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A MARRIAGE CUSTOM OF THE ABORIGINES OF BENGAL: A STUDY IN THE SYMBOLISM OF MARRIAGE CEREMONIES.
By E. SIDNEY HARTLAND.
In his Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal, Col. Dalton describes repeatedly a curious ceremony at marriages among several of the aboriginal tribes. It is known as sindúr (or sindra) dán, and consists in the bridegroom's marking his bride's forehead with red lead. Among the tribes who practise this ceremony it is the essential part of the marriage rite, which renders the union of bride and bridegroom complete, in the same way as the putting on of the ring in the marriage service of this country. In general the bride alone is marked ; but among the Bírhors (who daub the neck and not the head) and the Kúrmis of Singbhúm both parties are marked ; and this appears sometimes to be the case also among the Oráons. Another variation of the custom is found among the Birhors, where it is indeed the only ceremony observed at a wedding. Blood is drawn from the little fingers of the bride and bridegroom; and with this they are marked, instead of red lead. bhúm, too, they “touch and mark each other with blood."*
The origin and meaning of the ceremony have been often discussed, but so far as I am aware no satisfactory attempt has been made to compare it with similar customs elsewhere. There can be little doubt that the Bírhors and the Kúrmis of Singbhúm in marking with blood have preserved the primitive material of the rite, and that the sindúr or red lead is a mere substitute for it. But what does the daubing with blood signify? Two suggestions have been made. Colonel Dalton's own guess is that it symbolizes the fact that bride and bridegroom have now become one flesh. The other view is that it is a relic of marriage by capture, in which the husband, as a preliminary to connubial felicity, had broken his wife's head.
* Dalton, 160, 216, 220, 252, 273, 317, 317, 321.
The latter explanation has in its favour the prevalent custom of marking only the bride. Moreover, brides are captured in many savage tribes with the club. A native Australian will steal upon his lady-love's slumbers and striking her senseless will bear her off to his haunt in the bush. If this rough wooing had become gradually disused by the blackfellows, it is quite conceivable that a semblance of it might have survived in dashes of blood, or of red paint, inflicted by the bridegrooms of gentler generations upon the objects of their choice. But in that case it is probable that some horse-play would accompany the act; and if any retaliatory daubing by the bride upon the bridegroom took place, it would be a late development, after all trace of the real meaning had faded from the tribal memory.
When, however, we examine the cases mentioned by Col. Dalton we do not find these indications of an earlier wooing by the club. Among the Kharriás the rite is performed after the bride reaches her father-in-law's house, and after she and her husband have been bathed and anointed. The Oráons surround it with an elaborate ceremonial of a domestic and agricultural character, which is enshrouded with some little mystery, and takes place in a bower specially constructed for the purpose in front of the lady's dwelling. A bridegroom among the Hillmen of Rájmahál is first, with his relations, entertained by the bride's father at a feast. Her hand is then placed in his ; and her father in doing so, charges the husband to be loving and kind to her. This is the moment chosen for the sindra dán, which is accomplished with the bridegroom's little finger ; and then linking that finger in the bride's he leads her away to his own house. The complex rituals of the Gopas and the Kúrmis are of the same pacific character; and this may be said of all. Everything points to consent and goodwill by the bride and her party. Nothing in the shape of a weapon appears to be carried or used by the husband. He does not even strike his chosen with a whip, as in ancient Russia.
Then if we inquire whether the reciprocal daubing by the bride of her bridegroom is one of the older or newer parts of the ceremony, we find the indications all in the direction of its antiquity. Col. Dalton mentions three instances,—those of the Oráons, the Birhors and the Kúrmis of Singbhúm. The first is somewhat doubtful, as the propriety of the procedure is stated to be a controverted point. It takes place behind and beneath screens of cloth, both parties standing in a special attitude on a curry-stone under which a sheaf of corn lies upon a plough-yoke. The symbolism here shows but little sign of modern degradation; and though outside the screens the men of both parties keep watch with raised weapons and fierce looks, they are evidently only the guardians of the solemn and peaceful performance within. But the other two instances are still more unequivocally archaic. For here it is that the marking is made with blood; and among the Kúrmis it is preceded by the curious custom of wedding each of the spouses to a tree-a custom with which we have no further concern for the moment than to note its antique and savage character.
