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Worshipped yet condemned: The Story of Widows in India

Jawhar Sircar once wisely said, “While blind veneration of whatever is old is certainly neither logical, nor desirable, let us acknowledge that in some respects our ancients were far more modern. They accepted and openly acknowledged painful realities of life, that other religions have usually considered taboo. It is time to reset the equilibrium of justice.”

Prejudice against menstruating women has been a prevalent concern in India, where periods are considered taboo, and women are deemed “impure” during the days of their menstrual cycles. Due to the stigma and misinformation surrounding menstruation during the past decades, a 2016 study titled ‘Menstrual hygiene management among adolescent girls in India’ noted that out of 100,000 girls, almost 50,000 did not know what menstruation was until they got their first period. Furthermore, there are 336 million women in India that are of reproductive and menstrual age (according to the 2011 census), and yet we witness them being shamed and treated inhumanely for a phenomenon beyond their control.

If we look back to the Vedic roots of Indian society though, it would reveal that women weren’t always shunned for this natural bodily function, but in fact revered, and menstrual blood was even considered propitious enough to be served as an offering to goddesses. Times and opinions have definitely altered over the centuries, but in the hills of Guwahati in Assam where matricentric cults and rituals have survived, the tradition of Ambubachi has flourished since 1565. 

Ambubachi, also known as Ameti, is a festival for which millions of devotees gather yearly in the Assamese month of ‘Ahaar’ to celebrate the menstrual cycle of the divine Goddess Kamakhya and all she represents: desire, fertility, and regeneration. According to the Puranas, the belief is that the Kamakhya Temple’s site on Nilachal Hill is where Goddess Sati’s yoni (womb) fell after Lord Vishnu used his Sudarshana Chakra to cut her body into pieces. The Ambubachi Mela is a way for devotees to show their respect to the goddess in the month of June just before the monsoons.

As progressive as this occasion may seem, it exposes the stark dichotomy between the religious glorification of female deities compared to the misogynistic exclusion of women, using their biology as a weapon to prohibit them from participating in daily life and pious deeds. And if this was not hateful enough, the oppression and maltreatment that Bengali Widows face, not only during festivals like Ambubachi but in day-to-day life too, will surely make you see red.

After the death of a husband in West Bengal, their widows are considered dangerously inauspicious and often excluded from all social interaction and merriment. No matter that they may be grieving the death of a loved spouse, they must wear only white, remove any bodily adornments, avoid all non-vegetarian food, sleep on the ground, live in celibacy forevermore and in some cases, shave their heads. Books like ‘Choker Bali’ by Rabindranath Tagore and ‘A Plate of White Marble’ by Bani Basu highlight the struggles of child marriage and the treatment of widows in Bengal, exposing the vicious expectations society have and force upon them. During festivals like the Ambubachi Mela where womanhood is celebrated, Bengali Widows are prohibited from eating cooked food (and in some regions, aren't even allowed to eat pre-cooked food and sustain themselves on the pulp and juice of fruits) and isolated to separate rooms. 

Does a widow deserve to be punished for outliving her husband? Why is the goddess celebrated and the widow condemned, both for circumstances that remain beyond their control?


Aalisha Kanani | 16-Sep-2021