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Although the issue of menstruation is still a sensitive issue in many Indian families, it had never been a taboo in mine … until an emotional family reunion revealed a generational split.
“Does anyone have a tampon?” I asked as I left the bathroom.
Several members of my family, who had been chattering bustlingly while drinking tea, abruptly fell silent.
We were all staying in a modest hotel room on Rameswaram, an island in the Tamil Nadu state, in South India.
It was a moment of silence against nature for a family that is spread over three continents , chatting non-stop daily WhatsApp, and meets in person on rare occasions.
The reason for that meeting was to honor the death of my beloved grandmother, who had died a year ago, and who was the transcontinental link for the family.
My aunt got up to reach for her purse and handed me a compress.
“This can be valid until we stop at a pharmacy,” she said. And looking at me sadly, he added: ” sYou know what this means, don’t you? “
I did not know, I did not know it.
“You will not be able to come to the temple”
In Hindu culture there are many different traditions around death, depending on what part of India you are.
My family follows the Hindu rituals of the south for the death of someone close.
A year ago, when my grandmother died, we wrapped her body in white cotton on a large banana leaf and prayed together before taking her to be cremated.
We did not eat meat during the 15 days after his death and we did a special ceremony after 90 days.
Then we parted at the airport promising to see each other again for the next phase of the rituals , which is the final chapter of our mourning.
And for that we were now, a year later, in Rameswaram, a well-known place of pilgrimage, famous for its historic temple perched in the Bay of Bengal.
To get there I had taken three planes and had made a long car trip.
That’s why when my aunt said ” you can not come to the temple ” I got defensive.
“Are you saying I can not go to the temple because I have the rule?” I asked dryly.
I could’nt believe it.
“Do not tell me I came here and I can not go with you to the temple.”
“It’s not that I say so,” he said. “It’s like that . “
“Who says it?” I pressed.
“It’s like that, it’s very important.”
I would be waiting outside the temple with the driver.
Where does the taboo come from?
Another aunt told me that it is a tradition that comes from the times when women did not have access to the modern materials that absorb the menstrual flow .
My mother told me that women do not go to the temple when they have a period because they are exempt from doing any task, including domestic ones, they just have to rest.
And speaking recently with Hindu scholars, I came across contradictory reasonswhy exactly women are excluded from religious celebrations when they have the period.
One told me about a Hindu practice called Chaupadi, which considers that menstruating women are impure and give bad luck . Another told me the opposite, that when menstruating women are in the purest moment of their cycle and that exposing others would be dirty, even in a temple.
Arvind Sharma, professor of religion at McGill University in Montreal, who specializes in the role of women in Hinduism, explained that contradiction and said that the restriction has to do with different concepts of what is pure and what is impure.
According to the forms of Hinduism Smarta , based on ancient texts called Smritis, “there are certain moments in which human beings are considered impure for the purposes of a ritual, such as when they have contact with a corpse or with excretions, among other things Women are considered impure during the period, “he said.
“It is difficult to answer exactly why, since religious texts do not give the reasons,” he added.
“But in Shakta Hinduism (which celebrates the feminine, the goddesses), menstruation is considered something purifying instead of something polluting.”
Breaking the taboo
The subject of menstruation has been the subject of debate in India in recent years.
Women’s rights activists have started projects to bring sanitary towels to women in rural areas of the country.
And many women have challenged the taboo around menstruation by sharing provocative hashtags in social networks like #felizdesangrar.
A Bollywood film also explored the subject for the first time recently.
Through my head all these things happened while I waited, at the gates of the temple, for my family to leave.
At that time I started chatting on WhatsApp with a cousin who had not been able to travel for the ritual.
She understood me and after a pause she wrote to me: “You should not have told them you had the period, they would not have known .”
“Have you been to a temple with a ruler?” I asked.
“Most women of our age have done it,” he commented casually, contradicting the categorical phrase that my aunt had given me just half an hour before.
“If nobody knows, it’s not that important.”