The Hindu Wedding

A Rich Culture…

Hindu weddings reflect much of the richness of Indian traditions and culture. No one can remain impervious to the kaleidoscope of colour, rousing music and joie de vivre that accompanies the wedding festivities. Like an album with moving pictures, a Hindu wedding creates an indelible impact not only because of its richness but because  it captures in every aspect be it food, clothing, cooking, music, dance or rites, the extent to which we have managed to preserve customs and traditions  handed down from generation to generation.

Although time has relentlessly marched on, many customs have remained embedded in the fabric of Indian festivities. Others, like arranged marriages, are not rigidly enforced by Hindu families. In present day ‘arranged’ scenarios, suggestions are made by family friends or relatives to either the boy or girl’s family of potential spouses based on knowledge of their background, upbringing and personality. Chaperoned meetings are organised and the Pandit is consulted as to the compatibility of the pair. Once the ‘gana baite’ and the couple agree, the wedding is fixed for an auspicious date. Grandmothers dramatically recount the experience of seeing their husbands for the first time on their wedding day and of having no say in the matter, many of them even younger than sixteen. They shake their heads and say “Love comes after marriage, what is all this thing of letting boy and girl pick? Love marriage? Humph!!! Two morning and they divorce ……not like in we time.”

It is well known that Hindu weddings allow most members of the family to play significant roles in the ceremony and in the festivities leading up to the day. Months in advance, the families are plunged into a whirlwind of preparations to ensure all the finer aspects are arranged, whether it is mandap design, bridal dress, cuisine or choice of invitation. Invitations sent today, whether prepared locally or imported from overseas, are ultra modern with appropriate pictures, verses, symbols and artistic embellishments. Gone are the days when a few grains of dyed rice (neota) were placed in the hands of the invitee and a verbal invitation issued.

The festivities commence with the engagement or ‘mangni’.  The father of the bride places the engagement ring on the groom’s finger on behalf of the bride in a simple mangni ceremony a few months before the wedding. The saying is ‘chat mangni, pat biya” – Quick engagement and quicker wedding.

The Tilak ceremony was an ancient custom practiced by indentured immigrants. It allowed the bride’s father to visit the home of his future son-in-law with other male members of the family and welcome him into the family, present him with gifts and place a tilak or special mark on his forehead. Tilak has virtually faded from the list of ceremonies preceding the marriage. The wedding day is preceded by the matikore, sangeet and mehendi. These pre-rites prepare the bride and groom for their new stage in life and allow them to share special moments with members of the family. They also provide an opportunity for merriment and feasting.

The matikore or dig dutty as it is popularly called in Guyana is essentially prayers to Mother Earth or Dharti puja and is done two days prior to the wedding. ‘Matti’ means earth and ‘kor’ means digging. The same rites are done separately at the homes of the bride and groom. At the bride’s home, her mother wends her way to a clean spot some distance from their home and to the accompaniment of the tassa drums and traditional songs offer prayers for the fertility and prosperity of her daughter’s marriage. Matikore has traditionally been dominated by the female family members. After applying sindoor, (the mark of married women) to the foreheads of the married women assembled there, female relatives would hoist the tray aloft after collecting a small sample of earth to take to the home for the puja. At her home, the bride traditionally garbed in yellow, symbolizing fertility, sits with the pandit and performs puja. She receives a protective thread or raksha sutra on her wrist and the hardi or dye is blessed. The dye which is said to have restorative, cleansing and beautifying powers is smeared on the bodies of bride and groom after the matikore.

Before the bride is escorted by her mother to her specially prepared chamber where she stays out of sight until the wedding day, five married ladies or little girls engage in chumawan. The bride sits with her hands filled with rice and a gold bangle; symbols of economic prosperity. Each child or lady would take a small quantity of that rice and khus grass and touch the head, shoulders, hands, knees of the bride five times. Each time the rice is cast away ensuring all negative forces are removed from the bride’s person. The remainder of the evening is filled with wedding music and dance as the ladies, confident that no men folk are around, show off their special moves. Tassa has always been the main form of music although many persons have added recorded music to the entertainment. Vibrant traditional marriage songs are also sung by the older ladies to the accompaniment of the dholak played by a lady.  All those present are treated to mithai and a light meal of channa and phoulorie.

The following day, friends and family meet at the ‘wedding house’ for the sangeet night. This is a very old custom and in the past talented singers would arrive from all over the country and perform traditional wedding songs as well as tent or taan singing for the enjoyment of the guests. With the loss of many of the older singers, live singing today consists mainly of filmi wedding songs. In Guyana, this night is also called the cook night and men and women cut up vegetables for the next day. The cook night has always provided the opportunity for dancing, fun and teasing of the bride and groom. The bride’s hands can be adorned with the mehendi on this night as well.

