The Hindu marriage ceremony is the thirteenth among the sixteen samskaras (or rites of passage) that the Hindu observes in his lifetime. It is also the beginning of the Grahastha Ashrama stage of a Hindu, which is the householder phase whose main duties include raising a family and working for the betterment of society. Acoording to Vedic tradition, marriage is meant to "unite two individuals firmly together so that, although they retain thier separate bodies, they become one in spirit." Thus, Hindus view marriage as a "sacrament" and not a contract. Since such importance is placed on marriage, it is conducted in accordance with the rites prescribed in the ancient scriptures, the Vedas.
Most Hindu marriage ceremonies last for several hours and involve a priest who recites the rites in Sanskrit and makes fire offerings. The God of Fire (Agni) serves as the holy witness of the marriage and there is a small fire present in front of the bride and groom where offerings are made to ensure that the "human spirit" is tied with the divine.
Traditionally, South Indian weddings--which the parents usually arrange--involve the following:
Ganesha Pooja: Ganesha is the remover of all obstacles and no South Indian ceremony begins without this pooja. The bride usually does this pooja by praying for a suitable partner. Punyaha-Vachanam: Once a groom has been chosen a suitable place and time for the wedding are chosen with a priest. Samkalpa: The groom gives his consent to marry the bride.
Welcoming of the bridegroom: The bride's father and other members of the family ceremoniously welcome the bridegroom to the marriage hall. Panigrahana: The priest sanctifies the ceremonial area, and ties a loop of sacred grass on the bridegroom's finger. Kasi Yatra: The bride's father symbolically disengaes the bridegroom from the pursuits of asceticism. This pursuit is symbolically represented by his journey towards Kasi, the seat of Vedic culture. The bride's father advies the groom not to pursue asceticism, tells him of the greatness of marriage, and offers his daughter as the bride. Exchange of garlands: The bride and groom exchange garlands three times. Oojnal: The couple is seated on an oojnal, or swing, as the ladies do dristhi, a ceremony where they ward off the evil spirits. The bride and groom swing in the oojnal, which represents happiness and harmony, which the couple will experience while navigating the "waves of life". Kannika Dhanam: The bride's hand is placed in the groom's right palm, and the bride's father offers her to the groom. The thali, holy gold thread, is taken around the marriage hall to be blessed by the crowd. The thali or Mangalyam is the thread or necklace that the groom puts around the bride's neck. After tying three knots, they are officially married. If the bride has an older sister, she helps tie the knots with the groom. Thali Ceremony or Mangalya Dharanam: The groom ties the thali around the bride's neck. This is the climax of the wedding and is usually signaled by the priest saying, "Gettimelam Gettimelam," indicating that the musicians should play a tune that is associated with this ceremony. This rite is done amidst chanting of prayers, ringing of bells, rising music, and the noise of the crowd. Sapta Padi: Literally, "Seven Steps". Holding the bride's hand, the groom walks seven steps with her around the ceremonial fire. The prayers recited at this time mean, "You who have walked seven steps with me, become my companion, whereby I acquire your friendship. We shall be of one mind." If you are wondering why everything is done in odd numbers, it is because, according to South Indian tradition, luck is present in certain numbers--and they are usually odd numbers. Treading on grindstone: The groom places the bride's foot on a granite stone to indicate the firmness of her love and faith. The groom places a silver ring on her toe, indicating his love and faith toward her. Homam: The married couple offers grain to the Fire God, Agni. Asheervadham: After the marriage ceremony, the priest, parents, family and guests offer their blessing to the couple by sprinkling them with grains of rice to wish them prosperity and happiness. This couple prostrate before the various members of family and guests to receive the blessing.
Of course, there are several more steps involved depending on how the families decide to plan the wedding. Usually, orthodox families will incorporate several other poojas into the marriage process depending on thier beliefs. Moreover, parents do not arrange all South Indian weddings--especially for South Indians living in the United States. Nowadays, more people are finding it acceptable to find partners themselves; the Indian community is accepting and allowing love marriages. However, this has not led to a decline of traditional South Indian marriages. If the marriage is between two persons of Hindu origin, the families still manage to incorporate all the traditional ceremonies in the marriage. Often, there are compromises between families as they decide which ceremonies will be performed, which ones will be removed, and which ones will be altered.
I was lucky to witness a fairly traditional South Indian marriage recently. The marriage of Nithya, my cousin, and Nirmalan took place the afternoon of April 8, 2001, at the Pearl River Hilton in New York. This was not an aranged marriage; Nithya met Nirmalan at college and fell in love. Moreover, this wedding was not restricted to traditional South Indian practices. Since the groom was Sri Lankan, there was a mixture of cultures. Moreover, since the wedding took place in the United Sates, it incorporated several elements that would not have been present in a typical South Indian wedding.
First, the marriage ceremony included all the ceremonies listed above, but was quite condensed. Usually, Indian marriages last for days and include crowds that go into the several hundreds. However, Nithya's marriage was a relatively samll and short ceremony--only about 200 people attended, and the actually ceremony lasted for about three hours. Moreover, there were Sri Lankan elements mixed into the wedding. The groom wore a headdress and sat facing the bride (for most of the ceremonies), as is typical of Sri Lankan marriages.
From the moment I arrived at the wedding hall, preparations were underway. Typically, in South India, the bride's family arrives early, involves themselves in the prepartion of the mandapam (the place where the wedding takes place) and brings all the necessary items. They work closely with the priest to make sure that he has everything he needs for the wedding. Except for the setting in the Hilton Hotel and the crowd (which included Indians and Americans), the wedding was very close to a typical South Indian wedding.
However, the reception at night was a very different story. A typical South Indian reception is not very elaborate. There is some traditional music--usually Carnatic music--mixed with some songs from the movies. The newlyweds stand next to a podium and receive gifts and mingle with the families. There are some festivities as dinner is served. However, Nithya's wedding reception was more western. As we were seated at the tables--which included wine and champagne--the bride and groom came out into the hall. Then the DJ announced that they would dance to Etta James' "At Last". As they slow daned, they even kissed--this is unheard of in a traditional South Indian wedding! In addition, the bride's brother, the groom's brother, and the best man (also a western tradition) prepared speeches that were delivered after the slow dance. Moreover, the bride and groom prepared speeches about each other where they spoke about their feelins for each other as they had evolved during the past year. After dinner, there was a lot of dancing and drinking--this typical of a North Indian wedding while South Indian wedding are often far more restricted. I have included pictures from the wedding with captions. Enjoy!
If you are interested in finding out more about Hindu weddings, please explore the following links:
The elements of a short Hindu ceremony How to plan a Hindu wedding Hindu marriage The various aspects of a Hindu marriage A traditional South Indian wedding India's first wedding services portal Significance of Hindu marriage rituals--page one, page two Another Indian wedding portal
The following is a list of current Indian movies/books that deal with the aspects of Hindu marriage or culture:
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri The God of Small Things by Arundathi Roy May You be the Mother of a Hundred Sons by Elizabeth Bumiller Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh The Hero's Walk by Anita Rau Badami
American Desi Bombay Boys Fire East is East
Matrimonials, Indian and NRI Cyberproposal.com--providing online profiles of potential brides and grooms to the Indian community worldwide BharatMatrimony.com--includes links to many other matrimony sites MatrimonialLink.com--"Welcome Indian men and women of all religions! No matter where you live in the world, the perfect life partner you're looking for is now within your reach."
Please send comments or questions to Ajay Gopalan