Thoughts on the Concept of Impurity in Nepali Culture

I’ve hesitated to write about this topic because it’s complex, and I’m still working to understand all of its nuances. Notions about and rules concerning impurity are prevalent in many aspects of Nepali culture, from traditions surrounding mourning to menstruation to the caste-system. Some of the rules are practical, but some of them have been very hard for me to come to terms with.

Jutho is the Nepali word for “impure.” In Nepal, we eat with our hands, and once I touch the food on my plate to my mouth, my hand and the whole plate of food are considered jutho. I can’t reach for the serving spoon to take a second serving for myself because it would contaminate the non-jutho food. In Nepali culture, the left hand is also considered impure. Because it is the one used for wiping, touching others, handing them things, or serving with the left hand is impolite. These rules reduce the spread of germs and are, in that way, very practical.

The concept of jhutho extends way beyond the hands, though. As I’ve mentioned in some of my other posts, this year, because Tri’s mom died, we can’t celebrate any holidays. This is because we’re considered jutho. I still don’t understand exactly why we’re considered jutho (I’m still investigating this one), but I do understand some of the reasoning behind this rule. It forces the mourners to really mourn and remember the one they lost. It also frees them from performing some of the social obligations involved with Nepali festivals at a time when they’re feeling bad. On the other hand, a year is a long time to be restricted from any kind of celebration, and it can be painful and lonely.

Although I don’t understand all of the traditions behind these rules about impurity as they relate to mourning, I respect and accept them. I struggle more to accept impurity in other contexts, especially as it affects women.

When a woman is menstruating, she is considered jutho. She cannot touch other people or their things; she cannot go in the kitchen, cook, or touch others’ food or water.

When I was studying abroad, I lived with a fairly conservative host family that followed traditional rules about jutho, and the first time I had my period in their house, I was shocked. My host aamaa was very strict and wouldn’t let me come in the kitchen. I had to sit in a separate room while eating, and I couldn’t serve myself; she had to serve me.

There was a teenager who used to work in their house as a domestic helper. One day, when I had my period, we were outside washing clothing. Before we started, he filled a bucket with water and then went inside the house to get some soap. I thought I would help him by bringing the bucket over to the dirty clothes. As I was lugging the water across the patio, he came back outside looking really mad. “Why did you touch the water?” he yelled at me in Nepali. He then took the bucket, dumped out the precious water and refilled it before washing the clothing.

There is some positive that comes out of the rules about jutho as they relate to menstruation. For women in Nepal who work hard from before day break to sunset, that time of the month is a time to relax. The men often cook the meals, and women are off the hook. On the other hand, for women to get a break from work, why do they have to be considered “impure”?

Thankfully my immediate Nepali family members don’t believe in that type of jutho, so it’s never been an issue in our house. One of the interesting outcomes of the tradition is that periods are less taboo here than in the US. If I can’t enter the kitchen, then everyone in the family knows when I have my period. In the American culture I grew up with, people didn’t talk about periods and definitely didn’t want others to know about them.

I still struggle with the rules about menstruation, but it was something that I dealt more with as a study abroad student, living with a host family. The jutho that I’ve been struggling with recently has to do with how I fit into the caste system in Nepal, something I’ll leave for tomorrow’s post.

25 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Concept of Impurity in Nepali Culture

  1. So interesting!

    Left hand is def very taboo, at least in Malayalee culture. My grandfather once called my dad something like “you useless tuber” for eating with his left hand.

    • I didn’t know it’s part of Malayalee culture too 🙂 Some of these traditions must extend over most of South Asia and maybe beyond.

      If/when I have kids I’m definitely using that insult to keep them in line 😀

  2. Ahh– I just wrote a long comment and it was deleted, but it was so long I might turn it into a blog post 😉 thanks for the inspiration.

      • The reminds me, I was thinking about your birthday the other day. Were you able to celebrate your birthday while your family is in mourning? Could you do anything to mark the day, or were you not supposed to really acknowledge it?

    • I can’t figure out how to reply to your comment below about birthdays (i’m still getting used to wordpress :)). But in answer to your question: yes and no. It seems like it’s most important that we don’t celebrate Nepali/Hindu holidays, but Tri’s dad isn’t too keen on celebrating American holidays either. On my birthday, we had a few close family members over but didn’t tell them it was my birthday before they got there. So it wasn’t officially a birthday celebration but sort of was an unofficial one.

