Marriage in Northeast India: Service Required

A young man and his fiancée stand with their traditional Indian marriage outfits during their wedding ceremony. (Photo: STR / AFP-Getty Images)

Sunil Debbarma wants to marry his girlfriend the way his father wedded his wife — by serving her mother's family. A young man, according to the traditional marriage practices followed by most tribes in India's northeastern Tripura state, has to serve his prospective bride's family if he wants to marry her. Tribals represent approximately 33 percent of Tripura's more than three million people.

The boy remains in the girl's house to prove his competence and patience for a mutually agreed period of time which generally runs from six months to one year. If he complies and is found fit in all respects his parents are asked to fix the date to solemnize marriage.

The custom is called "Jamai Utha."

If the girl's parents refuse to marry off their daughter to the boy, no compensation is paid to him for services rendered. The rationale behind the marriage practice is to assess the boy's capacity to shoulder the responsibility of caring for the girl. The couple is not allowed to mix freely before the marriage, a rule that is sometimes broken.

"Despite strict diktat, there are instances where the boy and girl developed a physical relationship," said Upendra Reang, who went through Jamai Utha to get the woman he wanted to marry.

The test continues even after marriage. The groom serves his wife's family for a certain period, a contract of sorts known as "Jamai Katha." Here, tribal social rules are even stricter. Any breach of the arrangement could entail compensation being paid by either of the parties. However, the groom has the option of avoiding the practice by paying an amount to the girl's family.

"Dying Tradition?"

Many, including several tribal intellectuals, support the customary marriage practice and people like Sunil Debbarma say it is an opportunity to resurrect the languishing tradition. "We should try to preserve it, let there be no change in tribal traditions," he said. However, Debbarma and other like-minded persons are fighting an uphill battle. Experts say the old marriage method in tribal society is gradually dying due to the spread of urban culture.

Some postulate that customary practices, including Jamai Utha and Jamai Katha, ensure a woman's higher status in society. "Tribal women are respected in tribal society. While womenfolk in other societies are subject to inhuman humiliation and torture on flimsy grounds like not having a male child, tribal women enjoy freedom," tribal leader Rabindra Debbarma declared.

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