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Customs, Tradition, and Varieties of Weddings in India

by Vikas Kamat
Illustrations and Photographs by K. L. Kamat
First Online: September 25, 2001
Last Updated: July 30, 2014

Introduction

The marriage ceremony is one of the oldest customs of mankind and the Indian culture is no exception, and it is considered one of the most important events of one's life. In India, the Kanyadana (literally meaning, donating a virgin) or giving away one's daughter in marriage, was considered the greatest sacrifice a man could perform. It was also a duty performed by the bridegroom to perpetuate his lineage. By making marriage a sacrament, the Hindus elevated the physical union to spiritual dimensions [1]. Many in India consider marriage an integral part of human condition, binding not only in this life, but in the afterlife as well.

History of Weddings in India

From the hymns and verses about marriage in the Vedas, we learn that mature individuals were considered ready for marriage after puberty. In subsequent times however, brides were married even in childhood, perhaps  due to a series of foreign invasions in North India. In an attempt to provide security their women from the invaders, early marriages became the norm. According to the scriptures of Manu, divorce and remarriage were not permitted. Most references to marriage in the ancient texts suggest that the Aryans were monogamous. However, some references to polygamy and polyandry have been found in the Hindu epic of Mahabharata.

See: Wife of Five Husbands -- The story of Draupadi through the works of great artists
See: Gandhi's memories on his wedding day

In medieval India, the marriage was compulsory for all the girls except for those opted asceticism. Brahmin girls were married between ages eight and ten from sixth or century onwards up to the modern times. Polygamy was permitted to all who could afford, and it was especially popular among Kshatriyas for political reasons. According to the Manasollasa, the king should marry a Kshatria girl of noble birth for a chief queen though he is permitted to have Vaishya or Shudra wives for pleasure.

See: Status of Women in Medieval India

Today, in India both divorce and remarriage are completely legal, whereas polygamy and polyandry are both criminal offences for Hindus, punishable by law. The Islamic personal law of Sheriat allows up to four wives for a man, and it is legal for a Muslim to have multiple wives in India.

Varieties

From its initial simplicity, the wedding ceremony became complicated (involving such issues as the dowry), over time to reinforce the extended family. Today, a marriage is perhaps the most important social occasion for any family, reflecting the regional color that overlays the basic Vedic rites. A muhurta or auspicious moment is chosen by the time of the year and the horoscopes of the bride and groom. Wedding preparations begin well beforehand. The wedding is usually conducted at the bride's home, in temples, and nowadays, in a parks, hotels, or in special marriage halls. Entire families congregate, with evenings spent in singing, dancing, and eating. 

The customs during the wedding ceremony in India are varied and reflect the vast diversity of cultures of the land. The cultures have influenced each other with mutual borrowing of practices.

A day before the wedding, the bride and her friends and female relatives gather for the ceremony of Mehendi, in which their palms and feet are decorated with henna. The bride is teased with music and dance, by the other women about her future husband and in-laws.




Martial Rituals During a Kodava Wedding
Kodava Wedding Ritual
Draupadi`s Wedding - Rangoli Art
Draupadi's Wedding

Mass Weddings at Dharmasthala
Multiple Marriages


 

An wedding altar or mandapa is erected at the marriage venue on the day of the wedding, within which the ceremony is conducted. The poles of the frame are draped with strings of flowers. On the wedding morning, various rituals are performed on both the bride and the groom in their own homes. Their bodies are anointed with turmeric, sandalwood paste and oils, which cleanse the body, soften the skin, and make it aromatic. They are then bathed to the chanting of Vedic mantras. Today this is done symbolically, if at all, with a token application of turmeric, sandal wood, and oil on the face and arms, before the bath. The bride now wears all her finery, helped by her womenfolk.

In the north and east, the ritual of putting Sindhoor, or vermilion powder, in the parting of the bride's hair is performed by the groom.. The husband dips his ring in vermilion powder and traces a line from the center of his wife's hairline to the crown of her head.  Brahmin grooms who have not undergone the Upanayana ritual are given a symbolic initiation. Some warrior communities like the Kodavas involve sword wielding rituals in the ceremony. 

The gathering showers the bride and groom with flower petals (see also: Saying' it with Flowers -- While the Western societies glamorized and commercialized the flowers, it is only the Indians who have blended their lives with flowers.) and the couple come out of the mandapa. They touch the feet of their elders to receive blessings and are greeted by everyone present. The bride now leaves for her new home, bidding a tearful farewell to her own family. She now belongs to another family and no longer to her parents, for she has been ritually given away. They proceed homewards dancing and singing. When the bride arrives at her new home, an arati is performed for her by her mother-in-law and she is ceremonially ushered into the house. She takes care to enter, auspicious right foot first, gently kicking over a strategically placed measure of paddy as an augury of plenty for her new family. In today's India, the couple then leaves for their honeymoon.

