24 November 2015
Just as the term “Hinduism” forms a Western blanket that covers and encompasses a variety of beliefs and practices that are different forms of the Sanatana Dharma, or eternal religion, the term “wedding” is a simplification of the week-long tradition of fulfilling the second stage of what the Vedas identified as the four stages of human life: grihasta ashrama, or householder (Molloy). While ages and specifics of rituals vary by region and, occasionally, village, the history that has led to some of the universal practices remain as the foundation for the vibrant, colorful ceremonies that occur today.
While evidence of pre-Aryan fertility rites suggest a cult of a mother goddess or matriarchal social structure, the lowering of the marrying age from fifteen to as young as five years old between the First Vedas (1500 BCE) and the conception of enforced law codes (Carmody) paired with the canonization of patriarchy by the Law of Manu in 2 BCE, reduced the women’s societal role to that of wife and mother (Molloy). Although women’s religious roles declined, their specific role remained of importance, as shaadi, or marriage, is the thirteenth of sixteen ceremonies in a Hindu’s life and a holy sacrament, or sansakara (Ravindra). Karma, the belief that everything that occurs is the consequence of past deeds and Dharma, or duty, fortifies the general belief that unhappy marriages, especially if attributed to the wife, are the result of bad actions they committed in a past life (Ravindra). Dharma fortifies the requirement to remain married regardless of hardships, as marriage is a part of one’s duty to one’s family is one of the most important facets of the religion (Ravindra). Family, in fact, is so important that the marriages are arranged, with varying requirements per region. While the marriages are typically intracaste, with intercaste marriages being more closely associated with “love marriage” (Hawley). In most areas, one cannot be wed to someone that is a part of her or her mother’s gotra, or patrilineal clan (Hawley), while in other areas, members of other clans are also ineligible, as are clans from which men of her own gotra have taken brides (Hawley). In most of Northern India, one should not marry someone from his or her own village, while in Central India, some marriages unite unrelated village “brothers” and “sisters” (Hawley).
Once a prospective bride or groom is found, both families are typically allowed to vet the family and prospective husband or wife before agreeing to the marriage. Some inspections are simple and fast, while others may be rigorous or extensive and the type may vary based on urban or rural location of the families involved. The practices of the inspection vary depending on area, as in the city finding and vetting a prospective bride or groom are typically combined, as ads are placed in newspapers, typically stressing beauty and education in a prospective bride, and education and earning capacity in a groom (Hawley). One public inspection performed in West Bengal included a test of the girl’s knowledge of reading, writing, sewing, and knitting, and her manner of laughing, worship, horoscope, cooking and appearance, as a girl with too dark complexion may be rejected (Hawley). Most urban brides are around the age of seventeen, as they usually wait until graduation from high school, and sometimes college, to get married. In rural areas, “child marriages” are a frequent reality, as the 1955 law that provides legal penalties for those responsible for the marriage of a girl under fifteen or a boy younger than 18 is widely ignored, as village marriages are not recorded with authorities (Hawley). Despite early marriage, most village marriages do not partake in the guana (consummation) ceremony until after the bride has reached puberty (Hawley). In Northern and Central India, monogamy is generally practiced, while some rural Hindu men may take multiple wives and the women of some Himalayan groups may have several husbands (Hawley).
After a bride and groom are vetted and chosen by both families, the pre-wedding rituals begin. Months before the wedding, a ceremony known as Mangni in Northern India or Nischitartham in South India is held (Gullapalli). In this ceremony, the two families meet to make the engagement official by choosing a muhurat, or auspicious date and time based on horoscopes, having the elders of both families bless the couple, and having the bride and groom receive gifts (Gullapalli). As the muhurat nears, the ceremonies continue, including the Haldi, a ritual holy bath during which turmeric, oil, and water is applied to both the bride and groom by married women, and the Mehendi, during which the bride’s hands and feet are decorated in henna in a ceremony that is somewhat like a bachelorette party in that only females attend (Gullapalli). In Northern India, the Sangeet (music), a ceremony in which the bride’s family hosts an evening of musical entertainment, and Tilak, a ceremony in which vermillion or kumkum is place on the forehead of the groom by all the male members of the bride’s family, take place (Gullapalli). In South India, the Janavasam is a tradition where the groom is paraded around the town on a chariot or open car the evening before the wedding (Gullapalli). During the pre-wedding period, the attire for the bride and groom are purchased, along with gifts that will be gifted to the newly married couple. Traditionally, the bride will wear a sari or lehenga, which is highly ornate with gold and silver embroidery (Gullapalli). The color is of great significance, while red is the most common for its symbolizing prosperity, fertility, and saubhagya, or marital bliss (Gullapalli). In Northern India, the bride also wears a ghunghat, or veil, draped over her hair as a sign of modesty and respect towards the deities worshipped and the elders present (Gullapalli). The groom will wear a dhoti or sherwani that is usually white, off-white, or beige, and in Northern India he may also wear a turban with white flowers tied in suspended strings called a Sehra (Gullapalli). In some South Indian traditions, the bride and groom may have a black mark on their cheek to avoid ill omen and ward off evil (Gullapalli).
