by Padma Vaidyanath
A slightly different version of this article was posted at Indian Women Online. The photographs and article are reproduced with permission
The gates of the wedding hall are adorned with full-grown plantain trees, signifying evergreen plenty for endless generations.
Overhead festoons of mango leaves signify the never fading relationship to begin here. Notes of nadaswaram heard loud and clear to signify the union here is sacred and divine.
Kolam or rangoli designs at the doorsteps match the mood of the occasion, beckoning a hearty welcome to the well wishers who arrive for the function.
At the threshold of the hall, sprinkling of rose water perfumes the visitors. Offering of flowers to women express a wish of sowbhayam for the lady guest. The sugar candy brings forth the sweetness of happy event that the visitor has arrived to take part in.
The Evening Before The Wedding
The evening prior to the wedding day, the bridegroom is brought in a procession from a temple in a flower-decorated vehicle. He is escorted by the bride’s parents and welcomed at the marriage mandap. This is a social function called ‘Janna Vasam’ in south India. Through such a parade, public approval is sought of the groom, chosen by the family.
After reaching the marriage hall, there is a formal bethoral ceremony signifying the agreement between the families for the proposed alliance.
The Day Of The Wedding
The Preliminary Invocations
During a marriage, Ganapathi, the God, the remover of obstacles is invoked to keep away all impediments for such an auspicious function.
Navagraha puja is performed to propitiate the nine astral planets that rule over man's destinies.
The marriage ceremonies begin with vratham performed separately by the bride and the groom. For the bride, it means the tying of the kappu, the holy thread on her wrists, which is meant to ward off all evil sprits. It symbolizes a kind of protective armor for the bride.
For the groom vratham begins with invocations involving the Gods Indra, Soma, Chandra and Agni. From thereon the groom prepares himself for a new chapter in his life as a householder or grihasta. The days of his bachelorhood or brahmacharya are over now. The acceptance of his is all what the vratham is about.
This is a very important part of the ceremony. Immediately after his student life, the young bachelor has two alternatives before him – Grihasta or Sanyas. Being by nature in a satwic state due to strict adherence of bachelorhood and observance of austerities, he is drawn towards asceticism. Therefore he makes his way to Kasi, complete with slippers, umbrella, a fan made of bamboo etc. On his way the bride’s father intervenes and advises him of the superiority of married life to an ascetic life. He also promises to give his daughter as companion to face the challenges of life. The umbrella is to remain with the groom, to remind him in the future of this advice. As promised his wife stands by him in his life.
The bride and groom are lifted to the shoulders of their respective maternal uncles. This is an expression of continuing sibling support to their mothers. And in that position the two garland each other thrice for a complete union. In the shastras, the exchange of garlands symbolizes their unification, as one soul in two bodies. It is inward acceptance by each of the very fragrance in the other.
The marrying couple is seated on a swing. They rock forth and back, as women sing songs to praise the couple. The bride and groom are given a sweet concoction of milk, sugar and bananas to eat. Water and lighted lamps are circulated around the swing in order to guard against demons and ghosts. Colored globules of cooked rice are waved in a circular motion and thrown away to propitiate the evil spirits.
The chains of the swing signify the eternal karmic link with the Almighty. The to and fro motion represents the undulating sea-waves of life. Yet in mind and body they shall move in harmony – steady and stable.
Pallikai Seeds Sowing
This is a fertility rite. Pallikais are earthern pots prepared a day earlier. Pots spread at the base with hariali grass and Bael leaves (vilvam). Nine kinds of presoaked cereals are ceremoniously sown in these pots by sumangalis. After the marriage, the sprouted seedlings are released in a river or pool. This ritual invokes the blessing of the eight direction quartered guardian angels (Ashtadikh Paalaks) for a healthy life and progeny to the couple.
The Main Wedding
The feet of the bridegroom are washed in milk and wiped off with silk. This is done by the bride’s father. As a brahmachari, the groom is represented as the male principle of Godhead.
