I DIDN’T REALIZE how drastically diverse the matrimonial traditions and rituals are for each state in India when I first set out to research traditional Hindu wedding ceremonies. I learned a bit about Southern Hindu wedding ceremony traditions by narrowing my focus on one specific region, Karnataka. To be even more specific, I narrowed in on Bangalore. Most of this information I learned from a Brahmin priest at the local temple in Koramangala and from a knowledgeable married friend, Priya, who went through this ceremony herself. Even with this narrow lens on Karnataka in Southern India there are plenty of variations depending on the couple. This beautiful video displays some of the things I describe below with a few variations, as the couple featured in the video is Brahmin.
Now without further ado, here is a traditional Hindu wedding ceremony explained in English.
Before the Engagement
According to the priest, marriage is about “two souls coming together.” Getting married is an important part of Indian culture, so the ceremony is often a huge event. Priya tells me it is supposed to be an event of a lifetime and people save their whole lives for to go all out for the event. And as journalist Shaifali Sandhya put it, an Indian wedding is “an occasion for joy, not just for the bride and groom but for all 25,000 of their closest relatives and friends.”
First and foremost, horoscopes are consulted to ensure compatibility between two people. There are many websites that will do this for free, so long as you have the exact time and place of birth for each person. This astrological test requires the couple to match up on at least twenty out of thirty six points.
The courting process will start once the horoscopes are found to be compatible. To start the process of finding wives, male suitors accompany their parents to go to different prospective girl’s homes to talk and meet the girl and her family. I say girl here instead of woman because children are referred to as boys or girls before marriage, which is the transition to adulthood according to Ira Trivedi in India in Love. The boy and his parents will go home and make a decision about whether or not they want to propose a marriage. “The process is quite painful,” my friend Priya told me. “Some girls have to see hundreds of suitors before a match is made.” Lucky for her though, she met her husband on the second try.
If a match is decided, both sets of parents will consult a Brahmin priest to set the lagna, the marriage time. The time and date of the marriage is important to ensure it is sufficiently auspicious.
Assuming all goes well the parents will arrange the marriage and set an engagement date. The traditional custom was for couples to not see each other before the wedding. Of course, as my friend pointed out, “Now it never works how it did fifty years ago.” There is usually a chance to date and get to know your fiancé before the wedding and the engagement ceremony.
A Hindu engagement ceremony is an event often as big as a wedding, requiring a photographer and a whole host of guests. During this engagement party the groom’s side presents sixteen baskets worth of gifts (fruit, flowers, coconuts—which are considered “whole” and holy—jaggery, sweets, bangles, makeup, you name it. This is the Lagnapatrike for the woman getting married. This ritual was traditionally held at the prospective bride’s home and the groom was not meant to attend, but that is no longer the case. The event is usually held in a hall to accommodate all the guests and gives an opportunity for the groom’s side of the family to welcome the bride into their family and ensure no one else can claim her.
Another major part of the engagement ceremony is the exchange of rings (a ritual that probably came later with Western influence). Before the couple exchanges rings the priest in attendance will check for the most auspicious date for the marriage to take place. He then writes this down on a piece of paper. Everyone signs the paper and then someone will read the document, publically announcing the engagement of these two people in public. This act makes the engagement official.
About a day or a week before the wedding, depending on the family, there will be an initiation ceremony for the boy and girl in their respective homes. During this ceremony the bride and groom will be coated in yellow turmeric, a sacred spice. During this step the turmeric root is pounded by married women, who are considered more auspicious for this task. The powder, considered to have healing properties, will cover their arms to enhance their complexion. During this time they officially declare their new status as bride (vadhu) and bridegroom (vara). Following the declaration there is a chapra, where the home is decorated with coconut and banana leaves. The bride will have mehindi/henna done to her hands and feet, although it is more of a thing in Northern India.
