Published in First City, Jan. 2011
In the modern world, marriage is about choice and contract. The boy and girl choose each other and willingly enter a contract. Breaking of the contract constitutes divorce. The traditional Hindu wedding is neither about choice nor about contracts. It was an arrangement made between families and a mandatory duty for the boy and the girl, marking the end of their childhood. The idea of divorce was not even considered.
More and more young people want to know the significance of traditional Hindu weddings. Often they are do not like what they find because the traditional marriage rituals were designed in times when social structures were very different. These weddings were designed for joint families. It was a patriarchal society where women were seen as dependents. A man could marry and remarry but these privileges were denied to woman. But a man was also not completely free; he was bound by the rules of his family and his caste. The wedding rituals continue to be highly symbolic and are full of agricultural metaphors as India is primarily an agricultural country. For example, man is considered the farmer and the woman is considered the field. The child born from this union is called the crop. Such ideas can be disturbing especially for women in modern times.
Another problem we face today when studying Hindu marriages is the absence of standardization. There are many variations depending on location and caste. A Rajput wedding is very different from a Tamil wedding. A Malayali Hindu wedding has today been reduced to the simple act of a man tying a thread around a woman’s neck before witnesses from the bride’s and groom’s family. The ceremony ends in less than a minute, while a royal Marwari wedding can extend over several days. Add to this the modern Bollywoodization of everything Indian, and we have hybrid post-modern weddings taking place where champagne is drunk when the havan is being conducted and to mind it is seen as being uncool!
Traditionally, weddings are held after Chatur-maas, or the four months of the rainy season. It is heralded by the ritual known as Tulsi-vivah, when Vishnu represented by sugarcane gets married to the Tulsi plant that represents Lakshmi. This event takes place in the month following Diwali.
Marriage rituals begin with the engagement. Traditionally, most weddings were arranged by parents and the bride and groom did not see each other until the wedding ceremony. The Engagement usually involved exchange of gifts before a deity in a temple. Today, following western practices, rings are exchanged in the presence of friends.
Between the engagement and the wedding, the groom and the bride are invited by friends and family to meals to celebrate the last days of being single. This culminates in the ritual known as Sangeet, primarily a North Indian ritual, which has now become pan-Indian, thanks to Bollywood. This involves singing and dancing by the women of the family. It is usually held in the girl’s house and does not involve the groom, though his mother and sisters and sisters-in-law are invited nowadays.
The Wedding ceremony begins with Haldi-snana and Mehendi. This involves preparing the groom and bride for the wedding and is held in their respective homes. Both are anointed with turmeric paste and bathed with fragrant water by the women of the household. The idea of this ritual is to make the boy and girl attractive for the wedding night. This was an acknowledgment of the physical desires of the couple. Mehendi or use of henna came to India from Arabia. Hindus preferred the use of Alta, or a red dye, to line the hands and feet. Today elaborate patterns are made using henna on the hands and feet. Beside the bride, other female members of the family also use the occasion to decorate themselves so.
After the bride and groom are prepared, both are asked to invoke their respective ancestors. This ceremony is especially important for the bride, as after marriage, she serves the interests of the groom’s ancestors and breaks all ties with her own.
Most Hindu rituals follow the principle of hospitality. The guest is formally invited, then worshipped and given gifts and then bid farewell. During pujas, for example, the god and goddess are invited (Avahana) into the household, worshipped before being allowed to go (Visarjan) with an invitation to come again. In the marriage, the groom is the guest and since guests are equated with gods, he is treated as a god, and given a very special gift – the bride.
The time of the wedding varies dramatically in different parts of India. In the South, weddings typically take place at dawn while in the East weddings typically take place post dusk. The actual wedding begins with an invitation usually sent as a scroll to the groom usually presented by the bride’s brother. In Orissa, the bride’s brother is called the Vara-dhara, he who brings home the groom.
The invited guest, or groom, comes in a procession. Rajput grooms carry a sword, sometimes selected by the bride. This shows two things: that the man is capable of carrying the sword and capable of protecting the bride. The grooms in North India came on a mare, and are covered with garlands so that no one sees their face and casts the evil eye. The use of a mare and not a horse suggests his intention to domesticate the wife, an idea that annoys most girls in modern times. The men accompanying the groom in many parts of India use the occasion to drink and dance. This is the boisterous Baraat. It is supposed to represent the baraat of Shiva when he came down from the mountains to marry Parvati. The drinking and dancing is a celebration of the last days of the single youth who after the ceremony will be tied down to a wife and a family and will never be allowed to behave irresponsibly even if he wants to.
When the groom arrives, he is greeted by the bride’s father and mother with garlands. He is given special sweet drinks. His feet are washed. He is made to feel welcome and the bride’s father brings him in holding his hand. The priests meanwhile prepare the fire-altar. Fire is the representative of the gods during the ceremony. He witnesses the union of man and woman.