When I was young enough that I had no choice in the matter but to go, weddings were just an occasion to meet up with friends and cousins, run around and be a nuisance and eat too many sweets from pilfered bags of wedding favours. As I got older, I preferred to spend my Saturdays rooting around for books in charity shops; on the rare occasion that the couple getting married were close enough to my family that I had to attend, Indian, specifically Hindu, weddings were just an occasion to meet up with friends and cousins, hang around being bored and snarky, as teenagers are wont to do, and eat too many sweets from pilfered bags of wedding favours.
When I got married myself, we had a humanist ceremony in Norway, performed by a Human-Etisk Forbund officiant, followed by a short Hindu ceremony a week later, at my parent’s home, which was more of a very short blessing ceremony that we took part in (mostly) to make my mum happy. (More truthfully, it was to make members of my extended family happy and so that they would lay off my mum a little bit, and not give her such a hard time because I had abandoned religion so completely and explicitly and I’d married white woman and not someone chosen for me; it’s complicated and perhaps for another post altogether.) I had no idea what was happening at any point during the Hindu blessing ceremony; I just waved candles about, stuck rice to my wife’s forehead, listened to all the chanting and generally did as I was told, whilst trying really hard to stay sitting cross-legged and not get cramp.
I don’t believe that God is blesses anything or that souls are being bound together, but I think I did myself a real disservice by not being more interested in what all the rituals of a traditional religious ceremony are and what they are supposed to signify. I went to two weddings over the summer, one Hindu and one Sikh, and looked at the ceremonies and traditions in a completely different way now that I am older and (I think) a little wiser; almost as an anthropological study as 'insider' looking in from the outside.
With my friend’s permission, I’m putting up some of the photos I managed to get during the traditional Hindu ceremony part of his wedding (the legally binding, ceremony took place the next day) and reproducing some of the information that was given to the guests, which very helpfully explained what was happening, when and why. The particulars of the ceremony are dependent on the denomination and geographical background of the couple and their parents, and both my friend’s parents have passed away so the ceremony described below is slightly different to an absolutely traditional ceremony, but it was so fascinating to be a part of and read about the rites and rituals, that I thought I would share some of them.
In Hinduism, marriage is the most sacred of the sixteen ‘sanskaras’ (sacrements); It is regarded as ‘the union of two souls to help each other in their spiritual evolution. The married couple are no longer two independent beings, but one integrated personality, united by firm resolutions to fulfil each other in every aspect of life.’
This particular wedding took place in the Shree Venkataswara (Balaji) Temple, which is part of a spectacular South-Indian temple complex in Birmingham.
The groom leaves the house accompanied by his best man and younger female relative, who shakes a metal pot filled with coins and a betel nut over his shoulder to keep him awake. The history behind this custom is that weddings in India are traditionally held in the evening, by which time the groom may have succumbed to sleep.
Like all religious ceremonies, the wedding starts with a prayer to Lord Ganesh, for he dispels the darkness of ignorance and removes obstacles.
The ceremony takes place in a ‘mandap’, a canopy held up by four poles, each of which are blessed.
Parchan (the welcome)
The groom is welcomed by the bride’s mother. The groom then has to break a clay pot with his foot so that the bride’s mother can assess his strength in order for him to have the bride’s hand in marriage. (There was also a ritual where the bride's sister tied white cord around the groom's toes and over his head seven times but I couldn't find an explanation for what this particular ritual symbolises.)
The groom is then escorted to the mandap, where the bride’s father washes his right foot with milk and honey. The groom is welcomed and treated as Mahavishnu (the supreme God) and the bride as Laxmi (supreme Goddess). The priest chants mantras from the Vedas (Hindu book of holy scriptures).
The bride is escorted by her maternal uncle into the mandap. Traditionally, this would be in a carriage. As she arrives, a sheet is held up to prevent the groom seeing the bride.
The parents are asked for their consent for the wedding to proceed. The bride’s parents perform ‘Hasta melap’ by putting the bride’s right hand into the groom’s right hand. The priest recites sacred verses during this part of the ceremony. The bride and groom exchange flower garlands. A white cotton cord is placed around the couples shoulders to protect them from evil and symbolise their bond to each other. Holding hands, the couple take their vows to love, cherish and protect each other. The preist ties the wedding knot to symbolise their premenant union.
The ‘havan’ (sacred fire) in the mandap is invoked and oblations (offerings) poured into it. Agni (fire) is the mouth of Lord Vishnu and symbolises the illumination of knowledge and happiness, and is also the pure witness to the ceremony as it continues.
Two male relatives (usually including the best man) make three offerings of puffed rice into the holy fire by placing them into the bride’s hand so that half of them slip into the groom’s hand, whilst mantras are chanted. The bride prays to Yama, the lord of death, to grant her husband with health, longevity, happiness and prosperity.
This is the most important part of the ceremony as it is believed by all Hindus that the bride is protected by the moon for the first seven years of her life, followed by the sun for the next seven years, and the following seven years by Agni (fire). Therefore the bride and groom walk around the sacred fire four times, stopping to touch a stone in their path with a toe. The four circuits around the fire stand for the four basic human goals of Dharma (righteousness), Artha (prosperity), Karma (passion) and Moksha (liberation). The groom leads the first three circuits, the bride the last.
The first is approached with seven steps; at each step the bride and groom invoke the blessings of God for food, strength, family, prosperity, progency (children), enjoying life together, performing religious rites together and life-long friendship. Each circuit ends with the bride’s hands being filled with puffed rice by her brothers to signify wealth and prosperity.
The groom blesses the bride by putting vermillion powder in the parting of her hair and a mangalsutra (sacred necklace) around her neck to represent the sacred union between the couple.
The couple touch each other’s hearts, reciting promises; each says to the other: “I touch thy heart to mine. God has given thee a husband/wife. May my heart be thine and thy heart be mine. When I talk to thee, please listen to me with perfect attention.”
Two male relatives (usually including the best man) feed the couple four times, whilst telling them: “by feeding this sweet food I shall bind your hearts with the thread of truth, sincerity and love; so your hearts be each other’s for ever.”
After the final oblation has been poured onto the fire, the preist blesses the bride and groom. Flower petals and rice are showered on them as a blessing. The ceremony is concluded with the bride and groom asking for Ganesh’s blessings as they leave the mandap.
The priest places a coconut under the front wheel of the car before it departs, to be broken by the weight of the car. This signifies that the vehicle is roadworthy, as in the past they used horse-drawn carriages.
Aside from the purely symbolic rituals, like walking around the fire, it was practices like wearing a betel nut to stay awake, or cracking a clay pot that I found most interesting: behaviours that might have made sense hundreds of years ago in India, but have now continue to be performed symbolically. The coconut thing was really interesting to learn about because my mum got me to crack a coconut on the wheel of my first car 'for good luck' (a twist on actually driving over one), and now I know where the practice comes from. The car's exhaust fell off whilst I was driving on the motorway, caused me no end of hassle and eventually had to be sold for scrap. Maybe I didn't smash the coconut on the wheel hard enough; or maybe it didn't work because I didn't know why I was doing it.