By Daisy Mowke
Edited by Namrata Caleb, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
The cultural and religious practices of a state and the significance accorded to them form an integral part of the beliefs and identities of people. It often acts as a unifying bond among diverse kinds of people.
Ambubachi Mela (Ambubachi Fair) is one such religious practice which holds its own significance among its practitioners and believers. This unique fair is held every year in the North-eastern state of Assam during monsoon time. The fair is held to worship Goddess Kamakhya, the presiding deity of the Kamakhya Temple, situated on the Nilachal hill in Guwahati, Assam. This fair is unique in the sense that there is a very peculiar and unusual belief which goes behind the celebration of the fair.
It is believed that this is the period when the Goddess goes through her yearly menstruation cycle. The Mela is actually a celebration of the yearly menstrual cycle of the Goddess. The monsoon rains around this time are believed to be associated with the menstrual cycle of the Goddess, and hence the Mela is celebrated during monsoon time. The Kamakhya Temple is said to be the birthplace of the Earth. Thus, Mother Earth is also believed to be menstruating during this period. The whole Temple resounds with the chants of “Prithibi Rajashala Hoi” (Mother Earth is menstruating). Because of this belief, the Temple seems to be obsessed with the colour red.
Devotees from different places come flocking in large numbers to take part in the Mela. The Temple remains closed for three days, as it is believed that the Goddess, and hence, Mother Earth, becomes unclean for these days. During these three days, devotees set up their camps outside the Temple. On the third day, the Goddess is bathed and several rituals are performed. This is to ensure that the Goddess ‘retrieves’ her purity, after her menstruation cycle is over. Following this, the Temple is opened and ‘prasad’ is distributed. On the fourth day, devotees are allowed to enter the Temple to offer their prayers.
People believe that a period of ‘rejuvenation’ sets in once Devi Kamakhya retains her purity. To celebrate this renewal or rejuvenation, many people believe in cleaning up their homes and washing all their laundry after the third day, when the menstrual course of the Goddess is believed to be over. This, according to them, is a way of keeping with the rejuvenating spirit of the Mela.
Interestingly, the basic idea behind the Mela is similar to the traditional belief attached to a woman’s menstrual cycle. During this time, a woman is thought to be ‘unclean’, and hence she has to abstain from any kind of household chores or from entering places of worship. Many Indian families still hold on to these traditional values. Thus, the very act of closing the Temple’s doors in the belief that the Goddess is ‘impure’ or ‘unclean’ runs parallel with the traditional woman’s ‘menstrual seclusion’.
This kind of menstrual seclusion is related to menstrual taboos, which are used to oppress women. These taboos see menstrual blood and menstruating women as “unclean”, thus requiring women to distance themselves from others. In many Indian families, when a girl has her first menstruation (that is, when she gains puberty), she is made to dwell in a separate space of the house, especially away from the male members of the household. After the completion of a specific number of days, she is bathed in order to “clean” her.
Just like a menstruating woman is refrained from doing certain chores, the devotees too maintain some restrictions like not cooking for three days, not performing “pooja” or worship, not reading holy books, not farming on those three days, etc. It is only on the fourth day that the devotees get back to their daily routine.
The ‘prasad’ which is distributed on the fourth day is also very unique. It is given in the form of bits of cloth. There is a mad rush among devotees for the ‘prasad’ as it is considered highly auspicious. It is unique because it is moist with the ‘menstrual fluid’ of Goddess Kamakhya.
Historically, a woman’s menstrual blood has been “feared” by society, especially by patriarchal men. It is stigmatised in society due to the various traditional beliefs discussed. Menstruating women were considered “unclean”, and even religions have referred to them as “ritually unclean”, the proof of which is the Ambubachi Fair. Due to the building up of such beliefs, women are made to feel unclean or impure during their monthly cycle, and most of them also feel guilty about praying or worshipping during those days. These beliefs have been ingrained so deeply that some women actually consider it as a duty to follow these norms.
The social taboos related to menstruation also make it uncomfortable for women to discuss about it openly, particularly in front of men. The menstrual norms may not be practised in every household, but they are largely true of many traditional Indian families, though the degree of belief may vary from household to household.
In a different line of belief, menstrual blood is considered to be sacred by many people. It is said to possess sacred powers. It is often believed to be the “most sacred” substance on Earth. Even this belief can be associated with the celebration of the Ambubachi Fair, which is why it is believed that the creative and nurturing powers of Mother Earth become accessible to devotees during this time.
Thus, menstruation and menstrual blood has always been perceived with a kind of awe. Even though it is a completely biological and natural monthly phenomenon that women go through, talking about it candidly or explicitly is still considered a faux pas. Hence, many societies come up with their own euphemisms for menstruation to make a conversation about menstruation sound less “unpleasant”.
Such beliefs and traditions have attached a religious significance to the menstruation process, which, in its functioning and working system, has actually nothing to do with religion. And this kind of religious attachment has led to unique celebrations like the Ambubachi Mela, which is a symbolic manifestation of the menstrual seclusion of women.
This also illustrates how notions of gender (in this case woman’s menstrual cycle) are associated with religious and cultural beliefs and ideas of people. The basic thought behind the Mela is very analogous to the gender performance expected of a woman when she is going through her monthly cycle. Such a religious extravaganza, though unique in its own rights, is also problematic in the sense that it propagates and celebrates a gendered societal idea.
Religion has always viewed menstruating women in an unbecoming manner and the ritual practice of menstrual seclusion and then celebrating the end of menstruation cycle further institutionalises these religious values and beliefs, thus providing people a reason to continue with their norms. This is not to suggest that all the followers of the Mela have such entrenched social ideas about women and menstruation, but in the end, one’s practices, be they religious or cultural or social, are more often than not fashioned by the beliefs that one nurtures. And it is at that point when a person’s beliefs and the resulting practices start evading upon the practicality of a certain issue or aspect that it becomes important to understand that gender and religion, or gender or society are actually different as well as separate entities, which should not be always attempted to blend or merge, thus leading to a conflict-free dynamics between them.
Daisy has always been a quiet person, with the habit of penning down thoughts rather than speaking them aloud. This habit culminated in her interest towards poetry, and finally led to the publication of her first book of poems, titled ‘Midnight Calling’. After joining St. Stephen’s College there has been no looking back. Currently pursuing English Honours, Daisy aims to pursue her career in the field of teaching. She also dreams of joining Oxford someday.