The Design of the Mangal Sutra
The design of the mangal sutra varies from family to family as per tradition. In Shivite families the design of the tulasi madam is highlighted where as others could have the shiva lingam or Goddess Meenakshi represented. As the Mangal Sutra lands on the middle of the bride’s chest, it symbolizes that her man has occupied the whole of her being through her heart. The bride in all ceremonies is represented as the female principle of Godhead – the Shakti.
The bride is made to sit on her father’s lap and is given away as a gift by him to the bridegroom.
On the bride’s head, a ring made of Darbha of Kusa grass is placed. And over it is placed a yoke. The gold Mangal Sutra or Thali is placed on the aperture of the yoke. And water is poured though the aperture. The mantras chanted at this time say:
“Let this gold multiply your wealth, Let this water purify your married life, And may your prosperity increase. Offer yourself to your husband.”
The symbolism of the yoke is drawn out of ancient rural life where the only mode of transport for households was the bullock cart. It is supposed to signify that just as a bullock cart cannot run with just one bull, the marriage needs both the bride and groom. Both of them have to face their responsibilities together.
The bride is then given an auspicious ablution. A new sari, exclusive for the occasion, called the koorai is chosen. The colour of the koorai is ‘arraku’ i.e. red, the colour associated with Shakti. This sari is draped around the bride by the sister of the bridegroom, signifying her welcome to the bride. A belt made of reed grass is then tied around the bride’s waist. The mantras then chant:
"She standeth here, pure before the holy fire. As one blessed with boons of a good mind, a healthy body, life-long companionship of her husband (Sumangali Bhagyam) and children with long lives. She standeth as one who is avowed to stand by her husband virtuously. Be she tied with this reed grass rope to the sacrament of marriage."
Thanksgiving vedic hymns follow, to the celestial caretakers of her childhood, the dieties of Soma, Gandharva and Agni. Having attained nubility, the girl is now free to be given over to the care of the human -- her man.
The vedic concept underlying this ritual is figuratively that in her infancy Soma givers her the coolness of the moon. In the next stage of life the Gandharvas gave her playfulness and beauty. And when she becomes a maiden Agni gave her passions.
The father of the bride while offering his daughter chants:
“I offer ye my daughter: A maiden virtuous, good natured, very wise, decked with ornaments to the best of my abilities. With all that she shall guard thy Dharma, Wealth and Love”
The bridegroom returns his assurance to the bride’s father saying three times that he shall remain for ever her companion in joy and sorrow, in this life and life after.
The bride ties a string fastened to a piece of turmeric around the wrist of the bridegroom to bind themselves by a religious vow. It is only after tying the kankanam that the bridegroom gets the right to touch the bride. A little later, the bridegroom ties a kankanam to the bride’s wrist.
The tying of the Mangal Sutra or Thali takes place at exactly the pre-determined auspicious hour. The bride is seated over a sheaf of grain-layden hay looking eastward while the bridegroom faces westward. The bridegroom puts the gold Mangal Sutra around the neck of the bride. As he does so the Nadaswaram is played loud and fast so as to muffle any inauspicious sounds at the critical hour. This is called Getti Melam. Sumangali ladies sing auspicious songs. At the same time as the mangal sutra a turmeric thread is also put around the bride’s neck. To this three knots are tied. The first one by the bridegroom. The other two knots are tied by the groom’s sister to make the bride a part of their family. The vedic hymn recited by the bridegroom when he ties the knot is:
This means holding hands. The groom holds the hand of the bride. The mantras say:
Holding the bride’s hand the bridegroom walks seven steps around the holy fire with her. This is the most important part of the marriage ceremonly. And only when they walk these seven steps together (i.e. perform the saptha padhi) is the marriage complete. With each step they take a vow. The belief is that when one walks seven steps with another, one become’s the other’s friend. The mantras said at this time mean:
Gifts are exchanged between the families of the bride and groom. Any gift not accompanied by a token gesture of a coin of small denomination that represents the stored value of human effort is considered incomplete; thus respecting the value of human effort through which wealth is acquired. Also no gift shall be taken without a return gesture, which merits the gift received. Pala Dhanam as ordained by the scriptures is thus an action signifying mutual arrangements between the families, to be based on the principle of equality and respect for each other irrespective of one’s economic stature in life. The return gesture by the family of the groom could never equal to the gift of the bride given to the groom. Hence, the same coin given to the groom’s family is returned to the bride’s family an acknowledgment of the priceless gift received.
