Although puberty occurs to both male and female bodies, celebrating a girl’s ‘transition to womanhood’ is considered to be a grand affair in many societies and comes with its own set of rituals. Such celebration as a ritualistic event, projects a hetero-normative and patriarchal view of womanhood. Assam has its own peculiar ways of rituals and customs to celebrate a girl’s puberty or her menarche through the Tuloni Biya. The essay takes a critical look at this particular ritual.
The body is a ‘text’ of culture; it’s a symbolic form upon which the norms and practices of the society are inscribed ̶ Sandra Bartky (1992)
Menstruation is a biological act fraught with cultural implications, helping to produce the body and the woman as cultural entities. Puberty represents the entrance into womanhood in a society that devalues women through cultural scripts associated with the body. Although puberty occurs to both male and female bodies, celebrating a girl’s ‘transition to womanhood’ is considered to be a grand affair in different communities and societies. Puberty normally begins between the ages of 8-14 in females, and between 10-16 in males. In a male body, the physiological changes that occur due to puberty include the development of the testosterone hormone, deepening of the voice, growth of hairs in the face, chest, and pubic region, and the growth of the testicles and the penis. The menarche or the first period is the benchmark of puberty in a female body. In girls, the first puberty change is the development of the breast buds. There is an increase in hair growth not only in the pubic area but also under the arms and on the legs. The other physiological changes include widening of the hips, increase in height and weight, accumulation of fats in the buttocks, legs, stomach and the most important part is the development of the ovaries. Approximately a year before the first physical changes of puberty in both male and female bodies, there is a release of FSH (Follicle Stimulating Hormone) and LH (Luteinizing Hormone) The rise in FSH stimulates an increase in estrogen  synthesis and oogenesis  in females and the onset of sperm production in males. The rise in LH stimulates an increase in testosterone production in males and the production of progesterone  in females. As a result of these hormonal changes, the physical changes associated with puberty begin to develop.
Celebrating puberty as a ‘knockout event’ opens a doorway to the patriarchal world avowing that the girl now has the reproductive potential, she is capable of being a mother, she is sexually desirable and the epicenter of attraction from hereon is her ‘developing feminine body’. This is a hetero-normative, patriarchal view of womanhood, where a woman’s attainment of puberty is celebrated only because it signifies the development of her reproductive abilities. According to feminist scholar Luce Irigaray (1985):
The passive, indirect, fragmented language of menarche and menstruation is about sexual objectification and alienation. This sense of bodily alienation is entwined with women’s object status in patriarchal societies that allow men subjectivity but construct femininity as a mirror through which men see themselves as human.
I find it bemusing to observe societies that perceive menstruation as ‘unclean’ or ‘embarrassing’, inhibiting even the mention of menstruation whether in public or private, literally celebrate a girl’s menarche according to Hindu rituals to signify this transition into womanhood. Some questions that immediately come to my mind following such rituals – Are the traditional customs surrounding the celebration of puberty sensitive to a young girl’s need? What are the superstitions that are followed along with the celebrations? To what extent are these customs viable to a woman’s reproductive health and life?
THE RITUALISTIC AND THE MENSTRUATING WOMAN
Ritu Kala Samskara ceremony or Ritushuddhi is one of the most important Hindu ceremonies, celebrated not only in Assam but in different parts of the country. Known by various names, this festival is a celebration of a girl’s menarche or first menstruation. In Tamil Nadu, it is known as Manjal Neerattu Vizha, in parts of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, it is known as Peddamanishi Pandaga, and in Odisha it is known as Raja Parba . Linguistically too, it has different terminologies such as Langa Voni in Telugu and Langa Davani in Kannada. It should be noted that these customs and cultures are not confined to the Indian subcontinent, but are acknowledged among different communities globally –
- Girls from the Amazonian Ticuna tribe (indigenous people who live in Brazil, Colombia, and Peru) spend three months to a year living in private rooms in their family homes after they get their first period.
- In Fiji, some communities lay out a special mat for girls on their first period and teach girls about the importance of this milestone.
- In some places in Japan when a girl first gets her period, the family celebrates by eating a traditional dish called sekihan made of sticky rice and adzuki beans. The red colour of the dish symbolises happiness and celebration.
