This piece is republished with express permission of the author. It originally appeared on mythrispeaks.wordpress.com. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed here belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the Hindu American Foundation.
On the second year of the World Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28th, I write this blog. I write it as I read articles, posters and materials dismissing cultural practices around menstruation, calling them Menstrual Taboos. I write it as I read about organizations deciding for Indian women based on what they think is superstitious beliefs which need to be uprooted. I write, for all the women across India, who follow menstrual rituals and have asked me what these practices signify. I write for the men who have never known what to make of menstrual practices – to support them or to dismiss it. I write because I feel responsible for reviving what has been lost. I write with the learning and the realization that none of these practices were originally meant to suppress women.
Over the last one year, my team has traveled to eight states across India to learn the origin of menstrual practices and their impact on women in rural India. The biggest surprise was that every time we dug deeper, it always revealed a positive side of the story and it became obvious that none of the menstrual practices came into being because women are impure or unholy.
Many of us get stuck in trying to prove whether or not these practices are scientific. Yet, during my interactions across rural India, I realized that most women who follow menstrual rituals are not concerned with modern science’s outlook. For most women, it is reverence to an age old belief system that they want to be keepers of.
Therefore, I tried to consciously stay away from validating cultural practices scientifically. Instead, I wanted to focus on the spirit behind these practices, which is what influences attitudes towards menstruation. However, my explorations took me in a roundabout way to science itself. A different level of science though.
The core of explanations around menstrual practices
Many a time, it seemed that each culture has a whole new explanation of the same menstrual practice such as not going to the temple. At one point, I even thought that we need to accept that each culture has its unique “menstrual history” and generalizing the origin of these practices should be avoided. However, as I tried to consolidate all that I learnt over the last one year, I realized that most practices arise from a common ground – Ancient Indian science, which includes Ayurveda, yoga, meditation, mantra and astrology. The science of mudra, a part of yoga, is also important in this understanding.
The ancient Vedic seers, recognized a principle of “energy” that gives movement, velocity, direction, animation and motivation. This energy of life is called prana, meaning primal breath or life-force. Western allopathic medicine which is a few centuries old is based on external medication and intervention. Whereas Ayurveda which is at least 7000 years old, is a science of life and a natural healing system, with a deep understanding of the human body and its relation to nature. Ayurveda is based on the principles of three primary life-forces in the body, called the three doshas. Doshas are the bio-energies that make up every individual, and help in performing different physiological functions in the body. The three types of doshas are vata, pitta and kapha, which correspond to the elements of air, fire and water respectively. Each dosha has a primary function in the body. Vata (element, air) is the moving force responsible for communication, perception and cognition; Pitta (element, fire) is the force of assimilation and is responsible for metabolism; and Kapha (element, water) is the force of stability.
According to Ayurveda, menstruation is closely linked to the functions of the doshas. Menstruation is regarded in Ayurveda as a special opportunity enjoyed by women for monthly cleansing of excess doshas; it is this monthly cleansing that accounts for female longevity. There is a build up of energy in the days leading to menstruation as the body prepares for pregnancy. If pregnancy does not take place and menstruation starts, this built up energy gets dissipated from the body during menstruation. During menstruation, vata is the predominant dosha. Apana vayu, one of the elemental air functions of the vata dosha, is responsible for the downward flow of menstruation. Therefore, any activity that interferes with this necessary downward flow of energy during menstruation should be avoided. During menstruation, women are more likely to absorb other energies in their environment. This forms the basis of most of the cultural practices around menstruation in India.
With this in mind, let us look at some of the common menstrual practices and the explanations that I have come across during my travels and study. In this write-up, I have covered the following cultural practices around menstruation:
- Not attending religious functions, visiting the temple and not touching menstruating women
- Avoiding cooking and eating with others during menstruation
- Avoiding sex during menstruation
- Avoid swimming or washing the hair during menstruation
- Avoid eating certain types of food during menstruation
- Believing that menstrual blood is impure
- Taking time off during menstruation
- Restricting menstruating women to seclusion huts
In addition to the above, I have also written about my personal experiences so far in experiencing some effects of what menstruation can do.
Not attending religious functions, visiting temples and not touching menstruating women
Some months ago, I received an email from across the globe, sent by a woman who experienced severe pain after being present at a chanting session during her period, organized by her Indian friends. She later asked about why this happens and this is what she learnt. She wrote: “the energy during menstruation goes downwards into the earth, (at the puja table, offerings, altar), the energy is going upwards. This can bring discomfort in the body”.
