UMA BISTA REMEMBERS that when she got her first period, she was sent away by her parents to a neighbour’s house for 12 days. She was confined to a dark room, and not allowed to go into the sun or speak to any men. This experience led her to reflect deeply on chhaupadi—a Hindu custom that is now illegal but still practised in certain areas of Nepal, which demands that women be temporarily exiled from their homes when they are on their period because they are considered impure during this time. They have to live in seclusion for between five and seven days a month, in a chhaugoth—a windowless hut or shed outside their houses, and face restrictions on what they can eat and touch.
“It is believed that the gods are angered if women break the rules of chhaupadi,” wrote the photographer and curator NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati, who has worked closely with Bista and curated the exhibition for Bista’s photo series, “Our Songs from the Forest.” “The women are then held responsible for all possible ills that might befall the family, especially the menfolk, including accidents, illnesses, deaths, poor harvests, failures in school exams: anything that may bring hardship, sorrow or shame to the family.”
When Bista heard stories about Achham—a district in far-western Nepal—she said her ordeal felt mild by comparison. Chhaupadi is so rampant there, she said, that when people talk about the practice it is the first place they bring up, “almost as if Achham is synonymous with Chhaupadi.” According to a 2018 report, ten girls have died since 2006 as a consequence of the practice. Bista decided to explore how the practice works in the district, travelling to Oligaun twice and spending two weeks there each time documenting the experiences of women through photographs that eventually became part of “Our Songs From the Forest.”