Bratabandha Part I

Up until March of last year, the bane of my existence was a Nepali ritual called Bratabandha. What, pray-tell, is a Bratabandha? Well it is a special ceremony that many young Nepali boys have to go through before they are considered “men” and are able to marry—something like a coming-of-age Hindu Bar Mitzvah of sorts.

Little boys line up for a Bratabandha procession

Little boys line up for a Bratabandha procession

Many of our male friends had this ceremony done as little boys—usually around thirteen years old. It is one of those things that (most people) just want to get out of the way. The older you are, it can be more embarrassing as well, because part of the ceremony involves wearing a thin tunic of fabric that doesn’t leave much to the imagination. It is also tougher as you get older, and your interest in marriage becomes more imminent, because the timing of this particular event is quite tricky.

The timing of the ceremony is based on your star chart, and I’ve been told that picking an auspicious time for your Bratabandha is astrologically even more important than picking the correct time for your wedding! In addition you cannot undergo a Bratabandha if a close member of your family has died in the past year, if it is during the month of your birth, if the month or year isn’t particularly auspicious, or—as I like to joke, if your next-door neighbor’s dog sneezes. Sometimes these blocks of inauspicious timing stretch for very long periods—weeks, months, even years!

I had heard a bit about this ceremony when I first started dating P, and after being together for only a few months he went home during a January break from school. I encouraged him to do it while he was home, not because I thought he needed the ceremony done immediately, but because I figured it would be nice to do it with his family, and get it over with. That’s when I learned about the “no Bratabandha during your birth month” rule. Okay, cool, no big deal, it’s not like we were planning to run down the aisle anytime soon.

The next time P went home was during the summer a few years later- and my persistence in completing the ceremony had kicked up a notch. That’s when I learned the “no Bratabandha during inauspicious months” rule. I remember reading his email about that in an internet café in South Africa and letting out a mournful, “nooooooo” much to the shock of one of my colleagues… and I couldn’t really articulate why I was upset about this, since the average person doesn’t really know what Bratabandha is anyway. Sigh, “okay, no big deal,” I thought, “he’ll go home again sometime soon.” Then while preparing for the epic family visit of 2008 we decided to conduct the ceremony while they were in town. Grrr… the “no Bratabandha when a family member passes away” rule.

Boy after his head is shaved at the ceremony

Boy after his head is shaved at the ceremony

As time continued to tick away, I started bugging P more frequently about getting this pesky ritual done and over with. Two of my elder-but-close-in-age cousins got engaged, and then married, and questions started to fly in my family about when our turn would come. “Well…” I’d try to explain, “you see, P has to do this thing, where he ritualistically shaves his head, and a Hindu priests does some special prayers… but it has to be during an auspicious month…” by that time I would see the glazed over look on my relatives face, and I’d have to conclude with, “at some point in the future, don’t worry.”

Eventually his parents informed us (after a visit to the family astrologer) that if he didn’t complete his Bratabandha by a certain date in March of 2009 he would enter a 2 year inauspicious period. 2 years! That is a long time to wait, especially after dating for six! It became a running joke amongst our friends, “C will be more relieved than P once the Bratabandha is complete!”

Boy receives his sacred janai thread, the most important part of the ceremony, a thread he is suppose to wear everyday for the rest of his life

Boy receives his sacred janai thread, something he is suppose to wear everyday for the rest of his life

Alas, I think P’s dad set a bad example. He didn’t do his Bratabandha until the day before his wedding… and since Bratabandha includes shaving your head he was bald for the wedding. I started listing off the reasons why we had to get the ceremony over and done with, and why it was ridiculous to wait… a) I don’t want a bald husband in my wedding photos, b) what if the next-door neighbor’s dog sneezes the night before? I am not rescheduling a wedding someday! and c) do you want to be the only 30+ year old at a Bratabandha ceremony sitting around with all the little boys??

P acquiesced and  “Operation Bratabandha” was officially in full swing.

Pictures for this blog are from DayLife, more can be seen here.

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3 responses to “Bratabandha Part I

  1. Sounds very similar to the sacread thread ritual that some castes in India have. Technically, Aditya is of a caste to have it done, but his family is not very religious, so they didn’t bother.

    Do you have any idea of how common it is for Nepalis to go through Bratabandha?

    • Since I don’t profess to be an expert on this topic, I called up our friend “the mama” (N) from the ceremony. According to him most Hindus in Nepal complete it. Bratabandha can be particularly strict (especially if you come for a deeply religious family) for people from the Brahmins and Chhetri castes. The boys are suppose to abstain from eating meat for 6 months and wear their janai thread every day, etc (I know of at least one friend who is scolded by his grandfather if he catches him without it on when he goes home for family visits). However, most boys these days probably have a watered down version of all of this, and at least in the middle class families in the city I think it has basically become a rights of passage that is an excuse for a big family party. Yet other ethnic groups and castes, like Newars, Gurungs, Rais (if they are Hindu, some of these groups also tend to be Buddhist. The line between the two religions is quite blurred in many communities in Nepal) also participate in Bratabandha’s but less religiously strict versions of the ceremony. Since approximately 80% of Nepalis would consider themselves Hindu, its probably a descent percentage of the male population that go through this ceremony.

  2. Bratabandha is exactly the same as Upanayanam
    or the sacred thread ceremony
    Any Indian priest could have done it very easily

    Only Brahmin, Kshatriya ( warrior ) and Vaishya ( merchant ) castes, also called Dwi-ja or Twice born castes are eligible
    Dwi has same Indo-European root as Duo

    The head is not full shaven, just 80% shaven and the remaining 20% hair is made into a tuft / choti / pigtail

    Arya Samaj offers this thread to all castes

    The thread ceremony is different for Brahmins than other Dwija castes
    The key difference is that an extra step is done

    A special sanskrit paragraph called Abivadaye
    is to be memorised
    This is true for all brahmins from Tamil Nadu to Thailand
    The side effect of this is to prevent non-brahmins from entering the brahmin caste
    If a stranger comes to a town and claims that he is a brahmin, the local brahmins will ask him to recite his Abivadaye and he will not be admitted unless he can recite this Sanskrit ( dead language for 3000 years ) paragraph

    This Abivadaye Sanskrit paragraph has preserved the Brahmins for over 3000 years as a separate community

    The bollywood movie Hey Ram, has a special focus on this Abivadaye and will be my next post

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