Child marriage not to a person but to a fruit and again to the Sun is as much a modern day common practice among the Newar ethnic group of Nepal. This is a tradition that has been handed down from generations.
Ihi (pronounced Ehee) in which pre-adolescent girls are married to the Bael fruit, which is globose shaped, with a hard exterior (not to confuse with wood apple or slime apple ). This fruit also symbolises the Hindu God Vishnu. This marriage ceremony often takes place in a group. A group of girls can get married at the same time. This is usually done so as to share the costs of hiring a priest and other costs involved.
Bahra ceremony also known as gufa (cave) is the second marriage the girl goes through before her first menstruation. Just before her first menstruation, the girl (between 9 to 13 years of age) is kept in a room for 12 days with female friends and relatives, to purify her before she is married to the Sun God on the 12th day. This time her husband is the Sun God Surya.
How did it all start?
To understand the origin and concept of this tradition, you have to take a dive into a few decades back, where child marriage to old men were prevalent. The dark side of such marriage was that if the man died before the girl, which was the obvious or most logical effect of such a marriage with an aged man, the girl would become a widow. In the history of Hinduism in Nepal, the widow had to perform Sati, where the girl would be burnt alive along with the dead body of her husband in the funeral pyre of her husband. A gruesome practice not only for the girl but also one that left most parents and family of the girl devastated.
In the long run, the urge to save these young brides was crucial. To perform sati, the woman/girl has to be a widow. The only solution to this problem was to make sure that the young bride never became a widow after marriage. So how could one assure that a girl never became a widow? This could be achieved only through a marriage to an immortal! And lo the ceremony was born.
Why the Bael?
The Bael fruit has the characteristic of not splitting open even upon ripening, thus making it eligible as an immortal husband. The longer you keep the Bael fruit, the harder and sturdier and indestructible it becomes. The clause was that, If however the fruit got damaged, the girl would still be a widow, which was very rare. Thus to ensure that this never happened, the fruit after the marriage ceremony is immersed into the river, in which case the Bael is presumed to be whole for ever, thus never dies and the girl remains married.
Why the Sun?
What is more sustainable and immortal than the Sun? Thought men. Thus having the Sun as a husband would ensure an immortal husband. So in the future if and when the girl was married to a mortal who dies, the girl would still not be considered a widow, making her ineligible to perform the sati and thus saved from a gruesome end. So thanks to the shrewdness of the ancient Newar that helped save a lot of brides of tomorrow….
Photo curtsy G. Lacoul