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NARAK�RETHINKING �POLLUTION�



A MATRIKA team member, Deepti Priya Mehrotra, drew this image of Bemata, based on the information we were receiving. This image was then shown to dais to make certain that we had understood them . Bemata dwells underground (a place of Narak) and is responsible for the growth of plants and babies. the blood of birth should go back to the earth completing the cycle. �Girls are considered holy before puberty. The marriage of a young girl, who has not had her periods, is performed with her sitting on her father�s lap. After puberty the woman is considered unclean, and is unholy, because she bleeds, and this is Narak.� (Basmatia, Bihar)

�On Chhati day the Narak time ends. The Dai checks if the umbilical cord of the baby has fallen off. Then she bathes the baby and beats a thaali (plate) and gives the baby to his or her Chachi. Then the woman is bathed and she wears new clothes. The Dai cleans the room where the delivery took place and the woman was kept separately for six days. The dirty clothes of mother and child are washed. After this the Dai is given soap and oil for bathing.� (Saubatia, Bihar)

�We make the woman stand and the dai presses her belly with her head to help expel blood. This is black blood�in this way the nine months stored blood is helped to come out. If it is not helped to come out then the belly looks swollen as if there is a baby inside and the bleeding continues for a month.� (Keevni, Rajasthan)

Although often translated as hell or demonic place, narak can be understood as the site or energy of the unseen inner world - of the earth and of the body. Narak connotes �filth� but also signifies the fertility or fruitful potential of the earth and woman�s body. What we call �pollution taboos� are related to narak, in that the high religious traditions that which is considered sacred is radically separated from the female blood of menstruation and postpartum. During these times women are considered �unclean�. They don�t go to mandir, mosque, church or gurdwara, nor do they read holy books, recite mantras, do puja or other worship. Our methodology has involved reframing practices which have been thought of as �superstitious.� We now consider these beliefs, rites, goddesses and imagery as traditional women�s embodied spirituality.

The dai speaks very differently than the pundit and religious texts about narak. To her the placenta, the ultimate polluting substance to caste Hindus or the �twice born�, is spoken of reverently, as �another mother� of the baby. Both caste and gender are involved in concepts of narak. Those who handle �polluted� bodily substances are traditionally considered unclean. It is no coincidence that dais are mainly from low and outcaste communities. Ayurvedic and naturopathic practitioners often employ low caste people to apply the hands-on therapies they prescribe. Also Ayurvedic and naturopathic curricula in teaching institutions rely heavily on the obstetrical model for birth, whereas other branches of medicine are less influenced by biomedicine. According to Vaidya Smita Bajpai of the NGO, Chetna, there has been not one Ayurvedic initiative to train dais in the half century of India�s independence. Although Ayurvedic concepts can be used to provide an analysis of dais� practice, its gender and caste bias remains.

As mentioned above the MATRIKA team adopted dais� language of birth time: �the opening body�, �the open body�, and �the closing body�. Narak thus can be viewed as representing �the open body�. This is the time when the womb, which is normally closed, is open and the female fluids of menses and lochia are flowing. Narak functions as an ethno-medical idea, providing a conceptual framework for a range of non-invasive therapeutic interventions. Narak signifies the inner world of the body, which is invisible to the human eye. Dais practice gentle techniques which affect the inner body without violating the integrity of the body. Their holistic health modalities utilize touch (massage, pressure, manipulation) and natural resources (mud, baths and fomentation, herbs) and application of �hot and cold� (in food and drink, fomentation etc.) and isolation and protection (from domestic, maternal and sexual obligations).

In the context of postpartum care narak also is connected to �bad blood� or that energy of the maternal body which is associated with growing the baby. Traditionally oriented women insist that this blood must leave the body. It should be noted that experienced dais are very clear about the difference between �bad blood� and haemorrhage. The understanding and use of this concept in dai training would significantly improve communications on controlling haemorrhage postpartum.
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