Moreover, the marks are not always inflicted by the bridegroom on the bride. Among the Bodos it would seem to be the rule for two women to accompany the bridegroom and his friends in their procession to the bride's house. These women it is, who, penetrating to her apartment, anoint her head with oil, mixed with red lead prior to her being presented to her husband.* Conversely, the Santal bridegroom in some districts, after reaching the bride's village, is stripped by her clanswomen, and by them bathed and dressed in new garments properly stained with red lead.t
Beyond the limits of Bengal blood is not often a prominent feature in marriage rites. Yet some significant instances may be cited. We cannot reckon that of the ancient
* Featherman, "Social History of the Races of Mankind, Turanians," 30. † Ibid., 63.
Aztecs among these. When, after the marriage feast, the Aztec bridal pair retired to their chamber, it was only to fast and pray during four days, and to draw blood from various parts of their bodies. The object of this bleeding, however, is said to have been the propitiation of their cruel gods. The ceremonies of the Wukas, a tribe inhabiting the mountains of New Guinea, however, are exactly in point. Their weddings begin with an elopement, followed by pursuit and capture of both fugitives. The next step is to bargain for the price of the bride. When this is settled, and not before, the marriage is effected by mutual cuts made by husband and wife in one another's foreheads, so that the blood flows. The other members of both families then do likewise-a proceeding, we are told, “which binds together all the relations on both sides in the closest fraternal alliance."*
The writer I am quoting does not, indeed, mention any daubing or exchange of blood; but, as we shall see hereafter, this must be understood. The Gipsies of Hungary preserve some remarkable ceremonies and superstitions. A bride and bridegroom of the northern stock, before setting out for their wedding smear the soles of their left feet with one another's blood. And a bride of the southern stock, or a bride of the Serbian Gipsies, will seek on her wedding night to smear unobserved a drop of blood from her left hand in her husband's hair, in order that he may be constant to her.† The Caribs are reported to have had no specific rites of marriage. But a full-grown
* Featherman, “Social History of the Races of Mankind, PapuoMelanesians," 32.
† Dr. Heinrich von Wlislocki in iii “ Am Urquell,” 93. Is it a relic of some kindred ceremony in the South of France, when a wag sometimes amuses himself by pricking bride and bridegroom, while they are kneeling before the altar, until the blood flows? The object, we are told, is to test their characters, for the one who cries out the louder at the pain is the more jealous or the less amiable of the pair. It does not follow that this was the original object. Bérenger-Féraud, "Traditions et Réminiscences Populaires de la Provence," 202. But other jocular tests have also been common, e.g., pinching. See Laisnel de la Salle, ii “Croyances et Légendes du Centre de la France,” 39.
man would sometimes betroth himself to an unborn child, conditionally on its proving a girl. When this was done it was the custom for him to mark the mother's body with a red cross. * This is an act hardly susceptible of more than one interpretation. As the child itself could not be reached, the next best thing was done. The red mark over the mother's womb was no doubt originally made with the man's blood, and symbolized the union henceforth existing between him and the unborn infant.
There is one piece of evidence pointing to a practice among the Scandinavian Aryans, or rather perhaps among the non-Aryan races with whom they came into contact, similar to that of the Bengal Turanians. A Norwegian youth was curious to see if it were really true that the Huldren, or wood-women (a kind of supernatural beings), occupied the mountain dwelling in the autumn after it was deserted by the family for the lowlands. The tale runs that he crept under a large upturned tub, and there waited until it began to grow dark. Then he heard a noise of coming and going ; and it was not long before the house was filled with Huldrenfolk. They immediately smelt Christian flesh, but could not find the lad, until at length a maiden discovered him beneath the tub, and pointed at him with her finger. He drew his knife and scratched her finger, so that the blood flowed. Scarcely had he done it, when the whole party surrounded him; and the girl's mother, supported by the rest, demanded that he must now marry her daughter, because he had marked her with blood. There was nothing for it but to promise marriage ; and it is satisfactory to add that when she had been instructed in the Word of God and baptized, she lost the tail which she had hitherto borne, like all her race, and she made the youth a faithful and loving spouse. Now it may very well be that the reason for compelling this marriage is incomprehensible to the modern teller of the tale, at least as a serious ground.
* Featherman, op. cit., Chiapo- and Guarano-Maranonians, 267.