Girls and women menstruate. Some animals do too. But a goddess who’s on her period? In the Kamakhya temple in India, place of the womb and vagina of goddess Sati, this happens every year.
The legend of Sati
According to an Indian legend, the goddess Sati (also known as Kamakhya) committed suicide because her father insulted her husband Shiva. Insane with rage, Shiva placed the dead body of his beloved on his shoulders and did the tandav, the dance of destruction. The god Vishnu, who didn’t want the cosmos to get disrupted by this dancing, cut Sati’s body into pieces and scattered them across the earth. Everywhere a part of Sati’s body fell down, a shrine for the goddess was erected.
Her vagina (also called yoni) and womb fell on the Kamakhya hill in Guwahati in Assam, now home to the Kamakhya temple. There, Sati is honoured in a natural cave (the womb), in the shape of a yoni-like rock with a spring. Once a year, from 22 to 25 June, the temple remains closed as the spring water turns red: the goddess menstruates. Nobody knows exactly how or why this happens. Some say the water colouration, which always happens during the monsoon, is caused by iron oxidation. Others claim the temple’s priests dye it with vermillion powder.
Ambubachi Mela: a different kind of period party
Whatever the reason of the red water may be; when the goddess menstruates, it’s party time. During Ambubachi Mela, as this Hindu festival is called, thousands of people come together to celebrate the fertility of the Earth and the female life power. Devotees can obtain ‘prasads’, pieces of cloth dipped in the goddess’ menstrual blood, which are said to bring good luck and power. In 2020, the festival won’t be held because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Priests will still perform rituals and prayers, but devotees, sadhus (holy men) and tourists won’t be allowed to visit.
Some claim Ambubachi Mela is the reason why there’s less of a menstrual taboo in Assam compared to the rest of India. Although women are still considered impure when menstruating, in Assam the menarche is also celebrated. This ritual is called Tuloni Biya, which translates as small marriage. After her first menstruation, a symbolic wedding-like celebration including songs and gifts is held to celebrate the fact that the girl has become a woman. Traditionally, this was a public celebration with the entire family, neighbours and friends. In recent years, though, Tuloni Biya has become more of a private family affair.