The Sacred Groves

Though every woman in the world goes through menstruation, the experience differs substantially in different cultures. This article describes how the West treats menstruation as a private affair, something to be shamefully hidden. The author contrasts this with an attitude of certain rural communities in Orissa which have traditionally celebrated menstruation as a sacred activity— a manifestation of the earth’s generation and regeneration.

“The depiction of modern consciousness leads to the conclusion that women’s lives are especially degraded, fragmented, and impoverished,”

Emily Martin


I have chosen to focus on menstruation because it is a process central to the generation and regeneration of the lived world of villagers in coastal Orissa, where I have been doing fieldwork since 1975. The expression “lived world” is meant to avoid falling into a language which presupposes a nature/culture dualism. In my lived world, menstruation is lived and understood very differently from the manner of the Orissan villagers. In my world menstruation is related to reproduction, rather than to generation or regeneration. It is a process understood scientifically and categorised as biology. Scientificknowledgeconcerning menstruation has profoundly affected the manner in which menstruation is lived, understood, and spoken about by many women. Although many women consciously or unconsciously resist or reject the scientific understanding of menstruation, that understanding is dominant in my lived world. It is the one taught to all girls and young women in high schools, and in biology classes in colleges. The scientific understanding of menstruation is the one that determines what is “normal” and what is pathological. That understanding of menstruation, reproduction, and of bodily processes in general as “biological” is also the prism through which anthropology understands and relates to the menstrual practices and the acts that generate and regenerate the lived world of people such as the villagers living in Orissan.

I will examine the category of“biology” as well as its relationship to the self, to nature, and to culture in my world. Such a critical, deconstructive endeavour is meant to decolonise the dominant knowledge system in my world. To do so, I will start with text sand narratives about menstruation in my lived world. This procedure is intended to make me conscious of the prism through which I perceive, understand and relate to the narratives and practices of Orissan villagers concerning menstruation. This new consciousness should lead me not only to a new understanding of menstruation as lived and practised by Orissa villagers but more relevantly to a new way of relating to these. In this new mode of relating, their lived world and my lived world begin to interpenetrate and enter into dialogue. In this new mode of relating, I begin to transform my own lived world, my own sense of self, my own ways of relating to others and to “nature”, and my own way of generating and regenerating my own lived world.

A Private Affair: The thing that comes into sharpest focus about menstruation in my lived world, with even the most superficial encounter with menstrual practices in Orissa, is that it is an intensely private one. In the west, the idea of a large public event to celebratemenses is simply unthinkable. Femalebodily processes, especially menstruation, are experienced as an intensely private matter. Brief perusal advertisements for menstrual pads and tampons make this abundantly obvious; they all promise to eliminate or disguise any outward signs that you are menstruating. They are all designed to reassure one that the product will enable one to act as if one were not menstruating. In the public realm, there is an insistent need to deny the existence of menstruation. Most women would be acutely embarrassed by physical signs of menstrual blood in public. In the public sphere where women and men, work it is unmentionable, or, to use anthropological terminology, taboo.

Care of the body and emotions belong to a personal realm, to be number 82 (May-June 1994)

“In the West, the idea of a large public event to celebratemenses is simply unthinkable…In the public realm, there is an insistent need to deny the very existence of menstruation.”


at-ended to in the private or domestic sphere. This extends to generation and regeneration. In modern society sexuality, reproduction, rest

and recuperation belongs to the private sphere and they are all associated with the body, with biology, with nature.

Menstruation is, in my world, biology; it is taught in schools under the rubric of female anatomy and physiology. Menses happen on their own. They can be modified and controlled by drugs and many women use the pill to regulate, predict and control their menses. This control or modification usually comes from products developed by scientists, not through the lived experience of women. As biological phenomena, menses just happen, automatically, just because we are alive. This way of seeing these processes deprives them of meaning and creativity. Simone de Beauvoircaptures this succinctly in the following quote from The Second Sex(1961:58-59):

“On the biological level a species is maintained only by creating itself anew, but this creation results only repeating the same Life in more individuals. But man assures the repetition of life while transcending life through Existence [i.e. goal-oriented, meaningful action]; by this transcendence, he creates values that deprive pure repetition of all value. In the animal, the freedom and variety of male activities are vain because no project is involved. Except for his services to the species, what he does is immaterial. Whereas in serving the species, the human male also remodels the face of the earth, he creates new instruments, he invents, he shapes the future.”

