In America, we assume that every marriage has its tale. Questions like “Where did you all meet?” or “What’s your love story?” are common, and you often expect the response to be overly romantic and gushy – involving serenades, hidden engagement rings, “love at first sight”, or any of the other cliche things Americans associate with love and marriage. Heck, we all know that “Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage”. Well, that’s not the case everywhere in the world, and if you’re a married couple traveling to rural India, it is likely you’ll be asked, “Are you a love or arranged marriage?”… and if they don’t ask, they probably assume you’re an arranged marriage.
To most people in America, arranged marriage sounds like a crime, or at least it sounds like a very unappealing way to be paired with a mate. Most of us have had that obnoxious roommate at a summer camp, and the idea of the same thing happening in marriage is pretty intimidating. Well, even if arranged marriages aren’t common in America, they are a fact of life in most of the world. In India, 90% of marriages are arranged, with that number dropping to 70% in the more westernized metro areas like Delhi and Mumbai. It’s not just India that’s doing it either: according to UNICEF it’s estimated that 60% of marriages around the globe are arranged marriages.
My personal experience in India tells me that those numbers may even be underestimates. One of my friends here is in a “love” marriage, where he met his wife without any prompting by his parents. He then had to spend several years trying to convince them that she was the right girl for him, and he was only able to get their blessing after making deals to not speak with his future wife for extended periods of time (they assumed he would cave before they did). This isn’t how a typical arranged marriage works in India, but it’s definitely different from the love marriages we picture in America. Typically, an arranged marriage is set-up entirely by the parents of the bride and groom, and sometimes the soon-to-be husband & wife won’t even meet each other before the engagement. Traditions are starting to relax a bit (as seen by the lower metropolitan rates), but sometimes that may just mean the bride & groom get to voice an opinion about their parents’ choice of soul-mate.
This tradition of arranged marriages is only reinforced by the caste system in India. If you are unfamiliar with the caste system (as I was before coming to India), it’s a social hierarchy like “upper class” and “lower class” but based on a family’s last name, also called caste or Jati. In India, your name means much more than in America – people have commonly asked us, “What does your name mean?” Then I have to anticlimactically say, “Nothing… well, it is a city in Texas, but I don’t think that has anything to do with me.”
Here, your first name has a meaning (similar to Summer or Faith in America), and your last name represents your caste. There’s debate about how the caste system originated, but I’ll tell you what I’ve inferred (from individual explanations and the internet). The caste system in India originates from the invasion of the Aryans around 1500BC, who brought with them an ancestral version of the caste system. The system was split up into four varnas: Brahmins are the priests, Kshatriya are the warriors, Vaishya are the merchants, and Shudras the artisans. All of the modern castes originate from these 4 groups, and everyone knows what varna a certain caste descends from. Originally these 4 castes were meant to be equals, with no single caste dominating the others. However, over time certain castes (like Brahmin) started to consider themselves superior and social divides began to form. Some academics say that these divisions were only exacerbated by British rule in the early 1900’s, when each family was forced to select a varna to which they belonged (despites centuries of interbreeding).
In the Aryan invasion, the indigenous Indians (similar to native Americans) were given the worst outcome of all. These people were ostracized from the caste system and society as a whole – they are called the untouchables or dalit, and they have historically been treated as less than human in India. These are the people who clean toilets with their bare hands or spend their life picking up garbage off the streets. A friend actually told me, “The untouchables used to have to wear a jar around their neck, so that their spit wouldn’t touch the ground, and a broom was tied to their back so that wherever they walked it swept away their steps like they were existed…”
How does this relate to arranged marriages? Well, the caste system encourages endogamy, in which you only marry someone within the same group (or in this case caste) as yourself. This ends up being the most important criteria when parents are seeking out a spouse for their child. Luckily, my friend and his wife were of the same caste, but if they hadn’t been their situation may have turned out a lot differently. It is considered dishonorable for someone to marry (or date) someone outside of their caste, and this manifests itself in the frightening practice of “honor killings.” An honor killing is when the parents of a child kills their own kin because the child has dishonored family in some way through: marrying another caste without their permission, having sex outside of marriage, refusing an arranged marriage, or various other dishonors. It is estimated that between 1000 and 4000 honor killings happen in India each year.