In conversation with Guruji
To further understand the aspect of not visiting temples during menstruation, our team travelled to Devipuram, in Andhra Pradesh. We found unique answers from Sri Amritananda Natha Saraswati (Guruji), founder of Devipuram, a temple in Andhra Pradesh which is dedicated to the Devi. While interacting with him, he told us how in his temple, most of the priests are women, who are free to be at the temple during their period (though it is not forced). There is a Kamakhya Peetham at this temple, which is a natural formation in the shape of a yoni (vagina) and worshippers gather here whether or not they have their period. What Guruji told us about the reasons behind menstruating women not visiting the temple was fascinating and turns all our silly assumptions of impurity upside down! Here is an excerpt from his interaction with us:
He said “What is pure, we don’t touch. And what we don’t touch, we call it a taboo. She (a menstruating woman) was so pure, that she was worshipped as a Goddess. The reason for not having a woman go into a temple is precisely this. She is a living Goddess at that time. The energy of the God or Goddess which is there in the murti will move over to her, and that murti becomes lifeless, while this (the menstruating woman) is life. So that’s why they were prevented from entering the temple. So it is exactly the opposite of what we think”.
As Guruji said, asking menstruating women to not attend a temple has nothing whatsoever to do with a woman being impure. So next time someone says that a menstruating woman should not enter a temple because she is impure, we should let her know the explanation behind this practice, instead of simply dismissing it a taboo. And let her decide whether or not she wants to follow these practices.
Avoiding cooking and eating with others during menstruation
As told to us by a pranic/energy healer, eating was considered as a spiritual activity. Many orthodox Brahmins even today chant as they cook to ensure that the food has higher and positive energy in it. During the process of eating food, the lower chakras (read explanation at the end of this paragraph) of our body are highly active. It is to change this, that Buddhist monasteries have a practise of reciting the scriptures during meal hours, so that the monks are focussed on higher chakras. So while eating, people expel negative energy all around. In the normal course of things, we would not feel it. But if a menstruating woman who is sensitive to absorb all types of energies around her is in the middle of a group that is eating, she can get affected by the lower energies (as opposed to higher or spiritual energies, which are beneficial). This is probably the reason why menstruating women were told to stay away from others and eat separately.
As explained by spiritual and Ayurveda teacher Maya Tiwari, in her book Women’s Power to Heal: Through Inner Medicine:
“Asking women to avoid gardening or cooking during menstruation is not due to the irrational thinking that our menstrual blood is unclean, unhygienic or toxic. The cosmic memory of food – that which is derived only from plant life according to the Vedas – is imbued with prana, a rising energy flowing up from the earth towards the sun and the sky. Conversely, our menstrual blood is instilled with apana vayu, the downward flowing, bodily air pulled down from the body by the magnetic forces of the earth. These two powerful sadhanas do not go hand in hand. Plant-derived food is also kapha in nature, full of youth giving energy that nourishes the body; menstrual blood is dominated by pitta and vata, which fosters the cleansing of the spirit. It is most unwise to introduce the rising, energizing nature of our food into our blood, or to mix the downward flowing, cleansing energy of blood into our sustenance, either by preparing food during menstruation, or by slaughtering animals and eating them.”
Avoiding sex during menstruation
One of the cultural practices surrounding menstruation is the restriction on sexual activity. On one hand, the conversation in the west is shifting to talking about “period sex” as being more pleasurable due to the extra lubrication that blood offers, and also because women are more sensitive during menstruation. However, the Indian thought process behind saying that sex during menstruation should be avoided has to do with the way in which the energy flow affects menstruating women during sex.
During sexual intercourse, women absorb the male energy and men release energy into the woman during ejaculation. So imagine a menstruating woman who is meant to release her own energy, and is instead having to absorb her partner’s energy. Also, if she has sex with multiple partners or with partners having negative energy, it would affect her adversely. Therefore, sex during menstruation was believed to affect a woman’s natural energy flow, and was thus prohibited for her own good.
Avoid swimming or washing the hair during the menstrual cycle
Maya Tiwari, offers a Vedic explanation for this practice. In her book Women’s Power to Heal: Through Inner Medicine, she writes
“At the psycho-energetic level, we need to safeguard the body against the persuasive rhythm of the water element. Water is one of the five powerful elements used to bless, cure, heal, nourish, nurture, and revive the body, mind and spirit… Unlike the mundane understanding of cleansing we have, the ancients knew that water is sacred and powerful, and like all the elements has its own cosmic energy and memory. Water, guided by its cosmic memory, can influence the flow of the menstrual cycle to its own strong beat – exactly what we do not want happening during menses. Conversely, we want the fire element, which is the dominant memory of the blood, to flow in tempo with its own rhythm and tune.”
