The Happy to Bleed campaign is a fitting reply. For too long, religion has placed a taboo on menstruation, regarding it as unclean and impure, and barring menstruating woman from sacred rites or shrines. It was time the proscriptions were challenged.

One of Guru Nanak’s tenets stresses that it is more important for the worshipper to have a pure mind than to appear clean. “By coming together of mother and father are we created,” says the Guru Granth Sahib. Sadly, this rejection of the superstitious isn’t shared by all religions. Judaism and Hinduism have long imposed restraints on menstruating woman. As did Shintoism, before declining population and the youth’s disinterest in religion made it lift the restriction on women priests.

It’s hard to date the institution of the religious taboos and harder still to find on text the restrictions at some shrines. However, it is known why the restrictions were put in place in the first place. As this well-researched blog points out, the strictures were associated with ancient nature-related rhythms and beliefs associated with energy, especially its feminine manifestation (Shakti). There was, it would appear, hardly any association of a menstruating woman with impurity or of being unclean.

At Kamakhya temple in Guwahati, for example, the goddess represents Shakti and its periodically turning red – on account of the temple’s natural rock formations – is seen as an indication of her period. There are rites associated with the deity that only women can perform and witness. As legend has it, an Ahom king who transgressed this rule was cursed.

Women patrons

The association of women with temples changed over time – the conservatism and rigidity seen today developed largely in the medieval period as rites and formalities came to be strictly followed.

Professor Leslie Orr, who has studied women and temples in medieval Tamil Nadu, details the role of women in temples from the Chola period (9th century CE and later). In her book, she explains that Chola temples had women patrons and donors – and not just royal women. Even before that, there were female musicians in temples in Sindh and western India, as Chinese pilgrim Xuanchang had noted.

In the Chola period, women played unique roles in rituals, different from those assumed by men. Temple women were not merely associated with the female divinity of the temple or married to the gods, as is the traditional interpretation of the Devadasi. Indeed, temple women in this period had economic independence, received lands and other gifts.

The conflation of temple women and the Devadasis was gradual and a latter-day phenomenon. As Orr suggests, as new norms of respectability evolved in the 19th century and women with financial independence came to be seen as disreputable, it offered a reason for the Devadasi reform movement.

Newfound popularity

Like the conservatism around temples, pilgrimages for the purification of the self also arose recently. Around the 1850s, with the development of roads and then the railways, the growing British influence over the Arabian Sea region ensured that pilgrimages such as the Kumbh and Haj became popular and pilgrim numbers spiked.

This was still nearly a century before the Sabarimala pilgrimage grew in popularity around the mid-20th century. Its ban on the entry of women aged 10-50 years, now cloaked in tradition, was initially explained by the arduous nature of the pilgrimage – before present-day infrastructure came along, devotees had to trek through the Periyar Natural Reserve. Another reason given for the proscription was the celibate status of the temple deity, Ayyappa.

But worship of Ayyappa, as also religion, is diffuse: besides different names for the same god, varied customs are witnessed in different parts of south India. In Coorg, there is a village, Balmavati (Ballamavati), where only women have customarily offered worship to Ayyappa. In 1954, sociologist MN Srinivas described how high caste women in the village prayed to the god after a ritual bath. After preparing rice flour cakes, they indulged in lewd banter, then danced and sang uninhibitedly. Finally, they walked to the village in a procession, with the menfolk joining in.

Though I found no reference to recent observances of this festival, the worship of Ayyappa as a hunter – including the ritual of hurling profanities at the god – is seen in another popular festival in the region, the “Kunde Habba”. In Virajpet, Kodagu men dressed in women’s attire march to the forest, a ritual space dedicated to the god, and worship him by abusing him. As tradition has it, this is because the god Ayyappa betrayed the people once by falling in love with the goddess Bhadrakali, whom he met while hunting in the forest.

It is then interesting to note the variations in Ayyappa worship. In Sabarimala, it is a well-knit, coordinated exercise, open to men across caste, and yet the management is still orthodox and mostly controlled by the upper caste (Namboodiris). The pilgrimage is as much a pageant as a pilgrimage, dominated by the colours worn by the worshippers and their ritualistic chants during the journey.

On the other hand, the Kodagu festival is a localised affair. The worshippers, usually male coffee estate workers (perhaps owing to the custom of drinking associated with this festival, which is also offered to the god), use the rite to also abuse their employers. The festival, therefore, has egalitarian, and arguably, comradely dimensions to it.

A new respectability

There is a new respectability to the restriction on women at temples, even those that were previously natural shrines. Recently, in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district, the Shani Shingnapur shrine performed a “purification puja” after a young woman offered “worship to the idol placed on a platform from where women are traditionally barred”.

The shrine’s origin story, as per local gazettes, documents an idol that is a black stone around five-feet high and exposed to the elements – just as the god, who appeared before the local shepherds, wanted it. He was open and accessible to all. The platform which surrounds the idol today, and a nearby well where ritual waters are obtained – all latter-day brahminical introductions – were added later, well into the last century.

Though objections to women offering worship at the shrine is now being dated back to “hundreds of years”, it is only in recent years that the temple acquired some significance. As it happens, it is fairly close to the Shirdi shrine that millions visit every year. As the Shani Shingnapur website shows, it is run by a trust, has immense property, including a cow care centre, and receives donations running into lakhs. A look at the trust page also shows that it became more popular after a film, Surya Putra Shri Shanidev, came out in 1995.

Earlier gazettes dating to the early 20th century and relating to Bijapur and Satara describe the presence of a temple in the same region (Shingnapur) dedicated to Shiva (Mahadev). The gazette for Bijapur, mentions Gavlis (milkmen) as the dominant castes in these districts and cites their chief deities as Khandoba and Ambabai. According to the gazette, they did not live in houses but in the same habitations as their cattle (which could explain why in a village adjoining to Shani Shingnapur, there is a little-followed tradition of not having locks or doors).

Given all these taboos, a question could be asked: since most religions embody what is traditional, conservative and, at times, regressive, why must a progressive campaign such as Happy to Bleed associate with something that seeks to favour the status quo? It is more urgent to take the campaign into wider public domain, into homes, where menstruation is still talked in whispers.