“Asking to see the air”: On Heat and Menstruation – By Ilana Cohen

As my time in Pondicherry and Tamil Nadu wraps up and I prepare to head home, I have been reflecting very initially on some themes emerging from the interviews and conversations that have filled the past few weeks. One theme is the notion that the body is susceptible to experiencing different degrees of internal heat, brought about, in part, by eating certain foods and engaging in certain activities. It’s a kind of heat beyond what you might expect in a climate where the winter temperature is a humid 80 degrees Fahrenheit. This is a heat of the body and of the being, and during menstruation, I’ve been told time and time again, the body has too much heat which must be managed accordingly.

Often in my conversations with women, and also men, I learned about practices observed during menstruation, always followed by the comment that they are cooling or that they reduce heat in the body. For example, almost everyone I’ve spoken with commented that they have a “head bath” (that is, they wash their hair along with the rest of the body, something usually only done once a week on Fridays) as well as an “oil bath” (applying coconut oil to their hair first before washing it) on the 3rd day of their period. This is thought to be both cooling and purifying. My conversations have also included numerous references to certain foods that must be avoided because they are hot foods, or that must be eaten only before dark because they are cold foods. One person mentioned a friend of hers who can induce menstruation each month by drinking pineapple juice—a hot fruit! The frequently referenced practice of prohibiting menstruating individuals from touching the pickle jar was explained to me by a homeopathic doctor as a result of the fact that any amount of exposure to excess heat will cause pickle to develop fungus. Thus, from one perspective, it is not menstruation in particular that poses potential harm to the pickle but heat. Then, strenuous activities like cooking and walking far distances are also thought to induce extra heat, and over time, I have been told, have thus been ritualistically discouraged in the form of prohibitions against women entering kitchens (which would mean they would be cooking) and temples (which would require them to circumambulate the temple grounds).

When I asked one woman to help me understand how this whole system of hot and cold works, she looked at me for an instant, silently, and then said “that’s like asking to see the air.” In other words, how could she explain something that is so intuitive, so inherent in the rhythm of daily life that it is as essential (and ungraspable) as the air we breathe? In some ways, accessing the underlying frameworks that make such systems make sense is the anthropological project in a nutshell, and my current short experience of fieldwork is just an initial, small step towards such an endeavor. The learning for me here, then, is that many of the women I am speaking with experience menstruation as directly influenced by and related to the foods they eat and when they eat them, how they clean and care for their bodies, and the physical work they do all month long. However, in an effort to push myself to internalize these concepts inherent to daily life—try to see the air—I asked the same woman and her family to help me chart which foods are hot and which are cold. And from this I have learned that watermelon is cold while mango is hot, coconut water is cold while ghee is hot, and that bananas are neutral.