Avoid eating certain type of food during menstruation
In most cultures in India where menstruation is celebrated, it accompanies food restrictions and preference for specific types of food during menstruation. We met girls in Assam who told us that when they reached menarche (first period) they were given only fruits and water to consume for 3 days. In Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, specific food like ragi, drumstick leaf, fenugreek, jaggery, etc is given.
Ayurveda clearly mentions certain types of food that affect women during menstruation. Any food that generates heat such as animal and dairy products should be avoided. Some women also have stomach upsets or loose motions during menstruation. Therefore, food that is easy to digest, and food that is rich in iron and calcium such as ragi, drumstick leaf, etc help menstruating girls and reduce cramps.
I personally know women who usually suffer from severe cramps and vomiting on the first day of menstruation, but find relief when they go on the right diet a week before and during menstruation. Ancient practices came from an understanding of the influence of food on menstruating women and were created with the intention of helping relieve menstrual discomfort through the right diet. Traditional practices around menstruation follow these food restrictions even now. This is probably why I have come across fewer girls and women in tribal areas who experience cramps during menstruation. The influence of food on menstruation is something that any menstruating woman who has severe menstrual cramps can try and experience herself.
Note: Each person has a different constituency and accordingly each one will have variation in the three doshas. Therefore, not every person is affected similarly by specific types of food. Ideally, getting yourself checked by a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner and then following specific diet for menstrual pain should be preferred.
To know more about Ayurvedic approaches to women's health and how food affects menstruation, read the links at the end of this write-up
Believing that menstrual blood is impure
Perhaps, the most common notion of all is that menstrual blood is impure and that it makes women impure. Interestingly, in some Indian cultures, the menstrual blood itself is revered and thought of as having potent power.
In Manipur, we interacted with a doctor who narrated to us the story of the rituals practiced during a woman’s first period. Here, when a girl first bleeds, the cloth into which she bleeds is safely kept aside by her mother and gifted back to her when she gets married. This cloth is believed to be so powerful that it will protect the girl and her family from poor health and other ills.
We also met elderly women in Manipur who told us that they had tasted a drop of their first menstrual blood, as part of a traditional practice. This blood was considered to be very powerful and believed to keep them in good health when consumed.
On the other hand, the same potent power of menstruation was interpreted negatively in Jharkhand, where people were afraid of finding a menstrual cloth strewn around. It is believed in Jharkhand that menstrual blood is very powerful and can be used for black magic and therefore, women should be very careful about destroying this cloth after use. Every year, around 400 women in Jharkhand are murdered in the name of being witches. The locals tell us that it has become an excuse to accuse single women of being witches, murder them and then take over their property. And women’s menstrual blood plays a part in the belief that woman have special powers.
Regardless of whether the menstrual blood was considered to provide good health or used in black magic, there is no denying the fact that it was believed to be very powerful.
Taking time off during menstruation
In Dakshina Kannada (Karnataka state), we came across a woman who explained to us the relevance of the Tulu festival called Keddasa. This festival is celebrated in the month of January or February for 3 days. This is a celebration of the beginning of mother earth’s fertility cycle which they believe is similar to the woman’s fertility cycle. During these 3 days, mother earth is given rest and no digging or harvesting happens during this time. On the fourth day, some oil and turmeric is sprinkled on the earth and then begins the process of sowing seeds.
Similarly, it is believed that women who are menstruating should also not be disturbed during her period, and her natural cleansing and downward flow of energy should be allowed, before her next fertile phase begins. Thus, these cultures saw a close connect with the cyclical nature of the earth and women’s cycles.
We also visited the temple of the Bhagwathi in Chengannur (Kerala) and the temple of Kamakhya Devi (Assam) where the Goddess too was believed to menstruate and followed similar rituals of menstrual seclusion, closing the temple for 3 days and then celebrating the end of her menstruation. In both these temples, the menstrual cloth is considered highly auspicious and is distributed among devotees. The idea of resting and not disturbing menstruating women, including a Goddess, does not arise from any superstitious belief. It is because of the thought that menstruation and the release of energy during this time should not be interrupted in any way. It is a natural cleansing process which helps women remain healthy, and should not be affected by external influences.
