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. Find out more about Ambubachi Mela and other festivals that celebrate menstruation.
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 (in the northeast of India), 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.
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.
Raja Parba: when the Goddess Earth has her period
In Odisha (in the east of India) there’s another festival that celebrates menstruation. During Raja Parba (Raja comes from the Sanskrit word Rajas, meaning menstruation; Parba means festival in Odia) the Goddess Earth is said to have her period. This is celebrated mainly by relaxing: during the three days of the festival, women are given a break from household work. They dress up in their nicest clothes, decorate themselves with red colour, sing and dance, while the girls play on giant flower-covered swings.
Many of the rituals performed during this festival are associated with marriage and girls becoming women. Apart from womanhood, Raja Parba is also linked to agriculture. It always begins on the 15th of June, shortly before the heavy monsoon rains start. The monsoon symbolises the purification bath after menstruation. When the rains stop and the Earth becomes fertile, it’s the start of the sowing season in Odisha.
Rishi Panchami: free yourself from sins committed in past lives
And a third festival that has something to do with menstruation: Rishi Panchami. During Rishi Panchami, which is celebrated in August-September, the Saptarishi (seven ancient sages) are honoured. Legend has it that once, the body of a girl was covered in ants at night. (Another version of the story claims the girl was bitten by worms – whatever happened, it wasn’t nice). Her parents, Uttank and Sushila, asked a sage what caused this. Apparently, in her previous life the daughter had committed the sin of entering the kitchen while she was on her period… To free herself from this sin, the girl had to purify her soul by performing certain rituals on the day of Rishi Panchami. She followed the instructions dutifully and all was well.
Nowadays, many women in Nepal still perform purifying rituals during Rishi Panchami, called Rishi Panchami Vrat. They fast that day, worship and take a ritual bath which includes washing themselves 365 times. The reason? To ask forgiveness for any sins they might have committed during their menstruation, such as accidentally touching others. Things are changing though, and there’s a growing number of women who refuse to repent menstruation and don’t take part. However, with the Nepali government supporting Rishi Panchami by declaring it a women’s holiday and different legends claiming women were reborn as dogs or prostitutes because they didn’t follow the period restrictions, there’s still a long way to go. Period!
LATEST UPDATE: 7-6-2022.
Period! is an independent, online magazine about all aspects of menstruation. Period! is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. If you’re suffering from medical complaints, always visit your doctor or GP. Editorial articles can contain affiliate links. Sponsored collaborations can be found in the category Spotlight. Any questions? Check our Contact page.