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Home > 2023 > Menstruation as a Sacred Practice in Assam | Karishmeeta Das

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 17, April 22, 2023

Menstruation as a Sacred Practice in Assam | Karishmeeta Das

Saturday 22 April 2023


by Karishmeeta Das *

Many societies the world over practice taboos and rituals in relation to menstruation, a biologically natural phenomenon. However, through the societal lens, a menstruating woman is believed to be impure and is barred from performing various activities and also visiting certain places or attending ceremonies. At the same time, the first sign of blood in a girl child, marking her entrance into puberty, is celebrated in many societies. In Assam, the first menstruation of a girl child is celebrated and the term denoted to this celebration is ‘Tuloni Biya’. Ambubachi Mela is also considered to be a very auspicious occasion on which the annual menstruation of the native deity, Goddess Kamakhaya, is celebrated. Every society has its own set of beliefs and rituals. This paper focuses on the various beliefs, rituals and taboos associated with menstruation in the Assameses society. 

THE ENGLISH WORD ‘menstruation’ is etymologically related to the ‘moon’. The terms ‘menstruation’ and ‘menses are derived from the Latin word ‘menis’ which means mouth. They are also related to the Greek word ‘mene’ which means moon, and thus to the English words month and moon and denote the monthly-ness of the phenomenon. Menstruation, which is also known as the ‘period’ or ‘monthly’ can be defined as the regular discharge of blood from the inner lining of the uterus through the vagina in the female of the mammalian species. The first period in a girl child usually begins between the age of twelve and fifteen years, and this time is known as menarche. Menstrual rituals and taboos have been prevalent in many societies for ages. In most societies and cultures, even today, people hesitate to talk about menstruation directly, i.e, they shy away from discussing menstruation as an experience, often painful and associated with issues of health. As such, discussing any social comfort associated with menstruation too is taboo.

Taboos in relation to menstruation are universal practices and various rituals and traditions are associated with it among different cultures. The term ‘ritual’ too has different meanings and has different aspects like magical, social, mythical and metaphysical rites associated with it. The rituals that are associated with puberty are social but a religious dimension is also attached to them. Puberty is an age-related definition and defines the status of a woman’s life, moving from the stage of childhood to the stage of taking up a new social role — that of a child-bearer.

 There are two main types of rituals mentioned by Durkheim in his book, Elementary Forms ofReligious Life, i.e., the ‘positive cult’ and ‘negative cult’. The ‘positive cult’ includes the commemorative, imitative, sacrificial and peculiar rites, whereas the ‘negative cult’ includes the ascetic rites and taboos. Various societies believe that menstruation must be kept hidden. It is considered to be a negative thing whereas in certain societies, it is viewed as a positive thing and they do not attribute any kind of uncleanliness to it.

In Assam

There is considerable ambiguity, confusion, contradiction and ignorance in dealing with menstruation in Assam, where people consider it to be a negative and impure phenomenon. At the same time, they celebrate this as an auspicious event, and this is a positive outlook. Thus, menstrual rituals are considered to be related to the concept of purity and pollution which exist in certain societies. These rituals of menstruation, however, are ascribed a gender even as the concepts of ‘sacred’ and ‘unclean’ are connected with each other. There are many myths associated with the act of menstruating and many traditions consider menstruation as ritually unclean.

Though the study here is focused on Assam, it limits itself to Assamese Hindu society and intends to study how menstruation is considered a sacred practice and what are the rituals and taboos associated with it. The study, thus, hopes to provide a sociological perspective to menstruation.

Assamese Hindu society has its own rituals, customs and norms. The puberty rites and rituals also vary across different areas of Assam. The various rules relating to purity and pollution are not only applicable to people belonging to different castes, classes etc, but are for all women in a community.

Objectives & Methodology of the Study

The study is titled ‘A study on Menstruation as a Sacred Practice and the Rituals and Taboos associated with it in Assam’. The objectives of such a perusal are:

  • To study the various rituals associated with the first menstruation and also of the monthly menstruation of the women belonging to Assamese Hindu Society and the various beliefs associated with the practices.
  • To study the impact of menstruation rituals on women.
  • To study the various changes that have been taking place in the practice of certain rituals and beliefs about menstruation in contemporary times.

