“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.

By Any Other Name – By Holly Walters

A few days ago, despite the monsoon rains, I was able to visit one of the ammonite fossil beds located a few hundred meters above the Muktinath Valley. The layer of fossils, the remnants of an ancient sea floor, sits up around 5000 meters and is slowly eroding out of the mountain to form a large wash of broken stones and fossil shells that extends some 300 meters down the mountain, slowly tumbling en masse towards the Thorong La river (which joins up with the Kali-Gandaki at Kagbeni a few kilometers to the south west). My purpose for visiting this particular fossil bed was two-fold: one, it allows me to observe the earliest geological processes that will eventually result in some of these ammonites becoming Shaligram (the sacred stones I am here to study) and two, it gives me a chance to see unmodified structures in the stones that, given an additional few thousand years rolling through river silts, will become the characteristics of deities as read in the stones’ final manifestations. For example, one of my favorite Shaligrams is called Krishna Govinda (Krishna the Cowherder). It’s a typically palm-sized, smooth, and perfectly round black Shaligram which bears a white “cow hoof” impression on one side (an effect created by the breakage of a concentric quartz ring). As luck would have it, I was able to find just such a structure in one of the “raw” ammonites in this particular fossil wash-out as well. Naturally, many photos and comparisons followed.

At first glance, it may appear that my approach in this particular case is largely a scientific one; replacing religious interpretation with geological analysis; or “cow hoof” for “quartz erosion” to look at it another way. But my intent is not to replace one method of analysis with the other necessarily. Rather, one of the things I find most fascinating about Shaligram stones in general is their capacity to join scientific discourses with religious narratives, as opposed to assuming these interpretations to be mutually exclusive. Shaligram stones are ammonites and their geological history spans roughly 175 million years, through dozens of evolutionary taxonomies, and they provide us with a tremendous amount of information about the early ocean environments of ancient Earth. Shaligram stones are also the direct manifestations of divine movement in the form of deities of the Hindu pantheon, joining a physical landscape to a sacred landscape and linking individuals and families to profound cultural histories and ritual practices that have been in use for at least 4000 years. In other words, not only have Shaligrams passed down through eons of wind, river currents, and tectonic uplift but they have also equally passed down through inheritance, births, deaths, marriages, and pilgrimage. A Shaligram is not a Shaligram absent either one of these threads. In short, Shaligram stones exist at a juncture wherein Science and Religion are having a very fascinating conversation with one another, in particular, a conversation about what it means “to be” something. This is how Shaligrams can be both ammonite fossil and divine manifestations, just as rivers can be both vital economic and social waterways emerging out of the glacial melt and tirthas (bridges) into the sacred world of gods and goddesses.

Shaligrams are largely venerated by Vaishnava Hindus (devotees of the god Vishnu) and one of the defining characteristics of Vishnu’s story is the theology of the Dasavatara, or the 10 incarnations of Vishnu. In this particular aspect of Vishnu’s lengthy mythological history, is it said that he has appeared on Earth in some form on 10 separate occasions (or will, given that we are currently only up to 9 in the 10 avatar stretch). This does not mean, however, that each avatar was human (or even human-looking); rather each avatar took on a specific form and function designed to accomplish some particular set of tasks necessary for the given time in which the avatar appeared. Given the circumstances of his appearance, Vishnu has manifested as a fish (Matsya), a tortoise (Kurma), a boar (Varaha), a half-man half-lion (Narasimha), a dwarf-man (Vamana), a warrior bearing an axe (Parashurama), Sri Ram the god-king of Ayodhya, Krishna the divine lover and hero of the Mahabharata, the Buddha (depending on what tradition you come from, there is some contention on this one. As some traditions place other famous gurus or teachers in this position), and finally Kalki, the destroyer of the current age who is yet to come. Given all this, one might imagine that becoming a stone can’t really be all that difficult in the grand scheme of omnipotence (though I must save discussion of the many Shaligram origin stories for another day).

