The New Year, Blessings, and Menstruation in Tamil Nadu – By Ilana Cohen

2017 started here in Pondicherry with fire crackers and intricate, colorful kolams carefully made before dawn on January 1st. Kolams are geometric shapes or images created out of a chalk and ground rice powder at the entrance of houses and businesses. They are made connecting a specific number of dots arranged in rows in particular patterns so as to create either icons (like birds, peacocks, lamps) or auspicious abstract symbols that swirl around and through the dots. Kolams serve multiple purposes: on the one hand, I have been told, they act as a deterrent to ants; in the old days the powder used to be made only from rice, so the idea was that the patterns were a kind of offering to ants and insects which would keep them from entering the house. On the other, the kolams are meant to welcome the goddess, blessings and good things in general into the home and signify that the houses they belong to are open and happy.

On New Year’s Day the kolams are particularly lovely and large and often include the phrase “Wish You Happy New Year 2017” arched across the top. The kolams decorate both the middle class, semi-urban neighborhood I stay in as well as the semi-rural villages on the outskirts of Pondicherry. Though there are two other Tamil New Years, one marked by the upcoming holiday of Pongal which falls on the first day of the Tamil month of Thai (this year January 14th) and the other on the 14th of April, December 31st was still festively marked and many New Year wishes were offered to one and all.

And in a way this seems to make sense; for blessings and good wishes seem to be a large part of Tamil life. I got to join my former colleagues from Eco Femme, a social business that makes washable cloth pads and that offers menstrual health education, on a holiday outing that ended in a home-cooked feast at one colleague’s grandparent’s house in their ancestral village. As the outing was wrapping up, all the attendees bowed to the grandmother, touching their hands and head to her feet in the traditional form of asking for her blessing. And she reciprocated by motioning to lift them up and placed red kum kum powder on the forehead’s of the grown women, wishing them well. Family members and acquaintances often seek the blessings of their elder’s because they are seen as possessing good will, being less selfish, and are greatly respected.

Indeed, one of the things I have been hearing and learning about as I explore perceptions and experiences of the Manjal Neer Aathu Vizha (Yellow Water Function, a menarche celebration and ceremony that many girls have in Tamil Nadu) is the blessing ritual known as Nalangu that is a key part of the function (it is also a part of marriages and other life cycle functions). In this particular context, Nalangu involves older women and female relatives smearing sandalwood and turmeric paste on the girl’s cheeks and arms, putting red kum kum powder on her forehead between the eyes, and blessing her by sprinkling raw rice and small jasmine flower petals on her. As menarche is a new beginning and considered both a happy and powerful happening here, it is fitting to offer the girl blessings of health and wellbeing as she starts a next phase of her life.

As I reconnect with my former Eco Femme colleagues, I am delighted to learn about the depth and breadth of their work. It encourages me to know that on-the-ground organizations, too, are integrating holistic approaches to menstrual health and wellbeing (beyond frameworks of simply hygiene) into their materials and that a rigorous process of action research has continued to inform their curriculum design. For, this seems to reflect the multi-layered context of menstruation here in Tamil Nadu, a context that is as intricate as the kolam patterns in front of each and every house.

I was invited to join the Eco Femme team for their holiday party a few days before our outing; we are holding a garland of Eco Femme washable cloth pads.

I was invited to join the Eco Femme team for their holiday party a few days before our outing; we are holding a garland of Eco Femme washable cloth pads.

The New Year Kolam in front of the house where I am staying.

The New Year Kolam in front of the house where I am staying.