- The Ojibwe tribe of North America pay tribute to girls reaching puberty with a celebration called The Sunrise Ceremony.
TULONI BIYA ̶ THE RITUALS AND PROCEDURES
Assam has its own peculiar rituals and customs to celebrate a girl’s puberty or her menarche. Regarded usually as Xoru Biya (Small Wedding) or Tuloni Biya, this event is celebrated widely among most Hindu Assamese communities including tribal communities such as the Bodos, Karbis, Misings, Sonowal Kacharis, Deoris and Rabhas. When a girl between the ages of nine and twelve experiences her first period stain, her mother along with some elderly women from the neigbourhood, cover the girl with a cotton shawl and guides her to a relatively quiet corner of the house where male members can’t reach or see her. In that space, the escorting women change the girl’s regular clothing to the traditional mekhela sador, they counsel her on the significance of attaining puberty and on certain precautions, the menstrual cycle, and also on restrictions that she will have to subscribe to as a menstruating woman. For instance, she will be advised on how traditional attire is necessary to cover her ‘bloating body’.
For the next seven to ten days she is rendered untouchable where she is not allowed to roam freely in her own house, touch even her own belongings, sleep or eat anywhere she desires. The corner becomes her ‘homeland’ for the next few days. A temporary bed of straw or mat (mattresses are allowed nowadays) is constructed for her on the floor in that corner. Beneath that bed a banana leaf, a knife, and few mustard seeds are placed. It is believed that the knife and the mustard seeds help the girl to keep away from any kind of paranormal nightmares. A burning earthen lamp, a brass pot with water covered by the traditional Assamese gamusa, and a few grains of rice in a bowl are placed next to the bed. For the initial few hours the girl is not allowed to consume any food or water. The girl’s family consults an astrologer or purohit, who ‘examines’ her stars, moon, and the omens to determine the duration of her fasting. Accordingly, there are seven different time periods for fasting:
- Patihita – 7 days of fasting.
- Kanta – 7 days of fasting.
- Subhaga – 7 days of fasting.
- Baishya – 16 days of fasting.
- Duvaga – 12 days of fasting.
- Patihina – 3 months of fasting.
- Dushila – 44 days of fasting.
On an additional note, she is deprived of her regular bath for the next 4 days, and also not allowed to comb her hair or use hair oil, or even look into the mirror. Therefore, all the mirrors of the house, even the windows and ventilators are carefully covered by dark and heavy clothes. It is believed that the intake of food and bath can hamper her now matured uterus and comb, oil, or any other grooming tools can enhance her sexuality and libido.
On the fourth day, a ceremonial bath takes place where the girl is smeared with turmeric and sesame seed paste. After this process of ‘purification’, sindoor or vermilion is applied on her forehead and she is asked to take the blessings of a ‘banana tree’ which is symbolic of her future husband (the banana leaf placed on her bed along with the other paraphernalia signifies copulation post marriage whereby the leaf is the corporeal husband). After that, a symbolic baby or kanai  is exchanged between the girl and her mother which is representative of her future child. Menstrual taboos too will be enforced into her lived behaviour such as, ‘Your body becomes impure during periods, you need to restrict your movement’, which is a common patriarchal trope every girl is subjected to on this particular day.
Before the seventh day invitations are sent to relatives, friends, and neighbours to partake in the rituals, as on that day the girl is bathed with sandalwood, the mat on which she was confined to is now removed and the priest performs the ‘purification’ of the house. The girl is then dressed in a pure silk mekhela sador, adorned with jewellery that generally brides wear during their wedding ceremonies. Expensive gifts are showered upon her by guests. A lavish feast is organized for the entire community by the family to announce that their daughter is now fertile and feminine, and that she be socially and culturally treated as a woman from hereon.
It is pertinent to mention, that in Assam menstruation of the Goddess is also celebrated and not just that of common womenfolk. The main reference here is the Ambubachi Mela festival which is a celebration of Goddess Kamakhya’s annual menstruation. The festival occurs inJune every year. It is believed that during this period Goddess Kamakhya menstruates and so her temple remains closed for seven days for devotees. There is also a complete cessation from all ploughing, sowing and other farm work during this period. Thus, I argue that there is a deep relation between menstruation and the paradoxical relations between the concepts of purity and profanity. Menstruation is believed to be profane and hence, there are taboos associated with it, which reflects for both the common women and the divine.
