A wedding is the binding of two hearts… preparation for a life to be spent together. An Indian wedding not just binds the bride and the groom, but two families, in a union which lasts forever! All over India, irrespective of region, caste or language, a wedding is a reason to rejoice, and it is a boisterous occasion filled with pomp and splendor, rituals and traditions, and of course, a huge number of people!
While some basic traditions are the same all over the country, there are a lot of differences in the way marriages are conducted in the northern and southern parts. In the south itself, there are subtle differences in the marriages conducted among the four southern states, differences emanating from cultural as well as regional differences. Let me describe to you a typical Tamil Brahmin marriage, celebrated in the Vedic style, where importance is given to the traditions and rituals which have been passed on over centuries.
To begin with, marriages are traditionally fixed by the parents; the compatibility of the bride and groom gauged not by conversations, but comparison of their horoscopes – which indicate the planetary positions at the time of their birth, and are said to predict their character accurately. Once the marriage is finalized, a small engagement ceremony is held, which confirms the forthcoming marriage in the presence of witnesses. Traditionally, this is a ceremony performed by the elders in the family, with the bride and groom not even present, or if present, simply looking on. They have no role to play here. The parents of the bride and groom decide the date of the marriage in the presence of the priest, with both the families watching. This ceremony is performed at the groom’s house.
The marriage is performed at the bride’s house, or at a venue chosen by the bride’s family. The venue is decorated with flowers and festoons, and kolams (patterns drawn on the floor with rice flour and decorated with red mud) are drawn all over. The entry to the venue is decorated with banana plants on each side. The banana plant is considered auspicious, for it allows us to use every part of it – right from its stem to its leaves, fruits and flowers – not one part of the plant is ever wasted! The groom and his family are received at the gate with full honor, applying sandal paste, turmeric and vermillion to his forehead.
The wedding itself used to last over 5 days in olden times, but these days, the rituals are packed into the time available, and most marriages are held over one or two days. Traditionally, the rituals used to begin with a ceremony called ‘Paligai Thalikkal’, where nine types of grains are placed in clay pots, and watered by 5 or 7 married women from both families. Over the next week, the women water the pots every day, the grains sprout and start growing. This symbolizes the growth of the family, and is considered auspicious. After the wedding, the bride too joins in watering the pot, and finally, the day after the marriage, the newlyweds throw the grains into a pond or river. It is believed that the fish will also bless them for giving them food!
The main part of the wedding starts with the vratham. This is a ceremony performed by both families independently, invoking their family deities and ancestors asking for their blessings. This is akin to an oath taking ceremony, where the families pledge to go through with the ceremony, and honor the vows made during it. A yellow thread is tied around the wrist of both, the bride and the groom, during this ceremony, which marks their oath, and reminds them of it. Once this ceremony is over, the bride and groom’s families do not leave the venue, except for a visit to a nearby temple.
Nitchayatartham – The Engagement
The evening ceremonies begin with the groom visiting a temple and being escorted back into the venue by the bride’s family. A temple is chosen for this purpose since it is a sacred place to begin the ceremonies. In the presence of the Lord, the bride’s brother is the first to welcome the groom, giving him new clothes. The groom wears the new clothes and is taken in a procession to the venue. This is similar to the ‘baraat’ ceremony in northern India, and is called ‘Jaana vasam’ in Tamil. The reason the groom is taken on a public procession is to make the people aware of the impending ceremony, and allow them to voice their objections, if any, to the union.
Once the groom reaches the venue, a more formal engagement takes place, with the bride present. The bride is now given a new sari by the groom’s sister, which she changes into before the next part of the ceremony. Once the bride and groom are seated, the priest reads out the details of the marriage to be conducted, a sort of confirmation in the presence of both extended families. These days, this ceremony is followed by the reception, a somewhat incongruous event, considering that the bride and groom aren’t even married yet!
