One of the most unusual forms of marriage, in world cultures, is the Indian idea of marriage-as-gift. The indigenous
term is very close to Marcel Mauss's conception of the gift:danmeans, literally, "gift."Kanyais a young girl, a virgin. The most sacred form of marriage for 2500 years inIndiahas beenkanyadan, "the gift of a girl." The concept has a prominent place in
ancient Hindu lawbooks, and is known everywhere today, as well. The "love match"--well known inIndiaas the
Western way of making marriages--is considered scandalous and immoral, especially in Mithila.
When a man's daughter comes
close to puberty, he begins the search for a husband for her. It is his responsibility to take the initiative; grooms' families
bide their time, waiting for offers. The idea behindkanyadanis that a virgin is the best gift a man will ever have to give; he seeks to give
this precious gift, therefore, to a worthy recipient. He likens this gift to a gift to the gods; "My daughter's husband is
Vishnu to me," said one Srotriya. Of course, this recipient must be a member of his own caste, but preferably someone of a
slightly higher status than his own.
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A Woman's Life Stages
Kanya - Young girls, prior to their marriage, generally live carefree lives in their father's
household with their heads uncovered. They are carefully sheltered from contact with the opposite sex; protection of their
virginity is one of their father's most sacred duties. She is taught from the age of five or six to pray to the goddess Gauri
to bring her a husband "like Shiva." These days she may be allowed to go to school, but in ruralBiharmany Brahmans still worry about letting their daughters
get too educated; e.g., 9th grade may be "too educated." Around puberty their father begins the search for a husband. The
legal age of marriage inIndiais sixteen for girls, but many are married younger than this, for traditionally it
was a sin of the father to let his daughter come of age while still unmarried and living in his house.
When a woman is married, she enters
the auspicious state ofsuhag. This term refers a married woman
with a living husband; it suggests she is sexually active and bearing children. She wears the mark of hersuhagin her vivid saris, in arms jingling with bangles, gold around her neck and ears,
and above all in the red powder she puts in the part of her hair every morning. However, the transition may be difficult,
for she is taken to live in a strange household in a strange village, married to a husband she has never met. She must keep
her head veiled at all times in her husband's village and must observe avoidance taboos with all the men senior to her husband.
E.g., if she's sitting on the verandah and her father-in-law arrives, she flees to an inner room.
Vidva -When a woman's husband dies, she becomes a widow (the termvidvais cognate to English "widow"). As her husband's body is taken by men to be burned,
women take her to the pond, where they break her bangles, wash the red powder out of her hair, and robe her in a white sari.
She will never again wear the ornaments and beautiful saris of asuhagin,
but instead will live a life of asceticism in her dead husband's household. She is thought to be quite inauspicious, and she
stays in the background during all auspicious ritual occasions such as weddings.