So today I learned that for some Nepali girls, your first love is not a boy. It is a fruit. Its English name is wood apple, but the Nepali name is the Bael fruit.
The ‘fruit marriage’ ceremony is called Bael Bibaha or Ihi by the Newar population from the Kathmandu valley area of Nepal. It is a very culturally specific practice to that area of Nepal, with the Newar community holding tightly to their distinctive and elaborate rituals marking the different stages of the life cycle.
Speaking with friends, whose young daughter recently had her own ‘fruit marriage’, I discovered that Newa girls are routinely expected to undertake three ‘marriages’. The first is the fruit marriage, and this happens before puberty. This is followed by the Barah ceremony in early teenage years, which marks the ‘marriage’ to the Sun God. Finally, the young woman marries a man.
Even today in Nepal, up to half of Nepali girls are married by the age of eighteen, according to figures from the United Nations Population Fund. Some observers regard the long-standing Newar tradition of the three stages of marriage as a shrewd way of legitimising the delay to their young girls marrying. The practice is thought by some to have stemmed from a need to keep young girls safely ‘married’ and therefore unavailable. Away from the roving eyes of the men in the powerful and wealthy Rana clan, who were the ruling dynasty in Nepal from the 18th Century, right up until the 1950s.
Others comment that the practice of first marrying a fruit means that, symbolically, the woman is always married. Thus meaning that if her husband should die before her, she will be spared the social disdain that commonly befalls widowed Newar women. Interesting that the social solution to the ostracising of widows is to provide them with a symbolic route out of it. Looking at it with Western eyes, you might ask why people don’t focus on changing values and attitudes towards widows instead. Actually this is not as simple as one might think. Belief in reincarnation is key in Hinduism, which is the dominant religion in the Newar community. And as part of the belief in reincarnation, Hindus believe that bad luck in this life is the result of sins from a past life. So the younger the wife when widowed, the greater her perceived sinfulness, and the more alienated she is from society. In a country with no social services and a very poor healthcare system, the bael fruit marriage provides a woman with an essential means of retaining support and community ties in the event of her widowhood. A socially compelling argument for the fruit marriage some might say.
What struck me most when I spoke with our friends about the ceremonies was how proud they were to be continuing the tradition. Although they live outside Nepal and the life their daughter has and can expect will be very different, I suspect, to the type of lifestyle factors which initially gave rise to the tradition, they still clearly feel it is important to honour and continue their cultural heritage. Although that respect is mixed with a healthy balance of modern realism and compromise. When I asked when the Sun God marriage would take place they laughed. Apparently they won’t be doing that one. Why? The custom requires the young girl to be barred from seeing any males, including her own family, and confined in darkness at home for three weeks. ‘It’s just not practical’, they said. ‘How would she be able to go to classes at school?’. The interesting modern day reality of balancing the traditional respect of culture and religion against the growing importance of education and opportunity.