  3. Pingback: Jhutho | Musings from an American-Nepali Household

  4. Pingback: Menstruation Jhutho | Musings from an American-Nepali Household

  5. Pingback: Jutho | Musings from an American-Nepali Household

  6. I got married few months ago. As Nepali wedding goes for few days, I got my period after the main ceremony. I didn’t know what to do so tell my new husband. He convinced me to tell his mum as there were going to be lots of ritual things happening. I was lucky my MIL told me not to tell anyone else and go on with the ceremony. Her words were “We can’t stop the wedding just because you had your period. So don’t tell anyone”. I was glad to hear that from her. I am not even sure what they really do in this situation. I am sure noone had moved wedding because bride as a period.

    • I’ve heard of people taking some sort of hormone (maybe birth control?) to delay their periods if they know the period is going to come during a wedding or important puja, but that never sounded like a good idea to me. I’m glad your MIL was supportive and you guys were able to go on with the ceremony. Congratulations on getting married! 🙂

  7. Growing up in Nepal, I am from one of those conservative joint families where jutho was part of everyday life.My mum use to follow the rule about menstruation and so did my aunts. At that time, those four days were good for them as they don’t need to do any housework and can rest well.There were other family members who will look after them.

    After we moved out from our family home, my mum was the only one who cooked at our new home so she could no longer follow the rule of jutho .Instead she used to shower every morning and do the normal cooking. So I guess jutho depends on family and how they adapt the rule.

    I was told not to visit temple when I have my period and that is the only oneI follow.

      • As a teenager I was always petrified to get my first period because in Newari culture (I know they have something similar in other cultures too), once you get your first period you need to go through “Gufa ceremony”. It’s like telling the world that I got my first period and I was really uncomfortable about it.

        “Gufa” ceremony requires a girl to stay in one room for 12 days without sun light and not meeting any male including her family members. They will bring the food in the room and cover all the windows with black cloth. As a child, it was very scary to think that I have to go through that process and it may happen any time without notice. On 12th day, they have a big Puja followed by Bhoj as a prize of going through the whole ordeal.

        Even as a kid, I found the process humiliating and never understood why female has to go through this process. They have modernised the process nowadays but depending on the family, young girls still have to go through this process.

        I remember one of my aunts used to treat a woman with period as if they had some kind of disease. If I had my period while visiting her, I used to not tell her about it. This was taught to me by one of my older cousin. The reason was, if she knew about it, she kept saying things like, “don’t touch that”, “don’t go in that room” and worst part is , she will make you eat your meal alone in the balcony . Then you had to wash your own dishes.

        I don’t believe in all these strict rules. I believe menstruation is normal body cycle for women and they should be treated normally while we go through this. As you mentioned, if following a rule helps to reduce the spread of germs and have a practical aspect that does make sense. But following tradition blindly with out using our brains seems wrong. But I know still many families in Nepal does that including my own family to certain extend.

    • I’ve heard of the Gufa ceremony…12 Days is a long time to have to stay inside! I could see how it could be humiliating. The upside might be getting bonding time with female relatives and friends.

      I absolutely agree that traditions should not be followed blindly. And I’m so glad there are lots of people online to discuss these issues! It’s definitely helping me to understand and think critically about these traditions.

      • I think “Gufa ceremony” has changed for better at least in my extended family now. Instead of waiting for the girl to have her first period, they get auspicious date from the priest and put her inside the room for 12 days. This way at least the child is mentally prepared. Also they can choose good time of the year like winter/autumn than summer when it is stinky hot in a closed room with out air condition and air flow. On top of that, now when she gets her first period, noone needs to know except her mum.

        It is true that, girl gets to bond with female relatives and friends. I think I was humiliated because I had my period during exam week. (Whole class if not whole school knew why I missed out). On top of that I was very close to my dad so I wanted to talk to him but I wasn’t allowed. I still enjoyed yummy foods they gave me and enjoyed the company of friends and female relatives.

        Guess I need to do some research on this culture and see if there are any benefits on putting a girl in a closed room for 12 days.

  8. I never understood why my husband would tell my SIL to get him more food once he started eating… it used to really annoy me. Now i understand, even if i still don’t like the feeling of someone waiting on us while we eat.

    The seclusion during menstruation thing is a bit of an issue in my Nepali family’s home. I refuse to participate in self seclusion and i refuse to place items on the floor or avoid my MIL or SIL while they have their period. i know it is their culture but I don’t think i am dirty and i don’t feel they are either. Look forward to the arguments about this if i have any daughters!

    • I agree. I’m also generally uncomfortable with the idea of someone waiting on me while I eat. My family in the US always had meals together, everyone sitting down together and serving themselves.

