The customs for matrimony in Sherpa society are, by western concepts, way out of the box. Rather than being frivolous or opportunistic, the process for formally declaring commitment between a young man and woman and their families is incredibly genuine, resourceful, and binding. Contrary to many other cultures a couple can begin having a family upon engagement, and the formal ceremony, though it is a precious and memorable occasion, is simply a formality perhaps years after the practical union.
In a Sherpa marriage there are 3 stages: Proposal, Engagement, then marriage. This sounds familiar, but the details are not what one might expect.
Stage 1 – “So Da Ne” or Proposal
Stage 2 – “Den Chang” or Engagement
Once the families have made arrangements for a shift in resources (the son will leave his father’s home and move to be part of the young woman’s family) the young man quite literally becomes a member of the young woman’s family. He becomes an integral part in that he takes on responsibilities in supporting the family, but he is also considered bound to the daughter. Backing out is not an option, and pursuing other relationships is out of the question. Backing out just isn’t done, because it carries a stigmatism. The man will likely take the blame for the failure, but if the woman is unable to bear children, it is understood. From this point the couple can begin to raise their own family together. Considering the customs for the formal marriage ceremony, it is entirely practical and merciful to allow the couple to start their family. Until the ceremony the young man’s father must provide a house or a least land for the son to live on, and the young woman’s father must provide a gift of all the other major necessities for running a household. It typically takes years for the families to make such preparations. On top of that, an extravagant celebration is the norm for such an occasion, so there is an incredible investment that the families must piece together.
Stage 3 – “Zanti” or Wedding
The final stage is a culmination of an already beautiful union. The couple, as well as the two families, are already very familiar and integrated with each other. The couple will most likely have one or two children by then. If preparations have come together well the couple will have a new house built with all the necessary furnishings. So the ceremony is more of a celebration and sigh of relief, partly because the couple can finally move away from the in-laws. The ceremony is hosted by a monk in the woman’s home, and the “newlyweds” sit beside each other on an ornate rug in the living room. The monk acknowledges that the couple already has had time to get to know each other. He encourages them to look beyond the negative qualities they’ve discovered in each other and to be supportive and positive. He doesn’t pronounce anything to signify their union. He only wishes for their happiness. There is no wedding ring, and the woman does not change her name. Since it is such a tight community among the villages it is just known that the two are married.
In this set of customs it is extremely uncommon for a couple to seek to dissolve the marriage. There are few circumstances that are given justification, and if they do split up, the man bears a very negative reputation with him. It will be very difficult to gain the favor of another father after that. Even if things are very bad in the marriage, the man would sooner keep his reputation intact. In a divorce there are no civil proceedings either, but with some dispute the couple can go to the mayor of the village for resolution.