The Localist

Traditional marriage in Nepal

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Remember that typical scene from a movie where the hero gets down on one knee and offers a rose to the heroine, then asks “Will you marry me?” The heroine smiles, they come closer together and hold each other in their arms. A romantic song begins and they start dancing. If you are thinking about some Hollywood movie, you may like to add something else to this story, or even change something. What would that be? Well, you know better than I do.

Marriage usually has a romantic inference. You might feel like your dream has come true with marriage. If you are in love, marriage is that opportunity to really complete your affair. If you are not, marriage can provide you with someone (a very special one indeed!) to share your pain and pleasure, your misery and majesty, your bodies and feelings. Perhaps this romantic aspect of marriage is the reason why many youngsters are attracted to it.

Marriage, however, is not only about romance. As an essential component of human civilization and an inherent part of society and culture, marriage means a lot than more than just romance between two individuals. It brings together not only two people, but also their families, societies and cultures. Marriage as a socio-cultural phenomenon comprises of certain eligibility requirements, which a would-be-groom and a bride should meet. I’ll share with you my observations of marriage as a Hindu in the hilly regions of Nepal.

In my region of Nepal, marriage has traditionally been one of the major responsibilities of parents towards their offspring. They look for the best suitor for their son/daughter based on their cultural norms and values. Purity is one of the major norms that Hinduism values highly. Purity in a spiritual sense is ascribed rather than achieved in Hindu culture (remember, this notion of purity is central to the hierarchical caste-system that notoriously divides people between touchable and untouchable – unfortunately, it still exists in South Asia). The would-be-spouse therefore must be pure by caste. In other words, he/she should belong to the same rank of caste; marriage is essentially hypergamous in Hindu culture.

Chastity is another norm that the Hindus value when it comes to marriage. Traditionally, a girl who has not yet menstruated is considered ‘chaste’. There has, however, been a change in this belief; since child marriage is an offence, parents are not allowed to marry off their daughters before they turn 18 years old. The parents must therefore ritually bequeath a cow, or money equivalent to the price of a cow, as part of their daughter’s marriage ceremony. Such a donation is thought to return the chastity that she lost when she began menstruating.

While chastity is important for women, maturity is important and valued for men. Maturity in a traditional sense is not determined by age, but in relation to the cultural practices that a man has undergone. Bratabandha is one of the major cultural practices, which a man must have undergone to be eligible for marriage. A man is not even allowed to perform the funeral rituals for his parents without undergoing a Bratabandha. It is an initiation process that is believed to be the gateway for a boy to step into manhood. During this daylong cultural event, a boy is given two options: either he chooses an ascetic life or a married life; often he’ll choose the latter.

After the best suitor is identified for a woman or a man (usually with a help of a mediator called a Lami) their families consult an astrologist to fix the date for the marriage. They make the necessary arrangements, including invitations to relatives, shopping, decorations and so on.

The Pundit (literally Priest) is one of the key figures in the marriage as he guides all the activities based on the instructions of the Holy Scriptures. The first ceremonial act, on groom’s part, is called Graha Shanti. According to Hindu culture, an individual is like a microcosm of the greater cosmos; each of the nine planets called the Nava-Graha should be in his/her favor to ensure every success in his life, including his married life. The Pundit chants the holy Mantras to perform the Graha Shanti for a groom. The immediate relatives then bless him, offering Tika (red vermillion made out of uncooked rice) and Dakshyina (gifts in cash). The father of the groom also offers Tika and Dakhyina to the relatives. All the relatives then accompany the groom as they then proceed to the bride’s house. This procession is called the Janti.

As soon as the Janti reaches the bride’s house, the bride is brought to the groom by her father. She then pours water around the groom three times. They perform Swayambar, where they exchange gold-rings and garlands.

The bride and groom are then brought to a special stage called a Biwaha Mandap. There, the Pundit reconfirms their family lineage including the clan of their ancestors. They are asked to tie a strong knot out of white cloths, called a Lagan Gantho, a symbol of their future relationship. They have to wear it together during the whole process of wedding.

After the bride and groom wear the Lagan Gantho, their immediate relatives gather together for another event called Jal Khane. During this event, the relatives drink water, touch the feet of the groom and the bride with water and offer them the Tika and Dakhyina. Following this event, the groom gives clothes, cosmetics and jewelry to the bride, as she has to dress up in a new special wedding-sari, blouse and jewelry to sit in one of the major events performed at the Biwaha Mandap called Sindur halne. The Pundit chants various Mantras and instructs the bride and groom to worship different gods and goddesses by sprinkling holy water and flowers into the fire-hearth. Then they walk around the Mandap seven times. This signifies that they will remain together as a couple up to their seven births.

Following this, the groom puts Sindur (red vermillion powder) on the bride’s forehead (pictured). No family member from the bride’s side is allowed to see the bride when she wears Sindur. Sindur has a special meaning for Hindu women; only married women wear it while their husbands are alive. The Sindur halne signifies that the bride has formally (in a traditional sense) accepted the groom as her husband. The father of the bride then gives his daughter to the groom, which is called anmaaune. Meanwhile, the family members of the bride offer Tika and other gifts to the groom, his fathers and other relatives. Finally, the bride and the groom, along with the Janti, depart from the bride’s house and go back to the groom’s house.

In addition to the traditional rituals, the marriage ceremony also includes entertainment programmes.  There’s a lot of music and dancing. Some people invite a traditional musical band called Naumati baza. The band accompanies the Janti. The local women and relatives sing and dance; this is called Ratyauli. Young boys and girls also make their own fun by exchanging jokes and gossiping. Marriage is thus celebrated as an important socio-cultural event by the Hindus in the hill of Nepal.

Note: This article is based on my own observations and experiences of traditional marriage in Nepal. Marriage ceremonies might differ from place to place, even amongst the Hindus in the hilly regions of Nepal, due to local cultural differences.

MEET THE LOCAL: KHYAM BISHWOKARMA

Image. Photo by Khyam Bishwokarma.

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