Temple Taboos on Periods: Are We Sticking To Obsolete Rituals and Beliefs?

Temple Taboos on Periods: Are We Sticking To Obsolete Rituals and Beliefs?

Tucked away in Kerala, the Sabarimala Temple has been a revered place of worship for hundreds of years. Recently though, it has also become a hot-topic for discussions around menstruation and feminism. Dedicated to Lord Ayappa, an eternally celibate God, the temple is only for men, disallowing any menstruating women (women between the age of 13-50) from entering the temple. In 2018, the Indian supreme court had overturned this centuries-old ban. Yet, none had been able to enter since, even with the support of Kerala’s state government and police. Those that tried were stopped, shoved and stoned by mobs of men. This sparked a row of protests, including one where over five million women lined up across the length of Kerala, a state in southwest India. Side by side, these women formed a wall stretching 620 kilometres. 

The case of Sabarimala Temple presents a truth that we must deal with in order to understand temple taboos on periods in India – it does not take long for rituals and beliefs to become taboos, and not all menstruation beliefs are misogynistic. 

Periods have always been considered divine in Indian culture. Many Hindus believe menstruating women are so pure that they’re ‘worshipped’ as a ‘living goddess’ during that time of the month. So why aren’t they allowed in temples or kitchens? 

Imagine the world about 500-600 years ago when women spent most of their days doing household chores, farming, worshipping and taking care of the family. The menstrual cycle was considered a divine experience for the woman, when her spiritual energies were high but her physical being needed rest. It was even believed that a menstruating woman cannot enter a temple as her energy will attract that of the murti (idol), and the murti will become lifeless. Some also believe that a woman’s energy moves downwards during menstruation, whereas energy moves upwards in a Hindu place of worship. 

This was also a time when people lived in forests and villages where wild animal attacks were common. Women were often asked to stay indoors and not visit temples (the most common activity that required venturing out of the house) as the smell of blood attracted animals and made them more susceptible to attacks. They could, however, pray to God, chant or meditate in their own space. With the physical body demanding more rest, women were also restricted from cooking or cleaning in the kitchen. Household chores took most of their time and energy with no days off and periods allowed for every woman to rest and recuperate during these 5 days. 

Sounds logical, right? So how did these logical practices turn into taboos? The answer is simple: practices that were meant to protect women began to restrict and reprimand them as people started to adopt them without knowing their significance, and when in changing times, we still stuck to age-old beliefs. The world has changed from what it was. Women no longer spend most of their time doing physical work in farms or kitchens. They may engage more in mentally strenuous activities. There are no wild animals sniffing off blood when they head out to work or to temples. Some of our practices and rituals around menstruation are nothing but a hangover of the past, a bad habit that we are not able to let go. 

No scripture, vedas or religious texts propose that women cannot pray on their periods, that they are impure, or that they simply cannot enter a temple or a place of worship. The idea of segregation, avoiding sex or contact, and taking ritual ‘purification’ baths are not religious customs but a result of patriarchal discomfort. When sanitary pads or tampons were not used, the sight of blood dripping from a woman’s body was discomforting for most. Over time, various spiritual and occult meanings have been given to menstruation, giving rise to menstruation taboos. It’s time we shun some bad habits and beliefs and make way for a brighter future. 

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