I am mostly interested in studies related to women and felt menstruation rituals must be studied to know how people view it in different societies. Such studies can help make people aware and enable them to break the taboos associated with it. Assam was selected for the study because menstrual rituals and taboos are practiced by the Assamese Hindu community. Assam is a State in Northeast India. The study is based on the secondary data that has been available and participant observation since I am a part of the Assamese community and have observed and am familiar with the rituals and taboos practiced in this society.

The secondary data has been collected from journals, articles, write-ups etc. The respondents from the secondary sources are Assamese women. The study includes the theoretical perspectives of ‘Purity’ and ‘Pollution’ by MN Srinivas which is also based on feminist theory.

Rituals and Taboos related to First and Monthly Menstruation

Majority of the Assamese Hindus practice a ritual which is known as ‘Tuloni Biya’. It is a ritual which is performed when a girl attains puberty. It is a stage of transition from a girl to womanhood. Puberty in many Indian cultures is considered to be linked to the process of blossoming or flowering, which is actually a very important stage before the appearance of fruits, in this case children.

In Assamese communities, traditionally, when a girl attained puberty, she had to go through a period of monthly isolation. She had to remain confined to a room, where a separate bed, spread with hay, is laid for her. For seven days no one could touch her, nor could she touch anything. This is because the girl was considered ‘Suwa’, which is the Assamese term for impure. For the first three days, she was not allowed to eat any solid, cooked food. She was given uncooked grams and pulses, fruits, milk and milk products. She could not cut her nails, could not comb her hair and was not allowed to see men. She was not even allowed to see any pictures or images of men. Men were not allowed to touch or see her. From the first day onwards, another girl would be made to accompany her everywhere she went. This girl would be of the same age and was known as suwali-parala-diya, which means, the one who guards the menstruating girl (Gogoi 1964).

The girl who had attained puberty, that is, the one with the first-time period, was bathed on the fourth day with proper wedding rituals by applying maah-halodhi, i.e., after application of gram and turmeric paste on the body. These items were considered purifiers. The place where the girl would be bathed, a banana tree which symbolised her husband, was placed. She was, in effect, married to a banana tree. After she took her bath, she was made to wear mekhela-chador, which is Assam’s traditional dress and from the fourth day onwards till the seventh day, the girl was made to eat boiled food (rice and lentil) which is known as ‘hobbis’ once a day, just after sunset. The girl had to cook the food herself in a clay pot.

On the seventh day, the girl would again be given a ritual bath in front of the banana tree. This time, all the women belonging to the family and neighbourhood would be present and after her bath, the days of her seclusion would come to an end. Then, after the girl got her ritual bath, she would be dressed like a bride and a big feast would be organised by the family, for friends and neighbours and the girl would be offered gifts by everyone (Das, 2014).

It is on the first day of bleeding itself that a member of the girl’s family would consult the priest and let him know the date and time when the girl attained puberty. Then, on the basis of this date and time, the priest would make some astronomical calculations in order to find out any hindrances or problems in the girl’s future marital life. When a girl attained puberty during the morning hours, it was considered as serene as it is believed that she would have a peaceful marital life. Those who first bled in the evening hour were considered as frustrated women. Such beliefs were associated with the hour of day in which one first bled. If any kind of hindrances were found then the priest would prescribe fasting, maybe for a month, a year etc (Das, 2014).

Throughout the entire menstruating period, the woman was considered to be impure for seven days in every month. The rules and the restrictions that were followed every month included being completely bed-ridden for three days continuously. She could use the toilet but could not touch anything and whatever she touched had to be washed. If she wanted to sit in some other room, she had to carry her own stool. Her food was offered to her separately, and she had to wash up the utensils she used. She was not allowed to touch plants as people believed, if menstruating women touched plants, they would die.