If these menstrual rituals were meant to suppress women, surely we would not be doing the same with the Goddess.
Here is some more information shared with me by Jayant Kalawar, (author of "The Advaita Life Practice", and an advisor to our Trust), when I wrote to him about why my menstrual cycle suddenly shifted by 13 days in the month of November 2014 and began on Nov 18th instead of Nov 6th. He writes:
“The fertility cycle on earth begins with each new moon: each of the first nine nights (nava-ratra, the nine nights of the Devi) after the occurrence of the new moon have a specific significance in what happens and what action needs to be done. This is connected intimately with when to sow seeds in the ground, when to add fertilizers and when to water the seeds etc. Ground water comes up to nourish the seeds / plants the most in the days between the end of the nava-ratra and full moon (approx 5 days / nights). This agri / framing / plants cycle needs to be re-discovered and reinstated through careful empirical study.
For women (i.e. human females), the fertility cycle comes to an end in the last four days / nights leading to the new moon. Hence the ideal menstruation period, which heralds the end of the fertility cycle, should be the last four days / nights leading to the occurrence of the new moon.
So if you started your menstruation period 4 days before the new moon (new moon in Bangalore in November 2014 is occurring at about 12 noon on the 22nd) i.e. on Tuesday Nov. 18th, it would be in alignment with the moon-earth-fertility cycle – according the hypotheses articulated above.”
More about this can be read in his blog Menstrual Health and quest for Economic Freedom within the Moon-Earth Fertility cycle.
Cultural practices believed that it is necessary for a woman to align her cycles with that of the moon in order to ensure that her menstrual cycle and overall health is in balance. For women with menstrual problems, one of the corrective measures offered by traditional healers is to help them align their cycles with the moon cycle.
Restricting menstruating women to seclusion huts
Not all menstrual practices have their root in Ayurveda or the knowledge of energy flow during menstruation. Some were for practical reasons, such as the concept of menstrual seclusion huts.
In October 2014, the local media created much noise about the Golla (shepherd) community’s menstrual practices, in particular the practice of secluding menstruating and pregnant women in separate huts.
We met and interacted with over 300 Gollas across 7 Hattis (hamlets) in Hassan and Chitradurga districts in Karnataka to understand the reason behind these practices. Here is what we learnt:
- In one Gollarahatti in Arasikere (Hassan), the panchayat president informed us that the Gollas live in small houses with multiple families, and also have the sheep under the same roof. Under such circumstances, a menstruating woman has little privacy and space to manage her period. They believed that menstruating women have lesser immunity and are more likely to contract the diseases of the sheep which live under the same roof. At the same time, they do not have the means to provide separate rooms in their homes for the comfort of menstruating women. Therefore, the community decided to build a separate hut (menstrual hut) where menstruating women could comfortably and privately manage their period. Traditionally, these huts were built out of herbal trees such as the neem and lined with medicinal plants which kept the women warm and prevented poisonous insects and snakes from entering.
- While interacting with a village elder, he revealed some interesting aspects of why the menstrual seclusion practice began. He said that the Gollas, being shepherds, were primarily nomadic in nature. The men travelled with the sheep, sometimes for months together, in search of work, and food for the sheep. When they returned, they were naturally eager to have sex with the women, without a thought about the woman’s current condition (whether she was menstruating or pregnant). Therefore, in order to give women the needed rest during menstruation or pregnancy (especially since contraceptives were unavailable) and to make men more sensitive towards woman’s condition, the community decided to have menstrual seclusion huts. So when the men returned after months, and if his woman was in the menstrual hut, he would know what state she was in.
- While visiting a slum in Chitradurga, the women informed us that due to the latest media attention and the focus on getting rid of menstrual huts, they were facing serious challenges. Since the women were not willing to let go of this practice and since the government was discouraging the use of menstrual huts, menstruating women were forced to be out on the streets. They had to bathe, change their menstrual cloth and do all ablutions out in the open. The women clearly said that even if the men in the community tell them to discontinue the practice, they will not let it go – such was their strong belief. They pleaded us to help them build menstrual huts.
Here, we need to realize that these practices had a cultural relevance for this particular community. Forcing the community to discontinue the practice might cause more harm than good. A better way of approaching the problem would involve helping the community economically progress, through which they automatically let go of whatever is not relevant for them in the present times.