The main marriage ceremony takes place the next day, at an auspicious time chosen by the priests after consulting the horoscopes of both, the bride and the groom. It is believed that only a marriage conducted at a time favorable for both, will withstand the test of time. The day begins early for both, the bride and groom. They have a ritual oil bath, their paternal aunts applying the oil as per tradition.
The groom, dressed in a veshti (traditional garment for men) draped in the panchakacham (five folds) style, sandal paste, ash and vermillion on his forehead, kohl in his eyes to ward off evil, readies himself for the Kasi Yatra. This is a relic of tradition from the age old days, when, after completing their education, some boys took the vows of abstinence, heading to Kashi to join the ranks of sanyasis. The groom sets off towards the gate, wearing plain slippers, with a palm leaf fan and umbrella in one hand to keep himself cool, and in the other hand, a walking stick to help him walk long distances, and a Bhagavad Gita to study as he travels, as if deciding to leave attachments behind and set off for Kashi. The bride’s father stops him at the gate, and convinces him to return, offering his daughter’s hand in marriage, assuring him of all comforts and happiness.
As soon as the groom assents and turns back, the bride is brought forth, and they exchange garlands, amidst much fun and frolic. There are songs galore about this part of the ceremony, and while the women sing songs to encourage the couple, the maternal uncles of both, the bride and groom, try their utmost to prevent their ward being garlanded, while the opposite side tries to encourage their ward!
When the two exchange three garlands each, the couple are seated on a swing, and fed a mixture of bananas, milk and sugar by women from both families. This is intended to be some sort of sustenance, since they eat nothing else till the ceremonies are completed. After this is done, three or five women chosen from the two families circumambulate the couple thrice with a lamp and a container of water.
This is part of the cleansing ceremony, ensuring that no evil spirits lurk around to spoil the occasion! The women then prepare balls from rice colored with turmeric and vermillion, circle them around the couple, and throw them in the four directions. This is believed to ward off evil lurking in any of the four directions. Before the couple get up from the swing, they are asked to hold hands for the first time. The groom holds the bride’s right hand with his right one, and leads her to the dais where the marriage is to take place.
Kanyadaanam and Mangalya Dhaaranam
At last, we come to the main part of the ceremony – the marriage itself!
The first part of this ceremony is where the father gives the bride away. The father sits on a chair with the bride on his lap while the priest chants the relevant slokas. In some families, a ring of the sacred darbha grass is made and placed on the bride’s head. On this is placed a yoke, and on this the ‘Mangalsutra’ – a sacred golden ornament worn only by married women – is placed, and water poured over it. This is a ritual signifying the equality of the two partners in the marriage, for what use is a yoke which is not properly balanced?
The father now gives his daughter to the groom, giving him all rights over her, and advising him to take care of her. The bride is given the new sari bought by the groom’s family. This is a nine-yard sari, which is only worn by married women. She drapes the new sari in the traditional style with the help of the groom’s sister, and returns to the stage where the groom is continuing with the rituals.
After a few more rituals, all of which involve invoking the different deities for their blessings, the groom ties the Mangalsutra mounted on a yellow thread around the neck of the bride. There are two such mangalsutras in a Tamil marriage – one from the bride’s family, and one from the groom’s family. Every family has its own pattern for the Mangalsutra, depending on which part of the state they hail from, and the Mangalsutra thus signifies the bond between the two families.
Further strengthening the bond between the families is the act of tying the string itself – the groom ties one knot while his sister ties two knots – which emphasizes the fact that the bond the bride makes with the groom is just one aspect of the new relationship, and that all members of the family need to make their own bonds to strengthen this one. Unlike most other rituals, there are no special Vedic mantras spoken at this important moment. The only words spoken are those of blessings – to both, the bride and the groom – to live a long and happy life together. Percussion and wind instruments are played out loud to drown any unwanted sounds at this auspicious moment.
