I was visiting a friend’s family when his mother flourished a number of worn pictures of a small boy, wrapped in orange, with big scared eyes, and even bigger ears painfully accentuated by his newly bald head. “He is ready for marriage” she proudly announced. My first impression was that Bratabandha was a haircut that turned boys into men.
Bratabandha is a Hindu ceremony where boys, between 8 and 12, take the first steps in learning the traditional laws, ceremonial roles and rituals of their caste. It is about passing on tradition and culture to a younger generation. Bratabandha is a considered the beginning of manhood and those boys who have not performed their Bratabandha cannot marry.
Red, white, yellow markings, Swasti, were made around the fire for protection and as an elaborate place setting, indicating where each god should sit when they joined the ceremony. Offerings of fruit, money, cloth and rice, were made. Pundit Karishna Thapa explained “when you call a guest to your home you offer him the best foods, the Gods are the most important guests, when you call upon them you want to offer them the best.”
The boys’ parents performed pujas, aunts and uncles arrived and sipped tea, and priests began the necessary rituals. The ceremony was performed by 6 priests, though only 2 are technically required. After Pujas to Ganesh, and light and water, the ceremony began.
The boy’s heads were shaved for purification by their mother’s brother. As I watched, dressed in my coat and gloves, I really felt for the boys as they shivered in their shorts and waited for their turn under the razor. The older boys and uncles playfully teased “the wind will be so cold on your new head” or “I hope I don’t slip and cut off an ear.”
All the hair is collected with precision to protect the boys from anyone who may wish to use it for harm. It will later be disposed of in the Baghmati River. When each of the boys finished their mothers, aunts and sisters rushed forward to carefully rinse any hair from their skinny necks and warm them in their shawls. Even at a Bratabandha, boys are never men in the eyes of the women who raise them.
The boys are Brahmin and therefore were dressed in orange and given a deer skin bag to signify the traditional roles of Brahmins as priests. At the Bratabandha of boys belonging to other castes different objects are used, for example Chhettri people often carry a bow and arrow.
Much of the ceremony in conducted under the cover of a shawl and is secret for only the boy and his new Guru. I shamelessly tried to get a peak at what was happening but the chatter of the watching families and the chanting of the priests meant most was lost in a chaotic babble of Nepali and Sanskrit. Pundit Karishna Thapa explained “The Guru gives his students a sacred string to wear and a mantra which they are to keep private. If the mantra is said every day, while holding the string, it will promote prosperity, well-being and protection from everyday mishaps.” The mantras are taken from the sacred Hindu text, Ved.
Occasionally one of the boys would come out from under cover and circle the fire, to pay his respects to the Gods seated there. The ceremony comes to an end with the boys begging from their relatives for rice and receiving Tika. This practice is to signify the traditional life of a monk and give the boys spiritual grounding for their first life lesson.
I can’t help but compare Bratabandha with the much harsher rites of passage boys in my country go through as they become men such as Buck’s nights, 21st celebrations and university hazing. Bratabandha brings family together to acknowledge young boys beginning their spiritual and cultural journey. It seems a gentle and wonderfully intricate ceremony, which as a foreigner I can probably never fully understand but I hope it endures for many more generations.