When it comes to conversations around menstrual taboos, usually there are two strong viewpoints: one which says that it is all rubbish and we need to set women who follow these taboos “free”. Another, equally strong but externally silent viewpoint says that we should never stop following what women in our families have done for generations. The two viewpoints do not meet and usually have no tolerance for the other.
In our stubbornness to prove what we wish to be true, we rarely look at the rituals for what they are. Rituals and taboos are only external forms of some belief. They are either good or bad depending on the belief that gave birth to the ritual. Sadly, the most commonly heard beliefs around the menstrual rituals are negative, hinting at menstruation as being impure. And therefore, the rituals that arise from this negativity cause more harm than good.
But what if there are people whose beliefs about menstrual rituals are far from negative? In fact, they consider menstruation to be a powerful, sacred event, so much so, they believe that even the Goddess menstruates! And when She does, She goes through the same rituals that we would otherwise call taboos; except, that it is not in sadness and discrimination, but in celebration and festivities that the Goddess follows the menstrual rituals.
Meeting the Menstruating Goddess
Of all our menstrual journeys so far, this one has been the most enlightening. On hearing the story of the menstruating Goddess in Chengannur, a small town in Kerala, it was with great curiosity and excitement that we embarked upon this journey. As the journey progressed, it led us deeper into what menstruation might have meant years ago. The questions we asked and the ease with which we found the answers made it seem like the town was awaiting our arrival!
In the small and beautiful town of Chengannur, every person, male included, spoke with pride of the menstrual festival, Thriputh Aarattu, to anyone who was a newcomer. We had the opportunity to visit the temple, interact with the temple authorities and devotees and most of all, meet the supreme priest of Sabarimala who does the special puja during the Thriputh Aarattu. We even got the opportunity of a one-on-one interview with the supreme priest and his wife, Smt. Devika Devi, who is the only person allowed to inspect the Udayada (inner skirt) of the Goddess, and declare if the Goddess is indeed menstruating or not! Before we left, Smt. Devika Devi surprised us with a very special gift….
But first, the legend.
The photo [above] is taken from a document published by the temple authorities, the last copy of which is with me. This document was given to us by the temple authorities. It has information about the legends and history of the temple and the Thriputh Aarattu.
One of the first things told to visitors like us is the story of Mr. Munro, a British resident, who had laughed at the belief that the Goddess menstruates, and stopped all grants for observing it. Since then, it is said, that his wife started bleeding severely without stop. Though he supposedly consulted many doctors, his wife’s period did not stop. A well wisher of Mr. Munro told him that it may be due to his action in stopping the grants to Chengannur temple. Then Munro said that if his wife is cured, he will create a trust whose interest would be sufficient to observe the celebration of the thirupoothu (periods) of the Goddess. His wife was apparently cured soon after. Apart from a creating the trust, Mr. Munro also presented two golden bangles to the Goddess. Mr. Munro’s family continues to sponsor the first period of the Goddess even today!
Our conversations with worshippers and temple authorities helped us understand the strong faith people have in the power of the Menstruating Goddess. Many people are believed to have been cured of problems of infertility, marital issues and even irregular periods, by praying to the Bhagwathi (Goddess Parvathi) during Thriputh Aarattu. They believe that during the time of the Goddess’ menstruation, most prayers will be answered. People from all across Kerala and outside the State throng to Chengannur once the Thriputh Aarattu is announced.
Unfortunately for us, the last such event happened on Oct 1st and we just missed it. But, the temple authorities noted our phone numbers and said that they will inform us when the next one happens (it cannot be predicted when!)
Conversation With Smt. Devika Devi About the Goddess’ Menstruation
The temple authorities informed us that the in-charge priest checks the Goddess’ udayada (inner skirt) every day, for signs of any stain. If he does find a stain, he immediately takes it to the Madam (Convent or Math) for inspection by the senior woman, Smt. Devika Devi, wife of the supreme priest of Sabarimala. Only she is allowed to inspect the cloth and declare whether or not the stain is menstrual blood. Sometimes, if she is absent, her daughter-in-law inspects the cloth. We were lucky to get the opportunity to have an extended conversation with Smt. Devika Devi, who has a very pleasant personality and a peaceful demeanor. Written below are pieces of our conversation with Smt. Devika Devi, in the presence of her husband.
