Goddess Kishori’s temple in Khamri, where the ritual of bandhej takes place
Kashi* starts to speak, however from a distance, because bandhej forbids her to stay in close proximity with women. She is one of the many women in the Bundelkhand region, to go through the ritual of bandhej. It is practiced widely by people in Bundelkhand regardless of caste positioning. She starts by telling me that the practice is for women who can’t conceive a child or experience subsequent miscarriages.
The reasons for this could be manifold. Perhaps, lack of nutrition, overburden of work, marriage at an early age, maternity related issues, family history or something else. However, people in this community believe that infertility and miscarriages are a consequence of deities and spirits being unhappy with women.
Bandhej quite literally translates to restrictions. The meaning aligns with the norms a woman has to abide by, in order to get pregnant. Kashi told me that she is forbidden to go to her parents’ home throughout the period of her bandhej. Typically, it’s for a year. Although, she cooks for the entire family, she has to cook her own food separately. Any kind of shringaar (make up) is forbidden. Kashi mentioned that her main source of livelihood is to sell wood that she collects from the forest but after bandhej, she isn’t allowed to go into the market.
When I asked her if she still collects wood for her kitchen and domestic use, she said that she tags along with a group of women to the forest, to gather wood for these purposes but they all maintain at least 20 metres of distance from her. It is important to note that a woman’s bandhej doesn’t end with her getting pregnant. She must abide by the rules till the time of her delivery.
Kashi then tells me that a local person from the village performs the ceremony. This guy is referred to as a panda. Usually, the role of a panda keeps getting passed on from an ancestor to the next generation. They claim that the deities speak to them and tell them what the women need to do in order to have a child. Post the ceremony, Kashi recalls the panda telling her and I quote, “Aaj ke baad se maata tumhaare andar hai. Tum pavitra ho gayi ho.” (The goddess resides within you now. Your mind, soul and body is pure).
There are innumerable restrictions that these women have to follow day in and day out. What bothered me the most is that traditionally, women who undergo this ritual cannot turn to allopathy, when in crisis. They must say no to vaccination, routine check-ups, and medicine. Only when the deity grants them permission, can they seek external help. However, the times are changing. These days, women do show up for monthly check-ups but only let the male members come near them to check their BP and haemoglobin.
Another interesting incident was when a woman in bandhej, suffering from UTI, contacted us to help her seek medical advice. Upon reaching the district hospital in Panna, she asked, “Kya mujhe koi aisi mahila doctor milengi jinka mahina aana band ho gaya hai?” (Can I get a lady doctor who has reached menopause?) So, it’s either males or older women who they can come in contact with, according to the deities.
While I rewinded my conversations with a few elderly people in the community, I could gather that the initial idea behind the practice was to give women who have trouble conceiving, proper rest and nutrition. Women didn’t have to do a lot of chores that they would otherwise do. For example, they can only touch and wash their own utensils, along with their husbands. Mostly, it’s the women who go into the forest to gather wood and sell it in the weekly market. However, bandhej takes away this responsibility from them and puts it on the male members of the family.
The logic behind the practice wasn’t necessarily bad, however it takes away their freedom (be it physical, social or economical) for over a year.
Kashi told me that over the years, the norms have become more rigid. She recalls an incident and says, “Humare gaon mein bahut saal pehle ek aurat ka bandhej hua tha, ussi ke beech mein usne shringaar karna shuru kiya. Ek saal baad bhi usse baccha nahi hua. Panda ne bola ki uska bandhej khandit hogaya hai. Iss ke baad se kisi bhi mahila ko bandhej ke samay shringaar karna mana hai.” (Years ago, a woman in the village started putting make up on during her bandhej duration. Even after an entire year, she couldn’t get pregnant. The priest in the village told her that she has broken the chain of purity. Post this incident, women are advised against applying any sort of make up while they’re bound by the ritual). It’s a classic example of reiterating a superstition to the point that it becomes a norm.
Of the 30 women I interacted with, more than 20 said that they don’t like the regulations that come along with the ritual. They seem to think that the cons majorly outweigh the pros. What was also common in these conversations was the fact that many women don’t end up getting pregnant even after abiding by all the boundaries. However, failure rate does not deter the ritual.
Upon asking the Sarpanch of Kudan village as to why the ritual continues even when women fail to conceive, he said, “Itne purane rivaaz ko bhul jaana aasan nahi hai, ye logo ke vishawaas se judi huyi reeti hai. Yahan aur aas paas ke gaon mein mahilaon ke paas doctor ki uplabdhi nahi hai, isiliye swadeshi chikitsa ke madhyam se voh apni pareshaani ka hal dhundhte hain.” (It is not easy to eradicate a generations old belief rooted in faith, especially when other kinds of healthcare interventions are so inaccessible to the women in these remote villages. In this vacuum, people have used indigenous knowledge to deal with a complex medical issue. In the face of desperation, this is what they fall back on).
Can one really solve an anatomical problem with just faith? I’m unsure. What I am sure of is that this is an extremely taxing experience for women in my community, not just physically but also mentally and emotionally. So many of them come out of this one year, disappointed and dejected. Their expectations remain unmet time and again even when no boundaries are crossed. Yet, they keep trying.
Motherhood is an experience that a lot of women want for themselves. Although, more often than not, society’s needs get disguised as women’s needs. The concept of motherhood is a cultural and social invention. It is an experience that is regarded as necessary to complete a woman and mythicises them as natural care givers so they feel like giving birth is a duty. If you wish to read further on the topic, here’s a paper that explores the idea of motherhood as a social construct in the Indian context.
*Names changed to maintain confidentiality