Atithi Shrestha squints at the sun as her mother removes the shawl draped over her head, so the child can gaze up at the Sun God, whom she is about to wed. For the past 12 days, the nine year-old has been locked in a dark room, away from the rays of the sun and from the eyes of men -- even those in the family.
The coming-out ritual for pre-pubescent girls is called Barah, and is followed by the ethnic Newars of the Kathmandu valley. It is also their second marriage. Newar girls are wed three times. The first marriage is to a stone apple, a hard fruit from the aegle tree, and takes place before the girl reaches the age of 7.
Pics/ Navesh Chitrakar/ Reuters/ The Interview People
"In most Nepali communities, girls are married very early," says Geeta Rajbhandari, a professor at Amrit Science college. "By wedding their daughters to a fruit and the sun, before a man, the Newars found a way of postponing child marriage."
The indigenous people of the Kathmandu valley hold many animist traditions and beliefs, but families are also aligned with either the Hindu or Buddhist faith, depending on their surname.
Thanks to their several marriages, Newar women, who enjoy more freedom than women from other communities, are never considered widows.
Even after their husbands die, the stone apple, which is preserved in the prayer room of the house, and the sun, which Newars recognise as an omnipresent source of life, provide the women with a social shield from widowhood. This spares them the harsh life faced by widows in largely Hindu Nepal.
Atithi's mother Anir insists that the Barah is a tradition that Newar women cannot do without because it is a shame for a girl to begin menstruating before her coming-out ceremony. "It's my responsibility as a mother, so I had to take the initiative," Anir said.
For the confinement, the windows in Atithi's room were boarded up and dark curtains hung to keep sunlight out. "I like it here because I don't have to go to school and I can play games and I can wear make-up," giggled Atithi on the 11th day of her seclusion.
For the first four days of confinement, the girl is put on a bland diet. After the fourth day, she is switched to a normal vegetarian diet and introduced to the art of make-up by an appointed chaperone.
Amid indoor games and singing and dancing, womenfolk visit the girl and teach her about a woman's life as an adult. This includes preparing her for the time when she will menstruate.
"There are certain things she needs to learn as a girl, like what to do and what not to do when she grows up," explained Atithi's father Anjan Shrestha. "I could have had a casual conversation with her about it, but the ritual makes it more acceptable as the rules of the society are taught to her during this phase."
Growing urbanisation and modern pressing demands on time are leading some to take short-cuts with the ritual.
"Nuns at the Buddhist viharas conduct mass one-day Barah rituals for girls if families do not want to opt for a 12-day ritual," says Pabitra Bajracharya, secretary of Newa Nuga, an organisation that works for the preservation of Newar culture.
Every winter, as hundreds of Newar girls make the Barah journey, they are also taught social etiquette like offering food to the deities before eating. "Before every meal, I make an offering to the Barakhyaa (the white spirit), who is supposed to protect me," Atithi said.
On the 12th day, she awoke at dawn to bathe, so that she would become pure for the wedding. Female members of the family adorned her with the traditional bridal attire of brocade blouse, red sari and heavy gold jewelry. They pulled her hair back in a bun, lined her eyes with kohl and applied gloss to her lips.
"I'm aware my body will change," smiled Atithi, as the dimple on her blush-stroked cheeks deepened. "But I don't want to grow up! "When you grow up, you can't do everything you can as a girl."
The mid-day sun had finally come out over a foggy Kathmandu and in an elaborate ritual, the priest wed Atithi to the Sun God.
dpa / The Interview People