Well, all of this makes arranged marriages sound terrible! That is not my goal, and I do not want you to walk away with that impression. The truth is that you meet arranged marriage couples who seem euphoric and madly in love, while you meet love marriages that seem miserable and ready to duke it out at any moment. In India, I have met many arranged marriages that seem as happy as any of the other love marriages I’ve known in American. Even though this is the case, you may still be wondering, how can anyone ever fall in love with someone they’ve been mandated to marry?
In psychology, there’s something called the Proximity Principle, which concludes that the more time you spend being around/interacting with someone, the more likely you are to develop a friendship. This is the reason children who are sat in alphabetical order in gradeschool end up with best friends with similar last names, or why you are friends with the person in the next cubicle but not necessarily with the person down the hall. You end up spending an awful lot of time interacting with your spouse, so it would make sense that you have a fighting chance to become the bestest of best friends.
The reality though, is that this is just a probabilistic effect and not a guarantee. Sure, there were friends you made who sat next to you in class, but there were kids right behind you that disliked equally as much. You make the same gamble in an arranged marriage, and sometimes the result can be sour, leading to negative outcomes like physical or emotional abuse and isolation from your previous family. The important thing to recognize is that any marriage can turn out poorly, and that means that anyone should be able to get out of a bad marriage with a legal divorce. Whether your marriage turns south in the first week or 25 years down the line, you should have the ability to speak up and express discontent with your current life situation.
Ok, ok, this post has gotten pretty depressing. Honor killings? Physical abuse? That bully who sat next to you in 6th grade? Well, there’s plenty of other fun differences between Indian/hindu weddings and American weddings, and I have not forgotten them!
Did you ever wish you could have a second wedding? It was just so much fun that you want to do the ceremony all over again? Well, in India it is fairly common to have a public engagement party, like a mini-wedding, in which the bride and groom to-be officially commit to officially marrying each other at some point down the line. The events at an engagement party vary widely, but they can include things like a ring ceremony, food, and various traditions like Tikka – in which family & friends take turns to approach the couple, smear a patch of red paste on their forehead, and press some dried rice against the dot. At the engagement I attended, this was also the time at which you gave a gift (of money) to the future bride and groom.
One reason for the public engagement is that sometimes it will be years after an engagement before a couple actually gets married. I was told that this delay is sometimes accounted for by the fact that a family has two daughters (or sons) they are hoping to marry in a 2-for-1 super wedding day special. Let’s face it, weddings are expensive. If you can cut the cost of wedding in half by stalling for a few years until your younger child gets engaged, why not?
Depending on the beliefs of the family, this period between the engagement and the wedding is also treated as a time of courting for the bride and groom. They will sometimes go on dates, talk on the phone, and if nothing else see each other at scheduled meetings between the two families. I must clarify that an engagement party is by no means required, and something more modest is often agreed upon by the families. If a public engagement is not done, the parents of each household will travel to the other with gifts to symbolize acceptance of the proposed marriage.
There are some commonalities between Indian weddings and American weddings, for example: there’s food at the event, people get dressed up, a priest of some sort might oversee the event, and you send out invitations. Well, if anyone gave you that miserable description of a wedding, noone would ever want to go to one… Actually, it would probably depend on what kind of food they were serving… Regardless, the difference between Indian/Hindu weddings and American weddings are pretty dramatic.
One clear difference between the two are the duds of the bride and groom. In America the groom will probably wear a standard suit and the bride a white dress. In India, the clothing gets a lot more colorful and a lot heavier. Check out some of the photos below to see how weighed down the bride and groom get with some of the traditional Indian garb. There’s a good reason that winter is wedding season in India – can you imagine wearing all of those layers in 110 degree weather? In addition to the beautiful clothing, the bride is also adorned with elaborate designs of henna on her arms and legs. Henna is sometimes done for fun at non-ceremonial times, but at weddings it is taken to a whole ‘nother level.