A crucial part of the wedding is the homage paid by the couple to Agni, the God of Fire. They couple goes around the fire, and feed it with ghee and twigs of nine types of holy trees as sacrificial fuel. The fumes that arise possess medicinal, curative and cleansing effects on the bodies of the couple. Agni, the mightiest power in the cosmos, the sacred purifier, the all-round benefactor is deemed as a witness to the sacred marriage. Hence the term ‘Agni Saakshi’ or witness by fire.
Treading on the Grindstone
Holding the bride’s left toe the bridegroom helps her to tread on a grindstone kept on the right side of a fire. The mantras chanted say:
“Mount on this stone, and let thy mind be rock firm, unperturbed by the trials and tribulations of life.”
This ritual is symbolic of the solid rock foundation for the union.
Arundhati and Dhruva Star
Next the groom shows the bride the star Arundhati (from the Saptha Rishi or Great Bear constellation) as also Dhruva or the pole star. Arundhati is the wife of the Vashishta Maharishi and exemplified as the ideal wife - the embodiment of charity. Dhruva is the one who attained immortality through single-minded devotion and perseverance. This is symbolic of the fact that such virtues are to be emulated throughout marital life.
This comprises the bride’s own offering into the sacrificial fire. As an expression of sibling support to her marriage her brother helps her. He gives her a handful of puffed rice grains which she hands to the bridegroom, who on her behalf, feeds it to the fire. Through this food offering, the bride seeks a long life for her husband and for propagation of her family. Participation of the bride’s brother indicates the continuance of links between the two families even after marriage. The couple circles the fire three times. The feeding of puffed rice to the fire is also repeated thrice.
Showering of Akshadai
Akshadai , i.e. rice grains coloured with turmeric and saffron are showered on the couple by elders and invitees as benediction.
Taking with her fire from the Laaja Homam, the bride takes leave of her home and enters the new home of her in-laws. The vedic hymns recited at this time sound like the mother’s advice to her daughter:
The Evening Functions
The evening of the marriage day is the time to relax and play. The newly wed wife calls her husband for play, inviting him through a song. Much to the merriment of all gathered, there follows a series of playful games. The bride anointing the groom’s feet with colour paste, fanning him, showing him a mirror, breaking papads over each other’s head. Wrenching the betel pack from each other’s hands. Rolling the coconut from one to another as in playing ball and so on. During these events women sing songs, making fun of the bride, the groom and the in-laws.
These events bring out the qualities of the bride and the groom’s sporting spirit, kindness, co-operative nature thus surfacing the hidden traits for the other to note, thus bringing about better understanding and compatibility.
The Night Time Homams
These are the functions performed on the evening of the wedding.
This is performed to propitiate the Gandharvas and other deities. The Gandharvas and other deities. The Gandharvas are the soft natured celestial beings generally associated with the finer sentiments of life, that are so necessary for a fulfilling married life.
This is done to solemnize the bride’s entry into the husband’s home. The sacrificial fire is brought along by the bride signifying that through her, new lives would be brought forth into this world; same as the fact that fire brings forth new fires.
Fire oblation with the residual ghee, a little of which is sprinkled on the bride’s head four times. The leftover ghee is considered sacred, the whole of which was offered to Agni. ‘Sesha’ means leftover. The idea of sprinkling this residual ghee on the bride’s head signifies strength to be drawn from the four vedas; which is left over from one yuga or era to another.
The bride’s brother gives the ceremonial first betel to the couple to chew. Betel leaf is supposed to have aphrodisiacal properties and to be eaten only after marriage. Other gifts are also given to bless the couple with long lives and children.
