Decoding a Hindu Marriage

Myth Theory 28 Comments

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.

  • rajesh gawade

    very good ……
    thanks for something new Sir.If possible can you elaborate more on hindu marriage like meaning of seven vows. why SAATH PHERE does not exists in all parts of india although we all are HINDUS?

  • From what I have known there are only 4 phere and 7 Vachans

  • SundaraPandian R

    In south side, there is a ritual called “Paalikai karaithal”..where both bride and groom take plants that have grown in a pot or so, and leave them in a river.

    Would like to know the significance of this ritual..

  • sk maltare

    i m very much delighted to know the signification of hindu marriage . it is very timely and very much reqd by people to know and understand in its true sense. mr Devdutta has elaborated on it, it is very simple to understand in any given situation be it a family or be it a corporate or business world even a family business, when there is one leader to take all the responsibility of the union ( of family ) the operations move in a smooth harmony with time. but if people start questioning his ability or promote various parallel govts and start defying one leaders directives , the whole game becomes certain to loose. this is what is happening today. if in a family all members including wife start taking their own decisions the union is bound to fail. there was a clear distinctions of work between the two, now on the name of sharing and being nuclear families , couples are facing difficulties in caring out even the regular expected duties, be it to grow children , going and attending parents meet in schools, as before hand these reqrs to be decided, who will do what, whether it is appropriate or not ? the basis of marriage was to distribute duties according to naturally built body physics of man and women but now by defying all that we want do change the role play, now a days it is very common to see that women wants to prove her worthiness by attending to offices and traveling up-to last day of her giving birth to child,specially women may feel emotionally upset by listing to this , but which science will approve this , even by injecting supporting chemicals in the body, i mean is it naturally desirable and acceptable. any way we all feel it a progressive society…

  • The term “Hindu Marriage” is a misnomer, due to the variations across communities. I think you are quite brave to even attempt writing about it.

    For me, this article was more about how different Hindu communities conduct their marriages, rather than decoding the HINDU marriage.

    • I fully agree with you on this. Marriages are more of cultural, and ritualistic events, than religious. That’s why the rituals, customs and practices associated with an Andhra Muslim marriage would be more similar to those of an Andhra Hindu marriage. Similarly the rituals of a Kashmiri Hindu marriage would be more closer to those of a Kashmiri Muslim marriage. On the contrary, if we compare a Kashmiri Hindu marriage with an Andhra Hindu marriage, no wonder if there is nothing common at all.

      • Sanjay S

        Well said Jaleel, I am a Sindhi and some of our Wedding rituals were quiet different from the customs followed by various Hindu communities in India, it is only after I started living and the gulf countries and befriended many Pakistani Sindhi Muslim friends did I realize the similarities of the rituals we practiced.

  • Satish Gundawar

    Hello Devdutt,

    I would have expected significance of each ritual. First of all, what is the definition of marriage as per Hinduism? I feel most of young Indian do not know the actual definiation today. I read somewhere that the entire Hinduism revolves around the institute of marriage. More insight on this topic is highly appreciated.


  • Anand

    The idea of divorce was considered in the ancient times and is discussed vividly in the ‘Artha Sastra’.
    Even concepts such as widow inheritance and remarriage was discussed.
    It even allowed the wife to inherit the property of her husband provided she didn’t remarry and some other ‘conditions’ were also fulfilled.

  • sapan

    Mr Devdutt and friends,

    The Boisterous baraat:
    Given the knowledge of Mr. Devdutt I totally agree the explanation here. Although my dad explained me once a different purpose of Baraat.

    You see “baraat” is all the people that goes with the groom at the weeding. In olden days the distance has to carried on bullock carts and there was a constant threat of robbers. Usually when the bride is coming back with so many ornaments and gifts, it was ideal location for robbers. The primary purpose of Baraat was to keep the bride and groom protected during such calamities. So when they accept the invitation to be part of barrat, they are willing to fight as representatives of the groom and protect them as soldiers.

    Also if you see kings and royals can afford to take armies with them but not everyone is capable enough to do so.

    Mr. Devdutt, would you agree to this view point ??
    Thank you.

  • Dear Dev Ji,

    You wrote, “Man is considered the farmer and the woman is considered the field. The child born from this union is called the crop.” It was highly surprising to find God using the same metaphor to describe man-wife relationship in Koran. Koran says, “ Your wives are a tilth unto you, so approach your tilth when and how you will; But do some good act for your souls beforehand; And fear God, and know that you are to meet Him (in the second and eternal life after this ephemeral worldly life).” (2-223). Here God also admonishes men against misusing and abusing their wives.

  • Hari Krishna gupta

    finally I got the answer for the question which I have been asking to many elders why boy in north india always go on mare rather than on horse .
    Mr Patnaik can still futher elaborate on this .

