People who thought the custom of child marriage in India was gradually disappearing into the mists of history have had a shock with the 2001 census - released recently - showing it is still alive and thriving. Since 1930, it has been illegal in India for girls under 18 and boys under 21 to get married. But the latest figures show that 6.4 million Indians under the age of 18 have done just that. Predictably, the incidence of child marriage is higher in rural areas than in the cities. About 83 per cent of those who married under age live in villages. But that still leaves more than a million under-age couples in the cities. Child marriage has always been widespread in the desert state of Rajasthan and the latest figures show that it still leads the way; with 5 per cent of the total under-age couples, followed by Madhya Pradesh in central India. Kerala in the south, where literacy levels are the highest in India, has only 0.82 per cent of underage couples. But visitors need not travel far to come across child marriage. All it takes is a walk in the old quarter of New Delhi where Bano Akhram sits in her tiny house and recalls her precocious achievements. She was married at 10 and had her first child when she was 11. Her daughter was 12 when she got married and 13 when she had her own child, making Bano a grandmother at 24. Bano's granddaughter also married at puberty and gave birth when she was 14, making Bano a great grandmother at 38. 'I had no idea the minimum age for marriage in India is 18. All our girls are married the moment their periods start,' said Bano who, like so many child brides who bear children early and frequently, looks much older than her real age of 50. Bano is a Muslim but child marriages are common to both Hindus and Muslims. In Rajasthan, Hindu child marriages happen en masse with brides and bridegrooms playing with dolls and marbles, sucking their thumbs or sitting on their parents' laps during the nuptials. Sociologists trace the origin of child marriages in India to Muslim invasions that began more than 1,000 years ago. Legend has it that the invaders raped unmarried Hindu girls or carried them off as booty, prompting Hindus to marry off their daughters early. The custom refuses to die because of poverty and culture. Poverty means that parents are relieved to have one less mouth to feed, especially as the girl is usually not going to school and is just hanging around the house. Culture demands a girl's speedy marriage lest she disgrace her family by having pre-marital sex.