Once a girl in the Newari community set foot at 5 to 10 of age, she is married off. It is mesmerizing how Newari culture still practices child marriage and nobody ever complains. But here is what amazes you a girl is not married to an ordinary man but a God Visnu himself.
Yes, it is marked right, a Newari girl goes through the sacred process of getting married at a very young age which is called Ihi (Nepal Bhasa) or Belvivaha.
The Ihi ceremony is the traditional Hindu ceremony of marriage where a girl is married to Visnu or Narayana before the onset of her menstruation. During the Ihi ceremony, a premenstrual virgin girl is married to Visnu with traditional Hindu marriage rituals and a procession of Kanya dana, “the giving of a virgin daughter”.
Legends on Ihi
As per legends, Parvati –the daughter of Himavan (Himalaya) on her marriage to Lord Shiva was given Nepal (present Kathmandu valley) as a dowry. One day on her stroll around the city, she met a woman devastated by her husband’s death.
Parvati then pitied the widow on her loss and asked Siva for a boon so that no women of her natal home be widowed. As a result, the whole ceremony of marriage came into practice where girls are married to Lord Visnu.
A mocking marriage ceremony is believed to be done to dodge the tradition of Sati pratha back then and protect girls from the stigma of widowhood. For now, any newa woman is not considered a widow even after her husband dies.
Ihi ceremony is a pre-menarche marriage in the Hindu tradition which means an actual marriage to a mortal can be delayed after the second marriage (Gufaa ritual). Thus both the taboo of child marriage and widow disability are ameliorated by the invention of newars sanskara.
Sacred process of the ceremony
The complex ceremony of binding each girl to a divine groom takes an entire two-day process. Girls are eligible to go through the process as they reach the age of 5. This entire process is considered to be one of the unforgettable memories in a girl’s life.
Ihi involves a large number of eligible girls generally 15 to 20, sponsored by often well-to-do families. The sponsor family is believed to gain religious merit and social prestige.
Duso (Duswa or Dusala Kriya)
It is day one of the sacred performance of the Ihi ceremony. Girls are dressed in red attire sometimes in red and yellow which resembles traditional marriage attire. One girl keen on the sponsor family is chosen as Naki(n)” the leader among the brides”.
Among many intricate parts of the ritual, one of the highlights involve yellow cotton thread. The thread is looped over a bar which is held over the girl’s forehead down to her feet. The thread then is hung around the girl’s neck on the second day of the ceremony.
The ceremony is followed by a feast for ihi girls at the sponsor’s house which is called Duso Ja prepared by Brahmam Purohits who officiates the puja.
The second day of the ceremony is the main step of the entire ritual. The main procedure of the second day revolves around a father offering his daughter to the divine groom, Visnu.
This entire process is called Kanya Dana. Each girl is provided with sacred fruit called bel (a fruit from the bel plant, often called wood apple or Aegle marmelos) which resembles Siva, the witness of the ceremony, and a golden image of Visnu/Narayana which represents the groom.
Kanya dana process begins at the proper site where each girl stands with her hand linked with her father and the girl’s mother pours ritually pure water (Ganga Jal) and milk over their joint hand at the exact astrological time as called by Joshi.
The father gives her daughter to god by pressing her little thumb against the golden image. On this day another sacred purification process is performed by “Nauni”.The process is called “SinchuPheagu”.
They apply Bhuisinha(n), (vermillion) orange-red pigment on the parting of girls’ hair as a gift to the virgin. Bhuisinha on the hair of girls resembles a marriage symbol in the Newar community.
The ritual of the second day then ends with the sequence of the closing ceremony of supper and sweet foods.
Another remarkable spot of this ceremony is the process of establishing a sacred bond between two girls performing the ihi ritual which is called “Meet Launu”.The bond between two girls then is considered higher than the blood relation.
The ritual has been in practice for a very long period in the Newari community. These days Ihi ceremony is falsely labeled as “Bel Vivaha” which is seemingly incorrect because this will lead to the meaning of girls being married to Bel itself.
Contrary to commonly written and believed, a girl is married to the golden image of Visnu rather than Bel itself. Bel fruit only ensigns the attendance of Lord Shiva as a witness.