  9. The ‘gufa ceremony’ I think is observed in other places too. My parents are Sri lankan.. and my mum used to say they had a similar ceremony but it was just 7 days long.. and she couldn’t leave the dark room nor could she eat for anything non-vegetarian for 3 months. She could only wear white and she could not even visit the toilet. Had to do her private stuff in the room as well. (totally gross). At the end of this seclusion period, the girl was given a bath in neem leaves for purification and gifted gold jewellry etc. and a ‘bhoj’ was held at the end of the 7 days. I never had to go through any of it because my mum thought it was illogical but she did stick to the “telling the people and inviting everyone over” part.. which nevertheless is still humiliating. I never understood it until the event took place for my sister. I think families back in their native countries still follow this tradition even though many modern families would cut out all the seclusion part from the ritual and just hold a get-together to celebrate it (even though I still don’t understand what’s there to celebrate about menstruation)

  10. Think this is more of a Hindu tradition than a Sri lankan/Indian or Nepali practice. We also have the celebration after getting the first period and its very embarassing. the worst part is it is conducted almost like a wedding – they book a hall and create a huge drama that announces the puberty to the world. Have written about the Indian practice in this post.

    The practice of not celebrating festivals for an year also exists here. Also, after a child is born the mother/child are isolated for sometime.

  11. Pingback: One Year Ago… | nepali jiwan

  12. this is interesting for me and useful too since i want to visit Nepal for a while next year to see if I will like it or not and if i do will eventually move there in future if possible so i’m learning everything I can about the place. I love to travel and it will be my first time coming there. I want to maybe teach English as volunteer in temples in exchange for accomodation and food and that and if i enjoy it plan to come back when i graduated from uni and this time have some sort of job or something and working visa as well..I hope this “jutha” thing won’t affect me that much as an independent traveller searching for somewhere to settle. I do have long very heavy periods..I’m currently on it and its lasted for months and months and taking hormone balancing pills..i would hate to be considered as unclean or impure by a backwards minded tradition during this time and would actually feel a little offended, especially if i was staying with a host family for the first time and was shouted at like that. Looks like you coped very well, and it’s truly a culture shock. I don’t know other cultures that make this transition to womanhood such a big deal, not even my african one. I hope they revise their traditions a little bit in the future and make it less strict and harsh since it can put some foreigners off and it’s sad that they isolate their daughters for so long or bride can’t get married simply because she’s at “that time of the month”. Here in UK, people make jokes about it but I guess over there it kind of makes the whole thing sacred. What were you studying in Nepal and are you going back ?

  13. Jutho may be the ancients’ and our ancestors’ way of maintaining cleanliness, owing to their limited knowledge on the science of personal hygiene at that time.

    Your blog is rather appealing as you genuinely and curiously inquire into this Jutho pratha and question why menstruation (which in light of fact is an unavoidable natural physiologic phenomenon that women experience regularly) is particularly stigmatized even today.

    You question menstrual taboo, but again I find this remark of yours self-contradictory //Although I don’t understand all of the traditions behind these rules about impurity as they relate to mourning, I respect and accept them.//

    If you do not understand them you must try and understand their scientific/psychological basis. If you still do not, why the dishonesty and necessity to “accept” or “respect” them?

    I’m saying this, because such traditions of impurity such as Jutho, were devised in feudal times by people unaware of public health values and science as a whole. I see no need to respect them today, because nowadays basic elementary education , let alone medical science, has made us aware of proper hygiene practices.

    I understand that you belong to a somewhat liberal family, but I see no reason why to give them any sort of a soft-corner just because of their association with our culture. The only reason to adorn to it would be an appeal to authority or due to argumentum ad populum. Both of which are logical fallacies.

    We can find better, liberal and more progressive moral codes on which to base our lives at present.

    • Thanks for your comment! I think that you make some great points. It’s interesting because when I was younger, newly married, and a newcomer to Nepali culture, I tried to be more of an observer and more or less accept the components of Nepali culture that I didn’t agree with. At the very least, I kept my complaints to myself and my husband. However, now that I’m a bit older, I am less forgiving of the parts of Nepali culture that are discriminatory or hurtful, and I’m sure that my thoughts on the issues will continue to change and adapt as I get older  However, as a member of a Nepali family, it is not always possible to uphold my beliefs while in Nepal. Ultimately maintaining my relationship with Tri’s family and friends is way more important to me than my personal feelings on different aspects of Nepali culture.

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