In my world, generation and regeneration are seen by most as vain activities, mere repetition, lacking any specifically human worth. Generation and regeneration being biological processes do not separate us from animals who blindly repeat life; these processes are devoid of creativity and rationality. The human male, who is perceived to be relatively freer from these processes than women, can be truly heroic, transforming the shape of the earth and shaping the future. The dualism between nature and culture is here baldly stated; biology is nature and generation and regeneration is mere repetition, it lacks all transcendence and is rendered valueless by the existence of human projects and of transcendence. To be truly human, creative, rational, is not to be “enslaved” by our biology. Sucha view is the one fostered by de Beauvoir. This view does not question metaphors and the belittling language used. Comparing descriptions of menstruation with those of the male reproductive processes and those of the stomach she wittily reveals the sexism in the descriptions of menstruation. the category of biology nor the dualism of nature and culture Knowledge of generative and regenerative processes are classified under the category of biology. In her book, Emily Martin(1987) has quoted extensively from several medical text-books describing menstruation. She has pointed out the

Erasing the Experience The particularly stringent taboo n menstruation making itself known in the public sphere, the sphere of the market, of commodified relationships, is indubitably related to the fact that menstruation is a bodily process that cannot be controlled. Hence the acute shame of it showing in the public domain, hence also the proliferation of a bewildering array of products euphemistically referred to as“feminine hygiene”. A quick perusal of napkins and tampons on the shelf yielded such names as Stayfree and Freedom, pithily capturing the desire to erase as much as possible the experience of menstruation, an event experienced as a curtailment of freedom of action.

The body can send us signals such as different kinds of pains or pleasures. In interpreting these signals the owner of the body has no privileged position. The owner of the body has only a privileged position to describe those sensations, not to understand their meaning. Privileged access to knowledge of the body belongs to those who systematically probe the body to yield its secrets. Those are anatomists, physiologists,


molecular biologists, and other scientists. The body, like nature, is an unthinking, unknowing, object of study. The owner of the body is not better placed to know her or his body since the agency that makes this knowledge is outside the body. In fact, the owner of the body is, if anything, at a disadvantage, since knowledge of the body requires invasion of the body, dissection, and such procedures are not best performed on one’s own body. The body is nature, and like nature, its innermost secrets must be probed and torture used, if necessary, to wrench nature’s secrets from her, as Baconurged.

Alienated From Own Bodies Let me illustrate what I am trying to say with a text from a book used for teaching eighth-grade girls about their bodies in Junior High School in Amherst, Massachusetts. The book is written by Ruth Bell (with others), who is a member of the Boston Women’s Health BookCollective that wrote the much acclaimedOur Bodies, Our Selves:

Your Menstrual Cycle. Medical people count your menstrual cycle from the first day your period comes. This is called Day 1. They talk in terms of a 28-day cycle, just for simplicity. We will, too, to help you understand what goes on. Very few women in fact have a 28-day cycle. Look at the cycle on Day 5—that is, five days after your period begins. At this point, the pituitary gland near your brain sends a signal to several of the thousands of eggs in your ovaries. Some eggs begin to ripen, but usually, only one egg will mature. Meanwhile, the ovary sends out the hormone estrogen and signals your uterine lining to become thicker with blood and tissue.

About Day 14 the ripened egg breaks out of its follicle and rises to the surface of your ovary. This is called ovulation (ah-vue-lay-shun). You may feel a cramp or twinge when you ovulate. The egg is then swept into the fallopian tube. Meanwhile, the ruptured follicle produces the hormone progesterone and causes the uterine lining to continue its buildup. If the egg has not been fertilized (if you have not conceived), it breaks apart and disintegrates. Then the estrogen and progesterone signal to your uterus to get weaker. By day24 they have stopped. The uterine lining starts to break off and come out of your cervix and vagina as menstruation begins… What comes out of your vagina is usually called“blood” because the blood in it makes it red, but it’s really a mixture of tissue, mucus and blood. So when a clump of it comes out all at once we may be called it a clot but it is not a blood clot. You do lose some blood during your period, but not as much as it looks like.”

In spite of its simplified language and direct address style, this description of menstruation follows faithfully the medical textbook descriptions quoted by Martin. Asit is menstruation is understood in terms of a purpose that has failed, so that if conception does not occur, things “disintegrate”, “break apart” and get “weaker”. As Martin points out, a very similar process in the stomach is described in terms of“regeneration” rather than“disintegration”.

