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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 April, 2005, 12:01 GMT 13:01 UK
India's 'festivals of elopement'
By Faisal Mohammed Ali
BBC News, Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh

Bhil fair
Bhil boys and girls come to the fairs every spring
In the tribal heartland of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, cupid strikes in an unusual way - single boys and girls elope to find their life partners.

This centuries-old tradition among the Bhils, one of the country's oldest tribes, kicks off every spring with the bhagoria melas, or fairs of elopement.

Single men and women descend upon the dusty and parched district of Jhabua in spring to attend a number of such fairs which begin during Holi, the Hindu festival of colours.

The men, wearing turbans and jewellery with cummerbunds, go all out to woo the girls in their colourful skirts, blouses and scarves.

With drum beats and flute tunes filling the air, they scout for prospective partners. When they find one, they go around dancing, singing and being together on the fairs' rickety merry-go-rounds.

Bhil man
Bhil men have to pay dowry
Antar Singh Jamra of Kharpai village who came to one of the fairs in Jhabua says he has found his partner, 17-year-old Sumitra.

The college-going Antar says he is going to elope with Sumitra soon to see whether they gel as a couple.

Mukesh, a teenager, says he is also looking for a girl.

"Once I spot a girl of my choice, we will elope and get married," he says.

Dowry demands

Nobody knows for sure when this custom of ritual courtship and elopement began in a district where tribals make up 85% of the population.

Some say it began when the fathers of the brides started demanding expensive dowries from prospective grooms.

Those in love were forced to elope as a protest - and the fairs gave them the perfect opportunity.

In Bhil society, the boy and his family still have to pay a dowry to the girl's family.

Others trace the tradition to local myths and Bhil kings who encouraged this tradition.

Bhil girls on the way to the fair
Bhils also have the custom of the groom's family sending a choli, or a native blouse and arrow, to the bride's father.

If the girl's parents retain the blouse and send back the arrow to the boy's house, it means they approve of the union.

Not all marriages among the Bhils have their source in the "elopement fairs".

In many cases, families "arrange marriages" by pairing boys and girls - a common tradition in India.

Bhils are among the poorest people in India and under 20% of them can read or write.

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