It is 1999, the year of my first period. I am riding a bicycle, coming back from a friend’s place, wearing a calf-length crinkled mustard yellow skirt. I have retained no memory of what I wore on top. As I reach my home and dismount from the cycle seat, I turn my eyes to my rear side while simultaneously trying to bring the back of my skirt to the front . A trained way of checking if one has stained the bottom area. As expected, there is a red spot. The size of a bright orange sun on a drawing sheet, brought to life with watercolors.
It is the same year, a few months later. I am on an overnight train journey, my first such trip during my monthly cycle. I badly want to change my sanitary napkin, but the replacement is packed in the big suitcase, which is locked and chained to the lower berth. The key is with my father, who is asleep. I don’t know how to wake him up and ask for my belongings. The topic of my menstruation is mostly kept between my mother and myself. There is shame in leaking red from an organ that no one shall talk about. There is shame in touching, washing, and cleaning. There is shame in wrapping and disposing of used napkins. That day, while on the upper berth of the train, I question shame for the first time, but then slowly stroke myself to sleep. The train’s rhythm and motion helps, and hours pass before I gather courage to ask for the key and finally visit the washroom.
A decade passes. I am active and often swimming in feelings of love. A beautiful night arrives. There are three of us in there. Me, my lover, and day 3 of my period. Harsh words in a hushed tone—“You are just making me dirty”—float in the air, followed by more shame in a hand frantically rubbing and cleaning the red spotted sheet. My period, my shame, my love!
Another decade and many bloody journeys later (metaphorically and realistically), as a mother of one and as a sustainable menstruator, I finally begin my journey of befriending my menses. And it all starts with gently holding, soaking, and washing my cloth pads day after day under running water. I want us (my stash of cloth pads and me) to live together longer, for the idea of leaving behind my disposable sanitary waste does not make me comfortable anymore. Today, a lot of my thinking space goes into the how’s and when’s of ‘friendlily’ introducing the cycle of women’s menstruation to my little son. Something that I always felt devoid of in my growing years.
What if there was no shame, stigma, or negativity around bleeding red from one’s vagina? What if the menstrual blood took a different route and channelled itself upwards, like a rebellious river flowing the other way, and poured out from the ear? What if there were fairy tales and folktales that told girls how princesses bled beautifully and chronically and embraced this phase? What if men and women alike spoke of natural monthly flows just as poets speak of clouds passing in the sky or the first rain of the monsoon or the fireflies going about their business at night? What if red wasn’t alarming and thought of as a close relative of hurt and death? Imagine if women bled a soft pink instead of bright red! Would the world be softer to menstruating girls and women? Would women be softer and kinder to their anatomy and being?
Blood has been widely studied and reflected upon from a scientific, medical purview, but it isn’t thought of much in a spiritual, creative, meditative, poetic way. As a life force, a sustainable element in nature, a co-traveler, a friend to humans and animals alike. It’s not thought of enough because for the most part of our journey, blood in the body is like a passive traveler, a silent river flowing within. It turns visible only when the body decides to warn of an injury that disrupts its silent doings. Then it pops out, like an alert and then gently goes back to its rhythm and flow, once things feel normal again.
For women though, blood is a more active co-traveler than for men. It’s like a dear friend that keeps showing up, checking in, making sure there’s constancy and companionship through regular menses. A process as natural and ancient as female life on earth. But so little understood, so misunderstood—stigma, science, and stains taking over spirituality and sense-ability.
In an ancient India that held strong, rooted beliefs in Indic sciences, menstruation had a spiritual name—rtu (pronounced as “ruthu”), meaning season. While modern science has only now begun to venture into the connection shared between a woman’s menstrual cycle and the moon cycle,1 spiritual science always believed so. The term menstruation in English is taken from the Latinword menses (meaning month), which in turn is cognate with the Greek word mene (meaning moon). It is also believed that the red bindi (dot) with which Indian women adorn their foreheads is symbolic and celebratory of the menstruation process. In fact, several festivals in Indian culture are still observed to mark female menstruation as a spiritual and natural act.
Come June, Odisha, a northeastern state of India, gears up to observe a 3-day festival. Titled Raja (the Sanskrit term for blood), this period is literally celebrated as the menstruating period of Mother Earth. Also, in the northeastern state of Assam, goddess Kamakhya (believed to be an incarnation of Lord Shiva’s wife Sati’s yoni or womb) is worshipped during the Ambubachi Mela. The 4-day festival marks the menstruation period of the goddess. Down in the south of India, Manjal Neerattu Vizha in Tamil Nadu, Peddamanishi Pandaga in Andhra Pradesh, Thripputhu Arattu in Kerala, and Ritu Kala Samskara in Karnataka celebrate menarche.
Menstruation educator and author Sinu Joseph’s book Rtu Vidyā (Knowledge of Menstruation), talks of indigenous cultural practices adopted by menstruating women for ages, the Indic science and logic behind these practices, and ancient techniques that worked in sync with women’s periods.2 It focuses upon menstruation as a good indicator of a woman’s overall mental and physical health and not just of her chances at reproduction.