The other aspect of this description, also pointed out by Martin, is that it is spoken of in terms of a communication system organised hierarchically: from the pituitary gland signals are sent to the eggs and from the ovary to the estrogen hormone and from there down to the endpoint, the uterine lining: “The basic images chosen here, and information transmitting-system with a hierarchical structure, have an obvious relation to the dominant form of organization in our society.” (Martin1987:41)

I want to focus on the word “really” in the following: “What comes out of your vagina is usually called “blood” because the blood in it makes it red, but it’s really a mixture of tissue, mucus, and blood.” (emphasis added)The vernacular understanding is relegated to the status of untrue knowledge. Truth is single and cognitive authority lodged only with the scientists. Lived or vernacular knowledge is delegitimised. Lived experience and vernacular knowledge not deliver to us the “real”, that is, the monopoly of the certified knowledge makers. This message has, of course, already been delivered by a description of menstruation which is totally foreign to the lived experience of women. It is a kind of knowledge that can be acquired only through the probing and examining of the body asan object of inquiry, an object placed outside of the consciousness investigating it. The road to “true” knowledge is single and it specifically eliminates lived experience as a source. Eighth graders reading this account of menstruation are placed outside their own bodies and must experience their bodies as a strange, alien entity.

Following sections of Bell’s book address girls’ feelings about menstruation; headings such as “Not feeling ready”, “Being ready” and“Feelings about menstruation” have


Napkins and tampons, given such names as Stayfree and freedom, pihily capture the desire to erase as much as possible the experience of menstruation, an event experienced as a curtailment of freedom of action number 82 (May-June 1994)

several quotes from menarcheal aged girls about their feelings. The message conveyed is that feelings about the body are not sources of knowledge about the body; the latter is inaccessible to these girls and is produced by specialists.

The next section, entitled “BriefHistory and Attitudes Towards Menstruation” delegitimises and belittles another source of knowledge about menstruation, that is, other cultures and times, adding to the message the ideology of progress. The manner in which this is done bears quoting since it reiterates the message that truth is single and the exclusive property of scientists:

“In primitive cultures, women were sent away from the settlement on those days. They weren’t supposed to touch or go near certain objects for fear the objects would be ruined. To this day, in certain religions and cultures, men aren't supposed to have sex with their menstruating wives.

Those taboos around menstruation were based not on fact but on fear. Women’s blood was a special kind of blood. It didn’t come from sickness or injury. It was related to a woman’s ability to give birth, and that ability was and still is a power that only women have. You can imagine that before much was known about periods and childbirth, some people thought these events were caused by magic. Primitive men may have been jealous of that “magical” power. Both women and men may have made up stories about it and been afraid of it.

Now we know that menstruation and childbirth are not caused by magic. We know there is really nothing to be scared of. But the same kinds of attitudes persist.” (Emphasis added; Bell al, p.32)

Here all the cultures which do not have practices based on the scientific knowledge of menstruation are lumped in the one loaded category of“primitive”. Those benighted people, not having true knowledge, are ruled by fear, make up stories, frighten them-selves with them and believe in the “magical” power of menstruation. The last sentence ensures that if any reader harbours similar notions, he/she should know that they are utter nonsense, fit only for superstitious and ignorant primitives. The lesson is relentless: the embodied self has no privileged access to knowledge about its body; feelings have nothing to do with knowledge of the body; only one kind of knowledge can deliver the Truth; other cultures with different systems of knowledge than theWestern scientific one are dismissed as ignorant and primitive. Primitives and atavistic modems only have menstrual taboos. In sum, there is no other avenues to the truth but the scientific one.

However, as Martin’s The Woman in the Body shows, the idea of objectivity is not attained, nor is it attainable. The supposedly disembodied, unsituated,uncontextualised rationality, radically outside not only of the body but of any particular lived world, is in fact very much embodied in a middle class, white, male body, situated in late industrial capitalism. It has also shown how this knowledge has penetrated deeply into vernacular lived experience and produced a modern consciousness in which “women slaves are especially degraded, fragmented, and impoverished.”

My brief deconstructive exercise is meant to make me aware of the colonising or imperialistic nature of our dominant system of knowledge; colonising not only toward non-Western systems of knowledge but towards alternative modes of being in the world, and knowing the world—especially for women—in my own lived world. This awareness leads me to approach other lived worlds, not in the spirit of the social scientist who, through analysis of the data, produces unbiased knowledge of the other, but


The hill of Harachandi with the temple in the sacred grove In the West… privileged access to knowledge of the body belongs to that who systematically probe the body to yield its secrets… The body like nature is an unthinking, unknowing, object of study.


in the spirit of one searching for some alternatives for myself and others in my own lived world.

