold water.
After the first puberty ritual, in the coming month the rituals of purity and pollution vary from region to region, religion to religion, caste to caste, and family to family.
Menstruation rituals in Assam
Just like any other culture and rituals, the rituals related to menstruation rituals in Assam also vary according to religion, caste and ethnicity.
But my observations from the field reveal that practices related to purity and pollution are to be found among all social groups. In most of the households, the local name for menstruation I — Nuwara, Suwa, Mahekia – have negative connotations. Nuwara means ‘cannot do’, Suwa means something or someone forbidden to touch, Mahekia refers to periodicity. All major religious groups in Assam — Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians — observe strict rituals regarding touch and pollution around menstruation which are physical, social or psychological but some of these are now more relaxed.
Among the Assamese Hindus, the majority practice a ritual called Tulani Biya. In Assam, till a few decades back, the practice of child marriage was prevalent. A girl used to married at the age of five or seven. This was called as Aag Biya (aag means before). The attainment of menstruation is celebrated like a marriage called as and this used to be called  Pass Biya (Pass means After). This was to inform the groom’s family that she has attained her puberty. After the Pass Biya, the girl is taken to her in-laws home. Now, the practice of Aag Biya no longer exists and the Tulani Biya itself is called as Xoru Biya ( Xoru means small and minor). This is called Xoru as it is a smaller celebration compared to marriage ( in general parlance).
In the months that follow, the girl has to become familiar with a number of restrictions. During her periods, she cannot enter the kitchen or a temple. In rural areas, she is made to sit on a different seat or a lower one and allowed to move only with her seat, or she is totally confined to one room. In some families, she has to move to a separate room to sleep. She is either allowed to sleep on a bed or prepare a bed herself made of hay. On the third day, the same hay is burnt at some distance. She is served food separately and her meals are restricted to boiled food; she must avoid hot and cold meals. She is not allowed to attend religious or social functions. She cannot serve food to elderly or to guests. She cannot touch plants either, particularly, the Holy Basi, the Tulsi. The menstruation practices laid down for the widow are even more stringent.
After the period, the girl takes a ritual bath and washes her hair. Now she can move around other parts of home, but cannot enter the Kitchen. Only on the fifth day is she permitted to enter the kitchen. It is only on the seventh day on ninth day that she is allowed to enter religious places like a temple or Naamghar. The house is washed and cleaned properly. The various household utensils, curtains, bed sheets, and pillows are also washed. This is a kind of suddhikaran,  purifying what is ‘polluted’. However, these restrictions vary from caste to caste and community to community.
During the confinement following the first menses, in some places, the girl is even denied food totally for a few days. In some places of lower Assam, like as I have found in Pathsala, the girls are not given any thing to eat. Only on the fourth day is she given the ritual bath, like a bride. She is then married to a banana tree as custom goes. Pathsala is in Lower Assam. The Tulani Biya takes place on the fourth day with great feasting and enjoyment.
Tulani Biya is, however, not a universal practice. In some other place in Lower Assam, like Barpeta, Goalpara, it is not observed. The girl is confined to a room for four days. She is not allowed to see male members of the family. She is not allowed to bathe for four days. On the fourth day, she is made to see the sun first after her ritual bath and hair wash.
Among Muslims, observance of menstrual pollution is limited to the restrictions regarding touch and reading religious books. There is no special ceremony during the first menstruation. There are rituals like Nazar Utarna, which is, a blessing for doing away of all evil eyes. The menstruating women are not restricted from social and religious visits.
Among the Christians, these taboos are far more relaxed and it is left to the woman to decide whether she wants to read the Holy Book when she feels ‘unclean’. The New Testament allows her to go to Church. Among the Sikhs in Assam, the rituals during first menstruation and the forthcoming months, the rituals are similar to that of the majority Hindu Assamese community. They do observe Tulani Biya. The menstruating girl cannot see men during this time. There also exist taboos around food; nor may she touch the Holy Book.
In the course of fieldwork, elderly women revealed that rituals and taboos were more relaxed in urban settings while they were still observed closely in rural areas. One of them remembered how she was unable to attend the wedding of a close relative as she was menstruating at that time. Another senior woman who lived through such restrictions felt that these rituals and taboos should be relaxed since the entire family life in Assam has changed. There are a greater number of nuclear families in which women work. She said that she would like her daughter-in-law to be mobile during her periods, but she still did not want her to serve food to elders. It appears that the elaborate nature of rituals have actually come down – while one of the senior women who I interviewed recalled her Tulani Biya, she said that her sister had gone through both the Aag Biya and the Pass biya, since she was married at the age of five. However, all my respondents felt that the restriction and rituals should continue as it allows the menstruating woman to rest! One of my respondents even said that during this time the uterus becomes weaker!
One of the most common responses was the feeling that during menstruation the woman was actually unclean and hence unfit to read sacred books or attend special functions.
The other group I interviewed was of young girls who have either attained their menstruation or are about to attain it. My aim was to understand the views of the new generation about this bodily process. I interviewed 30 young girls in Guwahati city, selected from popular schools there. Most of my interviewees come from nuclear households, with the exception of a few who live in joint families.
Of the thirty, almost all broke the news of the attainment of menses first to other women in their families, who then instructed them on taboos. The common restriction still being observed is about entering the kitchen and the temple. Only 13 participants could articulate what they knew about menstruation. The interesting responses were both social and scientific. Some said that it is discharge of blood from the lining of the womb each month, a natural process happening during adolescence, an indication of growing up, where childhood comes to an end, stepping into adulthood, attainment of maturity and so on.
On asking as how their life has changed after attainment of puberty, the positive answers were like “I feel independent”, “I feel mature”, “and people now take me seriously”. Some negative responses were like “I get scared as my date for periods near every months”, “ my parents have become over protective”, “I have been told of many restriction and rituals imposed on me”.
All the respondents admitted that they do not enter kitchen or religious places during their periods. Not a single participant had asked why various rituals exist in the first place. Nor have they discussed this experience publicly. This reveals that menstruation is still a social, psychological, and even a verbal, taboo. Men of course still have nothing to do with it.
Three of the participants also said that during their periods, they do not dine with male members of the family as they were told that this was inauspicious. Only one participant dared to break the taboo – this was about entering the kitchen. She was very hungry and there was no one else at home, and so she prepared a meal for herself. For this she was bitterly rebuked by her grandmother.
So it seems that while the taboos are certainly more relaxed, they continue to be observed. And this, right across all social and religious groups. Young girls are socialised to respect their ‘culture’ but interestingly, the older women are less likely to advance cultural arguments. Instead they most often cite health, hygiene and so on – and thus find ‘secular’ reasons for the continuation of rituals and restrictions on women!

