Over the past month, you may have seen girls as young as six or seven, dressed up as brides, at different places in the Kathmandu valley. The children were beautiful in red saris and glittering “jewelry” and the hair and make-up made sure these young “brides” to be felt they are the center of everyone’s attention. The young girls were about to enter into their first of three marriage ceremonies. Locally the ritual is called the bel bibaha (marriage to the bel fruit). The bel fruit is a symbol and represents her first “immortal” husband. Each year the tree blossoms and bears fruit, the “husband” is well.
This is fundamentally different from baal bibaha – which is child marriage. This practice is a scourge on Nepali society and is still a way of life in many parts of the country. Many of us probably had grand mothers who were married very young and even today there are people who encourage this practice. Of course it is illegal and most families prefer to wait till the daughter is educated and has a source of income before marriage. But in a country where even “traffic rules are only a suggestion”, the state is not able to prevent baal bibaha. Of course there are many in the world for whom marriage just simply occurs! There is absolutely no planning involved. Just simply happened.
Whether the marriage was bel or baal, both probably have the same origins and original purpose. The basic idea is to make sure that a girl should never be unmarried. In the case of bel the woman never becomes a widow because only her mortal husband dies and not the bel fruit. In the case baal bibaha, the girl child could actually be blamed for the death of her husband if such a thing did happen. Till the beginning of the 19th century the bride would then have to jump into the funeral pyre of her dead husband - a tradition known as sati. The girl who did her bel bihaha at the young age of six or seven then has her second engagement. This time at the time of puberty to the sun. As long as the sun comes up, she knows her partner is well. It is only the third wedding that she takes on a “mortal “ husband.
In the past and present day as well, everyone knows and realizes that war is bad. Many bad things happen during war. Not just the death of innocent people but the suffering it inflicts on the young. Young girls often face the threat of rape and sexual abuse. History tells us that young girls were married to the bel fruit and then to the sun so that she could dress up as a married woman and this was a deterrent against sexual abuse by the invading army. Many communities in Nepal have one form or the other of being able to tell whether a woman is married or not. Parents are therefore inclined to perform the mock marriage as an effective way to protect the innocent child.
Baal bibaha can restrict a girl child for the rest of her life. Child marriage is all about two families getting into wedlock to keep the wealth and property in the family as well. The two families will then take responsibility for both the children and all else that follows in life. It can be very restrictive with no chance for a divorce or any claim to her individual right. On the other hand, bel bibaha is fun, the big meals are served, gifts are exchanged and it is time to look forward to the next “wedding”.
Fig 1: Dhruba Bhakta Mathema with his first grandson and family While reading the recently published Life and...