Menses Festival in Orissa Let me now turn to the practices, knowledge and sayings about menstruation among villagers in coastal Orissa. I first visited the sacred grove of goddess Harachandi on the occasion of the festival of the menses in 1987. Later, in 1990, I spent most of the four-day festival in one village. Let me start with what Sisulata, a woman in her 40s, who is a mother of two, told me:

“Tomorrow starts the four day festival of the menses of the Goddess, Raja Parba. I am glad you have come to celebrate with us in our village. This festival is almost like our menstruation; we do not bleed but we follow the same rules as during our menses since we are of the same kind as Her. She is a woman and we are all women. We are amsha (parts) of her. This festival reminds us of our menarche festival when everyone keeps us happy …” I asked her to tell me about her first menarche festival. This is how Sisulata described it.


“I was 13 when I saw my first blood. I was afraid. I came and told my father, mother and paternal grandmother who were all sitting together. My paternal grandmother said“shshsh, don’t speak of this like that. This is women things,” and she took me aside and told me that I would have to sit and not be seen by any man for four days because it would harm them.

Then my mother took me to the back of our house where the manure pile is and made me stand on it for about an hour. Then she took me to the house and gave me a bath, pouring water over me. She and the other women didn’t touch me; I was polluted. They called the washerwoman and she took all my clothes and they gave me anew sari. That sari was later given to the washerwoman. Then for the four days that I lay on the mat inside, I did not bathe, comb and oil my loose hair, or decorate myself at all.

Then my parents brought nine kinds of navasasya (seeds) rice, blackgram, mugha (another lentil), horse gram, sesame, mustard, wild rice, wheat and bean. They also brought five pitchers with water in them, covered with mango leaves topped by a coconut(purna khumba.). They spread a mat and on that a red cloth for me to lie on. At the four corners, they placed four pitchers and the fifth midway between two of the others. Then they spread the seeds all around the mat.

My mother told me “come here and sit on the mat”. She taught me how to wear the napkin and said: “Don’t be afraid, it is not bad; you’ll bleed four days and it will happen every month. You must not work, not cook, not cut any vegetables. You will rest and eat separately.” I stayed in that room with the windows closed so that no man would see me and the sun would not fall on me. I only went out in the night to relieve myself. My girlfriends came and brought me food: fruits, flattened rice, puffed rice; only raw and dry food, no boiled food. I ate no fish, meat, eggs, onions, garlic, and no salt or turmeric. This means I ate no cooked rice or curry because these must always have salt and turmeric. I could chal with my friends. Every day I was given a new sari. All these four saris were later. 1given to the washerwoman On the fifth day, before dawn, seven married women came to take me to the pond and we all bathed. They poured water over me, rubbed my body with oil and turmeric, blew the conch shell and did hulahuli (women’ trill, an auspicious sound). The barber’s wife cut my nails and painted auspicious designs with alata(red dye) on my test. They combed, oiled and braided my hair. They dressed me in all new garments and I wore my mother's gold ornaments. We all came back to the house in a procession and I was so happy to be out and to be able to touch everybody! I was also happy because everyone brought me presents and fussed about me.

My parents had sent the news out to all our relatives and neighbours and they came to our house that day with presents forme. That day I had to feed sweets to seven small children. I stayed decorated the whole


A man and his young daughter in Dekudi watching the women and girls bathing in a pond on the 1stday of RajaNUMBER 82 (May-June 1994)

day and people kept coming and giving me clothes, oil, turmeric, combs, lots of things for me. I got so many saris, blouse pieces, bangles, sindur (redpowder for the dot on the forehead)! These were my first saris, before menarche I wore only frocks. At one point in the day, my mother prepared offerings for the temple; on a winnowing tray she placed a lamp, incense, a bit of food, some coins, and I carried it to the temple and offered these to Siva. Then I ate consecrated food. In the evening my mother had cooked a grand feast for all the guests.

I remember that feast so vividly when everybody kept me happy. Now, this festival of the Goddess’ senses reminds us of our menarche festival when everyone kept us happy. Now we also keep ourselves happy; we don't work; we don’t cook, we don’t cut any vegetables or grind any grain; we sing and play with our women friends; we bathe and decorate ourselves and our relatives send us presents. At this festival, we get the “menses basket”(raja bhard) from our parents’ house. Usually, one of our brothers comes and brings this for us. They send us garments, decorations, sindur, alata, things for us to wear.”


In the following conversation, I asked Sisulata to clarify for me what being untouchable during the four days of menstruation meant.