A solution of lime and turmeric powder is prepared on a plate, circled around before the couple and thrown away to ward of evil. This is also done a number of times during the wedding ceremony.
The consummation of the marriage at night fixed for an auspicious time for a happy, ever-lasting married life that is full of understanding and care. Two souls united in a sacred act of fulfillment, to bring forth progeny as nature's best creation.
Nadaswaram : Traditional South Indian music ensemble including the tavil (drum), nadaswaram (a sort of wind instrument) and small cymbals.
Kolam or Rangoli : Designs made on the floor with rice flour paste
Sowbhayam : Literally meaning good fortune. It is intended to be the good fortune of never being widowed.
Mandap : A structure or building where the marriage is conducted.
Puja : Prayer or worship
Navagraha : The nine planets (Nava : nine, Graha : planets)
Vratham : Rituals
Kappu : Holy thread
Indra : The King of the Gods. He is the one who rules swarga or heaven.
Soma : The Moon God
Chandra : The Moon
Agni : The Fire God
Grihasta : Householder
Brahmacharya : Bachelorhood
Kasi Yatra : Travel or pilgrimage to Kasi
Sanyas : Asceticism
Satwic : Holy and pure state of body and mind.
Kasi : The most holy place of pilgrimage for a devout Hindu
Malai Mathal : Exchange of Garlands
Shastras : The holy scriptures
Oonchal : Swing
Karmic : Pertaining to karma or deeds
Pallikais : A kind of earthen pot in which seeds and leaves are sown as part of a fertility ritual
Sumangalis : Women who are not widowed.
Vara : Groom
Mangal Sutra : The ornament worn by the bride on a long chain around the neck. Mangal Sutra literally means Auspicious Bond. The Mangal Sutra in South India is akin to the wedding ring of the west. It is also called Thali.
Tulasi madam : Tulasi i.e. basil which has several medicinal properties is considered to be very holy. The courtyard of every household is supposed to have a ‘madam’ (pronounce as ma - as in mother, dum - as in dumbell) or planter in which tulasi is grown. This is worshipped daily in most South Indian households.
Shiva lingam : The phallic symbol which represents Lord Shiva whose abode is Mount Kailas on the Himalayan Mountains.
Goddess Meenakshi : The manifestation of Shakti and consort of Lord Shiva.
Kanya : Girl or literally virgin girl
Danam : Gift
Darbha : Dried grass
Kusa grass : A variety of grass that is considered to be sacred
Mantras : A holy incantation or chant
Sari : The dress worn by women which is a long piece of cloth that is draped around. The sari is of various lengths and is worn in various ways through out the country. The most common one is 6 yards long with most of it going around like a skirt and a long part of it hanging over the shoulder.
Koorai : Sari worn in a style that, according to tradition, can be worn only by married women. This is 9 yards long and is worn in a style that goes loosely between the legs. The long drape that is left over is then wound around the upper part of the body.
Sumangali Bhagyam : the good fortune of never being widowed.
Gandharva : Celestial angels who are famed for their good looks.
Kankana : or kankanam - Literally means wrist ornament : a bangle or a bracelet
Dhaaranam : Literally means wearing
Mangalya : Another name for Mangal Sutra
Devas : Gods
Saptha : Literally means seven
Padhi : Steps
Sama and Rig : Sama and Rig are two of the four Vedas.
Pala Dhanam : Gift giving
Homam : Sacrifice
Ghee : Clarified Butter
Saptha Rishi : Literally Seven Sages
Maharishi : Maharishi literally means great sage. Vashishta was one of the great sages from Vedic times.
Dhruva : renowned for his single-minded devotion to God and hence was given the boon of becoming the never moving pole star.
Akshadai : Blessing given by elders when grains of rice are showered on whomever is seeking blessings.
Graha Pravesham : Literally means entering the house. A ritual whereby the bride goes to her new home i.e. her husband’s home for the first time.
Nalangu : A session for fun and games
Papad : A wafer like fried snack made of rice and other lentils.
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