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One billion people, more than 1600 spoken languages, 28 culturally different states,
over 9 religions, one country – India defines diversity. This diversity, seen in every realm
of Indian life starting from food & clothing to customs & traditions, is reflected in Indian
marriages as well. Thus, describing all the nuances of the country’s wedding traditions in
a single piece of writing would truly be a herculean task. This article is a humble effort to
give a glimpse into a colorful and cultural extravaganza.

Months before the wedding an engagement ceremony, known as Mangni (in North
India) or Nischitartham (in South India), is held. The two families meet to perform rituals
to make the engagement official. A muhurat (auspicious date & time) for the wedding is decided based on horoscopes. The couple is then blessed by elders of both families, and
is given gifts including jewelry and clothing by their new family. In certain traditions,
engagement is marked by the exchange of rings between the bride and groom to be.
Indian engagement ceremonies are very elaborate and vibrant, a sort of prequel to the
main wedding, involving close friends and relatives.

The period between the engagement and the marriage is one of great excitement and
anticipation for both the bride and groom to be. It is marked with a lot of fun-filled
activities, with both families getting to together to plan the wedding, to shop, and
getting to bond.
Pre-wedding ceremonies
Traditional Indian weddings last a week, and start with pre-wedding ceremonies. Haldi is
a ritual holy bath during which turmeric (Haldi), oil and water is applied to both the
bride and groom by married women. This
is followed by Mehendi ceremony, during
which the bride’s hands and feet are
decorated with intricate patterns by the
application of Henna. On a lighter note, it
is believed that, deeper the color of the
mehendi (henna) stronger is the groom’s
love for the bride. With foot tapping
music and dances, this ‘ladies-only’ party
lends a break from the otherwise more
ritualistic ceremonies. When the bride
goes to the groom’s house after the
wedding, she is not expected to perform
any housework until her mehendi has
faded away.
Other important North-Indian prewedding
ceremonies include Sangeet, and
Tilak. Sangeet means music. As the name
suggests, this function is an evening of musical entertainment and merriment hosted by
the bride’s family. The main significance of this ceremony is that the bride is introduced
to all the members of her new family. As a part of the Tilak ceremony, vermillion or
kumkum is placed on the forehead of the groom by all the male members of the bride’s
family. Kumkum is a sign of auspiciousness. Presents are given to the groom and his
family, requesting them to take care of the bride.
Janavasam is a predominantly south Indian tradition, where the groom is paraded
around the town on a chariot (or nowadays a open car!), the evening before the
wedding. In small towns and villages this event serves to show the groom to the people,
so that if they knew anything about the groom that had to be brought to the notice of
the bride’s family, they could do so. This is similar to the Christian tradition of the priest
asking those present, if anyone had any objection to the wedding.
Wedding Attire
Traditionally the bride wears a sari or a lehenga which is highly ornate with gold and
silver embroidery. The color of the sari or the
lehenga is of great significance, and is different
for different communities. The colors generally
considered auspicious for the occasion are, red,
yellow, green or white. Red is most common and
it symbolizes prosperity, fertility and saubhagya
(marital bliss). The bride also dons elaborate and
beautiful ornaments primarily made of gold and
precious stones. Her hair is plaited and decorated
with flowers and jewelry. In north India, the bride
also wears a ghunghat (veil), draped modestly
over her hair as a sign of respect to the deities
worshipped and the elders present.
The groom wears a dhoti or sherwani which also
has a lot of subtle but intricate embroidery. The
color of dhoti or the sherwani is usually white, offwhite
or beige. In North-India, the groom also
wears a turban with white flowers tied in suspended strings called the Sehra. In some
traditions, he may also sport a sword as part of his wedding outfit.
In most south Indian weddings, both the bride and the groom have a kajal (black) mark
on their cheek, to ward off ill omen and evil eye. Though the bride and the groom clearly
steal the show with their exquisite outfits, the families of the bride and the groom,
friends, relatives and guests wear very grand clothes. Thus, a typical Indian wedding is a
very colorful affair!
Wedding ceremony
If one thinks this is a lot of rituals, wait till the big wedding day. The actual wedding
ceremony itself is around 3 hours long, not including many other smaller rituals before
and after the muhurat (auspicious time).
The wedding is usually held
at the bride’s home or a
wedding hall. The arrival of
the groom is an important
and fun-filled event. The
groom, dressed in his
wedding attire, leaves his
home to the wedding venue
on a decorated ghodi
(horse) or for the more
extravagant, on a decorated
elephant! Along with the
groom sits his ‘best man’
usually a younger brother, cousin or nephew who acts as his caregiver. However, these
days, these customs are not seen any more as most grooms like to travel by luxury cars.
The groom is usually accompanied by his family members, relatives and friends in a big
procession (Baarat) with a lot of pomp and show including music, orchestra, dance and
fireworks.
At the wedding venue, the bride waits for the groom, with a Jaimala/Varamala, which is
a decorated garland. Soon after the groom arrives, the bride and groom exchange
garlands. On a lighter note, it is considered that, whoever puts the garland first on their
partner, will have an upper hand in the marriage. Following this, the bride’s parents and
elder members of the family welcome the groom and the guests. The mother of the