One day before the wedding the groom goes to a hall (it used to be the home in more traditional times) for the Vara Puja. Vara literally translates as groom. Here he is given milk and banana to eat as well as gifts from the bride’s family because they are celebrating him as the bridegroom in the same way the bride was celebrated during the Lakshmi Puja earlier. This is where part of the dowry is given from the bride’s family—anything from gold, refrigerators, to even fancy cars in particularly wealthy cases. Typically there is another large reception that follows this event, although this is not the traditional way since the couple was not supposed to see each other until they were married.
One important note about the Hindu wedding ceremony is that the couple will take the roles of two married deities. The woman represents the goddess Lakshmi and the groom represents the god Venkateshwara (except in the case of Brahmin’s, who act out the roles of Rama and Sita). Throughout the wedding ceremony the couple will, in a sense, act out the wedding of these deities.
Family Deity Puja
On the morning of the wedding there is a puja performed for the bride’s family god. The god of the house is inherited from their ancestors, or in the case of a village, it is the village’s god. This puja can begin as early as 5:30 AM depending on the time the marriage was set. The purpose of this puja is to invoke the god of the kula or community.
Next, there is a Cleansing Puja known as Punyaha. Water representing the sacred Ganga River is sprinkled on themselves and on all the things being used in the wedding as well as the place where the marriage will be performed.
Following the cleansing there is a puja for the ancestors called Naandi. The purpose of this puja is to invoke all the forefathers and ask them to ensure no inauspicious things happen during the ceremony while also asking for their blessing.
Navagraha Planet Puja
During the Planet Puja, known as the Navagraha, the nine planet gods (including the moon and the sun) are addressed. There are nine different kinds of grains offered to each of the planet deities during this puja.
This step is a vital component of the Hindu wedding ceremony because the Homa Puja invokes all the gods by lighting a fire in a geometrically shaped pit using special kinds of wood. Items like clothes, coconuts, coins, etc. are offered into the flames to please the fire god.
The Hindu Wedding Ceremony
Once the Homa Puja is completed, the wedding ceremony begins. The Hindu wedding ceremony length is usually an hour and a half to two hours. The bride does her own rituals and pujas with other women for the first part of the marriage ceremony. The ceremony is conducted in Sanskrit and the bride and bridegroom repeat the vows in this ancient language throughout the ceremony.
First, for some castes (such as the Vaishyas) there is a threading ceremony for the groom as a way of initiating him to as a Bramachari. This white thread is given to males during the wedding ritual except Brahmins, who receive their thread at an earlier age (around eight) when they are initiated into learning the Vedas. During the threading ceremony the groom says the gayathri mantra, which are verses you say from the Vedas. He is supposed to wear this thread under his clothes, around his shoulder and torso, for the rest of his life. This ceremony is complex and has significance that deserves its own complete post.
The Kashi Yatra (pilgrimage place) is a fascinating part of the Hindu wedding because at this point the groom walks away, saying he has mastered the four Vedas and six Shadangs and pretends he wants to go off and acquire more knowledge, power, wisdom, etc. in Varanasi (a sacred city). The father of the bride goes after him and says “Why are you going alone? Take my daughter with you on the journey of life.” The father then offers gifts, usually silver items, and washes the groom’s feet as a sign of respect. He then requests the bridegroom come back and marry his daughter. At some point during this ceremony the groom is dressed up, has eye liner put on, and is then asked to look into a mirror to admire his reflection. At the end the bride’s brother will open an umbrella, pouring out flowers to welcome the groom back.
The Feet Puja, which is known in the local language as the Pada Puja, is when the parents and other elders in the room bless the couple and in return have their feet washed by the bride or groom. At this point the bride and groom are still in separate rooms, but they apply turmeric to their parents and elders’ feet who are present with them.
Behind the scenes the bride is doing the Gowri Pujas in her own room. Gowri signifies Parvathi, who is another goddess and the wife of Lord Shiva. The bride does pujas to her as if she were Lakshmi doing the puja in her name. The bride does the Gowri Pujas for her well-being with the other married women. Her maternal uncle also ties a thread called basinga to her head which is made of a special kind of wood or gold.
