#Personal Stories

The Glorious Bleeding Goddess and Her Invisible Daughters

The end semester break for an outstation student essentially means a sabbatical from the mess-wali daal and an intimate affair with all their maa ke-haath-ka delicacies- even if it is as simple as aloo sheddo and bhaat (aloo chokha and rice). In most Bangaali households, you would also find sweet, wrinkled women making achaar out of everything and drying lentil balls in the afternoon sun, which eventually finds its way into your stomach as a fritter in shukto or maacher jhol.

You’re probably thinking I got unlucky, could not visit home and I miss some mouthwatering yet simple food, hence the rant. In reality, what I witnessed during my visit, this month, has inspired this piece today.

My grandmother, a widow of 73, has to be one of the best cooks and disciplined individuals that I have ever come across in my life. A fixed regime of waking up at 6 am followed by her puja and tea-making is how I have remembered her since I was capable of registering memories. I have always called her Uma, not knowing the meaning of the name for the first decade of my life. It means Sati – the Goddess Durga, revered all across the Hindu Shastras as a mother, a warrior, a creator and a destroyer of evil.

Uma has always fed me dishes that would otherwise vanish from our family forever – Khosha Baata, Muri Ghonto, Chitol Maacher Muitthya being a few. But this holiday, it was different. Uma, it seemed, was not allowed to cook, or touch the stove. She was also to follow a strict diet consisting mostly of fruits, sabudana and cold milk. The food could not, in any case, be warm while consuming. Angry, sad and confused at why she had to do whatever she was doing, I got to know, upon inquiry, that it was Ambubachi.

Ambubachi or ambabachi is an occasion where women, specifically widows, have to observe certain strict rituals. The restrictions on food, where even touching rice or wheat is forbidden, let alone being eaten, do not stop here. Very few food items are considered edible and they should, without question, be cold. Other rituals consist of sleeping on the floor, absolutely separately, and not touching any bedding, since it is believed to get contaminated by their touch. The observers cannot trim, shampoo or comb their hair, cut their nails or even till soil. The rituals are carried out according to where the woman resides and her lifestyle, and also varies in some households.

The belief behind these rituals is the yearly menstruation cycle of Maa Kamakhya. It is one of the oldest shrines in India which houses the ‘yoni’ of Sati. According to Hindu mythology, when Sati was burned, Shiva, carrying her body, performed a dance which could potentially destroy the universe. On the request of all the Gods present, Vishnu had to finally intervene and sever Sati’s body in order to stop Shiva. Sati’s body had fallen on various ‘peeth’ in India, which were later called ‘Shaktipeeth’. In Kamakhya, there is no idol, the priests and the thousands of devotees that gather every year worship the vagina or the ‘yoni’ of Goddess Sati.

Suggested Reading:

51 Sacred Peethas of the Goddess by Alka Pande; An Excerpt

But the question that struck me revolved around the section of the population that is expected to observe the rituals: the widowed women of our society, women like my Uma. If we consider that the festival is aimed at providing three to four days of rest to women, since the menstruating Devi is symbolic of all women, why is it that only a special few are allowed to ‘rest’? Is it not only natural to let all women who have hit puberty take a break from their everyday hustle?

The concept of ‘letting’ a woman rest is of great significance. Although a more controversial topic, I believe women can do without the menstrual ‘rest’ that our society so generously gives us, especially when it restores our agency in the hands of those whom we try to free ourselves from. Menstrual rest has been a tool of exclusion of women since time immemorial and even in modern times. And when society saw that if all women go on a break at the same time of the Ambabuchi, the functioning of everyday life would collapse, they conveniently aimed the rituals at widows – an already vulnerable and excluded group who are always at the receiving end of the spectrum of stigma.

The more visible and obvious dichotomy lies at the celebration of probably one of  India’s biggest taboos – menstruation. Can menstruation only be accepted and celebrated when a sadhu or a man deems fit? Why is it that the Devi’s blood is pure and holy but a common woman’s blood is looked down upon?

The Kamakhya Temple in Assam hosts thousands of pilgrims from West Bengal, Odisha, different parts of Assam and even Delhi. The temple remains closed during the four days of Ambabuchi and the yoni present inside the temple is covered with a cloth. Rumour has it that when this cycle ends, the cloth is found to be drenched in blood and it thus serves as prasad to the devotees gathered.

Elders say that even the water of the Brahmaputra turns red this time of the year during the Ambubachi Mela, which was from 22nd June to 26th June this year. If Hindu mythology really does give us a space for accepting and celebrating a woman’s body, why do we go against our shastras by stigmatising it, particularly when our nation requires us to link everything to religion?

If I have to think about it, it is not that I never witnessed Ambubachi before, it was simply too trivial for me to spare a thought. The opinions I formed around this festival came from my experience of watching my Uma perform it, with great difficulty, to be honest. It yields pain and suffering on the part of all these women observing Ambabuchi. The sudden changes in diet is harmful when it comes to women in their later years, which, when coupled with other harsh rituals make up for a rather unpleasant week. The much celebrated Goddess of Kamakhya and her blood sure hides the tears and sweat of her many daughters, like my Uma or other Umas out there. The only true celebration of menstruating women would be when the natural bodily phenomenon is destigmatized.

Turning a blind eye to this four-day prison for an old woman seemed like the easier and better option. Would Devi Sati really want this? Think about it.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not that of SheThePeople.

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