[Priyanka Chakrabarty is a post-graduate student of Women’s Studies at Guwahati University. This is a version of a paper she presented at the XIV IAWS Conference, held in Guwahati in February 2014.]

8 thoughts on “Attitudes towards Menstruation – Notes from Assam: Priyanka Chakrabarty”

  1. This is really attention-grabbing, You are an excessively
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  2. it is an objective and informative piece.Unlike some other posts,it is free from unnecessary sensational information.We have seen these practices since childhood.Now -a days the Tulani biya turns out to be a grand affair causing economic impact over the family.But interestingly it is a purely women centric business,where women conduct everything .Moreover some cultural rituals(songs,merry making acts,ornaments etc) are preserved through such practices.I really enjoyed the detachment you maintain throughout the write up.

  3. Yes Sir, Many a times cultures also vary like place to place ( even in same place), caste to caste, family to family as how far they would go? There may be differences even within one family like variations in opinion of mother and daughter….but the basic attitude remains for many decades

  4. I was intrigued by the participant who dared to break the taboo. Surely there are others. You mention that some substitute secular reasons for religious, but at the base of all these reasons is basic discrimination against women’s bodies – ironic when you consider that without them, and without menstruation in particular, there would be none of the “GOOD NEWS” with which the note opens.

  5. Yes, there is subordination of women through rituals and customs…though these rituals are perpetuated by women but many a time women themselves are good agents of patriarchy…as the custom mentioned above, for instance, not dining with men as it is considered inauspicious. Even during primitive times these rituals and customs were there..I have gone through work of Rita E Montgomery “A Cross-Cultural Study of Menstruation, Menstrual Taboos, and Related Social Variables, Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association”…one will be able to go through many such practices where women were not allowed to see the weapons of warfare as those were in custody of men…
    Yes, there is no good news other than menstruation as I have followed here hourglass style

  6. Thank you .this really helped me and my family. Nice blog as well……..Thank you priyanka chakrabarty

  7. Hi priyanka, I am a Phd scholar from Delhi University. congratulations for such a great article. i would love to read more of it. Have you published this in any journal or book. If yes, please send me the link to shreya.rstg@gmail.com.

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