Child Marriage in India

Qualified Entry: Non-Fiction Category

By: Dr.H.V.Kerai(Ph.D)

[True Story]

During my first visit to India from overseas in the year 1963, I was cordially invited in the marriage of the youngest daughter of the village–chief known as Sarpanch. 

It was a good opportunity for me to observe and witness the village-marriage ceremony for the first time at my threshold. I had left India very early at the age of five with my mother and since then I had no opportunity as such to visit not India but my native place which was in Gujarat.

I had heard several stories about the orthodox systems of marriages of India, especially of the Gujerat State. . I was not only moved but also shocked to hear the funny talks of child marriages, in the 20TH century. I was also surprised to read about the child-marriages of India in the local magazines. Some of the Hindi films also featured the episodes of such marriages. But I had never sought an opportunity to witness one practically and that one in my home area. I was happy; my dreams of attending one of such marriages were coming to be true.

The street where the marriage was to take place was decorated with the bunches of mango-tree leaves. The harsh noise of the drumbeat and the long flute shook the dusty atmosphere of the street with the open gutters and

the lumps of cattle dungs here and there. Perhaps the Sarpanch had taken care to keep the area clean otherwise it could have been worse, I was told by one of my relatives. I had heard much about the modern villages of Patel Community whose majority of the members were overseas. They were said to be clean and neat with modern houses with modern facilities. My particular village was not yet in that rank as there were very few people in overseas from the village so far.

The villagers heading to the house of the Sarpanch were all dressed in the new clothes-women in multi-colored bright clothes and golden and silver heavy ornaments.

The main entrance of the host was draped with bright colored embroidery work. The harsh chorus singing of the women folk, who seemed to be proud of their voice and the tune, dominated the inner compound atmosphere.

The males were gathered on the other side in broken white dress and red stripped turbans. The young folks had white caps or a multicolored embroided round caps on the bald head. I COULD NOT FIND ANY YOUNGSTER among the present with bare head except me. I was considered to be an overseas member and so I was allowed to be so otherwise it was a custom to cover the head with cap or hat at all event even if somebody had hairs grown. Most of the youngsters had their hair removed.

A special decorated shanty-shade known as MANDVO was in the middle of the compound where a village Brahmin was sitting on the dwarf stool chanting some Mantras, in Sanskrit which nobody, perhaps he himself even could not understand. He was pouring the pure ghee in the special fire-place as per the tune of his slogans. 

The smoky atmosphere chalked the bride-groom who was sitting on the dwarf chair just opposite the Brahmin. He was hardly ten. I was not much surprised to see such an immature boy sitting in the ceremony to be declared as the husband as I had heard about such child marriages. 

I had even knowledge of a boy of two being married to a newly born girl. In those cases the parents would carry out the ceremony by holding the children in their hands. The kids under the circumstances would wet the clothes of the elders as it would be out of their control. Engagements of newly born infants were also on record.

Just by the groom was his Mama-[maternal-uncle], who was busy helping his nephew to get rid of the smoke with the manual fan. The bridegroom got hold of the decorated sword on the right shoulder and the beaded coconut in the other hand. He sat proudly like a Prince going to get married with a Princess. Surely getting married at such a tender age was not

an ordinary event. It needed enough guts and spirit to sit in that particular place of the to be husband in the presence of several people.

Before I could think of anything else, the Brahmin had called for the Bride who was escorted by two girls and her [uncle]-Mama holding her hand, and who escorted her to the ceremony place. She was directed to sit just opposite the bridegroom on the decorated dwarf stool. 

She had put on the bright, silk sari, covering her face could not be seen. I could not help asking her age from the person sitting nearby. She was twelve years of age, quite ready to go to the husband’s house immediately after the ceremony. A girl two years elder than the boy? Very interesting….. as in most cases the boy is always elder than the girl when they are selected as husband and wife. But here particular in the community there was no concern of age as even a girl aged ten was engaged or married to the boy of five years or so.

The girls in general cases were married before the age of ten. They stayed with the parents until the age of twelve and then were sent to their in-laws through a brief ceremony. In this particular case the marriage was delayed because of the age of the boy who was two years younger than the girl. 

The girl should be married before she showed 12 years of age and should be in the house of her parent-in-laws before she showed menses.

That was more important. The girl, once in the menstrual cycle, if stays with the parents unmarried, it is considered to be a sin and it could be the talk of the entire village. The parents would be blamed for that and there would be lot of rumors about the girl. Perhaps she was handicapped or she was of bad character or she might have some bad habits.

The children marrying at such an age was not approved by the Government. This was against the law. The Hindu act of marriage did not allow any girl under 16 and a boy under 18 to get married at that time. But the law or the act did not work in such villages. In such cases the villagers had their own rules with their own rulers.

The police-chief and the District Officer ruled the villages and they allowed such marriages on a special permission by negotiating a certain good amount of money under the table. If any one dared to perform such marriages without the permission from these “Special Rulers”, he would be in a great mess. Hardly anyone would venture to do it. 