The bride finally comes out of her room and joins the groom during this step of the Hindu wedding ceremony, although there is a white cloth (the anthrapatam) placed between them so they still cannot see each other. A woolen thread is then tied to their hands with turmeric root. This tie prevents bad events and evil omens (like death) from interfering with the part of the ceremony coming up where the marriage is going to be finalized. A guardian snake god, Nagadevatha, is also invoked at this time.
Cumin is a bitter spice while jaggery is sweet, so when they are mixed into a paste it represents the bitterness and sweetness of life that we all face. The white cloth is pulled away so the couple can see each other for the first time (in theory). They then place the mixture on top of the other person’s head (Priya says this has turned into a kind of race). The couple holds the mixture in place on the other person while people bless the couple.
This is the Yellow Thread Puja, and it is as necessary to the Hindu wedding ceremony rituals as a ring is to western traditions. This white thread, now dyed yellow from turmeric, marked with black beads and a thali is placed on top of a coconut, jaggery, and beetle leaf offering while pujas are performed on it. The yellow thread is then taken around the room where people touch the thread and give their permission for the man to marry the woman. All must consent.
During this step the mangalaya, or yellow thread, is placed around the bride’s neck and the groom ties it behind her neck three times. After the knots are tied the bridegroom applies kumkum to the bride’s forehead to make a red dot and puts more down the central part in her hair. Next the bride is given toe rings to show she is married. The couple then exchanges garlands, which is the traditional way of showing you are now married. Note: after the wedding the bride is expected to wear the yellow thread for the rest of her life, although it is often replaced by a gold chain.
The Kanyadana is when the bride and groom take hands to hold a coconut. The bride’s family then pours milk on the coconut and says “we are giving you our girl so please take care of her.” My friend Priya said this tends to be a sad moment in the ceremony with no shortage of crying.
Seven Rotations around the Fire
Next the couple walks around a fire seven times. A priest tells them vows to recite on each turn around the fire. (Seven is a symbolic number found in nature, there are seven oceans, seven hills, seven colors in the rainbow, etc.) After the couple will take hands and place offerings into the fire (which will be in the same location as the Homa fire earlier).
The couple is then taken outside to see Arundhati, a star that is good for the couple’s future family and for having “good children.” The priest asks the couple to look up and point to the star in the sky. Of course, they cannot actually see the star, so they pretend to see it and get their picture taken.
Next, the newlyweds are asked to walk on seven piles of grains that represent seven mountains. With each step another vow is taken. The groom moves his new bride’s foot onto the next pile, signifying “I will be with you with every step.” While they walk they hold pinkies, promising and committing to stay together no matter what hard times may come.
During this puja five fruits are offered to the gods (this can be any fruit but usually it consists of bananas, oranges, grapes, and apples), which are then distributed to married women by the bride. This puja is supposed to help her have a child, particularly a son who can be an heir.
Since traditionally the couple would have not spent time together before, this is a part of the ceremony where the couple can get to know each other. Usually the couple plays several games. For one game there is a bowl of water with a ring in it and the couple has to fish for it, flirting all the while of course. In a second game the couple tosses a ball made of flowers back and forth. In the third game the couple is given dolls, which they then name, push in a swing, and decide how many children they want to have. Priya noted that this is “mostly for fun, not serious now.” There is also a part during recreation where the couple throws colored rice on each other. At the end, guests will break papids on the couple’s heads.
When the wedding ceremony ends there is a grihapravesha, where the bride is taken to the groom’s home (or room, in the case of a wedding in a hall). There will be a cup of rice in the doorway, which the bride will knock over before stepping inside with her right foot. The spilled rice refers to Lakshmi staying in the home and shows the prosperity you are bringing to the house. “When there is something spilled in the home that is for you to keep,” says Priya. “It signifies that there will always be food at home.” The bride will then place handprints inside the room to further demonstrate this act.
After all the ceremonies the couple spends the first night at the bride’s place and stays there for two or three days where more rituals are performed. For example, the bride carries a glass of milk with her on her wedding night and donates her clothes she wore. From there they return to the groom’s home where additional rituals await for the bride for entering the home for the first time, for cooking her first meal, for lighting a lamp, and so on. But I’ll save that for another story on another day.