By Naranjan S. Uppal
The band strikes up a tune. A crowd of several hundred people, gathered in front of a gaily-decorated house, jostles forward. From inside the house rises the melody of a chorus sung by women. A few minutes later emerges a young man, attired in a traditional manner. He wears tightly-fitting breeches and a buttoned-up flowing coat. For headgear he has a saffron-coloured turban, and in the right hand he carries a sword. His face is protected by a veil of gold lace.
He is the bridegroom. And a Hindu marriage party is getting under way.
For 300 million Hindus in India and abroad, a wedding is an event of great spiritual significance. Manu, the famous Hindu law-giver, decreed that “married life is as essential for human beings as air is for all living things.” The Hindu holy scriptures, the Vedas, describe marriage as the “fulfilment of the will of Providence.” Says one verse: “O Human beings, as all rivers and rivulets attain stability and permanent shape after flowing into the ocean, so do we mortals become stable after entering into wedlock.”
Hindus believe that all marriages are made in Heaven and no one on earth can alter this predestined arrangement.
About a week before the wedding, the bridgegroom’s house is a carnival of merriment and gaiety. The womenfolk sing ceremonial songs to the beating of a small two-faced drum.
On the wedding evening, the bridegroom is made to look more handsome. His brother’s wife puts black antimony powder on his eyelids, while a sister makes up his eyebrows and eyelashes with kohl. Then there is the ceremony of tying a veil over his face — considered necessary to protect the groom from the “evil eye”.
Shortly afterwards the marriage procession begins, in which the bridegroom rides a golden-caparisoned horse — always a mare because it represents the power of procreation. The mare must never be black, and a white one is preferred as this colour represents purity. As the groom begins to leave the house, his sisters pretend to hold back the mare by the reins until he has distributed presents to them.
Beside the bridegroom a small boy, usually a nephew or a younger brother, rides on the horse as a symbolic bodyguard. Leading the marriage procession is a band, or a flute troupe, playing romantic tunes. The procession winds its way through streets and bazaars to the bride’s home.
In front of the house the marriage party is received with “respect and humility” by the bride’s father and male relatives, while the priests hold aloft a tray of lighted candles and chant hymns, invoking God’s blessings. This reception is the biggest event of the marriage celebrations. Trumpets blare and firecrackers raise a deafening din, while the bride’s people shower flower petals and rosewater on the marriage party. Sometimes loudspeakers carry love songs and ceremonial music. As a good omen, the bride is shown this reception from a window so that “her husband should live till she is old.” Before his arrival, she has been adorned with jewels and silks and asked to keep to her room. There she sits surrounded by her friends in a merry mood. Her wedding presents are displayed in adjoining rooms.
The older men of the bride’s family offer money and presents to their opposite numbers in the groom’s family. Then the groom is taken into the house. At the entrance, the bride greets him with a garland, and he gives her one in return.
At the appointed hour before or after dinner the wedding rites begin, and they last from two to four hours. Around the holy fire sit the priest, the bride and bridegroom, and members of their families. The priest chants hymns and psalms and feeds the fire with ghee (purified butter) and rice. Occasionally the bride and bridegroom join him in these offerings.
Four benedictional verses are recited while the bride and the bridegroom walk, separately, round the fire, in all seven times. Then both of them walk together seven steps round the fire. On the seventh step the marriage is legally complete. And the bridegroom ties the sacred thread in three knots round the bride’s neck.
They take a vow to “live together in complete unison, as water from two different containers becomes united after mingling.” The groom declares the bride to be the “owner of my heart” and undertakes to regard all other women as “my mothers, sisters or daughters”. The bride in turn pledges to serve her husband and his family in “weal and woe, glory and disaster.”
The next major event is “doli” when the bride is taken to the groom’s house. There his mother, accompanied by other women, receives the couple at the gate with a “garwi”, a small round bronze utensil containing water, in her hand. She swings it seven times round their heads and then drinks some of the water. The other ladies sing songs of joy and welcome.
Wedding customs vary somewhat in different parts of India. In several states, the bridal pair must play games — a ring or a golden bangle is thrown into a bucket full of milk-water and they each try to retrieve it first. In South India, the groom, after reaching the bride’s house, puts on wooden sandals and an ascetic robe and pretends to go to Varanasi, a sacred Hindu city, in search of learning. He is met by the bride’s brother who entreats him to given up this idea, as “I will offer my sister as a present.” After some assumed hesitation, the offer is accepted.
Wedding songs are known for their feeling and joyfulness. Before the wedding, the womenfolk pray that the bride be full of beauty and virtue.
Welcoming the bride, the groom’s sisters raise their own songs, such as this one:
“Delicate is our sister-in-law and frolicsome our brother.
“Like legendary lovers do they look; what a wonderful couple they are!”
Until about a decade ago, marriage among Hindus was arranged by the parents. But now the Western idea of courtship is spreading among the educated classes. Hindu society is changing and so are the wedding customs.
* Published in print edition on 30 November 2021
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