Once, when I was a young girl, my grandmother told me not to touch the new laddoos that had been made for the festival. I didn’t understand why, so I took one anyway. She took it back from me and angrily threw it out.
I was 14 years old, in my first year of menstruating, and had been told that it was impure to touch foods that may be godly or holy during that time of the month. It was a paradox: laddoos, sweet, sugary mounds of sweets, were a luxury—one that gave us incentive to visit the temple with our parents, one that made family gatherings precious events. And I was forbidden from them.
This cultivated in me an early aversion: apart from the pain and shame of menstruation, the ability to not eat what I wanted to eat became a point of contention between me and my period.
Menstruating women in India hold a curious place somewhere between sanctity and seclusion. Around the same time that I was banished from the kitchen, I was given little spotted diamonds I could wear in my ears. “Welcome to womanhood,” the gift seemed to say. But it also urged me to remember that womanhood was a burden I now had to carry around.
“It is not just menstruation, but fertility that is considered impure,” my aunt Anuradha Rao said to me one day in her kitchen, while she was disallowed from touching raw spices that she was going to roast for a daal (lentil stew). “It is believed that food is sacred, and a fertile, menstruating woman is considered is impure, so a connection between the two can destroy what is holy at the time.”
In most Hindu communities in India, the relationship between food and the period is paradoxical. A fertile woman is considered an object that will further a family lineage, but at the same time, she is taboo for her fertility.
“I remember when we lived in Delhi, I didn’t notice it much, but when we first moved to Chennai—it was the first time I realized that being a menstruating woman was some kind of taboo,” said my aunt, Shalini Praveen. “Avalakka dooram,” everyone was told. “Stay away from her.”
The taboos are present more in elite caste-based communities in the country. Brahmanism, Hinduism’s upper caste, is a community founded on ideas of purity and sterility. To purify themselves, Brahmins stay away from strong smells, pungent ingredients like garlic and onions, and many times, meat. They distance themselves from other castes and factions of religions, propagating an exclusive and oppressive idea of hygiene and purity.
In rural communities these practices exist too, and in some, women are banished to huts outside their village every time they menstruate. In 2015, The Guardian reported about huts called gaokars, in which women from Gond and Madiya communities of Central and Western India, were not given access to kitchens in these makeshift homes—a menstruating woman is herself not allowed to eat what she cooks.
“Even today, if I visit my village in Tamil Nadu—even if it is for a short while—and I happen to be on my period, I am not allowed to enter the kitchen or eat with everyone else,” says Mani Meghalai, who now lives in Delhi. “I didn’t bring these ideas with me to the city, but over there—for three days every month, I am not to be touched, spoken to, or eaten with.”
“I remember I was told not to roll around on the anchaar chatai,” said Azra Sadr—who is of North Indian descent and grew up in Delhi—referring to anchaar (pickle), which are laid out on a chatai (sheet) to be dried, salted, and eaten through the year. “My grandmother would get really upset if I was menstruating and touched the pickles. Pickles are supposed to last for a long time, so I don’t know why we were told that if we touch them, they will go bad sooner. “
Pickles going sour, sweets becoming inedible, meals becoming impure — all these are popular ways in which Indian women are told that their condition can be detrimental.
There’s also a practice of special diets during menstruation, throughout the subcontinent. During your period, cold foods are discouraged and fruits are encouraged. In my house, coffee has a special place for a menstruating woman.
“All taboos have context,” says Rovi Chasie, a Naga woman, with tribal heritage in the Angami Naga tribe of Northeast India. “We were encouraged towards heat producing foods, but I think that is because they are good for the stomach—they loosen the folds that cramp.”
“I was told to eat papaya was auspicious,” says Krishna Nair, who grew up in Delhi in a family with roots from Kerala. “But I think that’s because papayas are cooling agents—it’s a way in which to ease the pain.”
Food is a powerful lens through which to view women and their place in India. While care is taken of the woman on her period, she is also excluded, deemed too dangerous to participate in society. This idea of impurity is propagated by superstition, and enforces a deeply patriarchal power structure that functions in all realms of the country.
But some traditions lie outside the negative taboo.
“In some tribal customs, it is also believed that a woman on her period is regenerative—for example if she touches a plant, it will bloom and grow better,” says Thengkolan Chongloi, who lives in the hills of Nagaland.
“That seems a more modern, suited way to think about it—women on periods mean that they are powerful, nurturing, and to be welcomed into the kitchen as well as everywhere else. Not the other way around.”