Mustard blossoms, bright yellow on tall green stalks; rows of young potato seedlings; a stack of papery dried marigolds and a pile of stones serve as a haphazard memorial for 17-year-old Laxmi Buda. The plants grow from the spot where she burned to death, alone, locked inside a small shed.
Laxmi slept in the shed every month during her period, as most of the women in the region do, a practice called "chaupadi." Women are considered untouchable during menstruation and sleep away from their families, sometimes in a small shed called a “goth,” sometimes outside, sometimes in the stable, sometimes in a cave.
Most members of the community believe that to break the tradition is to incur the wrath of the gods. When the gods are angry cattle can die, snakes can fall from the ceiling, wild beasts can come into the house. Different villages have different interpretations of chaupadi with different rules about what women can and cannot do. But when chaupadi turns tragic faith is shaken and families are left wondering what they should fear more: gods or tradition.
One night last year, Laxmi walked ten minutes along a back pathway between mud homes and wheat fields to reach her aunt’s goth. She didn’t want to stay in the shed nearer to her house because there was no lock on the door.
Her mountain village was blanketed with the winter quiet of Far Western Nepal. She slept alone this time, though she often brought her little sister to the shed, and she lit a fire to fight the creeping, foggy cold.
In the morning the family started to worry when she didn’t come home for breakfast. Her aunt, Birma Buda, walking past the goth in the morning was the one who discovered her body. “In the morning I was coming down and I smelled something, I smelled smoke. I came down and called her name, ‘Laxmi!’”
When Laxmi didn’t respond, Birma called her teenage son, who pushed in the door. “She was lying like she was sleeping. Her legs were burnt. I started crying,” Birma said.
She traced the outline of the shed in the field, and lay down to show where she found Laxmi’s body. Laxmi’s mother, Sauri Buda, wore the tragedy in her face, in her downturned eyes, lips slack from crying. She carried it in her hunched shoulders. “I can’t feel anything, I am numb,” she told us, but later articulated her loss, “I have many daughters,” she said, “but she was the one who was always with me.”
The day Laxmi died another of the women in the family started her period. Birma told her to stay in the house, “When your sons and daughters die, who could fear god?”
One day’s drive down the mountain, Jeera Devi, a mother of seven, lives with her extended family in Kalekanda village next to the Karnali river. Karnali is Nepal’s longest and perhaps most colorful body of water, multi-hued in turquoise and indigo. Houses in Achham’s classical style, with mud walls painted over stone and wood are interspersed with gardens and wheat fields in the family compound. Like many women, Jeera practices chaupadi each month.
Eight years ago, Jeera was sleeping in the goth with a relative and her one-year-old baby. She kept the baby with her to nurse her during the night. At midnight she woke up to feed her daughter, but when she turned over she found the baby dead. “There was a wound under the armpit and everyone said it was a snake bite,” she said.
The traumatized family destroyed that goth, afraid the snake would return to bite another family member, but Jeera continued her chaupadi practice.
Two years later she was sleeping outside, camped in the yard on a warm summer night. In the morning she woke and went to the toilet, covering her sleeping 5-month-old daughter. When she came back she didn’t find her baby. “I thought someone from the family had taken the baby, but I went into the house and no one had,” she said.
Her father-in-law, Bhani Prasad Bhat, a diminutive man with weathered skin from years farming under the sun and forehead wrinkled from years of worry, sent the baby’s father and another son to look for the baby.
Behind the house, two jackals were fighting over the remnants of her body. “All that was left was the head,” he said. “The mom cried until she fainted from so much crying.”
The family refused to show the remains to the mother and buried the baby in the yard.
After the second incident, they deserted the house, moving in with relatives up the sloping family compound. Now the old house is used as a stable—its façade is fading, the mud walls crumpling—and they store straw inside for the buffalo.
“I feel that chaupadi is dangerous,” Bhani said, adding, “As long as we can remember women have been practicing chaupadi.”
“If we stay in the house, the gods will possess us. These are people's thoughts, maybe if we start staying in the house gods might not possess us—we don’t know.” He framed his beliefs around those of his community. But even in the face of death, who would be the first to tempt fate?
Jeera’s village, Kalekanda extends along the bank of the river. Ten minutes walk from her home is a cave shared by most of the women in the area; one denizen estimated there were 150 to 200 women who passed their periods here. “Not a single day this place goes empty,” said 16-year-old Namrata Bhul.
She was camped out that night, in this space they call a “cave” but that is more of an outcropping of jagged rocks jutting over a smooth clearing. Each time a woman finishes her period she purifies the space by spreading a fresh layer on the mud floor. When it rains, the girls said, they only get wet if it’s windy.
The women here see chaupadi as a way of life, as expected as puberty, and as unquestionable. “All my grandmothers, great grandmothers have stayed here—it feels like home,” explained 15- year-old Namrata Kumari Bhat, assertive and self-assured. “Nobody stays home here. If you stay home the animals eat you, the gods possess you and you will die,” she said.
These women believe the repercussions for breaking the chaupadi tradition can come later, so if a menstruating teenage girl touches a kitchen utensil or ventures into the house she may end up infertile years later.
A crowd of women was clustered in the clearing, Dhana Bhul, a saucy ringleader of sorts, built a fire and laid out a blanket: “We sit here around the fire, talk and laugh until we get sleepy and go to sleep.” She said she had never heard of anything bad happening in the cave. When asked if men come to bother them she retorted, jokingly, “only if we call them.”
It’s like a slumber party, a girls club. The men aren’t around and the women stay clustered, giggling long after the sun goes down. They are confident in their practice and their identity within it, they see no reason to change.
The belief systems underlying the chaupadi practice are generations deep. Each community interprets the practice differently, with different lengths of time spent apart, different rules about how close they can stand to the house. For some, like Jeera's family, fear of the gods overrides even the most devastating physical costs of chaupadi, but for others like the Buda family, tragedy is the impetus for change.
02/12/13 Editor's note: The name of Namrata Kumari Bhat was misspelled when originally published.