KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Nine-year-old Bhintuna sat smiling in jewellery and a red and gold brocade bridal dress as she held a tray of offerings, waiting for her turn to take part in the ritual that would wed her to a god.
The schoolgirl is just one of hundreds of Nepali girls set to take part in the rite that weds them to the god Vishnu over the coming month, a symbolic time of weddings according to tradition in this deeply religious, majority Hindu nation.
"It is fun. I am happy to wear new clothes and be with so many friends," said Bhintuna.
The ritual, which takes place before a girl reaches puberty, is one of three weddings that girls from the Newar community, which dominates the Kathmandu valley that houses the Nepali capital, undergo in their lives.
In a later ceremony she will "wed" the sun by spending 12 nights in a darkened room at the age of 11 or 13, a rite that earns her additional protection. Her final wedding will be to her real, human husband, usually around the age of 25.
The origins of the tradition are obscure but Rajendra Rajopadhyaya, the priest who conducted the ceremony, said it dated back at least several centuries.
One tale has it that parents of a girl were afraid that a lewd entertainer in the court of the god Vishnu, known as the god of protection, would flee with her, so they married her off to Vishnu to keep her safe.
Hundreds of onlookers thronged the copper-roofed temple in Kathmandu, lit by butter lamps and filled with incense smoke, as 80 girls between the ages of six and nine awaited their turn for the ceremony, draped in long strings of yellow glass beads and other finery.
Many held trays of auspicious offerings such as rice, bananas and vermilion powder as they sat on the laps of their parents before being "married" to the fruit of the wood-apple tree, a representation of Vishnu.
After the ceremony the bride is offered a meal of rice with buffalo meat and the home-brewed liquor called "aela," which is like vodka.
Bhintuna's mother, 36-year-old Sirjana Sakya, sat at her daughter's side and said she was reminded of her own childhood, when she too performed the rite.
"I think my daughter will be emotionally independent and capable of taking care of herself under the protection of her divine husband," she said.
"I feel good because we are saving our culture."
Nepal officially became a secular nation and abolished its Hindu monarchy in 2008, but the majority of its 26.6 million people remain deeply religious.
Reporting by Gopal Sharma; editing by Elaine Lies and Paul Casciato