THE PROGRESSIVE WAY FORWARD
Most people from the communities that engage in ritualistic practices for the celebration of menarche believe that, ‘When other communities decide to tag menstruation as a taboo, they choose to celebrate it’. But that is only partly true. Throwing a feast for the entire village while the girl is made to fast cannot be termed as a celebration of menstruation. One may argue that in pre-modern times during such celebrations, girls were isolated from the rest of the family because of risk of infection, stains caused due to the use of unhealthy clothes and to maintain a normal body temperature during the onset of puberty. But scientific adaptations are necessary with the advancement of time.
In contemporary times, I strongly believe it is hypocritical to keep a girl who is no more than a child, locked up in a quiet corner of the house, depriving her of nourishing food and the very necessity to bathe regularly, limiting her accommodation to a mere bed-sheet on the floor and forcing upon her a lack of socialisation when nourishment, hygiene, comfort and emotional support are the most important factors concerning the care of a menstruating girl. It depresses me to see people choosing to hurl unwanted remarks about female sexuality and the body instead of educating little girls who don’t have the slightest idea about what is happening to their bodies, which is also due to the lack of sex education in most schools in Assam.
I believe it is but appropriate to question about the origin of taboos and superstitions associated with menstruation and also with these puberty celebrations. Anthropologists have attempted to explore the genesis of taboos and superstitions associated with menstruation which has been prevalent since time immemorial. For instance, Bruno Bettelheim (1962) is of the view that menstruation and the related capacity of child bearing were once a source of jealousy to men. Therefore, in an attempt to make the two sexes equal, taboos were imposed on menstruating women. It is a serious need of the hour that superstitions and taboos such as the symbolic marriage of the girl to a banana tree and forbidding her from entering the kitchen during her menstruation, should be abolished from society.
Moreover, it is important to note that rituals and restrictions are two different concepts. A ritual can be a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order, while restriction is dogmatic and indicates a state of being restricted. It is well established by now that women have historically been restricted or rather discriminated on the pretext of one ritual or another. The rituals around menstruation also intend to restrict women. It is nothing but ironical to worship women as a manifestation of the Supreme Goddess during the celebration of menarche in the name of ritual but simultaneously restricting her movement into the temple or considering her ‘impure’ from touching even curd and pickle.
Women bleed and that is a biological fact. But, celebrating this bleeding can be regarded as Mangolik Anusthan (sacred ceremony) only when all the taboos and superstitions associated with it will be removed and society fully understands that menstruation is nothing but a very normal biological phenomenon. Parents ought to understand and accept the psychological, behavioural and physical changes a girl undergoes during this period of transition. Proper education regarding reproduction, puberty and sex should be given to both boys and girls in school. Campaigns for sanitary hygiene should be conducted within every community to make people aware about napkins and tampons and also about the risk of using dirty, unhealthy clothing during periods. And the most important thing is to consult a gynaecologist on the onset of puberty instead of ignoring it, or trying to hush up a girl’s concerns or celebrating it luxuriously.
- Estrogen – Estrogen, or oestrogen, is a category of sex hormone responsible for the development and regulation of the female reproductive system and secondary sex characteristics.
- Oogenesis – Oogenesis, ovogenesis, or oögenesis is the differentiation of the ovum into a cell competent to further develop when fertilized.
- Progesterone – Progesterone is an endogenous steroid and progestogen sex hormone involved in the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and embryogenesis of humans and other species.
- Raja Parba – The concept of Raja Parba is a little different than the others. It is a three day long festival of womanhood celebrated in Odisha. The festivities begin a day before Mithuna Sankranti. This festival is also associated with the end of the summer season and the arrival of monsoon. And therefore, it is also associated with agriculture and cultivation related communities and activities.
- Kanai – Representation of the future child. This is made with the help of a handkerchief or small clothing wrapped in a structure of a ball. Inside the ball there will be 5 betel nuts, any gold ornament, a pearl or any kind of crystal and few colourful threads.
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Anansha Borthakur is a postgraduate student at the Center for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. She is a trained Sattriya dancer and is currently working with an NGO in Delhi. Her research interests include women’s health, work and livelihood.