The Police force from the town Police Station would rush to the village and do everything possible to harass the people involved. The marriage to whatever stage it might be would be stopped and the Brahmin who was there to perform the marriage ceremony of the under aged would be threatened to leave the place immediately or he would be also arrested.

The parents and the grooms would also be arrested, forced in the police vehicle and taken to town and put behind bars.  The food prepared for hundreds of guests to be spoiled just like that. At most events the compromise was done by the agent of the police in the village before the situation went to such extremes. The town police would go away if they got the lump sum of their demand.

Sometimes the arrested members were put behind the bars and released on the delivery of some amount by their relatives. At times they were released on the personal bond of some influenced relative. They might be as well taken to court the other day and released on the court bond or paying the fine as per Judge’s verdict.

Sarpanch, the elected head of the Village Panchayat Committee would be also involved in such cases and his word would be taken as the compromise element. He would avail himself as the agent between the police and the parents involved.

Still the child-marriages were performed. A special amount was reserved for the police department while estimating the expenses of the function. The marriages of the infants were also ceremonised where the parents carried the children in their hands and performed the ceremony. Even the first born of the Sarpanch was married at the age of six months while suckling his mother.

Engagements of the embryos during pregnancy were also recorded on the promises, if a boy and the girl are born to the persons concerned. If boys or girls are born at the same promised time on both sides, then the promises would be carried forward until the opposite sex infants were born.

A girl hardly saw the school. Even the boy’s education was to a certain limit of reading or writing or to the limit of the village school which meant upto standard four only. 

Further studies were to be done in the nearby town. Not all parents sent their sons even in the village school. The girl was supposed to take care of small children of the family. Then she would be trained in all household works and also the work in the farm. She should be an expert in milking the cow, preparing buttermilk and pure Ghee. She would also be trained to grind flour from Millet or wheat beans at home by the manual flourmill.  She should be used to fetch the water from the village well as there was no water supply of the village at that time. The boy would be trained as the farmer as it was the profession in the heritage.

The family life of married couple was very dull. They worked together throughout the day up to late hours. Hardly had they got any privacy or any appropriate time to talk or discuss anything except work and even that in the presence of the elders.

A girl had to cover her face from the elders and even from the husband in the presence of others. Even in the house, a wife would not dare to talk to her husband in the presence of elders. The husband could hardly see the face of his wife during day time. It was only very late at night that they met when the wife was relieved from the household work. 

If the wife was grown up and already with the in-laws and the husband is still un-matured, and then he either spends night in the farm or in the temple according to the wish of the parents. He will be allowed to sleep with the wife only when the elders of the house think it to be fit. Otherwise he feels happy by seeing his wife during daytime in the presence of elders. He gets no privacy to talk with her unless the wife arranges for it. His friends would tease him for that as he was the official husband of the aged girl and still he was far from her. What was the fun in marrying her then?

The child marriages such carried out, had so many side effects and sundry problems. The unmatched couples married as such, led a very disturbed and un-happy family life. Their children neither got good education or any guidelines for their future. 

The cases of adultery were very common among such couples. Mostly, the adultery within the family-members was very common. An elder brother impregnating the wife of his younger brother or vice-versa was a real headache for the entire family. The father-in-law having sexual affairs

with the daughter-in-law was also common and brought the serious disturbance in the family. A grown up girl marrying with the immature boy was never satisfied by her child husband. Obviously she became the bait of the other sex-hungry or unsatisfied husbands.

The cases of such wives being pregnant by the elders in the family were a shameful act. A great deal of amount was spent after abortion in the nearby town and to keep the matter secret. The matter did not stay secret for long and the son had to stay separately from the parents thereafter or to divorce the wife and go for another one.

In the child marriages no considerations of age difference, physical aspects of the boy or a girl or the character were looked. Only  the family status and the relation between the parents were considered. Most of the children when grown up turned out to be ill-matched couples and led a very in-tolerable life. The difference of age where the wife was senior to the husband was a great issue for the family as she could hardly wait for sex until her husband was matured. She would fulfill her sexual desire secretly with somebody else.  A very smart boy was seen as a husband to a very ugly wife and vice versa. At events the wife was found to be much taller than the husband where at the later age the husband was ashamed to move with the wife in the public.

The under aged husbands could neither rebel, complain nor file a dispute regarding the matter. They obeyed the parents and respect the elders of the community and endeavored to lead a possibly tolerable family life whether they liked it or not.

Divorce was considered to be a hard step and was not a welcome solution. It was not so easy for a divorced person to get another suitable life partner. A divorced woman would have no choice but to marry an aged widow-man with a number of children. A divorced man had to marry some widow, a sterile woman, or a woman thrown out because of the adultery or some quarrelsome divorcee. It was very difficult for him to get a good wife.

The life would never be better in reality. Family disputes and the quarrels were plentiful… Wife beating by a husband was very common. Wives were tortured and harassed by the husbands and at times by the in-laws. 

The women-folk committing suicides by burning themselves, hanging themselves from the trees, by jumping in the deep wells or taking poison were the common house-hold practices. Sometimes the illiterate and poor women concerned had no choice but to bring an end of their hell like lives.