“Free bleeding” may have gained the status of a trendy and controversial practice in the Western world and even urban India only in the last few years, but many Indian women from indigenous communities swore by it for a long, long time. This practice allows the menstrual blood to travel out of the body without any obstruction, straight to the earth that it belongs to. Some spiritual souls even believe that offering menstrual blood to earth is the most nonviolent way of doing so. A few sustainable menstruators I came across through my journey shared how they put diluted period blood, collected from washing their cloth pads or menstruation cups, back into the soil as an organic matter.
Free bleeding as a practice could largely be possible if one is away from their usual surroundings, in a secluded, safe space that offers the solitude a menstruating woman craves. Away from the daily chores and tasks and expectations, a space where she can just be with herself, connecting with her body and spirit and its natural flow.
In her book Women Who Run with the Wolves, Jungian psychoanalyst and American author Clarrisa Pincola Estés concurs with the idea of intentional solitude as a dire need of a menstruating woman. “Women from ancient times as well as modern aboriginal women often set a sacred place aside for this communion and inquiry [sic]. Traditionally it is said to have been set aside during women’s menses, for during that time a woman lives much closer to self-knowing than usual . . . ” she writes in the book.3
However, this time-off practice, under the heavy weight of patriarchal systems and passed-down wisdom, eventually translated into a language that suggested that women’s bodies were impure, unclean, and untouchable and forced them to leave the village or home and live away until they finished bleeding. The more liberal types who called themselves unorthodox didn’t follow old rituals but ensured menstruating women stayed away from religious ceremonies, watering or touching house plants and definitely pickles. Many elderly of the family believed that a menstruating woman’s touch could spoil their yearlong stock of pickles.
The new age feminists trying to defy all old habits gone sour lay their faith in popular period products more than their inner flow. They were told that being out and about to conquer the world during those 4 to 5 days was their revenge and a way to disregard all discriminatory beliefs imposed on them in the past. And the best “disposable” sanitary hygiene product could be their friend against the evil of menstruation they suffer. Use and throw, without the need to look at, smell, or interact with the most natural phenomenon, a creative force taking place in their body month after month. Tons of untreated sanitary waste stares at us today. Few are willing to look at the unnatural mess that their natural menses have made.
I have this vivid memory from 2019 of a mug in a bathroom. The mug was holding a cloth pad soaked in bloody water. There was an unforgettable smell. That was the day I learned a thing or two about how I could build a healthier relationship with my bloody companion and not leave unpleasant traces behind as sanitary waste.
If you ask a man, what is the color of blood, most likely you shall hear red. But if you ask a woman who is in touch (literally) with her monthly flow, she might answer by saying it’s warm. I too realized that warm is the color of my period blood when I came consciously in touch with it. Not with disgust or hatred or stench-filled nostrils, but with compassion and the feeling of gratitude for a healthy, functional body.
Haseena Thondam, a social advocate of sustainable menstruation in Bangalore, India, over a phone interview tells me she feels the same. Her experience around using a menstrual cup has led her to connect immensely with her period. A cup is not like a disposable napkin that you can just wrap and throw away. To successfully use a cup, one must be brave enough to allow the period blood to temporarily collect and sink and travel along until full. And then, the cup needs to be held by hand, in mind and spirit, in all its redness and warmth, before it is emptied into a desired outlet. “My two-year-old daughter knows where I keep my cups in the cupboard. When I start my period and she realises it, she asks me, ‘Mumma, should I get your cup?’
I am not so brave. Not because I fear holding a major force in my hand, but because I have personal inhibitions about the insertion of a silicone cup into the body. Cloth pads work just fine for me so far. During my last period, something strange happened. For the first time, in many years, my period came without cramps. Not the slightest. Is it because I consciously try to listen to my body and rest it appropriately during the cycle? Is it because I pay very close attention to the red that travels from my womb downward and outward? Is it because I have begun to acknowledge the river that comes to life inside of me, each month, every month? It’s a strong symbol of my being. I know that I am more than my period, and it is just those 3 days in a month, but it is also the period that allows me a state of flow, a state of creative energy. An inward maintenance and rejuvenation program!
A friend’s mother and former menstruator shared something with me that I may never forget. “I realised the value of menstruation in my life after I hit menopause. After being with me for so many years, suddenly it was not around anymore. While externally, there was this fear of being judged and looked upon as an aging woman. Internally too, my body was showing signs of change. As if it was trying to get accustomed to living without a friend, a fellow traveller that is no more.”
As a plant parent for years now, I have spent much time staring at trees and plants alike. The bleeding heart vine blooms in pink or white mostly. And if you pay close attention, under the flower, you’ll notice a tiny drop of deep red resembling a drop of blood. When it is ready and open, the drop transforms into a mini flower hanging beneath another flower. To me, bleeding heart vine is symbolic of a woman’s monthly cycle. Many artists have spoken through their respective medium of women as flowers; shall we then call the period cycle that flower beneath the flower?
About The Author
Babli Yadav is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore, India. She covers features, interviews, writes essays, poetry inspired by people, life, gender and culture. She also finds herself effortlessly drawn to nature, conscious living and slowness. Her 2024 motto is feelings over facts.