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A wedding in two remote Jharkhand villages is an act that has to be performed in the dark. According to local beliefs, if the nuptials take place during the daytime, families of the bride and the bridegroom will turn into stone.
All rituals, arrival and departure of baraat (bridegroom's procession), have to commence after sunset and conclude before dawn, in Vijaydih and Dhokradih hamlets of coal-rich Dhanbad district, dominated by backward caste Gopes and tribals and other backward classes.
"It is a belief laced with fear, which makes us follow this age-old-tradition. Our forefathers passed on this belief to our fathers and we are now passing on the same to our children," said Baijnath Gope, 60, a resident of Vijaydih.
Harendra Prasad Mahto, who got married in June 2010, said, "My house is 16 km away from the in-laws' house. It was a big challenge to leave with my bride before dawn. Thanks to priests, we made it on time and thus were saved from turning into stone."
What reinforces the belief are dozens of rocks scattered in an area of about 50 metres near the village.
According to a legend, about 200 years ago, a wealthy bridegroom and his family set off on their return journey with the bride after dawn. The marriage party had barely walked a kilometre when all of them, including the newly-wed couple, horses and elephants, turned into stone, Gope said.
The villagers believe the "statues" (rocks) change their positions sometimes, a sign that "there is life and soul in them".
However, geologist professor BC Sarkar, said that due to erosion and weathering, rocks assume different shapes while stormy winds can make them move slightly.
Dhokradih resident Vibhuti Bhushan Mahto, 69, said elders were increasingly finding it difficult to persuade youngsters to follow the tradition, but "the fear of turning into stones spares none".
And those unwilling to go by the tradition prefer to marry in other villages and towns.