TIKA : The First Menstruation

by | Jun 29, 2024

Roshni, a teenager from Nilawaram, loved to play with her siblings and friends. Their happy laughter filled the air until one day, Ragini, her older sister, abruptly stopped playing games with them. When Roshni questioned why, Ragini would look at her disappointed and say nothing. Not until a friend muttered, “वो जवान हो गयी है,” (she is older now) to her. It was “उसको माहवारी आयी है” (she has started menstruating), that Roshni started to comprehend. She enquired, “माहवारी क्या होता है?” (what is menstruation) with curiosity. Her friend replied, “तुम्हे आएगा तब समझेगा,” (you would know it when you get it).

When Roshni asked the elders for clarification, they merely laughed and asked, “तुम इस जानकारी के साथ क्या करोगी? तुम अभी काफी छोटी हो। तुम इसे अभी नहीं समझ सकती” (What would you do with all this information? You are still very young. You won’t get it). This made her more confused and frustrated. Soon after, Ragini married off and stopped attending school, leaving Roshni feeling lost and without answers.

Five years later,

Roshni was grazing cattle in the jungle when she suddenly felt something odd in her underwear. She felt scared when she checked and saw red stains. Her lower back and stomach began to hurt. Out of fear of getting punished, she kept quiet until the pain became too much for her to bear, and then she confided in her mother. ‘The Date’ had arrived, her mother explained, and she gave Roshni instructions to hide in the forest beneath the old banyan tree near the edge of the village.

Her first period had arrived with little warning and much confusion. Her mother whispered the news to the family, and soon preparations for the Tika ceremony began. This ancient tradition marked a girl’s transition into womanhood but came with many rituals. Her mother listed a long list of rules:

“पुरुषों के पास नही जाना; किसी को देखते हैं तो भाग जाना; दिन के दौरान ज्यादा सोना नही; अपने दांतों को साफ करने के बाद, दातुन को एक स्थान पर रखना; उसी स्थान पर नहाना; खिचड़ी खाने के लिए सिर्फ  तीन उंगलियों का उपयोग करना ताकि कोई खाना बर्बाद न हो; जानवर तुम्हारी थाली को न छू सकें, इसे किसी पेड़ के ऊपर रखना; आने जाने के लिए एक ही रास्ते का इस्तेमाल करना; पीने के पानी से दूर रहना; रसोई घर में नहीं जाना; मंदिर से दूर रहना…”

(Stay away from men, if someone sees you run; don’t sleep too much during the day; bathe and brush at the same place; eat the porridge with only three fingers; keep your plate on top of a tree after eating so that no animal could touch it; use a single pathway to go from one place to other; stay away from drinking water, stay away from kitchen, stay away from temple…)

Roshni felt overwhelmed by the number of rules and found it difficult to keep track of them all. Her mother warned her as she demonstrated how to use an old rag to absorb the blood, “If you do not follow these rules, you will be cursed by the gods”.

Roshni followed the guidelines, staying in the forest, under the tree and eating the simple meals her mother brought because she was afraid if she didn’t follow the rule, she would be cursed. The shade of the tree was her only cover, and her bed was a mat made of woven grass. The village elders believed menstruating girls were impure and needed to remain secluded, so she was not allowed to attend school.

Roshni felt very alone. She felt scared and powerless as she passed her days under the banyan tree. Normally a place of adventure and play, the jungle turned into a vast, lonely area. The unusual quiet of the forest, at times disturbed by the sounds of distant animals, took the place of the familiar sounds of the village. New fears emerged from the darkness at night. The rustling of the wind through the trees and the sounds of animals seemed more scary. Feeling more alone than ever, she would lie on her mat of woven grass and gaze up at the canopy. The loneliness tore at her, making the hours seem never-ending. She missed the familiar routine of school, her friends, and her family.

Changing the cloth filled her with terror. Despite its density, the forest provided little privacy. She didn’t know where to wash the used cloth and feared being seen. The lack of access to water and a clean washing place worsened her anxiety. She felt even more alone as a result of her questions and anxieties. Roshni had no one with whom she could express her fears and confusion. She was counting down the hours, eager to get back to her regular life. She felt the burden pressing down on her, but she held onto the idea that things might turn around.

As her menstruation ended, Roshni dug a hole in the forest and buried the blood-soaked clothes. The village women then took her to the river for a turmeric bath, a ritual to purify her. Following this, she sprinkled a mixture of holy leaves and herbs, known as ‘Jaath Pani’, on items she had used throughout the house to purify them.