The actual shaadi ceremony is around 3 hours long and is usually held at the bride’s home or a wedding hall (Gullapalli). The bride arrives first and waits for her husband’s arrival with a Jaimala/Varamala, or garland, while the groom and his family partake in the Baarat, a giant procession in which there is music, dance, and fireworks (Gullapalli). When the groom arrives, they exchange garlands and the mother of the bride performs the Aarti when he enters the house (Gullapalli). In South India, prior to the groom and bride exchanging garlands, the groom partakes in Kashi Yatra, a ceremony in which he pretends to throw a fit and renounce getting married to instead go to Varnasi and take up sainthood, just for the bride’s father to convince him otherwise (Gullapalli). In Northern India, a tradition called Baasi Jawari or Joothe Churana, or the stealing of the shoes, takes place, during which the bride’s sister’s hide his shoes and demand money for ransom (Gullapalli). The bride and groom are also responsible for performing many pujas, or prayers, two of which include the Gowri Puja for the bride, which worships the Indian Goddess Parvathi, and the Ganesh Puja for the groom to gain blessings so that the wedding runs smoothly (Gullapalli). The Kanyadaan, or giving away of the bride, is one of the most important parts of the main wedding ritual and involves the father giving his daughter to the bride and requesting that he accept her as his equal partner (Gullapalli). The bride and groom are considered wed when the groom ties three knots that symbolize the gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Maheshwara into a Mangalsutram/thali, which is a sacred thread that symbolizes his promise to take care of the bride as long as he lives (Gullapalli). The entire wedding is done around an Agni Homam, or sacred fire, as Agni, the fire god, is considered the main witness to the marriage (Gullapalli). The bride and groom then circle the fire seven times symbolizing the seven goals of married life: religious and moral duties, prosperity, spiritual salvation and liberation, and sensual gratification; an act called Saat Phere, which is led first by the wife and then by the husband to signify the equalities of the two partners and their determination to stand by one another (Gullapalli). The wedding ends with the groom applying vermillion or kumkum to the bride’s forehead, welcoming her as a partner for life (Gullapalli) and signifying her new social status as a Bahu, or a member of her husband’s lineage and a symbol of fertility, and a suhagin, or wife with a living husband, which emphasizes the concept that man and woman are only completed in their union (Hawley).
After the wedding, the post-ceremony rituals begin. In the Vidaai ceremony the family of the bride gives her a sobbing farewell and she throws back three handfuls of rice and coin over the shoulders towards her parental home to ensure wealth and prosperity remains in her home forever (“Hindu Wedding”). Afterwards, in the past, a bride would be carried to her husband’s home in a doli (palanquin); however some traditions remain (Hawley). Upon arrival, the newly-weds are greeted with Aarti to ward off bad spirits, the bride then topples a kalash (metal pot) of rice with her right leg, and then the couple can enter the house taking the first step with their right legs (Hawley). In some traditions, the bride steps into a plate of vermillion mixed in water, and walks down the prayer room and the bride and groom perform the Satyanarayana puja to show their gratitude to the Lord (Hawley). All this constitutes the grihapravesh, or house-entry, ceremony. Afterwards, a reception party is organized by the groom’s family in the evening (Hawley). The guana ceremony is scheduled by parents and the bride’s residence is determined by the parents, as some girls stay at home and slowly integrate into her husband’s home, while others stay at their husband’s home until they produce an heir (Hawley). Few girls can go home regularly, as they must be formally called on by their parents, given permission to go by their in-laws, and must be escorted by a responsible male from her natal household (Hawley).
For most women, their wedding will prove to be the highlight of their life, as it is a period of familial and religious fulfillment, as well as one of the few times in a bride’s life that she will be the center of attention and catered to. While, dowry payments, or payments made to the groom’s family by the bride’s family, have sometimes soured relations between a bride and her in-laws or even ended in death to free the son to marry again, the bride gains a new identity and family after her wedding (Molloy). A highly educated male may request a higher asking price for dowry, while the highly educated female may not have to offer as large of a dowry (Hawley). Widowed women are handled differently than widowed men, as Sati, the act of a widow immolating herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, was expected by society, and still occurs even now even though it was abolished over a century ago (Hawley). While many people think of religion as pertaining solely to one’s beliefs about existence and the afterlife, a large part of religion is the way in which it shapes the behaviors and culture of those who practice and believe, and the way in which Hinduism has shaped the cultural practices of marriage can easily be identified and compared to all other religions. It is made very clear throughout the week long endeavor that the events occurring are meant to be one of the most important events in the participants’ lives and should usher in a new life stage for those involved. The marriage is fortified with the belief of dharma which exemplifies the way in which the religion institutes, solidifies, and reproduces specific social structures and beliefs in Hindu society.
“Hindu Wedding.” Rituals, Hindu Marriage Traditions, and Ceremony. Cultural India, n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2015. <http://www.culturalindia.net/weddings/regional-weddings/hindu-wedding.html>.
Carmody, Denise L., and T. L. Brink. Ways to the Center: An Introduction to World Religions. 5th ed. N.p.: Wadsworth, 2002. Print.
Gullapalli, Sravani, and Aparna Raju Sagi. “Indian Wedding Traditions.” Valuable International Perspectives. Rice University, May 2009. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <https://oiss.rice.edu/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=854>.
Hawley, John Stratton, and Vasudha Narayanan. The Life of Hinduism. Berkeley: U of California, 2006. Print.
Molloy, Michael. Experiencing the World’s Religions: Tradition, Challenge, and Change. 6th ed. Boston: McGraw Hill Higher Education, 2013. Print.
Ravindra, Geetha. Impact of Religion and Culture on Divorce in Indian Marriages. N.p.: n.p., n.d. The American Bar Association. The American Bar Association. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/dispute_resolution_magazine/Ravindra_Impact%20_of_Religion_and_Culture_on_Divorce.authcheckdam.pdf>.