‘Bel Bivaha’ or ‘Ihi’ in Newari, is an ancient ritual still prevalent in the Newar community where a girl is married to a fruit – Bel (Aegle marmelos), and usually carried out when she reaches the odd age of 5,7,9 or 11(before puberty). The bel is regarded as a sacred fruit and represents the husband during this ritual. It symbolically signifies the girl’s marriage to Lord Vishnu. It is also said that the Bel represents Suvarna Kumar, the bachelor son of Lord Shiva and the girl is considered married to him. Given the significance of such practices, it is regarded as a major event in a girl’s life. It is also believed that as the girl has been married to a God, she can never become a widow. This then does away with the necessity of Sati, the practice of widows burning themselves on the funeral pyre of their earthly husbands. For this occasion, the Bel is selected with much enthusiasm since according to beliefs, if the Bel is not of proper shape or condition, this indicates some flaw in the character of the future husband.
An auspicious day is chosen for the ceremony, which is held for two days and is generally performed in a temple or courtyard. Usually, it is performed in groups but the numbers may vary in each occasion. On the first day, the chosen site is purified by coating it with a mixture of red mud and cow dung. The girl takes a bath in the morning, after which she is dressed up in beautiful clothes such as those worn during a marriage ceremony. The rich red sarees or lehengas and blouses with golden colored designs are preferred along with gold jewelry to complete the look. She is then taken to the place prepared for the ritual. The girls are all placed around the courtyard while the priest sits in the middle and performs various rituals such as Pitha Puja, the worshiping of eight different flags that represent eight different goddesses, Sat Brindika, which is done by using a yellow thread to measure the girl a hundred and eight times from the head to the foot.
The second day is ‘Kanyadan’, during which the father offers the girl’s hand in marriage. The most significant ritual performed on this day is when (as in a typical Nepali wedding), vermillion is applied on the girl’s forehead by making three parallel lines from the left to the right, and then to the partition on the girls head. After that an ‘ihi parsi’ or saree for ihi is presented to the girl and the yellow thread that was used to measure her on the previous day, is worn as a garland. Then the fathers sit beside the girls to perform various rituals regarding the ‘Kanyadan’. The priest finally places the Bel in the hands of the girl following which, all the girls assemble to go around the fire. Finally, the relatives of the girls offer them money or gifts to end the ceremony.
A friend was visiting Kathmandu after many, many years, and we decided to take a tour of Bhaktapur. I myself...