A Personal Tale of a Period Celebration in South India

A Personal Tale of a Period Celebration in South India

A few years ago, when Justin Beiber’s ‘Baby’ was blaring on the radio and skinny jeans were the newest fashion fad - I remember getting my first ever period. It was absolutely uneventful and extremely jarring all at the same time. As my mother and all the other aunts and neighborhood aunties found out, they looked at me with a look of adoration and a glint of understanding. It truly felt like I was a part of some secret club now that I am bleeding every month (truly a blood pact in a way). 

Now, I live with my little nuclear family in a metropolitan city which happens to be a few thousand kilometers away from my parent’s hometown - and hence I also was away from my extended family and our traditions and cultures. So going back to the hometown to a set of 8 uncles and aunties and a plethora of cousins was always a fest! I was still just 12 and was looking forward to stuffing my face with my aunt’s handmade piping hot vadas and chilling on the beachside. But to my horror, when I landed in Chennai the first thing I heard was - ‘You cannot enter the house right now, only after your periods are over and we have done the pooja’.

So let us take a break in the story and understand what this pooja is. In Southern India - especially in Tamil Nadu, there is a coming of age ceremony for young girls which is called ‘Ritu Kala Samskara’ or Half-Saree ceremony, or even just Puberty function. It is a ceremonial coming-of-age ceremony done by Hindus in Tamil Nadu to celebrate the first period of a girl, and her entry into womanhood! So, essentially once a girl gets her first period - she is given a half saree, and then she is bathed in turmeric and then the new half-saree is draped on her and a pooja is done, welcoming the girl into womanhood, after which her maternal uncle gives her a saree as well, which is usually draped in the second half of the day - and then there’s a plethora of good food, gifts, and even money. 

Coming back to the story, as someone who grew up far away from my hometown - I was a stranger to the ceremony. So, the idea that everyone would know that I am menstruating - men and woman alike and all the while it is also celebrated - was absolutely foreign to me. Especially for someone like me who was still struggling with the pangs of puberty, and would hide pads deep in my pocket when I wanted to change in school. And now my entire family and then some were going to talk about me becoming a ‘woman’. Needless to say, I was drowning in anticipation of embarrassment.

So I woke up the morning of the ceremony and immediately was clad in a flimsy cloth covering my body (essentially covering my torso and upper legs), while the men were shooed off to go get groceries and supplies. Then I was made to sit on a tiny little stool, as all my aunts, older sisters, and female cousins surrounded me and applied a thick paste of turmeric, rose water, and other nice smelling things all over the exposed parts of my body - my face, neck, upper chest, arms, legs, and feet; And I duly felt like a carrot cake doused in cream cheese frosting. 

I was left to marinate in the gentle morning sun while everyone scurried to prepare the things for the ceremonial pooja and clean the house. And I took that minute to think about the absurdity of it all, while also appreciating how normal it all felt to everyone else. While I understood the origins of this kind of ceremony were rooted in patriarchy and other archaic thoughts, the modern version of this ceremony just celebrates a girl! When a baby is born in the Tamil culture - many milestones are celebrated with great pomp and show - the naming ceremony, a whole ceremony dedicated to eating the first morsel of food, and then this. So in the grand chronology of things, this was just another reason to celebrate another normal part of life.

So with some newfound enthusiasm, my marination in turmeric was completed and I was washed and was ready to be put into my new half-saree! I will never forget me standing in the middle of the room in a blouse and petticoat as my aunt draped a saree around me and everyone watched me like I was the eighth Wonder of the World. My hair was tied and adorned with roses and jasmines, a plethora of jewelry was put on me, while my cousins were frazzled by what bindi to put that would match my saree (we eventually decided on two and did some DIY to make our own amalgamation of them both!). As cheesy as it sounds, I felt like a princess by the time I was ready - and everyone reciprocated the feeling with the attention I got and the looks I was given. As an early teenager, attention that was precisely focused on me wasn’t necessarily my piece of cake - but because it was just family and everyone meant well - I was comforted.

Then, there was a ceremony with a priest and an altar of fire as is the Hindu tradition, which went by like a puff of smoke (literally), and when I thought it was all over - there came the best part. Gifts and Money! All my uncles and aunts, older cousins, and grandparents - gave me blessings and gifts; and with the grace of a rugby player on an ice hockey ground, I grinningly accepted it all. Then I changed into a more comfortable outfit and had a big meal for lunch and then resumed my life as a happy 12 year old.

This experience with a traditional ceremony completely shattered and changed my understanding of menstruation. These days one expects menstruation to be shrouded in the face of culture and tradition thus, it was rather refreshing to go through this experience and for it to challenge my perception of my period. When I was so busy trying to find a sense of normalcy as my body was changing completely, and I was trying so hard to hide it all - here was a ceremony that very grandly celebrated this new milestone in my life. And I am lucky perhaps, that it didn’t change anything in my life. As I have grown up, and have had my nieces and younger cousins go through the same thing - it has only become a joyous occasion and an opportunity for me to discuss menstruation, sex, and puberty with the younger generation.

So, there must be an equilibrium somewhere where there’s a middle ground between culture, tradition, science, and compassion that this celebration and ceremony certainly hit for me. Though others may celebrate this differently in different cultures, this was my personal experience, which I thoroughly enjoyed. So, now as someone approaching their late 20s, it is so comforting that one of my menarche experiences was this happy and fun. Do you have any traditional celebrations in your culture related to menstruation? Let us know!


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