Sisulata explained: “This blood that comes out if you or we touch it we become c/!«an (untouchable). The blood from a wound is not untouchable, it is not mara (polluted). The blood of menses is not from a wound, not from the lips of a wound. That blood comes by itself. WhenSatidusi (Goddess Sasthi) takes care of the child, she leaves the blood in the womb. Other-wise when the day and time comes the blood comes by itself. If you touch her during these days you become polluted.

“Is the blood of menses maila(dirty)?” I asked her.

Satidusi. She stays in the belly and makes it ready; she leaves that blood in the belly where it remains for ten[lunar] months and from that the child comes… Satidusi stays in the belly and arranges it, everything is done by her. Who else can do this?”No, it is not dirty! Dirty blood is something that comes whenever the body is sick. We don’t like seeing it. The blood of menses is given by

Woman as Fertility Goddess far from any village, at the edge of ricefields and the wildlands along the sea. The festival lasts four days and the sacred grove on the hill is for that duration densely populated with long tents set up by the men of some 60villages in a radius of about 20 Kmaround the temple. One man per household from all these villages comes to spend the festival in the shade of the ancient trees. Women come and visit the temple but they return the same day to their villages where they celebrate with all the girls and women. Men and women are separated during these four days and the village resounds with the laughter of young girls and women swinging on swings specially hung for the occasion. Everyone told me — men and women — that this was a festival of a woman even though the men also observe it. It is also a festival of the earth and of agriculture. During these four days, it is not only women who stop working but the men do too. No ploughs and bullocks are seen in the fields. All work ceases. Humans and the earth are given rest, just like women must rest during their menses… This is what Bhikari Parida, a man from another village, told me about the Goddess, women and the earth: Goddess Harachandi has her temple on top of a woode hill situated


My parents had sent the news out to all our relatives and neighbours and they came to our house that day with presents for me. I stayed decorated the whole day and people kept coming and giving me …saris, blouse pieces, bangles, sindur…These were my first saris, before menarche I wore only rocks.



Dibulata decorating one of her daughters for Raja  “Women are prakriti, srusti sakti(the creative energy) and we are purusa (the male principle) and welcome here to worship the adisakti(greater energy), ma (the Mother). Welcome here now because She is at her periods which is good for each and every one. This means that She is ready, She will give forth. She will give us good crops and cause many things in nature to grow. Women are reflections of the Mother and of the pruthibi (earth). The Mother, the earth and women are me the same thing in different forms. During the four days of Raja, my earth, the Mother, is bleeding … We think that women are bleeding too, not really but

symbolically and that the other bleeds through them. During the menses of the earth, women do not work; they play and sing with their friends. The sole reason is for them to rest, just like during their monthly periods when they do not work and must not be disturbed, they should not be touched, they are then untouchable. When the Goddess is bleeding we also stop all work in the fields, and not only we farmers but all other men, blacksmiths, carpenters, potters, washermen, barbers, etc… Itis incumbent upon us that we should please the Goddess and women at This lime. Young women [i.e., pre-menopausal] celebrate Raja because they are the centre of creation and we want to make them happy and please them.”

In order to situate this festival in the agricultural calendar let me start with what Sisulata told me about the manure pile on which she stood at her menarche:

“The manure pile has cow dung(the cowshed is attached to the house on the street side) ashes, house rubbish and straw. We build it up throughout the year and in the month of jyestha (May-June)we take it to the fields and spread it there; not only injyestha but also in baisakh (April-May). In the paddy fields, it will becomefertiliser and that will increase theharvest.”

Jyestha and Baisakh are the hottest and driest months of the year.The festival takes place at the articulation between the hot and dry season and the rainy season, toward the end of Jyestha. These season-articulations are called/7/M, the word also meaning “menses”. During the hotseason the land is prepared withmanure and ploughing. Nothing grows then, the land is fallow. The beginningof the rains is the time to sow; seedswill germinate when the very hot earthhas been cooled down with the firstrains and softened, the earth is then justright, ther too hot nor too coldbut just usum (lukewarm). Thefestival of the menses of theEarth Goddess is situated at the end of the hot, dry and fallow season and the beginning of the rainy and fertile season.

The monsoon rains bringlife to the land, fertilise theland which by rest-ing duringthe hot and fallow period hasregenerated itself. There is arhythm of the seasons; a timeof fallow, a time of rain andplanting and a time of reaping. During the hot and dry season, the earth and the clouds are separated. This separation is not experienced as an absence, a lack, but a time of rest; a time for the earth to replenish its forces. Womenare the earth and the rainclouds are the virile Indra, kingof the gods. After the bath onthe fourth day of menses, husband and wife unite in an act called ritu samgamana and the husband recites a Sanskrit verse that ends with: “I am the sky, thou ail the earth” (Kane 1974:202). Theworn en, like the earth, are fixed; theystay in a room during their menses,they stay in the village during the


Sisulata in her Kitchen in front of a painting she has drawn“Women are prakriti, srustisakti and we are purusa and we come here to worship theadisakti, me. We come here now because She is at her periods which is good for each and every one.NUMBER 82 (May-June 1994)


festival. The men come and go like monsoon clouds. The separation of men and women during men's harmonises with the cosmic rhythm. Violation of this harmony threatens the continuity of life.

