Weddings vary in form and structure depending on the state the bride and groom are from. And so the ‘Indian wedding experience’ is as diverse as they come.
Most Indians grow up romanticizing marriage. The event is planned monetarily years in advance; family heirlooms put away, jewelry painstakingly made and collected. All of this culminates in a wedding extravaganza and then it’s over and the bride leaves over eyes full of tears and a wave of sad goodbyes as she moves to her new home. Traditionally the wedding would be arranged by the families of the bride and groom; the decision solemnized more by consensus among the heads of families rather than the choice of the bride and groom themselves. Once betrothed the wedding takes on a life of its own. But times have changed and weddings propelled solely on an element of choice seem to be on an increase.
I had the lovely opportunity to witness a traditional Coorgi wedding in the Southern Indian state of Karnataka. Once this beautiful land was called Kodagu and still is by the locals. But the name wasn’t easy to pronounce for the colonizing English and so was anglicized to Coorg. Of Rich soil and a very proud people, Coorg stands draped in the mountain mist much like a demure bride.
The natives of Coorg, the Kodavas, are a warrior class. Though the origins of the Kodavas are largely unknown, the earliest references have been found to date back to early Tamil Sangam Literature. Traditionally, the men are attired in a black coat called ‘em>Kupya. This is worn over a white dhoti. There is a theory that the ‘Kupya’ is a variant of the Greek ‘Toga’ and was assimilated into the local culture during the conquests of Alexander the great. A maroon and gold sash serves as a belt and completes the outfit. The men are known to carry a silver dagger called Peechekath and a knife called an Odikathi.
Left alone, the Traditional Indian garment of the saree is just a piece of cloth, and a very long piece of cloth at that. But yet again the Saree lends itself to versatility and the Coorgi’s have made it their own by draping it differently. The Saree is pleated behind and brought over the right shoulder; The Pallu is then secured in front. A scarf completes this elegant garment.
The morning of the wedding, we watched as a sleepy groom was hurriedly woken. The ritual of dressing him up unraveled before our eyes. His Kupya is white instead of the traditional black. A read sash is then tied around his waist.
The groom and his entourage of family and friends make their way to the mandap (wedding hall). We are welcomed by beautifully dressed flower girls.
We stop to watch the ritual of ‘Cutting of Banana Shoots’; A symbolic gesture as a mark of respect to the maternal sides of both families. It is usually done by the groom, a show of valor to prove himself worthy of one so pretty as the bride in question. There will be 3 sets of such cuttings – The first in honor of the bride’s maternal family; The second in respect of the maternal families of previous brides of yesteryears and the third in respect of the groom’s maternal family. This Coorgi tradition of honoring women folk is unique in a conventionally patriarchal Indian society.
The groom’s sister leads the way, a pot of water drawn from the auspicious waters of the river Cauvery and enclosed in a beautifully crafted basket balanced over her head. She would admit much later that it was a heavy weight to carry.
Later on she’s joined by the bride’s sisters each carrying a velaku (lamp), markers of auspicious beginnings. Together they lead the groom into the wedding hall where he joins the bride dressed in resplendent red. The air is thick with the smell of fresh jasmine garlands. Her saree we are told is a prized family heirloom handed down through the generations. She also wears a crescent moon shaped necklace called the kokkethathi.
The Coorgi wedding is unique in many ways. Unlike most there is no priest presiding over the ceremony. The couple is pronounced married by the parents, the gathering at the wedding bear witness to the happy union. The elders there then proceed to bless the bride and groom with the Hindu tradition of sprinkling of rice over their heads. The bride and the groom are then given spoons of milk.
Lunch which followed was a lavish affair. The most famous corgi dish is Pandhi curry (Pork).
Evening comes. Happy visions of the bride and groom walking away into the sunset surface. Hold your horses for there’s more to come. The bride is put to the test. She first has to break a coconut. Then she draws water from a well, and with the pot placed over her head tries to make her way into her new home. The groom’s family guarantees there no easy passage and amidst much singing and dancing block her from making her way to the door. The bride inches her way, slowly. She is accompanied by the groom’s sisters, probably symbolizing the forging of new relationships. The hypnotic rhythmic beats of drums and pipes, called Volaga (traditional Kodava music) fill the air, dancing forms merry against the blackness of the night. Everyone seems to be having their fill of the food and drink except for the poor bride who must focus on the task at hand.
And close to 5 hours since the ritual first started she finally arrives at the door step and steps in amidst much cheering. She is finally home.
Art imitates life they say and nothing speaks more eloquently of this fact that the Indian wedding. Over the past few days we were witness to remarkable customs and practices, preserved in time and symbolic of the Kodava ways of life, as part of their wedding. Here’s hoping that they survive the onslaught of change and are kept intact for future generations to see.
This is a guest post by Meena Venkataraman. Meena is from Bangalore, India where she lived before moving to London couple of years ago. An engineer by profession, she is also an artist and a freelance travel writer, both of which bring together creativity and her love for the outdoors. An avid travelled and a wild life enthusiast, Meena has travelled through much of India and the world. She blogs at Travel Tazzels.
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