Monday, 21st April 2014

Twelve days of darkness


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An ancient coming of age tradition continues to be a significant ceremony for young Newari girls.

11-year-old Riti is being escorted by her sister into her terrace. A thick veil covers her head and face, leaving her to stare to only follow her feet, painted in traditional red design.

Minutes ago, she was being draped in a traditional bridal sari, her relatives were fussing over her make-up as she started at the changing reflection in her mirror. Riti is getting married today. As she steps into the terrace, she can feel the warm gaze of her groom, who she last saw 12 days ago.

This isn’t a child marriage but an ancient Newari tradition that marks the pre-puberty stage of a girl’s life. Her “groom” is the sun, who is considered a god in Hindu religion.

The custom, called “gufa” or “bara teu” in Newari, takes place before a girl’s first menstruation. For 12 days, Riti was confined in a room without sunlight. The room was exclusive to women, she was not allowed to see or touch men. She had her female relatives and friends for companionship. Her meals were served to her in the room.

In the corner of the room was a handmade doll, called bara kyakh, which signifies evil spirits.  Riti was told to pay respect this doll everyday and offer it food before she ate.

“I was nervous before the ceremony started as I was told that I will stay in my bedroom for 12days. I also felt sad because I thought I might not be able to play with my friends,” Riti says. “But, I enjoyed the days. My relatives and friends kept visiting me and we had a good time chatting, dancing and singing.”

Riti’s gufa was arranged during her winter vacation. During the 12 days her friends and relatives visited her with special sweets and fruits.

The ritual also marks the coming of age of a Newari girl. Riti was allowed to play with make-up and saris, things reserved for “women”. Her older relatives spoke to her of how her body will now change and transform into a woman, how she isn’t a child anymore, how she should behave.

Ram Kamal Shrestha, Riti’s mother, says that the ceremony is very important because it is a cultural ritual for Newari community.

“The ritual is not harmful to the child. She isn’t kept in absolute darkness,” said Shrestha. “We had a small light in her room and TV for her.”

Today, after 12 days, Riti has stepped out of her room for the first time. Her sister leads her to the mandap, where her relatives are waiting for her. Someone hands her rice and flower and the ritual begins.

Riti squinches her eyes as her sister lifts her veil and the sunlight touches her face for the first time in 12 days. She offers flowers and bows down to the sun. The ceremony resembles a wedding, complete with the custom of applying vermillion on her forehead and on the parting of her hair. It is believed that the sun will now protect her from evil.

Once the ceremony is over, Riti’s relatives bless her with gifts of clothes, money and flowers. There will be a reception in the evening to celebrate Riti’s Gufa ceremony. Just like in a wedding reception, Riti will take her place on a platform to receive gifts and blessings from her guests.

Riti’s friends are curious about the custom and are already asking about her experience. She is the first among her friends to have the gufa ceremony and is eager to share. “This year? Or the next?,” her friends debate about their own ceremony. Soon, Riti will be attending a “wedding” of one of her friends.


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