Wedding Attire

Anu Mangalore/
Henna Designs on a Brides` Hands
Henna Designs on a Brides' Hands

In different parts of India, brides wear different kinds of clothes, ornaments, and adornments. The bride's clothes are usually typical of the area. A Rajasthani bride would wear a lehenga, a Punjabi bride would wear a salwar-kameez, and a Maharashtrian bride would wear a nine-yard saree. Most brides wear saris nowadays, usually in shades of red, pink or mustard. A bride sports as much traditional jewelry as her family can muster, for today, she is Goddess Lakshmi incarnate, harbinger of prosperity to her new home. Like her clothes, the bride's ornaments also differ according to local tradition. However, necklaces, earrings, bangles, rings, a nose-ring, anklets, and toe-rings are worn by most brides. Ornaments like armlets, tikas, hathaphula, and waistbands, traditionally important, are optional today and not worn in all areas. Traditionally, the bride was adorned with natural beauty aids. For example, a paste of henna (see Mehendi) was put over her nails, which stained them red. Her eyes were lined with kajal and scented water was sprinkled on her. Today, however, most brides, both in the urban and rural areas, use branded cosmetics and perfumes. In south India, flowers were, and remain, an important adornment, while the north is now beginning to rediscover this pretty custom. Most grooms in the north wear a shervani with a churidar pyjama, a bandha-gala suit, or a western-style suit. Turbans are also very popular, for the groom and the important members of his entourage. In the South, grooms either wear the traditional veshti (dhoti) and jubba (kurta) or a three-piece suit. North Indian grooms set forth to their weddings adorned with a sehera, a veil of flowers tied to the turban, to screen their faces from the evil eye (scarecrow). 

See Also: Indian Attire Through the Centuries

The Rituals

The bride and the groom garland each other in formal mutual acceptance.  This custom has become a very important part of the wedding ceremony now but is not mentioned in the Vedas [1]. It probably originates from the Svayamvara practice prevalent in early centuries of the Christian era in India. After this, the bride and groom sit in the mandapa next to each other before a sacrificial pit or havana kunda. The ritual of Kanyadana now takes place. The bride is given to the groom by her father, or by her grandfather or brother in the absence of her father. The bride's father first symbolically gives her to God, invoked by the priest with the mantras. The bride's guardian takes her hands and places them in the groom's, transferring his responsibility for her to the groom. The groom assures her father that he will not be false to her in dharma, artha, or kama. After this, the groom ties a tali (a.k.a. Mangalasutra) around the bride's neck.  The marriage ceremony then enters its most important phase, the saptapadi (seven steps), in which the couple take seven steps together, facing the north. With the fire (Agni) as the witness, they exchange the wedding vows. Legally, the marriage is now final and binding. The bride is then sprinkled with holy water, believed to purify her from any previous sins and cleanse her, in  preparation for her new life ahead.

The Legends

Legend goes that during the wedding of Lord Shiva and Parvati, Shiva asked Parvati to come to his left after the agni pradakshina, symbolizing that they had been married. Parvati said she would not accept this as a marriage until Shiva granted her seven wishes. Shiva did so, and then made seven stipulations, which Parvati accepted, and the seven steps are supposed to have derived from this.

The Gandharva Vivaha  (the marriage of the celestials) involves simple exchange of garlands upon with the marriage is confirmed. We find references of this type of wedding in Hindu mythologies and epics. This is equivalent of eloping in today's world, and couples whose union is not blessed by families seek refuge in this custom.

It is said that the thought of another woman as a wife never occurred to Ramachandra (see Sri Krishna and Balarama) who is considered the perfect man, and widely worshipped in India, and the devotees (most notably Mahatma Gandhi) try to emulate him. The strong tradition of monogamy in India perhaps has roots in the Hindu epic of Ramayana.

References:

  1. India Mystica, Magic Software Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, ISBN: 81-86532-00-5, 1995

  2.  Kamat Jyotsna, Mahile Andu-Indu (in Kannada), Sai Publishers, Bangalore, 2001

See Also:

 

Weddings in India
Indian Wedding

Pictures
Remarrying After 50 years of Marriage!The Mehendi (henna) on a Brides HandsThe Newly Weds in Traditional Wedding AttireDecorations of a BrideBoy Gets Girl
Konkani Bride and GroomMass Weddings at DharmasthalaMarrying of Maternal Uncles and Cousins is Quite CommonThe Bride of IndiaThe Swayamvara Wedding
Flowers and Rice on HeadWedding Reception, IndiaMartial Rituals During a Kodava WeddingDecorating the BrideAnxious Groom
A Coorgi Bride Carrying WaterWedding without the Bride!Hindu Symbolic MarriageGuests at a Hindu WeddingShiva Arrives for His Wedding
Basing -- A Wedding Headgear made with Pith

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