To the uninitiated eye, Hindu weddings can be remarkably confusing. It can be a dizzying experience of bright lights, lavish silk finery, fire, and coconuts. There is no set definition for a ‘Hindu wedding’, with endless variations and permutations within the country, region, state, and even city.
The wedding that I observed was a bit more traditional Tamil wedding taking place in South India. The wedding was structured like this: a reception the day before the wedding, then the Muhurtham, the Tamil word for a wedding, with two following receptions held in different locations. As weddings are traditionally paid for by the bride’s family, the wedding took place in the bride’s town. I arrived the day of the reception to first attend the naalange, which is a special pooja, or prayer for the bride held at her home. The bride is gifted with platters of gifts to wish her well into married life. Then, the reception occurred, which was essentially an hours-long photoshoot.
But the wedding was a different story all together. It began at eight o’clock the next morning, and was a flurry of motion and frenzied men and women scurrying around the main area, trying to help out the bride and groom.
First, in a staged event, the groom walked out of the wedding hall, followed by a throng of people who quickly encircled him. A chair was laid out, and he sat on it, waiting for the first ritual of the morning, called kasi yatra, to begin. In walking out of the wedding hall, he reenacted a sort of tale of a man who gets cold feet about the wedding, and walks out in a huff. He says he plans to go to Kashi, a place where men who reject the traditional path of family life go to live and study sainthood. The brother, or male cousin brother of the bride hurries out and placates him in an attempt to get him to return(in this case it was the cousin brother). The brother washes the feet of the groom in milk, sandalwood water and holy water, and slathers his feet with kumkum and turmeric powder. He places a toe ring on the groom, a sign of marriage. He opens an umbrella bulging with the fragrant petals of jasmine and lets the petals waft around the groom, all of which are actions taken to luxuriate the groom. Happily placated, the groom returns to the marriage with a new resolve.
Then the body of the marriage began. The bride and the groom, with heavy guidance from the priest performing the wedding, embarked on a series of rituals such as tossing rice into a fire, said to invoke the sacred blessing of Agni, the god of fire and sacrifice. The parents of the bride and groom then gave their blessings to their children, but first, they placed garlands on each other in a move reminiscent of their own marriage. They then allowed their feet to be bathed in turmeric paste by their child and in-law, who do so as a form of respect. The parents throw uncooked rice and flowers as a form of blessing.
The height of the marriage came when a thread, called a thali was tied around the bride’s neck. This was the moment when the couple was formally married.A few months after the marriage the bride will swap out the thread for a gold necklace. The bride will wear the necklace for the rest of her life. On the necklace is a bead that signifies the caste and sect of Hinduism the bride is from. She will get another bead like this when her husband turns sixty, and yet another when her husband turns eighty, in renewal of marriage vows. After the tying of the thali, the couple feed morsels of food to each other in a ritual called anna praashanam, to express love and affection. They then sat across from each other and placed garlands on each other thrice.
After this, I took part in one of the rituals, called saptapadi. The bride and the groom, accompanied by the bride’s bridesmaid, the groom’s bridesmaid, and unmarried female relatives of the bride and groom circled around the fire seven times, with each circle representing a certain mantra or ideal:
1. May the first circle entail food be always pure and fulfilling.
2. May the second circle entail physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual strength.
3. May the third circle entail prosperity.
4. May the fourth circle entail ever present happiness.
5. May the fifth circle entail noble and good children.
6. May the sixth circle entail a long life.
7. May the seventh circle entail harmonious bondage.
This, by Indian law, finalizes the marriage.
After the finalization, a sheet was laid out in front of the couple with a bowl of uncooked rice next to it. Those who were older than the couple were instructed to take a handful of the rice and pour it onto the sheet as a form of blessing. This went on for at least 45 minutes, as there were many people in attendance.
In a ritual called surya darshanam dhyaanam va, the bride and the groom were then led outside of the wedding hall by the priest, followed by the huddle of anxious people who followed them. The groom was then instructed to hold his bride and point to the sky. He somewhat smoothly parroted words in Tamil by the priest. He was pointing out the binary star system Alcor and Mizar, which identifies in Hinduism as Arundhati and Vashishta. Arundhathi was the wife of Vashishta, a sage, in the Hindu scriptures. Vashishta is essentially considered to be one of the apostles of Vedic Hinduism, but Arundhathi is regarded on the same level as her husband. The reason why their names are evoked after a Hindu marriage is because they are considered to be the ideal couple, embodying the trait of marital fulfillment.
Finally, in the privacy of the rooms connected to the wedding hall, the bride and the groom fed each other small bananas, the first substantial food they had gotten all morning. It was a private moment, with no religious significance, but it concluded the main events of the day.
After lunch, I went back to my hotel and changed out of my finery. I was to travel to Bangalore in a few hours. I was still trying to sort through the events of the day. But then I realized something- in the inherent messiness and variations and frenzy of a Hindu marriage, there is a sense of purity, a sense of beauty in the fact that two people just had the best day of their lives. It is this simple truth that is always easy to understand.