More specifically, during the bleeding time, women not only must rest and do no work but are enjoined to sit separately, away from where the life of the home is taking place; they are not to bathe, comb or bind their hair, cut their nails; they are not to cut, grind or make a paste of any vegetable or any plant. These practices identify women at their menses with the sacred grove of the goddess. The sacred grove of the goddess is situated away from villages and fields; it is separated from the daily activity of people. Notre or plant can be cut there; no cultivation must take place in the grove. As the work of Hiltebeitel onthe Sanskrit Mahabharata has shown(1980,1981) women’s hair and garmentsare as the forests on the earth. Womenare not only untouchable but they areat that time in an untouched, wild state.Uncombed, unbathed, unbound, uncut, and they themselves must not cut or grind vegetable plants. Theirembodied selves are in the same stateas the untouched, uncultivated sacredgrove and they act towards the worldin the same way it is enjoined to act toward the sacred grove: nocultiva-tion, no cutting. As biologist Madhav Gadgil (1991) has shown, thesacred groves of India are the lastplaces where the primal, original forestcover remains today. He points out thatwith the drastic geneticimpoverishment brought about bymonoculture and the green revolution,regeneration of indigenous gene plasmcan take place thanks to the sacredgroves. Today these groves shelter thehealing herbs and plants used in ayurvedic medicine. The plants can only be found in virgin forests.

When I asked men and women what would happen if women’s menses were violated, they invariably responded by giving me the example of what happened to the villain of the Mahabharata when he violated queenDraupadi’s menses. He was killed in the ensuing great battle, but more terribly his whole lineage was extinguished. This meant no continuity of life. All these calamities werecaptured in one word: ilosha. When Iasked what would happen if anyonecut the trees in the sacred grove, thesame word was used: dosha. calamities. That is a disease, famine, barrenness, etc… The menses are women’s sacred groves.

her temple on top of the hill as well as an iconically in the grove itself. WhenBhikari Parida says “we feel that theMother bleeds through them(women)” or when Sisulata says “weare the same kind as her. She is awoman and we are women. We areparts (ansa) of Her” these are notstatements of simi-larity, or metaphors,or statements of a symbolicrelationship. These statements declare a state of affairs. It is clearly not the case that these statements betray a confusion between the literal and the symbolic. Bhikari Parida says, just before the sentence quoted, that “We think they (women) are at their periods,not really but sanketika(symbolically).” Most women do not bleed during the Raja Festival; what they do, as Sisulata tells us, is as follows: “We follow all these rules of menstruation as we are of the same kind as Her.” The rules of menstruationsuch as keeping themselves separate, not bathing, not combing the hair, notcutting or grinding any plants, notdoing any work (which includes no sexual relations with husbands), etc…as pointed out above place women in an uncultivated, wild state. Just as the choreography between men and goddess Harachandi manifests herself anthropomorphically as a woman whose image is enshrined in


“Goddess Harachandimanifests hereself as awoman whose image isenshrined in her temple, in thegrove itself… We feel that theMother bleeds throughwomen.”



Women performing sandhya arati at a neighbourhood shrinewomen of separation followed byunion harmonises with (he cosmicrhythms of the seasons, the actions and observances of women at theirmenses articulate with the spatial rhythms of cultivated fields and virginlands. The rules of menstruation when looked through the lens of “taboos” make us focus on “beliefs” such asthat the touch of menstruating women will make men sicken. Seen that way the “belief is a mental phenomenon. Seen in terms of Observances or rules that harmonise women and men to the rhythms of the seasons and the spatial rhythms of the land, violating these rhythms is breaking the harmony orthe articulation of the human realmwith the non-human realm; it is real, itis not a mental phenomenon. One is either in synchrony with the movements of the season or one is not.

The activity of bleeding and ofobserving the rulesof menstruation —the two being of apiece — fit, adapt,harmonise humansto the ordered cosmos. The fitting, adapting, harmonising are human activities and practices such as bleeding periodically, resting, keeping men and women separate, doing certain things and not doing other things. All these human activities will ensure order and the generation and regeneration of life; in other words, the continuity of life.