A married woman was not allowed to sleep with her husband as there was a belief that the husband might get infected with the germs and he might not live long. She was not allowed to enter the kitchen and the prayer hall or participate in any kind of religious ceremonies. It is because these places are considered to be sacred and since the woman, during her menstrual period, is considered to be impure, their presence or touch would make sacred places dirty, which might lead to certain negative consequences. Even their shadows were considered to be impure. It is on the third day, after she took a bath and washed up her clothes and utensils, that a woman was allowed into the kitchen on the fourth day and to the prayer hall on the seventh day. The rituals at some points differed in certain households. If the households were very strict, they even sprinkled water on the paths on which the menstruating women walked. Traditionally ordained, complete rest for the menstruating woman may have, in ancient times, been practiced for health reasons but this reason has been completely obscured by the religious factor associated with the practice of taboos.

Menstruation of the Goddess

In Assam, the menstruation of a goddess is celebrated. The festival associated with menstruation is called the Ambubachi Mela. The annual menstruation of Goddess Kamakhya, the resident mother goddess and the most important local deity, is celebrated every year in the month of June. For three days, the temple remains closed as there is a belief that during that period Goddess Kamakhya menstruates in order to prepare herself for reproduction. For the women who menstruate during this time, the menstruation rituals become even more strict. It is very ironic that the same society considers menstruating women as ‘polluted’ whereas the menstruation of Goddess Kamakhya is worshipped. The menstrual fluid (an underground red oxide ore that flows out of the goddess’s cave as a rivulet in June when the monsoon begins) and the menstrual cloth of Goddess Kamakhya are distributed as Prasad, the food blessed by the gods. At the same time, however, the real women’s clothes are considered to be very dirty and polluted when they are menstruating.

The contradiction is typical of India where people denote low status to women but say they worship the female goddess. The perception related to menstrual dirt is not only physical but it is also symbolic beyond the menstruating women’s bodies. Durkheim’s concept of ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ is linked with menstruation — menstruation is considered sacred because of the mystery around the phenomenon and it is considered as pollution, because of the social construct.

Impacts of Menstruation Rituals and Taboos

Menstruation rituals and taboos have both negative and positive impact on the woman who menstruates. During menstruation, the girl becomes very weak and needs proper rest. It is because of the rituals and taboos that she is considered polluted and she cannot touch anything, nor perform any work. This can be considered as ‘positive’ as it is a way which allows a girl or woman complete rest with social sanction. However, all these associated taboos and rituals imposed during menstruation can be a mental burden and have a ‘negative’ impact, as they cannot attend any religious ceremonies or functions which might make the women feel good.

It is because of such restriction that, even today, many women skip going to religious or marriage ceremonies. Often, teenaged girls are debarred from performing various religious rituals. According to a study conducted in Simlitola village, it was found that many newly menstruating girls found it very difficult to follow the rituals and restrictions associated with menstruation. Surveys showed that it was their mothers who insisted on observing the taboos and families with more members enforced the taboos more strictly. It is because of these rituals and taboos associated with menstruation that girls in Assam develop extreme levels of shame and embarrassment regarding menstruation.

In Nepal, there is a practice called ‘Chaupadi’ in which menstruating girls and women have to live in huts outside their houses. Such kinds of isolation imposed on women leads to various psychological problems, and often have tragic consequences as women forced to live outside their homes and communities are often subject to sexual violence. It is because of the taboos and rituals that they have to be completely dependent on others, which also leads to various problems. Though, the scenario has changed with time to some extent and the taboos have been lifted, still certain rituals and restrictions are practiced by everyone in Assam.

Menstruation Rituals and Practices in Contemporary Times 

The menstruation rites and rituals have become less strict in recent times, and this has happened across the subcontinent, not only in Assam. Earlier, ‘Tuloni Biya’ was a great celebration for families, but gradually, the practice has declined; it has not vanished completely. Also, the way of celebrating it has changed. The restrictions were very strict before but now people follow the rituals with certain modifications and with less strictness.

Even today there are families which practice the rituals with extreme strictness and in pure traditional method but their number is declining. In certain families, the first puberty ceremony nowadays is practiced without a big ceremony. All the basic rituals for the girl are practiced quietly, within the family. Yet, there are always families who want to exhibit their wealth, So, the new trend is that people book marriage halls and the girl is completely dressed up like a bride and a grand celebration is done, which is almost similar to the actual wedding ceremony. People issue proper invitation cards to invite people to the feast, in such cases.

