Ihi a soothing experience in Bandh day

Rituals such as Ihi that have been going on for centuries, represent a break from the hubbub of the modern world of Information Technology, providing a peephole into the ancient traditions and hallmarks of Nepali culture.

At the same time, when the country seems to be at a standstill due to the five-day strike called by the Maoists, a collective ‘Ihi’ ceremony held at Ganeshthan temple in Chabahil on Wednesday, provided an escape from the world of political conflict going on in the country.

‘Bel bibah’ or ‘Ihi’ is a popular Newari tradition of marrying girls away to Subarna Kumar (an incarnation of Lord Bishnu) before reaching puberty.

The significance of Ihi, veteran Newari folks say, can be attributed to two major factors. Firstly, it is to prevent the malpractice of actual child marriages. “In the olden days, Muslims used to abduct young girls,” said Apar Ganesh Raj Baidya. “This custom was initiated to stop this act.” Secondly, Newari culture considers it sinful to marry a girl before she has reached menstruation.

The two day ritual involves rites like ‘Briddhi saraddha’, welcoming the little brides and serving them ‘Chaurasi byanjan’ on ‘Thayebhu’ – a feast with 84 delicacies on plates of an alloy called ‘Kaas’ – on the first day.

During ‘Kanyadan’, the girl is given away to ‘Kachi lu’ – a formless lump of unrefined gold which represents Subarna Kumar. Contrary to the popular belief, the girl is, however, not married to the evergreen fruit ‘Bel’. It is regarded as ‘Shree fal’ or an auspicious fruit for the occasion.

Small-sized Bels are the choicest picks, and the saying goes that it indicates the kind of groom the girl would marry in later life. It is supposed that a small Bel entitles her to a young husband and a large one to an older one. The girls are also given sweets and other food items that do not contain salt. Moreover, many of the rituals performed during Ihi, such as ‘Yagya’ (ritual pyre) do not have to be repeated during her marriage to a man.

Another significant value to this ‘pretended’ child marriage arises from the scorn and humiliation which widows in Nepali society have always had to endure. Marriage with Subarna Kumar keeps a girl married for life, and she would therefore never be subjected to the ill-treatment a widow might get. This also befits the Newari culture which allows women to remarry.

Ihi can be performed by individual families, with at least five small girls representing ‘Pancha Kanya’ or collectively in large groups. Unlike the hundreds in Kathmandu, the number can reach thousands out of the valley.

“We have been organising these collective Ihi facilities every two years to provide a proper execution of the rites and rituals and to provide relief to financially weak people,” said Vimal Kumar Hoda, president of Lions Club of Kathmandu, Chabahil.

Security personnel appointed by the organisers, both in uniform and civil dress, were on full alert to protect the 48 little girls below the age of 12 dressed up like brides.

The sight of the innocent faces sitting patiently to carry out the necessary rites was a break from the ‘would, should and ought to’ attitude prevalent in the society, whilst at the same time giving continuity to a religious ceremony held by the Newar community as one of the most vital occasions for a female in her life.