Bel Bibaha: The First of Three Newari Marriages

With this marriage to the eternal Lord Vishnu, the Newar woman will not become a widow even if her spouse dies.

27, Feb 2023 |

Religio-culturally speaking, the Bel Bibaha or Ihi marriage has saved countless women throughout history and is still safeguarding Newari females today.

The Kathmandu Valley is home to an ethnic group known as Newar. They have their own language, culture, and rituals that are different from the mainstream Nepali culture. The Newar ethnic group has long made significant contributions to art, architecture, religion, and culinary traditions of Nepal.

The majority of Newars follow Buddhism and Hinduism, although there are also Christian and adherents of the pre-Buddhist shamanistic religion known as the Bon. The Newar language, commonly known as Nepal Bhasa, is one of Nepal’s native languages and an important part of the Newari people’s identity.

The peculiar Newar festivals, such as the Bisket Jatra, Gai Jatra, and Indra Jatra, are popular tourist attractions. The Newar people are particularly known for their expertise in pottery, metalwork, and woodwork.

Newars are famous for their rich and distinctive culture. From the birth of a child till the death of a man, several rituals and traditions are performed. Girls are customarily married three times in their lives in the Newari community. The first is Ihi, in which the girl marries a Bel fruit, the second is Bahra, in which the girl marries the Sun God, and the third with a human being.

In the first marriage, the girl marries a Bel fruit (wood apple), which is regarded as a depiction of Lord Shiva. This is known as Ihi in Newari or Bel Sanga Bibaha in Nepali.

Although Newari girls can eat Bel before their Ihi, eating the Bel fruit after the Ihi is forbidden and considered taboo. Because of its extraordinary virtue of never going bad and always being fresh, bel fruit is usually regarded as the divine male or God’s incarnation.

The Bel is put in a sacred river after the ritual by some Newars to avoid being harmed. While widows are allowed to remarry among the Newar society, a woman is never deemed a widow because the Bel fruit to which she was initially wedded and put to the river is assumed to be eternally in existence.

The Ihi ritual is practised both as a group and individually. The marriage of a virgin Newari girl with Bel fruit takes place before the girl reaches adolescence, usually at the age of 5, 7, 9 or 11. The Bel fruit must look rich and luscious in this marriage ritual, and must not be damaged in any way. If the fruit is bruised, it is thought that the girl or bride would be compelled to spend the rest of her life with an unattractive, unfaithful husband after her true marriage with a human. The most important aspect of the Bel marriage, however, is that once married to God, the woman will remain faithful and pure for the rest of her life.

Ihi elevates the dignity of a mature girl in a society. After Ihi, the girl is regarded as mature and is expected to behave as an adult. It is a rite of passage. If the girl died after her Ihi, she would be considered an adult and all adult death rituals will be conducted for her.

The procedures and traditions of Ihi are identical to those of a traditional marriage. The date is determined by consulting a priest who checks the girl’s horoscope. Before the ceremony, a procedure known as Gufa Rakhne is performed in which the girl is held in a Gufa (dark area) for three days. At this time, the girl is not permitted to interact with the male members and is only permitted on contact with the female members. No sunlight is permitted to enter the area where the girl is confined. All of these days, the girl must fast. She is only allowed to eat once the sun has set and the worshipping has concluded. She is only allowed to consume fruits and sweets, but nothing salty.

The major Ihi ritual takes place over two days. It starts with a cleansing rite and culminates with the girl being Kanyadaan (giving away the daughter) by her father. In the absence of the girl’s father, her grandfather or the father’s siblings can do the task.

Dusala Kriya is the first day of Ihi. On this day, the home is cleansed, washed, and purified with a red-soil and cow dung mixture. The girl must bathe, exit the Gufa, and do a pooja in front of the Sun God. She must greet the early sun rays and worship the Sun God before being brought by her father to the location of the event. She is resplendent in new clothing and glittering accessories. In the case of mass Ihi, the girls gather outside the cleaned courtyard where the rites take place. They are arranged in a straight line around the courtyard. The priest next performs the Lasakus Pooja (a welcoming ritual), which is followed by a series of rites.

The big event occurs on the second day of Ihi. A mandap, or enclosure, is made of banana stems, with a square fabric hanging in the centre and fastened to the four corners of the stems. The day begins with a bath, and the girl is required to fast and refrain from eating anything until the rites are done. The girl is adorned in a bridal attire, any jewellery, red tika, and their feet and toes are painted red. Goda Dhune, or the washing of a girl’s feet, is performed by her parents and family members, who also fast until the ceremonies are completed. Vermillion powder is put on the girl’s hair parting, known as sindoor in Nepali, to symbolise wedlock.

The Bel fruit is wrapped in multiple rounds of yellow threads and represents the groom of the bride. The girl is given the Bel to hold during the ritual, and her parents pass it off to her at the Kanyadaan. When the rites are completed, the girl is given jewellery, and money as a form of dowry. All the girl’s family attend the ritual to bless her. At the end of the day, a fast is held. Ihi is done enthusiastically. When the ceremony is finished, the Bel is wrapped in a piece of cloth and kept safe by the family elders in a distinct and holy place. If the Bel is damaged, the girl is considered a widow from that point forward. If the girl dies before her marriage to a human spouse, her Bel is plunged in a river and washed away.

There are stories and historical reasons for doing the Ihi ceremony. The most prevalent explanation is that the dignity of Newari females were threatened during the reign of the Ranas. The Ranas and his men would chase girls and stare at them lustfully. At this point, the anxious Newars arranged and married their daughters to the Bel fruit in hopes of saving their future generations. They chose Bel because it is commonly regarded as sacred. The Ranas had a long history of valuing and safeguarding married women. Since Bel marriage includes God and has religious validity, the Ranas grew cautious about not upsetting the wedded females. As marriage with a Bel fruit freed the Newari females from wicked men while also saving the Newari community, the tradition has persisted. Marriage has become more symbolic as time has passed.

It is also stated that the Ihi tradition began in the fourteenth century, following a raid by Shams-Uddin-Ilyas, a Bengali conqueror. The invading troops pillaged the area, burned palaces, stole temples, slaughtered men and young boys, dishonoured unmarried girls, but mostly ignored married ladies. This encouraged people to assume that marrying pre-puberty girls to Gods would protect them from disgrace in any future raid.

Ihi is done to protect the females from numerous threats, particularly attacks by harmful spirits. The most typical motivation, however, is to spare the girl from the horrible shame of widowhood.

Since Ihi binds the girls is an everlasting marriage with God, the death of a mortal spouse cant rob her of her wedded status, releasing her from the Hindu ritual of having to burn on the husband’s funeral pyre (Sati).

The economic basis for the tradition of Ihi is that the dowry, gifts, and jewellery worn and presented during the ritual are maintained and preserved for the girl’s parents for a true marriage in the future.

The Newars are the only people who practise Ihi or Bel Bibaha. This historic rite, which is still practised due to its continued significance, distinguishes Newar culture from the prevalent Brahmin Chettri culture. The Newar women’s celebration of Bel Bibaha contrasts with the position and status of other Hindu women within the Nepali spoken people. This rite has been practised for millennia by both Buddhists and Hindu Newars.

There are several causes and tales behind the practice of Bel Bibaha, but the rationale behind it is it spares the girl from the disgrace of widowhood. This is also why, even after the death of the husband, a Newari girl is never considered a widow. Her first marriage with Bel is regarded as eternal, and Bel fruit, the symbolic husband, is everlasting.

Compiled By: Rebika Bishokarma

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