Menstrual taboos in Bali; exploring the deep and wild within

Western travellers are abundant in South East Asia. It some parts of Asia it isn’t uncommon to find groups of westerners from Australia, the US and Europe all siting around sucking on vanilla and blueberry vapor cigarettes between yoga sessions, tossing their hair and talking about their latest juice cleanse or chakra alignment. Often well intentioned people, simply walking down the street past grandmothers who would have seen so much change in their lifetime I wonder how they manage to keep smiling. Yet within this, traditions are very much alive in places like Bali.

The mini mart guy starts his shift by mindfully sprinkling holy water over the door of the min mart, and burning incenses and offering flowers to the Goddess of this place. The cleaners and pool guy finishes their jobs and then offers flowers, incenses and a pinch of rice to the Gods. The birds, dogs and turtles all wake up and eat the offering plates. When we look after the Gods and Goddesses it seems we look after everyone. I see the tourists smiling at the continual flow of flowers and incense, so sweet in the air. But what of other traditions that don’t sit so well with western ideals?

On a recent trip to Bali I was quite startled to find the signs outside of temples restricting women from entering if menstruating. The following day a man stopped me at the gate of a temple, raised his hand, and asked my menstruation status. I paused for a moment, thinking of something widely inappropriate I could ask about his dick. Deep breath…looking down at my five year old girl, I say we are going in and with an intense look in my eyes I say and we are fine to do so. He pauses and moves aside. My daughter looks up at me. ‘Why did that man ask you about your bleeding?’ Sigh…hmmm well bub women can create life with their blood, it’s very powerful, sometimes I guess too powerful for some places.

But a rage was stirring in me. While it is true, women’s fertility is strong and has great power, my sense was that this moment, like many other moments through history was not about honouring that power, but rather restricting women and using women’s bodies to exercise patriarchal control. Many cultures and religions have used menstrual taboos as a way to make the strength of women and our ability to create and sustain life through blood and milk as dirty and unclean. To control the uncontrollable and to take power over something that is unknown to the male body. Taming the body that is wild and messy.

However looking further back, women’s fertility across countless cultures has been revered and honoured so deeply. The blood and milk that creates life, inscribed in art, song and ceremony. A young girls coming of age, a joyous celebration for all the community to embrace. The life creating energy and rich stem cells in this blood used by indigenous tribes for healing, wound care and shamanism. Red tents, moon lodges, a place for women to retreat from general community work and rest, retreat, dream, sing and vision with other women. Bleeding into the earth offering their own fertility to the Goddess and Mother Earth.

So what was happening here in Bali? I thought perhaps I should ask some questions. First I went online. I saw people joking about the restrictions and asking how they would know, making jokes about women when they are menstruating. Others more serious about menstrual blood being strong and powerful but not the same energy as the temple space. Others commenting about the spirits of these places being of sky not earth, and blood belongs to a different realm. People commented that perhaps this custom was in place before pads and tampons, and blood on the temple space was the concern, triggering difference energies and rites that were not intended. Something not really a concern for the modern age. That perhaps nowadays it’s a matter of personal choice and not the risk it used to be.

I spoke to someone of Balinese decent. They described a world in which the spirituality of the Balinese is divided into equal but very different areas of the lower, middle and upper realms. Lower is the wild, chaos, sexuality, birth, blood. Middle is the realm of ancestors and community and the upper realm/ sky realm belongs to the Goddesses and Gods. That fertility and menstruation was not ‘unclean’ but rather a different energy to that of the temple and sky realm. The Celtic spiritual systems I personally practice also exist within underworld, middle and sky realms. So this difference of energy made sense to me. The work of Goddess Bridget and the work of Goddess Morrigain do not sit in the same space, however they are equally powerful.

I also heard that traditional Balinese ceremonies involved walking long distances, preparing food, sitting for many hours. That women in their rest time would likely be given respite from the work of temple duties. This also made sense to me, as many cultures I have studied had time set aside away from housework, parenting etc. while menstruating and women gathered to rest and dream and simply be. But what does this mean for a tourist walking in the temple door in this day and age? Do these restrictions really apply to me?

The night before going to an amazing water temple I began to bleed. This was the place I had been waiting for. An ancient temple of purifying water that nourishes the heart. I sat outside thinking. In my own Goddess circles a women bleeding, pregnant, nursing simply adds to the fertile energy of the space. Out in nature this is also true and our creation energy and life-force is a potent connection of life. But what of this temple space in this land? A space dedicated very specifically to the upper realm, not the earthed wild and beautiful energy of Mother. I was torn. I sat watching fire flies on my veranda that night and decided that I would enter, however I wouldn’t bath in the waters.

The next morning we gathering as a group on scooters ready to go. One woman withdrew and apologized explaining she had just started bleeding and didn’t want to either anger the local spirits or break such a strong custom so important to the Balinese people. I hid my pads for the first time in my life and a sickness enters my belly. I felt tired, drained and torn. I talked with my friend before we drive out and I ask his opinion. He is quick to say that as a person in a male body he really doesn’t want to influence my decision. We talk more deeply about the different energies of the underworld and the sky realms within his culture and he reminds me to do whatever makes me feel comfortable in myself.

We drive out on the scooters with the wind blowing in my hair, past the rice fields, my daughter is screaming with delight. I am in silence, dropping down, deeper and deeper. The underworld of the wild pulsing deep within me. I am well aware that the men on the gates likely had no ideas of the shamanic principles and spiritual energies I am contemplating. They likely do hold modern views of customs of women as needing to be removed to hold a spiritual temple as ‘clean’. But my decisions are not made for them. My body is dropping into the deep, and suddenly I realise I can get by the gate, but I don’t want to anymore.

So I tell my daughter I’m going for a walk in the market and my friend is going to take her inside. She happily skips away. I sit down at the gate with a huge lump in my throat. I look at a mother and daughter around 10 years old pause and read the sign. It pains my heart to witness that. Without explanation…how many women and children walk by and read this every day. With so much social stigma and cultural shame around women’s bodies and menstruation, how many women and girls walk by and simply add more weight to their shoulders to carry. For no other reason but their bodies they are making the temple unholy? I feel heavy.

The wind has changed and I haven’t noticed. A woman comes over to me holding fans for sale and speaking Indonesian. I say no, no thank you. Then I realise she isn’t selling fans to me, she is trying to tell me I’m now sitting in the rain and my skirt is deep in a puddle of mud. Oh right…sorry, thanks. I shift over a metre so I am under the shelter again. I want to cry and scream, the heavy rain is doing it for me. I sit still for an hour cold, shivering, I wait.

Around me I see evidence of patriarchy over women’s bodies. However within me I feel deep spiritual shifts occurring as my blood flows. Blood does have power to change energy and space and in myself I know that this resonance and depth I am in is different to that of the upper world. While I am hurting seeing what I see, I am also very comfortable in the decision I made to wait outside. I personally wouldn’t judge either way anyone who chose to walk in the temple or do the same as I did, we each need to listen to what is right. Not everyone who is menstruating is tipping into the deep resonance and open energy that can create. Smoke doesn’t always mean fire. Sometimes we need to listen to our own hearts beyond the layers of cultured and institutionalised stigma and simply sit in our own truth. Sometimes the smoke is simply temple flowers and incense softly burning a sweet smell, and you can choose to walk into it or walk away.

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