Celebrating Menstruation in Assam – A New Form of Consumerism

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tuloni-biya-celebrations-in-Assam
Image – Photo by AMISH THAKKAR

A lot has been said about the relationship between consumerism and weddings in the contemporary Indian context. A 2017 KPMG report had estimated that the Indian wedding business is worth almost 50 billion US dollars, and it increases every year.  Luxurious celebrity weddings, destination weddings, and theme-based weddings further contribute to this big industry. 

Social scientists have explored the relationship between the big, fat Indian weddings with conspicuous consumption. Conspicuous consumption has been defined as the unnecessary display of wealth and luxury (Veblen 1899). Indian weddings have become an occasion that brings this conspicuous nature of consumption out.

Forms of popular culture like Bollywood and TV shows have made lavish weddings look attractive and easy. They depict very elaborate wedding rituals that run for three-four days with a variety of functions like haldi, mehendi, sangeet, etc. These elaborate rituals have also now entered cultures that earlier did not have these ceremonies. 

Assamese people did not have these mehendi and haldi ceremonies earlier. We used to have the juroon (the engagement), a small haldi and then the wedding. It is the impact of the TV’, said Mrs. Renuka Bayan, an owner of a wedding hall in Guwahati.

In many cases, the pressure to host these expensive weddings have meant that families have taken huge loans and faced great financial risks. In fact, in many rural areas, farmers utilize their loan amounts in their daughters’ marriages’ and later, due to non-repayment of the dues, commit suicide. It is because of the pressure of giving dowry and hosting grand weddings that many families do not want daughters. 

However, it is not the relationship between consumerism and weddings that we are looking to explore. Our interest lies in looking at the way consumerism has also entered the ‘traditional’ menstruation ceremonies, also known as tuloni biya – in Assam. 

This article is based on qualitative data that is essentially collected primarily from two sources – participant observation and interviews. Both of us have been born and brought up in Guwahati and have experienced the rituals associated with menstruation first hand. Thus, participant observation became an important source of our information. The second source was interviews that we conducted with some participants in the process – women, parents, and owners of halls. 

Tuloni biya in Assam has revolved around certain rituals that vary regionally but persist. As soon as a girl has her first period, she is kept in a separate room where men are not allowed. The girl is mostly kept on a diet consisting of fruits, rice, and boiled potatoes for a week. After seven days, the girl is bathed with haldi and in some communities, married to a banana tree. 

These rituals are not only socially regressive and patriarchal but also traumatic for young girls. 

I do not have good memories of the time when I had my first period. It was very difficult to deal with all of it – the onset of menstruation, and then all the rituals’, says Rakhi, a student pursuing a BA in a college in Guwahati.

What follows is a celebratory feast in which relatives and friends are invited and the girl is dressed up as a bride. This celebration of tuloni biya, however, only started in the early 2000s, as a product of modernization and changing class dynamics. The rituals and the pomp and show in the celebration have made the occasion both sociologically and economically important. 

In many ways, this feast that celebrates menstruation has become a new form of conspicuous consumption. 

Just like in the case of weddings, fancy halls are booked, expensive paat silk mekhela chadors and gold jewellery are purchased. Make-up artists are also hired to dress up the girls. Invitation cards are printed and distributed. Grand feasts are planned with plenty of items on the menu.

The associated class symbol in celebration is not hidden. What is funny is, that on the one hand, there is the discomfort of society and the taboos associated with menstruation. And on the other hand, there is this celebration of the occasion to display class status.    

Tuloni biya in Assam and its celebration are both symbolic as well as competitive, the display of wealth is important but the urge to do it better than the neighbours is equally significant.

Ramesh from Guwahati is a father of two daughters who wanted the tuloni biya of his eldest daughter to be different from anything the guests had experienced before. He booked a wedding hall and put traditional Assamese food items on the menu to make sure that the celebration was nothing short of a grand occasion. 