The groom now holds the bride’s hand and leads her to the sacred fire. Here, he stoops down and helps her take seven steps around the sacred fire. Known as Sapthapadi, or the seven steps, each step is an oath the husband and wife make to each other, and is the most important part of the ceremony. Next, the groom leads the bride to a grinding stone placed next to the sacred fire, and places her foot on it. The mantras recited during this time advise the bride to lead a firm life like the grinding stone, to be as firm as a rock, so that the family can depend on her.
Now, the groom is officially a householder and has the right to perform sacrifices. He now sits with his wife, facing the sacred fire and performs his first Homam (fire sacrifice) invoking the Gods to bless him and his family. I won’t go into the details of the Homam conducted, because they are rather detailed ones, consisting of different parts to be conducted at different times of the day.
Traditionally, some parts of the Homam are conducted after sunset, just before the bride and groom retire for the night. As part of this, the bride and groom are taken outside and shown two stars – one is the pole star, representing the sage Dhruva who attained this status by his great devotion to the Lord. The second is the star named after Arundhati, the wife of Vasishta, one of the seven sages. The sage himself is part of the Saptarishi mandalam or the Great Bear constellation (Ursa Major), and his wife, by her complete devotion to her husband, is the only wife allowed to remain by her husband’s side, even in the skies. The bride and groom are shown these stars as great personages they must try to emulate.
One of the most interesting things in the marriage is the role of the maternal uncles, paternal aunts, the sisters of the groom and the brothers of the bride. Each of them has their role to play in the marriage. Together, they represent not just the two families getting bound by the marriage, but bring together the extended families too.
As I mentioned earlier, the sister of the groom is the one who helps out the bride in all her preparations, and the one who ties two knots for the Mangalsutra. In a similar manner, the bride’s brother too has important roles to play. It is he who helps the groom, and even after the marriage ceremony is over, helps with the Homam at certain points. For example, he is the one who pours parched rice into the fire while the groom pours the clarified butter. This is a special offering to the gods, asking for blessings not just for the family, but for the generations who are yet to come. In this way, it is reiterated that even the maternal home of the bride has an important role to play in the well being of the groom’s family, and vice versa.
Once the main rituals are completed, the elders in the families bless the couple by throwing yellow colored rice on them. This completes the main part of the wedding, but by no means completes the ceremonies involved in the marriage. There’s more to come!
Since the marriage is held at the bride’s home or a venue chosen by the bride’s family, it is usually not possible for the groom to take his wife home the same day. Besides, there are loads of rituals yet to be completed. At the same time, it is believed that a new bride must enter her new house at an auspicious hour, and hence a ceremony representing her entry into her husband’s house is performed at the venue itself. She is taken to the groom’s quarters and is welcomed with all love and respect, the women giving her gifts and new saris. This is known as the Griha Pravesham.
Following lunch, which is a sumptuous affair, about which loads can be written, it’s now time for some fun! After all the hectic rites and rituals, the bride and groom are encouraged to get to know each other through games and songs, egged on by their relatives. This ceremony, called Nalangu, takes up most of the evening, and is followed by the night time homams. Once they are concluded, it’s finally time for the consummation of the marriage!
In ancient times, it is said that the wedding homams went on for one or two more days, but these days, thankfully there isn’t much to be done the next day, except for a few concluding rituals. The bride, for the first time, joins in the watering of the sprouts that were planted the first day, and all the women sing and dance around the pots, celebrating the growth of a new family. This is more of a fertility rite, since it celebrates the consummation of the marriage. Once this is done, it is time to say goodbye to all the guests. They are sent away with all honors, packed lunch being given to those travelling to far off places. It is then time at last for the bride and groom to leave for their home.
So this is what a typical Tamil Brahmin marriage is like. It has taken so many words to describe, but still leaves much unsaid. To really experience an Indian marriage, it is necessary to be part of one, and if ever you do get an opportunity to be part of one, please do accept the invitation, for it will be an event worth attending!
Read about other weddings from different parts of the world in our weddings around the world series.
Thanks to Anu for sharing her own wedding photos for this post. Normally we do not use watermarked photos, however in this case they were necessary due to the personal nature of the photos.
About the authoranuradha