The Latin ritus all have a common etymology, harking back to ritu. Symbolic action is based on meanings given to things and/or actions by the human mind. These symbols, these signifiers, are arbitrary, that is, basedon convention. The world, by contrast, is real, not arbitrary convention bound; meaning is imposed upon it and one can, and for effective mastery of nature, indeed must be able to distinguish these two they keep the rules of menstruation areof the same kind. Ritu as a period of time is also a rule; the French regle, meaning menses, conflates these two senses of rule and measure (of time).Regle means both a “ruler” (in the sense of a measuring rod) and a “rule”.aspects of reality. The modern meaningof ritual betrays its ancient forbearer, the Sanskrit ritu, and makes it difficult to approach the contemporary Oriyameaning of ritu and of the menstrualobservances of Oriya villagers, men and women. For Oriya women, the act of bleeding and the actions by which

Ritu as the articulating activity of the sun in its yearly movement and as the articulating activities of women in their periodic bleeding and of men and women in their menstrual observances an activity which is hidden or perverted when a separation is made between nature and culture, self and body, the literal and the symbolic. With these separations, generation and regeneration become biology which, as de Beauvoir says, is a mere repetition of life. Generation and regeneration themselves lose nobility, worth, the status of human projects. They become biological phenomena and objects of inquiry. Women are submitpassively to menstruation, which they can not control. For womento become agentsin their own right,they must followmen and engage insymbolic activity, inprojects.

At menarche, the young Sisulatafirst understood theregeneratingactivity ofmenstrual bleeding when her motherplaced her on the manure pile. Herblood, along with manure, willregenerate the fertility of the fields. Thishappens close to the time of thefestival of the Goddess’s menses, when the manure is spread over the fields. She learns that women are the centre


On the Goddess being pleaseddepends generation andregeneration… If she is angry,famine, disease, floods,droughts, all manner of calamities befall… Thegoddess embodies the realitythat women and the earth areone.


Men camping at the festival site number 82 (May-June 1994)of creation by being placed in the centre of a space created by the nine types of seeds and the five pitchers. The nine seeds play a role in many other ritual occasions. Vandana Shiva(1991), in her investigation of seeds intraditional agriculture, reports thatfarmers make a point of growing thesenine seeds and was told that theystand for the nine planets. The ninekinds of seeds are at once symbols ofthe planets as well as being a diversityof food grains, all staples in the diet. The circle of seeds is at once the cultivating activity of humans, and the cosmos, particularly in its aspect of the passage of time.

The pitchers are the most commonsymbols of auspiciousness, usuallyplaced on each side of an entrance orportal (Apffel Marglin, 1985). Thenumber five here refers to the fiveelements that make up the world. Redis the auspicious colour par excellence as well as the colour of blood. The girlis placed at the centre of the world, forthe coming of her menses has placedher there. As Bhikari Parida says “theyoung women…are the centre ofcreation.” She is secluded from menand from the sun, like in a chrysalis,transforming in solitude and darkness,her generating power gatheringstrength within her. She is in a dormantstate and eats only a restricted diet tocounterbalance the enormous amountof heat and power that her new bloodis generating.

Her coming out is a joyous affirmation of her new state. Relativesparticipate in this by sharing food andbringing gifts. Such gifts will continue after the girl is married and become part of a dense network of prestations which ultimately regenerate the community. The menses basket given to the married daughter/sister at Raja Parba is one instance of the continuation of these gifts.

Menses as RegenerationAt menarche, the girl has placed at the centre of creation. There as woman arena Palai, a male villager put it: “Our women are our Laxmi (Goddess,con-sort of Vishnu). They are the goddess of the house; when they are happy then we get everything. If we make them sad, then suffering is the result.” she will remain; her activities of bleeding, conceiving, gestating,ob-serving the rules of menstruation, processing the grain from the fields, cooking, feeding, keeping the accounts and the wealth of the household, seeing to the presentations among and myriad other activities generate and regenerate their lived world. 

As many men and women told me, the Goddess has created the world and all that lives. On the Godess being pleased depends on the generation andregeneration of the lived world. If sheis angry, famine, disease, floods, droughts, all manner of calamities willbefall humankind; the world thendegenerates. The women are portionsof the goddess and men say that they depend on their lives and the continuation of their line. The goddessshould not be understood as a symbolof the earth and/or of women. This manner of approaching the goddess reduplicates the dualism between consciousness, the mind on one side and the really real, the world on the other side. The goddess is an image in which elements of consciousness and elements of the world coalesce. It is animage which allows theinlerpenetration between subjectiveconsciousness and the world.