I had decided to keep the menu very traditionally Assamese. This was different because nowadays in Guwahati everyone has either a Chinese or a Punjabi menu,’ says Ramesh.

Ramesh also says that this meant he had to spend more as he had to bring in cooks from his village to make the ‘traditional food’. 

Not everyone can make authentic Assamese dishes. I brought some cooks from my village to help me. This increased my budget but the food was much appreciated and so it was worth it’.

People who have benefited from the increasingly consumerist nature of menstruation celebratory feasts are owners of wedding halls. Their rates vary from Rs. 1 to 5 lakhs per day, depending on their size and location. What is also interesting is that parents today save for their daughters’ menstruation feasts along with their weddings. Thus, menstruation in Assam is no longer only ritualistic but has also assumed a consumerist nature. It has become an occasion to display wealth and class position. 

About the Authors – 
Rituparna Patgiri, a PhD researcher in The Centre for the Study of Social systems (CSSS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. Co-author Ritwika Patgiri, a PhD scholar in the Faculty of Economics, South Asian University, New Delhi.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Ritu & Ritwika
    Really appreciate your venture. With your experience, the future research highlights should have been posted too.

    Congrats both of you.
    Look for more

  2. Ritwika and Rituparna, you have bought into focus a very important aspect of our society, menstruation which is considered as taboo and at the same time celebration. Haldi, mehendi, sangeet etc. are entering into Assamese weddings for photo-shoot. Consumerism is increasing to look presentable and fashionable in all the occasions.

  3. Dearest authors,

    Thankyou for bringing up a much-needed conversation into the the light from the state. the consumerism spoken in the ‘Guwahati’ weddings is a thing that is class apart. the Hindu,’north indian, mehendi’ and the haldhi’ ceremonies that you speak about here, are very much part of the conscious class awareness of middle class Assamese households of the city, like many other towns of the state filled with class-conscious households. So, much thankyou for bringing that up.

    That said, there are numerous like us who come from small, forgettable towns or villages of Assam and not from the only City of the the state (or the entire region of northeast India for that matter). Or of the resource-rich economic centres of the state. we belong to those parts who live on the peripheries of the centres of such class-competitions; sometimes struggling to even understand what is meant by ‘display of class and wealth’ even as adults now.

    I can assure you that weddings in our parts of Assam are still very much about rituals (if at all one wants to stick to them) and much less about “consumerism” or “aping the northern parts” (of India); as this article claims to have happened in “Assam”. Tuloni biya is a contested social custom, but much more simplistic and devoid of fanfares for majority of semi-urban, rural and semi-rural households. In many part of Assam, even today a term/phrase associated with tuloni biya is “biyakhon uthai thoi diya”. It essentially means that, the fanfares have been cut short, with the celebration complete through minimal rituals and minimal number of guests, not going beyond relatives and immediate neighbours. Such people form part of a class that are absent from your research. yet they are integral to the idea we call Assam. So yes. All the issues highlighted through your research are true for a particular class of people, if not place, in the state.

    But, with a field site based exclusively within Guwahati City – THE only urban centre for the neo-rich and (aspiring upper) middle-class Assamese households, one would be careful in making claims such as “It has become an occasion to display wealth and class position” in “Assam”. Like many other resource-rich towns of the state, Guwahati too is part of the problem. But,

    Guwahati is not Assam. and your article betrays that fundamental aspect.

    thanks and regards,
    Mausumi

  4. Dear authors,
    You have studied and contributed a topic which normally is forbidden to talk about in public places. I really appreciate how you have tried to explore the issue in a very different way. But there are few mistakes in the article as ‘girls are not married to banana plants on their seventh day’ and along with Haldi we do use many other ingredients. And most importantly, not all people or community of Assam or Guwahati observe ‘tuloni biya’. It is still considered as an event sacred where the girl is forbidden to certain stuffs which she normally used to do but in a very simple and socially customised way which you need to explore.
    Regards

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