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The Early Bird Gets the Spouse

India: Child marriage remains prevalent in rural areas here. 'If I wait for my son to be 21, there will be no girl left for him,' says one parent.


CHANDARPUR, India — Mamtabai is dazzling in her wedding finery, dressed in a purple sari and escorted by her uncle and new father-in-law.

She climbs the 200-odd steps up a hill to the Hindu temple in this village in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. They are seeking the gods' blessings for her marriage, performed earlier in the day at the bride's house.

Mamtabai's husband, Ram Kalyan, from the neighboring desert state of Rajasthan, is already complaining of aching feet.

"Daddy, can't you pick me up? I can't walk anymore," he says. His bride giggles under her veil: "Big boy can't walk."

Ram is 8 years old, Mamtabai only 6.

They were among thousands of children, some as young as 2, who took their marital vows recently, honoring a centuries-old tradition of the legendary Rajput warrior clan in defiance of Indian law. Long lines of child couples stood outside Hindu temples across north and central India asking priests for blessings.

The youngsters do not live together until years later.

Within hours of the marriage ceremony, the bride and groom return home to their families.

A few months after a girl reaches puberty, she is taken to the groom's home with great ceremony and the marriage is consummated soon after.

India forbids marriage for women younger than 18 and men under 21, and parents can be sent to jail for up to three months if they are caught marrying off minors.

But officials mostly ignore the practice in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan states, where Rajputs comprise nearly two-thirds of voters.

While the practice is dying out among urban, educated Rajputs, it remains common in rural areas.

Fathers want their sons to secure obedient, well-bred girls for later in life. Hiralal Tawar, the head of Madhapura village in Madhya Pradesh, says his sons married between the ages of 10 and 13.

"I know the law. But if I wait for my son to be 21, there will be no girl left for him," Tawar says. "You can't fight centuries-old tradition with law."

The families of girls say they want their daughters to have security.

"It's my duty to get my daughter married to the right boy, and if I delay all the right boys will be married off," says Rupnath Singh, father of a 5-year-old, Putlibai, who was married in Bankpura village.

"For a girl in these parts, the only social security is through marriage. A marriage is the ultimate refuge, protection and security in a woman's life. The earlier she meets her man, the better."

In Chandarpur, Mamtabai and Ram accept their blessings as the priest chants, "May you have a fruitful and happy wedded life."

But they're not listening. Their eyes are on the sugar balls kept on a brass plate as offerings to the deity. When the prayers are over, they snatch the balls and stuff them in their mouths.

Dressed in a traditional Indian soldier's attire, with a sword in hand, Ram wants to have more fun.

"Daddy, pick me up," yells the groom, pointing to brass bells out of his reach. "I want to ring the bells."

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