There are, however, certain obvious changes.Nowadays, girls are not made to sleep on hay beds but seep on normal beds. Earlier, girls were not allowed to go to school, but now they go to school.With increasing of education among people, most families keep the onset of puberty for girls private and do not have any public celebration. Especially in the urban areas, certain rituals associated with menstruation and the associated restrictions has reduced. In the rural areas however, certain purity rituals are still observed.

Most young people today consider menstrual restrictions and rituals to be superstitious beliefs. They follow it only to please the family elders. Most of them believe that these taboos of menstruating women being polluted is because during those days, women become very weak and need to be protected from infections, so they are told to remain untouched. Also, in the present times, there is considerable change in family structure — from joint to nuclear families. Women have to work, cook and care for the household during their menstrual times. So, following of the rituals has become a matter of convenience for the people and the elderly have compromised with the passage of time.

 People have forgotten the traditional rituals and practices and time and money has also become important factors. With reference to certain case studies (Das, 2017), it was found that since the social atmosphere has changed, people nowadays hesitate at public disclosure of the sexual status of a girl child. Public disclosure of the menstruation status is considered unsafe for the girl or woman. Many families, however, continue to practice some rituals within the family limits for care of the girl child. Thus, it can be said that earlier people hesitated to talk about menstruation in public but the celebration was very grand. Today people break the taboos associated with menstruation but hesitate to publicly celebrate the phenomenon.


It is the women who face a lot of discrimination and restrictions due to menstruation as it is only women who menstruate. Along with the discrimination based on caste, class etc, being a women leads to another form of discrimination and they have to abide by the social norms of purity and pollution. The menstrual blood was once regarded as dirty and dangerous, especially for men, and it was considered as Indra’s curse; it was associated with myths and taboos. It is because of menstruation rituals that men got a chance to denote women as ‘dirty’ and could keep them away for three days and assign lower status to women.

This study shows that among modern Assamese, although the taboos have decreased, the rituals are still practiced. As the duality of belief continues, menstruation is still a sacred occurrence as well as a matter of impurity. Even today women are not allowed to enter temples during their menses as they are considered polluted. The younger generation follow the rituals to keep elders happy and the taboos today are a matter of convenience. For some families, celebrations show off their wealth and status.

If we analyse the experience of menstruation from the feminist perspective, then it can be said that women themselves become the agents of a patriarchal structure with the internalisation of the feminine identity, with respect to menstruation. Also, the notion of pollution can be termed as gender branding. I would like to conclude by saying, Hindu Assamese society continues to be concerned with the religious and cultural aspects of puberty and menstruation has two perspectives for Assamese communities: the negative view considers women to be impure during menses and the positive view is that they celebrate this auspicious moment for the girl child. I would like to infer that such taboos related to menstruation affect the development of women and their contribution towards the economy and the best way to reduce such taboos is to educate girls and women and create scientific awareness in societies.

Author: Karishmeeta Das ( has recently submitted her M Phil dissertation at the Special Centre for the Study of North East India, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


  • Das D (2018). Puberty Ritual Among Women In Assamese Society: A Sociological Analysis. Journal of Higher Education & Research Society. Vol-6. pp.27-37.
  • Das M (2008). Menstruation as Pollution: Taboos in Simlitola, Assam. Indian Anthropologist. Vol.38. pp.29-42.
  • Das M (2014). Performing the ‘other’ in the self: reading Gender and Menstruation through Autoethnography. Indian Anthropologist. Vol.44. pp. 47-63.
  • Das S (2017). Declining of Tuloni Biya: a Case study. Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities. Vol. IX. No 1. pp.244-249
  • Dube L (2001). Anthropological Explorations in Gender: Intersecting fields. New Delhi: Sage Publications.
  • Gogoi N K (1964). Continuity and Change Among the Ahom. New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company.

[Edited by Papri Sri Raman]

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