The police department from the near-by town at such events would make a good fortune, as once known to them it was very difficult for the villagers to remove the dead body for cremation without their green signal. 

Some one from the police department would watch on the sight very strictly until the matter was sorted out to their satisfaction. A green light at such events costed heavily, otherwise the case would be proved as a murder and several suspects from the family would be picked up to be tortured and harassed by the cruel police department.

The villagers were aware of all these evil consequences of the child marriages but no one dared to talk against or to act against the orthodox system. There were some villagers who had gone to settle in the nearby town, realizing the badness of the old custom, advised their relatives to get rid of the child marriages and let the children grow up and start earning enough before they are married. They also talked of the choice of the young people before being engaged.

Their advice did not work and the person who followed such advice would be approached by the village committee and warned or penalized at some events. It was very difficult for the people from the town to maintain good relations with the village in such cases. It became very difficult for them to get a girl or a boy for their grown up children. Even if they get one from the town, the relatives from the village would not be happy to see that.

Going deep into the orthodox tradition of the child-marriages, I came to learn that there was a time when those villagers were compelled or circumstanced to do so. 

In the Mogul days, India was ruled by the Muslim Emperors who showed lusty desires towards young and beautiful village girls. They did not dare to kidnap the girl of their choice now and then and forced them to have sex with them or raped them brutally. 

Some girls died of such brutal raping and thrown in the rivers or deep wells. Several of them created suicide as it was very difficult for them to lead a family life or a peaceful life in the village while staying with their parents, unmarried. No one came forward to marry such girls once known.

Some brave villagers specially the fathers or the brothers of such girls revoked and protested against such devils but could not succeed. The Muslim leaders hired some very strong and merciless persons to deal with such Protestants. Such villagers were either killed or wounded seriously and bedridden for a long time or for the rest of their lives. So not many people rebelled against such tyranny by the Muslim leaders. The young unmarried girls and their parents stayed under the mercy of such rulers.

Then considering the fact that those Muslim Subas did not touch the married girls, the idea of the child-marriage came into existence. The elders got together and took the decision of the child marriages to avoid further

inconviences on their sides. Then it became the mass social order throughout to safe guard the virginity of the young girls.

At times the young married girls were picked up and raped but for the most part such married girls if known were never picked up and if done by mistake, they were driven back without any harm done. The persons, who came to kidnap the girls in the village, gathered the information from their local spies who kept an eye over the most of the activities of the villagers.  Then those Muslim Rulers re-directed their sexual activities towards the young girls of the backward tribes, especially the un-touchables who never dared to protest. Some of the girls themselves and the parents also compromised with the rulers on the certain agreed amount and the sexual desires of those sexual hungry tyrants were fulfilled.

Still some beautiful married girls were picked up at events and the custom of covering of the face for a woman was also introduced to avoid the lusty sight of those sex-hungry devils and also the elders of the village to avoid adultery. The need of the time and the circumstances, established to be the custom in certain communities in the villages. And it was strictly obeyed by the in-coming generations as the heritage.

 Now the times have changed and the education in the village has brought some drastic changes in the orthodox customs of the villagers. Still a boy under the age of eighteen and a girl of age under sixteen being married are very common. The cases of child-marriages are still recorded in some other parts where the education and the strict Hindu Marriage Act do not work.

One should not be surprised to read or hear the news of a girl aged eight and a boy of ten getting married under the camera of the news media. The corrupted police department of the area still closes their eyes and forwards their deaf ears towards such illegal marriages on the grounds of bribery.

I enjoyed the full Hindu Marriage Ceremony being conducted by the Holy BRAHMIN in the marriage of the daughter of the village Sarpanch aged 12 years with the boy of 10 years proudly performing the role of the husband as the CHILD HERO- VAR RAJA [husband-king] of the entire function. 

No doubt he was treated as one by all the people who participated in the ceremony.

LADI-BRIDE had nothing much to perform on her side but to follow the instructions of the Brahmin and to join the husband as and where required in the ceremony. 

How she felt or what was her reaction was not to be known as most of the time her face was fully covered until the end when her face was uncovered just to allow me to take the snap of the very young married

couple. I could see the proud WIFE-QUEEN with her red face pasted with make-ups and the golden ornaments. Under the dress and the make ups she looked like a grown up girl.

After the completion of the entire marriage ceremony the bride would be seen off by her relatives one by one by embracing her and condoling her and by giving her some money in her hand. The bride kept weeping as she met the relatives and she would weep very high and embrace the person of her attachment may be her SISTER mother, brother or a friend. Some one has to try hard to make them apart.

The weeping sighs of the bride and her relative’s ruled the atmosphere until the vehicle-a bullock-car escorting the newly married couple left for further destination. The tears from the relative’s faces took some time to dry up. 

Sarpanch, however stiff or strong minded he was also wept with the tears rolling down on his face.

I had several stories of the child marriages in India by attending the particular marriage and that was the appropriate and enough food for my pen for time being.

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