  • Sanket

    There is Lot to signify in Hindu Marriage about

    1. Purush – Prakriti relation for begining of creation his world

    2. spiritual pursuit for both by being complimentary to each other

    3. use of Mangal Sutra / Sindur


  • Sanket

    4. Acquisition of merit (Punya) by Kanyadaan ( Mahadaan )

    5. use of imprints of hand & feet of Bride

  • Slight correction – Vishnu is the Shaligram stone and Tulsi is the basil plant. They get married under a mandap made of sugarcane.

    Horses, mares, elephants and a host of other animals have been used to carry the groom to the marriage. It all depends on what you can afford. Yes, there may be a gender reason for using mares, but generally, mares are better behaved than stallions in a boisterous crowd and hence are used more regularly than horses.

    Marriage has always been there to provide protection, love and care for the children (as stated in Mahabhart). To guarantee inheritance for these children, the man made sure he had exclusive access to the female – otherwise his land / money / position / status etc would pass to someone else’s progeny. Hence a lot of rules about how women were suppose to behave after marriage – even if they were widowed.

  • Marriage in ancient times was a matter of choice. There are several instances where the woman has chosen her husband – eg Devhuti and Savitri.

    There were several types of marriages mentioned in the shastras – including parental consent, mutual choice, exchange of rings or promises, abduction etc etc. Hindus at one time were very “progressive” and “modern” people.

    The main rituals of marriage are listed on my website if anyone wants to understand their significance –

  • Sanjeev

    Maine aarya samaaj me 1 saal pahle saadi ki thi kyuki tab ladki ke ghar wale is saadi k khilaaf the ab wo log humari mandir me dowara saadi karane ko raaji ho gaye hai to me bas ye jaan na chahta hu ki kya me dusri baar bhi agni ke phere le sakta hu.

    • Devdutt

      Sab maya hai….kar lo unki khushi ke liye….phere se jyada prem mahatva rakhta hai

      • Sujata Sengupta

        u r the man every man in this country must look up to…can u please explain how dowry came into scene of indian hindu weddings and especially in south Indian ones…and wats their traditional/mythalogical sygnificane…did vishnu n lord shiva take dowry to marry their respective bride….thnk u

  • aarthi raghavan

    could you please write something about marraiges in other regions of india.

  • Abhi

    It is a very interesting article in this day and age. There are many who are questioning the very institution of marriage and asking “Why marry”? As parents we are struggling to answer this question in a convincing manner in the face of statistics spouting internet studies as

    How does our mythology / religion address this question? Are there references to such discussions which may make sense to the generation that is asking such questions today?

  • shikha lamba

    article is completely written but there are some questions in my mind….when i saw the article topic i thought tht today i would get the answers bt they arent included in ur article as ur article isn’t culture specific…..actuly i belongs to jat community and want to know about some specific practices followed during marraige…..when baarat arrives there is a practice called aarta(similar to aarti)cnducted by married sister of bride and then neem jhadaai(bunch of neem leaves are dropped in water and thn few drops are thrown over the groom using tht wet bunch) conducted by unmarried sister of bride…so i want to knw about reasn behind these practices and then why the preference given to marriatal status of sister……actuly there r many queries but i would ask jst one more…during pheras brides brother offers boiled rice and she pours them into the fire before or during each phera…why??? i hv asked my mother aunt grandmother bt everyone jst said “its mentioned so we follow” and other being “its nothing importnt for u to knw” pls help me find answers to my queries

  • Guruprasad

    I agree with Sudha on the decoding part. I felt the article highlighted the variations accross the country and parameters that influenced the custom.

    I would love to see an article on ‘Decoding the Hindu Marriage’ – what is a vedic style wedding? what are the different steps invovled and the significance thereof?

    I am sure despite the differences there are some commanalities since the vedic style wedding has influenced all castes amongst the Hindus.

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  • The essence of this article is entirely in the first paragraph. (period)

    Rest of the article is like the ‘bhojan’ after the wedding or ‘sangeeth’ before the wedding.

  • Anand K

    I think this is at best a good introduction. South Indian marriages, which I am familiar with, have so many many rituals and practices, that I cant hope to have these covered here. :)

    Dear Devdutt – Actually this can be a very good book. Given your presentation style, that would be an easy best-seller.

  • Pravin

    It was a patriarchal society where women were seen as dependents.
    But a man was also not completely free; he was bound by the rules of his family and his caste.

    Patriarchal :
    How come Man become higher in Rank ?
    How come Woman become lower in Rank ?
    How come Woman dependent on Man and Man is not dependent on Woman ?

    :: Army & Society ::
    Army protects society.

    Does it mean Army has higher Rank AND Society has lower Rank ?
    Does it mean society is dependent on Army AND Army is not dependent on society ?

  • Pravin

    “idea of divorce” become trivial when there exists Greater Punishments to Refuse/elude the Responsibility.