02/13/2014, 00.00
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About 500 Hindu and Buddhist child brides married to a tree

by Christopher Sharma
Every year, tribal Newaris celebrate a unique a fertility rite as a step towards the real "marriage". Critics view the practice as "superstition" and consider it a shortcut to child marriage.

Kathmandu (AsiaNews) - More than 500 Buddhist and Hindu girls under the age of 12 took part in a group marriage during which they were married to a bael fruit tree.

The ceremony took place earlier this week in the heart of Kathmandu Valley, home to the Newari ethnic tribe, who are Hindu and Buddhist.

According to the tradition, before reaching puberty Newari Hindu girls must marry a bael tree, whose fruit is called aegle.

The marriage ritual is called Ehi in the local language, and involves girls between the ages of 5 and 12 years.

Typically, the ceremony lasts two days. It starts with purification rituals and ends with the Kanyadan, the moment when the father "gives" away his daughter.

Many of the girls do not understand the meaning of what they are doing. "This is my wedding," 5-year-old Prisha Shakya told AsiaNews. "My family gave me a new dress and some good food today. But I do not know more than that."

"This is part of our religious culture," Prisha's mother Sabita said. "We shall have a place in heaven if our daughters are married before menstruation."

According to Newari tradition, the aegle is the groom, symbolising the eternal bachelor Kumar, son of the Hindu god Shiva.

Marriage allows girls to become and remain fertile. The fruit must be ripe and juicy and must not be blemished. If it is, then the bride is bound to have a bad and unfaithful husband.

However, the most important reason behind this practice is that if the girl marries Kumar, she will remain pure and chaste, and will not be considered a widow if the "real" husband were to die, because she would already be married to a deity.

However, for Rishi Sapkota, an expert on Hinduism, the ritual can be dangerous. "Such practices favour child marriage. This tradition is based on superstition, not true religious teachings."

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