While I began exploring the origin behind menstrual practices and the understanding of it as per Ayurveda, I also began experimenting with my own menstrual cycle. I learnt about mudras from the book Mudras and Health Perspectives written by Suman K. Chiplunkar, and got interested in the process of healing oneself without medication and through Mudras.
Mudras are considered as a developed version of yoga and are mainly performed as gestures by the fingers, hand positions and also in combination with asanas, pranayama, bandha and techniques involving eye movement. The type of mudra you do, depends on the problem you are trying to fix.
A month into practicing mudras, I noticed that my menstrual cycle had suddenly shifted by about 13 days (very unusual for me), and I later realized that it synced perfectly with the earth and moon cycle. I felt healthier overall and my discomfort around menstruation had reduced. Since then, every month, I begin menstruating few days before the new moon and thus in sync with the earth’s cycle. I also notice how I end up affecting everything around me when I have my period. Recently, when I had my last period, my team was involved in a physically tiring activity. I noticed that along with me everybody else had also slowed down. It felt as if everyone was moving in slow motion, with no energy left to work. Looking back, I think it is because I sucked up everybody else’s energy like a vacuum cleaner! The only person not affected by it was my friend who just finished her period.
The theory of menstruating women losing their energy and absorbing everyone and everything else’s energy can be applied to all the menstrual restrictions we know of. Whether it is the withering of a Tulsi plant (Indian Basil, considered as a holy plant), the spoiling of curd, pickle or other sensitive processes like silkworm rearing, it can be explained when we consider that menstruating women have a tendency to absorb energies around them. This affects the menstruating women as it interferes with her natural process of having to dissipate energy, and it also impacts the person or thing (plant or other biological process) by depleting it of its vital energy. This also explains the reason behind practicing untouchability and menstrual seclusion.
However, not all menstruating women can affect living processes. The reason I am assuming is because not all women have their cycles in sync with nature and therefore, their energies are not as pronounced. So while some women swear that the Tulsi plant they touched withered away, other women rubbish it saying it is superstition. Whereas, in the ancient times, it was said that all women menstruated with the moon’s cycle, and so the menstrual practices would have become a general rule for all women.
Menstrual practices influences attitudes
In India, attitudes on menstruation are strongly influenced by cultural practices. At the core of the problem around menstrual health, lies a woman’s attitude towards her period. If she doesn’t feel good about it, she will not consider herself worthy of care and necessary hygiene during menstruation.
We need to remember that these cultural practices came into being when ancient Indians were more in touch with their body, nature and our indigenous sciences. It is likely that application of such knowledge would have been commonplace, before the advent of western allopathic medicine.
As someone who has been working on building positive attitudes towards menstruation, I clearly see the importance of understanding the meaning behind these ancient rituals. Whether or not one decides to believe in these is immaterial. What matters is that none of them were invented to suppress women, and it was never with the belief that menstruation is impure.
How do we move forward
Many of you, especially those among you who would be unwillingly following menstrual practices, might now wonder if the above explanations are justifications to continue practising what you have not been comfortable with. You might want to ask me “So am I supposed to continue being treated like an untouchable during my period, now that you have given reasons for these practices?”
The answer is No.
The intention of this write-up is to let you know that there were valid reasons and ancient science behind menstrual practices. These practices were relevant and suitable for the time in which they were conceived. They may not be suitable to the current times. But that does not mean that the underlying reason and the energy flow during menstruation itself is not valid.
So, it's time that those of us who find this information relevant, go deeper to understand these sciences ourselves and even experience some of them. Then, I suggest that we engage with our family/community in conversations regarding what is relevant for us in today’s times. If we feel that some of the practices no longer hold value, then we could challenge them, and adopt whatever works for us. But this needs to be done with our and our family’s understanding of the underlying science behind these practices.
This process of understanding the relevance of the ancient sciences surrounding menstruation, while adopting newer methods to practice them, has been beautifully explained in this blog by Jayant Kalawar, an advisor to our Trust – Menstrual Practices for today’s times.
If you are looking for more information about the science behind menstrual practices, don’t miss Sibu’s latest TEDx talk – The Super Science Behind Menstrual Practices
Inner Medicine: Women’s Power to Heal, through Inner Medicine – By Maya Tiwari
Mudras: Mudras and Health Perspectives, an Indian Approach – By Suman K. Chiplunkar
Ayurveda: Ayurvedic Healing, a comprehensive guide – By David Frawley
Advaital Life Coaching, by Jayant Kalawar
Ayurvedic approaches to women’s health