The goddess embodies the realitythat women and the earth are one atthe same time as it makes visible that generating and regenerating the worldis a human, a natural and a divineactivity in which consciousness andthe world interpenetrate. Calling this a“fertility” religion misses the point altogether since for us it is “mere” nature worship. Phrasing it and approaching it in that way preserves the dualism between biology/nature and culture and the fragmentation,


Women’s wall decoration with rice flowThese practices identifywomen at their menses withthe sacred grove of thegoddess… No tree or plant can be cut there; no cultivation must take place in the grove degradation and impoverishment of the lives of women and also men.


I have only focused onmenstruation in this paper so as tofocus on the argument. The generating and regenerating of the lived world encompasses infinitely more than what I have been able to touch upon here. In fact all activities of men and women generate and regenerate their lived world. The separation between a domestic sphere and a public sphere is here not the modern separation in which the private/domestic is supported by andsupports the public domain. The domestic sphere is not a dependent sphere of the body, the emotions, and non-commoditised relationships; rather it is the sphere of women and the centre of creation.

In modern societies, the domestic sphere is one in which there-production of people can be seen as the production of more perishables (see Sherry Ortner,1974). Reproduction there is a mere repetition of life, devoid of consciousness. A life that is not mere repetition is found in the public sphere dominated by men and masculinized women. This dualism between biology, the body, nature on the one hand and consciousness, mind, rationality on the other eventually threatens the continuity of life. Life is improved, lengthened, managed, optimised, etc…all of it resulting in what Foucault, Donzelot and others have called “bio-power”, the ultimate value in modern society; individual health, longevity, etcetera, in a social, moral, and aesthetic vacuum.

The non-modern form of generating and regenerating the lived world encompasses all social/culturalactivities, engaging all the human faculties: bodily activity, cognition, ethical, aesthetic, spiritual. Modern consciousness having particularly degraded, fragmented, and impoverished women, they have less to lose than modern men and may become the vehicles for a new consciousness.

Sherry Ortner, 1974). Reproductionthere is a mere repetition of life, devoid of consciousness. A life that is not mere repetition is found in the public sphere dominated by men and masculinized women. This dualism between biology, the body, nature on the one hand and consciousness, mind, rationality on the other eventually threatens the continuity of life. Life is improved, lengthened, managed, optimised, etc…all of it resulting in what Foucault, Donzelot and others have called“biopower”, the ultimate value in modern society; individual health, longevity, etcetera, in a social, moral, and aesthetic vacuum. The non-modern form of generating and regenerating the lived world encompasses all social/cultural activities, engaging all the human faculties: bodily activity, cognition, ethical, aesthetic, spiritual. Modern consciousness having particularly degraded, fragmented, and impoverished women, they have less to lose than modern men and may become the vehicles for a new consciousness.


Apffel Marglin, Frederique, Wives of theGod-King: The Rituals of the Devadasis of Puri, Oxford U. Pr., Delhi, NewYork, Oxford, 1985.

“Rationality and the Lived World” decolonizing Knowledge: FromDevelopment to Dialogue, eds. ApffelMarglin & Marglin, OxfordUniversity Press, impress, “Woman’sBlood: Challenging the Discourse of development”, The Ecologist, vol. 22No. 1,1992.

“Gender and the Unitary Self: Locating the Dominant when Listening to the subaltern Voice”, to appear in OralTraditions, edited by G. Raheja.

“Sacred Grove: Regenerating the Body, the land, the Community” in Conflicts in Global Ecology, ed. Wolfgang Sachs, Zed Books, 1992.

Bell, Ruth et at, Changing Bodies, Changing Selves, Random House, NewYork; 1980.

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De Beauvoir, Simone, The Second Sex,1961 (1944).

Gadgil,Madhav & Berkes, Fikret“Traditional Resource ManagementSystems”, Kesource Management andOptimization, vol 18 (3-4): 127-141.

Hiltebeitel, Alf, “Draupadi’sGarments” Indo-lranian Journal 22.1980.

Kane,V.P., History dharmasastra Vol.11Part I, Poona Bhandarkar OrientalResearch Institute, 1974.

Martin, Emily, The Woman in the Body: ACultural Analysis of Reproduction, Beacon Pr., Boston, 1987.

Ortner, Sherry, “Is Female to Male nature to Culture?”, Women, Society and Culture, and Society eds. Rosaldoand Lamphere, Stanford UniversityPress, 1974.


Young girls singing Raja songs on a swing

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