For some in Karnataka, Diwali brings with it isolation and fear
Every year, women who are menstruating during Diwali are sent out of villages as they are considered unfit to take part in the festival’s rituals.india Updated: Oct 19, 2017 09:16 IST
Millions across India might be celebrating Diwali with their families but for 23-year-old Supriya, the festival of lights is a time of deep despondency.
Every year this time, she and many other women in her village are forced to leave their homes for several days as part of a controversial tradition that considers menstruating women impure and unfit to participate in the holy rituals of Diwali.
The locals in her village of Chennashetty Koppa and several others in southern Karnataka’s Shivamogga district celebrate Gama Habba (village festival) in honour of the local deity during Diwali.
The women are accepted back to the village, nestled in the green hills of the Western Ghats, on the night of the new moon after Diwali by bursting firecrackers. Even the vehicles used to transport the women out of the village are washed before they are allowed to re-enter the village.
“I have been asked to move out of the village because of tradition,” said Supriya, a commerce graduate who is now in her uncle’s place around 20 kilometres away.
Opposition to these traditions has been persistent, but change very gradual. “Earlier, women had to live in small huts in the agricultural fields with no facilities. That changed eventually and now we are allowed to visit relatives in other villages. Earlier the duration of the purity period was 15 days, which has reduced now to seven days in most villages,” said Supriya.
Gaamamma, an elderly woman of Chennashetty Koppa, said she believed not complying with the traditions would anger the village deity. “Honey bees sting those that do not obey these rules,” she said. Chowdappa, a 50-year-old local farmer, said nobody could say exactly when the bees had attacked anybody. “Everybody claims to know someone who had been attacked, but I haven’t ever come across such a person.”
Police complaints are rare because the practice isn’t banned. In fact, many in the district proudly recall how “more cruel” practices from the past have been discarded. For example, 20 years ago, women had to walk naked from the village pond to the temple, a distance of more than three kilometers, as part of a ritual.
Lalithamma, a 54-year-old member of the local panchayat, said there was no question of change. According to her, nobody had come up with a good enough explanation for the bee-sting phenomenon. “Everybody talks of wanting a change but nobody has explained to us why bees sting people who disobey these rules only during the 15-day period.”
Veena Parameshwara of Chennashetty Koppa said the opposition to the festival had been muted because of fear. “If there is any untoward incident in the village during this period, it is blamed on those not obeying the rules. This is the way these practices are enforced,” she said. “No young woman observes these rules out of devotion, it is fear that has forced us to stick by them.”
State revenue minister Kagodu Thimmappa, who is also the local MLA, said it was unfortunate that such practices continued. “We need to come out of the grip of superstitions and to this end our government is going to table the Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman and Evil Practices and Black Magic Bill,” he said. Thimmappa added that the only long-term solution for overcoming superstitious beliefs was education.
One of the practices the bill recognises as inhuman is “forcing isolation, prohibiting re-entry into the village or facilitating segregation of menstruating or pregnant women”. The piece of legislation was approved by the state cabinet last month and is set to be tabled in the assembly in the coming session in November.
For Supriya that may be too late. “Of course, I would have loved to be a part of the celebrations. But that is completely out of the question now,” she rued.