National Geographic : 2011 Jun
• from a metal pan over their heads. Two of the brides, the sisters Radha and Gora, were 15 and 13, old enough to understand what was happen- ing. e third, their niece Rajani, was 5. She wore a pink T-shirt with a butter y design on the shoul- der. A grown-up helped her pull it o to bathe. e grooms were en route from their own vil- lage, many miles away. No one could a ord an elephant or the lavishly saddled horses that would have been ceremonially correct for the grooms' entrance to the wedding, so they were coming by car and were expected to arrive high-spirited and drunk. e only local person to have met the grooms was the father of the two oldest girls, a slender gray-haired farmer with a straight back and a drooping mustache. is farmer, whom I will call Mr. M, was both proud and wary as he surveyed guests funneling up the rocky path to- ward the bright silks draped over poles for shade; he knew that if a nonbribable police o cer found out what was under way, the wedding might be interrupted mid-ceremony, bringing criminal arrests and lingering shame to his family. Rajani was Mr. M's granddaughter, the child of his oldest married daughter. She had round brown eyes, a broad little nose, and skin the color of milk chocolate. She lived with her grandpar- ents. Her mother had moved to her husband's village, as rural married Indian women are ex- pected to do, and this husband, Rajani's father, was rumored to be a drinker and a bad farmer. BECAUSE THE WEDDING WAS ILLEGAL AND A SECRET, except to the invited guests, and because marriage rites in Rajasthan are o en conducted late at night, it was well into the a ernoon before the three girl brides in this dry farm settle- ment in the north of India began to prepare themselves for their sacred vows. ey squatted side by side on the dirt, a crowd of village women holding sari cloth around them as a makeshi curtain, and poured soapy water e villagers said it was the grandfather, Mr. M, who loved Rajani most; you could see this in the way he had arranged a groom for her from the respectable family into which her aunt Radha was also being married. is way she would not be lonely a er her gauna, the Indian ceremony that marks the physical transfer of a bride from her childhood family to her husband's. When Indian girls are married as children, the gauna is supposed to take place a er puberty, so Rajani would live for a few more years with her grand- parents---and Mr. M had done well to protect this child in the meantime, the villagers said, by marking her publicly as married. ese were things we learned in a Rajasthan village during Akha Teej, a festival that takes place during the hottest months of spring, just before the monsoon rains, and that is consid- ered an auspicious time for weddings. We stared miserably at the 5-year-old Rajani as it became clear that the small girl in the T-shirt, padding around barefoot and holding the pink plastic sunglasses someone had given her, was also to be one of the midnight ceremony's brides. e man who had led us to the village, a cousin to Mr. M, BY CYNTHIA GORNEY PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEPHANIE SINCLAIR In Yemen marriage can resemble a business transaction. Sisters Sidaba (middle) and Galiyaah, 13 (left), married the brothers of their cousin, Khawlah, 12 (right). Khawlah wed the sisters' uncle.