But there’s much more to a wedding than just clothing and food. It’s the events and traditions that really express the feel of each wedding, whether that’s through the toasts, the vows, or the religious practices. A Indian/hindu wedding is no different, so here’s the play-by-play of a potential wedding (mostly thanks to wikipedia and this site):
- The Baraat: The groom arrives to the wedding venues in a procession of singing and dancing. I didn’t get to be a part of one of these, but I had the privilege of witnessing one in Navsari.
- Swagatam: The bride’s family welcomes the Baraat into the wedding hall with Aarati and sweets, a symbol of happiness and good tidings to come.
- Prayers to Lord Ganesh: Lord Ganesh is considered the god of beginning and good luck. In order to insure the marriage is off to the right start, Lord Ganesh is praised with items like the sacred coconut and asked to bless the wedding.
- Prayers to the Heavens: Astrology is very important in Indian weddings, and a wedding often cannot take place without the consent of an astrologer. In the wedding, the couple will pray to the heavens to bless the rest of their wedded days.
- Vadhu Aagman: The bride arrives and is escorted to the mandap (or Indian altar) typically by her maternal uncle, along with bridesmaids, and grooms’ men. An antarpat, or cloth, is held between the bride and groom to prevent them from seeing one another. In the past, when the antarpat was dropped, it would be the first time the bride and groom had ever seen each other.
- Mangal Ashtakam: A mantra is recited by the Bride and Groom, and then they place a large garland around each other’s necks, indicating their mutual approval to proceed with the ceremony.
- Kannyadaan: The bride’s parents literally hand the daughter away to the groom asking, in return for their trust, that the groom promise to remain faithful to their daughter.
- Hast Melap: The bride and groom join hands, promising to stay together for the rest of their lives. They then tye each other’s wrists with symbolic thread which is called Sutrabandhanam.
- Visible Signs of Commitment: At this point in the wedding, some of the visible signs of marriage commitment are performed. For the wife, she will be marked with her first sindoor, a red line on her forehead and into her hair that is reserved for married women. She will also be given a Mangalsutra, a black and gold necklace that she will always wear to symbolize marriage. If the couple decides to use rings, the bride and groom will also exchange rings at this time (otherwise the man carries no signs of marriage).
- Lighting of the Fire: The couple lights the Agni, the holy fire that symbolizes light, power and knowledge, and acts as a witness to the many Hindu ceremonies. Bride and Groom repeat the sacred pledge of marriage and request Agni to be the messenger for their prayers.
- Agni Pradakshina: The couple transitions into married life by circling the sacred fire four times. After the Agni Pradakshina the Bride moves to the left side of the Groom, indicating her transition to the Groom’s family.
- Saptapadi: The couple takes their first 7 steps together, after each step reciting a commitment and aspiration they have for one another. For example:
- With the first step, we will provide for and support each other.
- With the second step, we will develop mental, physical & spiritual strength.
- With the third step, we will share the worldly possessions.
- With the fourth step, we will acquire knowledge, happiness and peace.
- With the fifth step, we will raise strong and virtuous children.
- With the sixth step, we will enjoy the fruits of all seasons.
- With the seventh step, we will always remain friends and cherish each other.
- Ashirvad : The married couple are officially declared husband and wife! As they leave the mandap, they are celebrated as a married couple and showered with flower petals.
- Kanya Vidai: This is the point at which the bride must officially say goodbye to her family. In the past, this moment was literally the last time a girl may ever see her family. However, it is now common for the bride to maintain relations with your family after a marriage. This ending to the wedding is often accompanied by crying by both the bride and her parents as they say farewell.
The life practices on this side of the world may be a lot different than on the other, but in the end we’re all people. The same things are happening wherever you go. People are falling in love, people are having fun, people are having children, people are throwing weddings, and people are just being human. Thank you to all of the wonderful Indians who contributed to this blog post by letting me into their lives, inviting me to their engagements and to their weddings, and sharing their stories. I have a new, more complete perspective of the world (and maybe you do too after reading this blog), and I have all of the people at Gram Seva to thank.