In the mouths of political celibates, the word ‘honeymoon’ can become vulgar. But the word itself is full of tenderness, anxieties and aspirations of newly weds.
The word can be traced to 16th century English phrase ‘hony moone’. In the early 19th century upper class English families institutionalised it: the bride and groom travelled, often along with family and friends, to estates of elders who had been unable to attend the marriage. This practice then spread to Europe and was called ‘the English style voyage’. It became an established form of tourism in the ‘golden age’ just prior to World War I, and since then has become the norm in most parts of the world. Since then this word has been literally translated in all regional languages – Madhu-chandra in Marathi, for example – to give the impression that is a universal ritual. It either starts immediately after the wedding ceremony, and so includes the wedding night, or a few days later, and lasts for about a month.
Honey clearly refers to the sweetness of that period of discovery, and to bees, a common metaphor for sex. But moon? It probably refers to the first lunar month, during which the groom was first exposed to the menstrual cycle of his wife, a time when in most cases sex was avoided. If they were lucky, this would be missed, and ten lunar moon (9 solar months) later, there would be a child.
The privacy and awkwardness we associate with the sexual act today was not there in earlier more pastoral and agricultural communities where this was part of life, critical for survival of the tribe. In ancient Semitic tribes, the groom was expected to deflower the bride before her male relatives to prove his potency and his claim. Later, it was enough to show the blood stained bed sheets to the gathered relatives.
In most parts of the world, children married long before they were sexually mature. In India, the bride would stay with her parents until the gauna ceremony when the groom comes to fetch her when she is old enough. The ritual of marriage, and even of gauna, was separated from the ritual of the first sex, giving the girl time to acclimatize herself with her new home. In the Griha Sutras, or Vedic books on household rituals, there is clearly a vivaah-samskara, the ceremony of marriage, and a very separate ceremony called garbhadharan-samskara, the ceremony when the groom approaches the bride for the first time for sex.
Hindu marriage rituals contain many elements to familiarize the groom and the bride with each other. This usually takes the form of games: opening of each other’s fists, finding the ring hidden inside a pot of milk; sitting together on a swing pushed by friends; eating from the same plate; feeding each other; singing songs that contain each other’s names.
Perhaps the most interesting ritual is the rite by which the groom asks the bride to point to the Arundhati star. Arundhati was the wife of Vasishtha, a renowned Vedic sage. The bride is advised by her friends to point to a wrong star so that the groom gets an excuse to grasp her hand and direct her finger to the right star. In this process, physical intimacy is initiated and hopefully tender lovemaking follows.