Question: How do you know when the Goddess menstruates?
Smt. Devika: We don’t get to know. Nobody can tell when it will happen. When the priest finds a stain in her Udayada, he brings the cloth to me immediately. Then, I inspect it and if I find that it is indeed menstrual blood, I inform him to close that portion of the temple, and move the Goddess to another chamber. Then, we inform all the newspapers and TV news channels that Thriputh Aarattu has begun.
Question: How can you tell that it is menstrual blood?
Smt. Devika: (smiles) It is just my experience of being a woman and having done this for nearly 60 years now. I was a young girl when I was married into this family, and my mother-in-law taught me these things. It is not a very big stain, about the size of a bindi. Last month, the priest had brought the cloth to me 3 times, but when I inspected it twice, I found that it was not menstrual blood. Only, the third time, it was.
Question: How often does the Goddess menstruate and how much does she bleed?
Smt. Devika: Earlier, it used to happen every month. Now-a-days, it happens 3-4 times in a year. My mother-in-law used to tell me that in her time, the Goddess used to menstruate for 2-3 days at a time, but now, it is only a few drops on the first day. I have not seen it happen for more than one day.
Question: Does this happen anywhere else in the world?
Smt Devika: As far as I know, this is the only temple where the Goddess’ menstruates. It is very auspicious. Any prayers to the Goddess during this time will be fulfilled.
Question: Tell us about the festivities and the rituals when the Goddess Menstruates
Smt Devika: On the first day, she is removed from the regular Garbha Gudi (inner chamber where the Goddess is usually worshiped) and taken to another room where she is left alone until the third day. A couple of women from the temple sleep outside her room to keep her company during this time. Everything that follows is similar to the rituals that we follow when we get our period. In fact, if you look at the Goddess’ face during her period, you will see how she too does not feel too enthusiastic, looks dull and tired. On the afternoon of the third day, some women visit her, dress her in old cloths (just as we would when we are having our period) and prepare her for the function on the fourth day. The fourth day is the grand ritual, when the Goddess is taken on a female elephant to the holy river Pampa and bathed, following which she is dressed in grand clothes and jewellery (including the bangles given by Mr. Munro!), and taken back to the temple. Several ceremonies follow and the town is packed with thousands of worshippers during this time. This is the Thriputh Aarattu.
Question: Tell us about the Menstrual Cloth. We read that it is auctioned to the highest bidder and there are people booking it a year in advance. Is that right?
Smt Devika: The Goddess’ Menstrual cloth is considered highly auspicious and people used to call from far of places to book it. I remember booking a cloth for my friend once. However, we stopped auctioning it 2 years ago, as the prices went too high. Now, the udayada worn on the first day is kept in the temple and the udayada worn on the other days is kept with me.
As we concluded the conversation, Smt. Devika asked us to wait, and while she served us some prasadam and juice, she went inside and came back with a beautiful piece of white cloth. It was the udayada and it was gifted to us!
Attitudes matter more than rituals
One of the students who I narrated this tale to, asked me how I did not question the science and reasoning behind all this. I told her that being an atheist has set me free to simply listen and respect others belief.
We spend too much time worrying about menstrual rituals and taboos, without even asking those who follow it if it is indeed impacting them negatively. Most women I know who do not visit temples during their period, do it willingly and with joy. Allowing women the right to make their choices, not just about menstrual products, but also rituals, is fundamental to empowerment.
Visiting Chengannur opened my eyes that it is hardly ever about the external form of the ritual, but the attitude towards menstruation that matters. It deepens my belief that there was indeed a time when menstruation was considered to be a powerful, positive and sacred event, in celebration of which, the rituals emerged. Sadly, we have all forgotten the reasons, and blindly follow the forms.
If the rituals arise from negativity towards menstruation and harms the person who follows it, then there is a problem. If not, then we have no right to interfere with other’s beliefs. And there is no need.
I will conclude with an interesting incident that happened a few weeks ago. While undertaking a health pre-screening for garbage workers in Bangalore, I asked a 52 year old female worker, when she had reached menopause. She said that it has been over 5 years and that she really misses getting her period. Then, taking me completely aback, she pleaded “Can you please give me some medicine so that I will get my period again?”
This woman, who had no formal education and in most likelihood followed every menstrual ritual her ancestors passed on, understood the magic of menstruation.