Unsurprisingly, the Dasavatara are also represented in Shaligrams. There are Matsya Shaligrams and Kurma Shaligrams, Ram Shaligrams and Krishna Shaligrams, each appearing according to the characteristics laid out in the Puranas and in the Epic stories of the exploits of the Dasavatara. But what is more, I can’t help but notice that we live in a time where the narratives of religion and science are increasingly at odds, and they are certainly fighting about much more than ammonites. Both religion and science have become a part of the political project, in service to various agendas seeking national or geo-political power. As such, they are pitted against one another as two presumptive sides to the same Almighty Dollar coin. Religion is poised to reject Science, and Science employed to tear down Religion. So the more I think on it, perhaps Shaligrams, just as all the rest of the incarnations of Vishnu, have arrived both as fossil and as deity, in just the right form for what this time needs most.

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.

Yak Sandwich – By Holly Walters

Outside of the annals of the Anthropology of Food, I find it interesting that anthropologists don’t often discuss their diets in the field. This may be partially because their daily food intake is likely to be relatively unrelated to their actual fieldwork or, it may be partially because we often don’t think about it. Until we have to, anyway.

I have written previously on my decision not to wear traditional clothing in the field (in short, because my informants would find it extremely odd and it would create more problems than it would solve) but I have yet to discuss the culinary flip-side for partial cultural assimilation in my particular section of the world. I may be off the hook sartorially, but I am hardly off the hook when it comes to food. In short, the people I work with may not care what I am wearing (within reason) but they care quite a bit about what I am eating (or, as in some cases, not eating).

Vaishnava Hindus typically adhere to a strict diet on religious grounds. This diet is, for the most part, vegan, in that it doesn’t allow for any animal products (of which meat is the obvious, but also includes eggs, fish, honey, insects, and bone meal). However, it does allow for dairy products; as cows are kept and cared for as sacred beings and their milk is “given in love.” This means butter, milk, yogurt, and cheese are common staples. It is vital that I keep to this diet as well, given that the objects I primarily work with (Shaligram stones) are deeply holy and the people I work with are in active pursuit of them. To handle a Shaligram with hands or body contaminated by blood or death is to disrespect the deity and to disrespect the deity is to disrespect the devotees.

As ethnographic dues-paying goes, it isn’t so bad and I quite enjoy many of the elaborate curries and other local dishes (potato burgers are spectacular!) designed to appeal to Himalayan Shaligram pilgrims’ dietary requirements. I also consider it one of the many ways in which anthropologists in general endeavor to “take seriously” the practices they study. Contrary to popular belief, to “take seriously” a particular cultural practice doesn’t necessarily mean to adopt it wholly for oneself. Or as Westerners would say, to “believe in it.” Rather, it refers to the many ways in which anthropologists in the field attempt to participate as fully as possible in the daily lives and meanings of the people they work with. For me, this means retaining my usual Western clothes (a short-list ensemble of jeans and long-sleeve shirts) but shifting the ways in which I perceive food as well as how others perceive me preparing at eating it.

However, I only wish this was as uncomplicated as it might first appear. Vaishnava Hindus and practicing Buddhists (whose diet is very similar) are only two of the cultures endemic to this region (Mustang, Nepal). Among the local Thakali (many of whom practice an indigenous animistic religion), eating meat is simply par for the course. For most of them, as it typical in high Himalayan regions where cultivation is next to impossible, this means a lifestyle rich in herding and husbandry practices and a diet similarly rich in goat, sheep, and yak meat. As ‘mobility’ and ‘sovereignty’ are the main themes of my current fieldwork, I have often found myself in one ethno-religious context in the morning and quite another by dinner-time. For example, this might involve taking a carefully prepared meal of dal bhat (cooked lentils and rice) and vegetables with Buddhist nuns in the morning and then sitting down for a meal of chicken and dumplings with a Thakali family at night. Needless to say, this has made navigating my shifting dietary requirements something of an unexpectedly complicated undertaking. The good news is that, for the time being, I have been rather successful in modifying my diet based on the day’s expected activities or, if necessary, participating in the washing and cleansing rituals that ensure I do not accidentally disrespect the focus of my research. In other words, I am never quite sure exactly what is going on until I see what I am eating.

I have to say though; the yak sandwich I had a few days ago was delicious.