bride performs the Aarti when the groom enters the house.
The Baraat and Jaimala are primarily North-Indian traditions. In South-India, on the
morning on the wedding day, there is a ceremony called Kashi Yatra, during which, the
groom dressed simple attire, throws a fit (obviously a fake one), declaring that he has
decided to give up the institution of marriage to go to Kasi (Varnasi) to take up
sainthood. This is when the bride’s father/brother humbly requests the groom to
choose marriage over sainthood, convincing him that the bride will assist him in his
subsequent spiritual pursuit. The couple exchanges garlands following this event, during
which both parties carry the bride and groom making it tougher for the other to put the
garland. This is another fun event, eliciting a lot of laughter.
Another popular north Indian tradition is Baasi Jawari or Joothe Churana (stealing the
shoes). The bride’s sisters hide the groom’s shoes, and demand the groom money to
have them returned. Apart from all the fun, many pujas (prayers) are performed by the
bride and the groom on the day of the wedding. The bride does a Gowri puja
(worshipping the Indian goddess Parvathi), and the groom does a Ganesh puja
(worshipping the elephant headed Indian deity Ganesha), to gain their blessings, so that
the entire wedding runs smoothly without any hurdles.
Kanyadaan or giving away of the bride, is an important part of the main wedding ritual.
Kanyadaan is derived from the Sanskrit words kanya which means virgin girl and daan
which means giving away. This is performed by the father of the bride, where he gives
his daughter to the groom, requesting him to accept her as an equal partner. Unlike in a
Christian wedding, the bride and groom marry each other and the priest only facilitates
the marriage by reciting mantras or holy hymns, but doesn’t have the authority to
declare them married.
The bride and groom are considered wed when the groom ties a mangalsutram/thali
which is a sacred thread that symbolizes his promise to take care of the bride as long as
he lives. The groom ties three knots when he ties the Thali, symbolizing the gods
Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara. The entire wedding is done around an Agni Homam
(sacred fire). Agni (fire god) is considered as the main witnesses to the marriage. The
bride and the groom then circle the fire seven times, in a clockwise direction, called Saat
Phere which signifies seven goals of married life which include religious and moral
duties, prosperity, spiritual salvation and liberation, and sensual gratification. The bride
leads the Pheres first and then the groom leads them, signifying equality of the two
partners and their determination to stand beside each other though happiness and
sorrow.
Another interesting tradition is the
Sapthapadhi which means taking seven steps
together. It is believed that if one follows
seven steps with another person, it is
considered as a confirmation of their eternal
friendship. Thus in a wedding this symbolizes
that the bride and the groom will keep up their
friendship for life and also partake equally in
both good and bad times in life.
The wedding culminates with the groom
applying vermillion or kumkum to the bride’s
forehead, welcoming her as his partner for life.
This is the first time that kumkum is applied to
the forehead of woman, when the bridegroom
himself adorns her with it. In South-India, this
is usually followed by the groom putting toerings
on the bride. The kumkum, the
mangalsuthram and the toe-rings symbolize a married woman.
South Indian weddings also have a ceremony where the groom shows the Arundhati
Nakshatram (a subtle star in the Ursa Major constellation) to the bride. Historically,
Arundhati was the wife of Sage Vashishta, and was considered to be the chastest of all
women. It is believed that by seeing the Arundhati star, the bride will be as chaste as
Arundhati herself.
Some wedding traditions also include wedding games for the couple to lighten the
mood. In one such game they are to retrieve a ring from a pot of colored water, and this
is done thrice to decide the winner. In another game, the bride and groom work
together, to untie a ball of knots, using only one hand each. This symbolizes their
perseverance in resolving together, issues that might come up in life. Other games
include breaking papad on each other’s head, playing with a ball of flowers.
Food served during the wedding ceremony is traditional and vegetarian. A wide variety
of dishes are served. The types of dishes vary extensively from region to region. In
South-India, food is served on banana leaf.
Post – wedding ceremonies
After the wedding ceremony is over, the bride is bid farewell as she leaves for her
husband’s house. This is a very emotional moment for the bride and her family, as she is
leaving her parent’s family to join her husband’s. In some traditions, the couple goes
first to the bride’s house, and after a few days leaves for the groom’s. In olden days, the
bride used to be carried to the groom’s house in a doli (palanquin). Upon arrival at the
groom’s house the newly-wed couple is greeted at the doorstep with Aarti to ward off
bad spirit. The bride then topples a kalash (metal pot) of rice with her right leg.
Following this, the couple enters the house, taking the first step with the right leg. In
some traditions, the bride steps into a plate of vermillion mixed in water, and walks
down to the prayer room. All this constitutes the grihapravesh (griha – house, pravesh –
entry) ceremony. The bride and groom then perform Satyanarayana puja (prayer)
showing their gratitude to the lord.
The bride and the groom’s side hold a reception for family and friends. They may
combine it with the wedding or may hold it separately. This event is non-ritualistic.
People come to offer their greetings to the newly wedded couple.
With so much of color, vibrancy, food, people, rituals, music, fun and frolic, the Indian
wedding is truly a festival in itself!

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Indian Wedding Traditions

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