The filmi mehendi scenes appeal to many young brides. Elaborate mehendi nights even before the matikor are now trendy.  Female friends and relatives of the bride are invited to her home where they reminisce on their childhood, tease her, sing, dance and make merry. Someone skilled in applying the mehendi applies intricate designs on the bride’s hands and feet and even on her friends. With new technology mehendi paste can be bought in tubes or cones, making it easy to apply. Stick-on mehendi tattoos are also fashionable! The artist applying the mehendi to the bride’s hands carefully weaves the groom’s name among the designs telling the blushing bride that the groom has to find all the letters of his name on her wedding day. She is expected to keep the paste on for many  hours as it has been said the brighter the colour on the hands the more the bride will be loved by her husband.

The wedding day brings with it a buzz of excitement. Early in the morning the mothers would go to the home of a female relative for the lawa. Rikki Jai’s “Mor Tor” vividly describes the exchange of parched rice (mor lawa tor lawa) between the mother and the female relative. The tassa would be heard in rhythmic sequences, each beat telling of a different event on the wedding day.

Guests attending a Hindu wedding are mesmerized by the vivid colours and décor. Whether in a mandir or home, the mandap or maro or wedding canopy has always been the focal point. With the link to India strengthened by exposure to Bollywood movies, mandaps have become intricate and works of art. From those that can be rented to those constructed by family members, they reflect the blend of past and present. Mandaps were at one period of our history constructed purely out of bamboo, festooned with crepe paper or tinsel decorations, flowers and fruits and vegetables which were added to encourage fertility in the marriage. Even now, bamboo, which is a symbol of fertility, has a major role in Hindu weddings.

The bridal trousseau has perhaps undergone the most significant changes over the last 168 years. Brides dressed in dyed yellow cotton are but a faded memory. Access to imported Indian garments resulted in Hindu brides being draped in flamboyant red or white chiffon or silk saris generously encrusted with sequins. Even these have now been replaced by an array of designer ghararas, lehengas, fusion outfits and saris in a range of brilliant hues. Over the decades, the Hindu bride has consistently been adorned with real gold jewelry be it the heirloom galihar or tilarie or simple pieces of jewelry as it is the belief that gold is fortuitous. Exposure to Bollywood films, travel to India and the Indian diaspora have resulted in brides opting for exquisite stone-work costume jewelry, modish hair styles and chic bridal outfits. The groom today can also be choosy about his apparel. He can coordinate his oufit with the bride and appear in elegant achkan suits or sherwani, reminiscent of India’s nobility with matching turban. However, unlike the brides, many grooms still continue to tread the traditional path of their predecessors, arriving garbed in a yellow or pink jora jama complete with lavishly embellished mowr.

Amidst tooting horns and the competitive rhythms of the bride and groom’s tassa, invitees to the wedding become enfolded in the warmth and customs of a heritage lovingly protected and handed down by our ancestors. They observe, with a myriad of emotions, the warm embrace or milap of the fathers, the emotional handing over of the precious daughter of one household to another in kanyadaan and the cementing of the couples union which is characterized by the exchange of garlands, circumambulation of the fire, seven steps, reciting of vows and the placing of sindoor on the bride’s maang or forehead.

The conclusion of the wedding is the signal for the tassa to begin a triumphant melody to which relatives and friends of the couple dance with gay abandon and joy. Appropriate wedding songs are provided by singers or recorded music. Every moment is recorded by photographers and videographers.

Lavish vegetarian meals are the hallmark of Hindu weddings. No one is allowed to leave the wedding without first partaking in the ‘seven curry spread’. It seems as if all the vegetables available in Guyana can be consumed with rice and puri; be it pumpkin, baigan, eddoes, potatoes, bhaji (spinach) or katahar (jackfruit). The cooks, traditionally male, would have prepared all of these including the traditional ‘wedding house puri’ (thin puris fried in oil). Dal puri is also a popular favourite today.

Those new to the experience battle with the unique lotus leaf which serves as a platter for the meal and which is peculiar to Guyanese Hindu festivities. Some even make the mistake of sampling a bit of the leaf before the wiser, after much laughter, would say “No, no don’t eat your plate.” Even a connoisseur of food should not miss the sumptuous kheer or sweet rice which completes the meal. For the more fussy palates other authentic Indian sweets like gulab jamun and barfi can be found side by side with the old favourites:  cow’s milk pera and mithai.

A Hindu wedding compellingly impresses upon those attending vastness of our legacy. We are graphically reminded that in spite of the influx of modern amenities, facilities and the winds of change the foundations on which the traditions were laid are entrenched and that every conceivable aspect of the festivities still bear in some way the stamp of our fore- parents.