An older woman bent over and applying a tika to an adolescent girl who is sitting cross legged and in ceremonial clothes on the floor. There is a kuccha hut and other women sitting in the background.
Picture taken during Tika ceremony

The day of the Tika ceremony finally arrived. After Roshni’s return to the village, everyone gathered to celebrate her womanhood — men, women, and kids, their faces adorned with excited smiles. Roshni’s friends, clad in their finest attire, giggled and chattered excitedly as they waited for the ceremony to begin. A feast was set out in front of the guests, and as they took their seats, they were served steaming cups of chai, a rare delicacy for special occasions. She wore a new white dress and jewellery, and the woman adorned her forehead with a red tika, symbolizing her new status. Surrounded by unwavering support and love, she felt a profound sense of belonging and acceptance as her loved ones bestowed blessings and gifts upon her.

Roshni couldn’t help but feel a growing sense of self-doubt despite the festive atmosphere. The stigma and seclusion she had endured beneath the banyan tree had eroded her self-confidence. The most difficult part was explaining her absence to her younger brother, Unga. Meeting him after days of isolation felt awkward. Their mother had told him that she had an illness requiring girls to live apart from others and that touching her would make others impure.

Hearing this, Roshni felt the fear of being judged and ostracized lingering in her mind. However, as she looked at Unga’s smiling face, brimming with excitement at seeing her again, she realized she was not alone. She understood the significance of the customs but also recognized the need for change. Roshni promised herself that she would eventually help transform these traditions linked to menstruation, ensuring that no other girl would have to experience the same loneliness and self-doubt.

A group of women sitting in an open ground, under a tree's shade on carpets. They seem to be waiting foe some event to start.

Years later, Roshni looks after and teaches the tribal children at the local Anganwadi. She observed some girls dropping out of school, and families marrying off girls soon after their first periods. “Menstruation is one of the top reasons for girls dropping out of schools in this region,” says Roshni.

She has married and has two daughters, Kavita and Kinni. Kavita, 14 years old, experienced all the traditional practices and rules during her menarche. She is a student of class 9 at Portacabin Balatikra, a residential school almost 30 kilometers from Nilawaram. She stays at the school hostel and comes home on holidays.

“I don’t feel like coming back home, especially during menstruation,” Kavita confides. “At home, they impose too many rules, while at school, there’s not any specific rules. Everyone stays together and eats together. They teach me that menstruation is a natural process. It feels as though you are living in two separate worlds.”

Kavita also shares that she can’t use sanitary napkins when she is home. Purchasing and later disposing of sanitary pads is a challenge. When young girls like Kavita ask for pads, shop workers give them strange looks, and they feel forced to hide their purchases from people watching. To dispose of the pads, one must walk 900 meters to the village boundary and throw them after taking a quick glance around to ensure no one is watching. “I see used pads thrown outside the village boundary all the time,” Roshni says.

“This only adds to the pollution. Even though they are useful, sanitary napkins won’t address the issues women face when they are menstruating. We also need to address the disposal problem. To make sure we are not exchanging one issue for another, we have to incorporate sustainable disposal practices and environmental awareness in menstrual education.”

Despite the myths and taboos surrounding menstruation, women in the community have long managed their periods sustainably, using cloth to absorb menstrual blood. These cloth pads are reusable and durable, but they come with challenges due to the stigma associated with menstrual blood. “You need to wash and dry these clothes properly before using them again.. However, the women in the village never dry their clothes in the open air, under the sun. They hide these clothes from the eyes of men and everyone else,” explains Roshni. She has been advocating for the use of cloth pads among the women, while also striving to dismantle the shame associated with menstruation.

“I grew up witnessing my mother, her mother, and myself following these practices. My daughter is now following them too. I don’t want Kinni to go through what I went through. If we stop following these rules from an early age, no one would treat girls differently when they are menstruating”, says Roshni. She, along with a few other women in the community, is considering ending the custom of girls being exiled to the forest during menarche. Telling the villagers to abruptly discontinue the system is not an easy task. Roshni explains, “They argue we shouldn’t get involved because it’s rooted in our culture.”

Motivated by a strong desire to make a difference, Roshni has started a comprehensive education campaign about menstruation for women. She brings attention to women’s health issues and explains the biological causes of it. The goal of Roshni’s work is to educate women and girls about the fact that menstruation is a normal and natural aspect of life. She highlights how essential it is to debunk misconceptions and remove the stigma and fear associated with it.

Roshni also addresses practical issues like the need for sustainable menstruation products and proper disposal methods to avoid polluting the environment. Through community gatherings, one-on-one discussions, and workshops, Roshni hopes to change attitudes in society and provide women a voice in these issues. Her ultimate goal is to better her village so that no other girl has to go through the feelings of shame, loneliness, and isolation that she went through. Roshni envisions a day when girls can go to school without disruption, involve fully in their communities, and develop into confident adults.

(This story’s characters, while fictional, draw inspiration from real individuals in the village of Nilawaram, Sukma district. This narrative weaves together various anecdotes and conversations shared by both team members and the villagers of Nilawaram)

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