To have a large wedding in South India signifies wealth and prosperity. If your neighbor’s cousin’s friend’s sister-in-law decides to invite her Bollywood instructor, and, while she’s at it, everyone else in the Bollywood class, the more the merrier! Furthermore, to have foreign guests at one’s wedding is seen as an honor, and South Indians are very welcoming of [white, western] foreign guests. So, when I was invited to three weddings in one week, I wasn’t as surprised as you might expect. The weddings, themselves, however, were filled with surprises.
When I groggily opened my door at 4:50am in response to fervent knocking, my ammaa was surprised I hadn’t already woken myself up. We had planned to leave the house at 6am for a 6:30am wedding, and evidently, I needed more than a full hour to get ready.
My ammaa dressed me in my saree, combed and pulled back my hair, gave me necklaces, earrings and bangles to wear, and of course, a bindi.
Hindu weddings tend to be morning occasions, because morning hours are considered “auspicious.” The exact time is astrologically calculated by a priest. This sets up the new couple for a happy marriage.
The bride is a distant relative of my ammaa‘s. Decorated like a goddess, she was adorned in a gold and blue saree, her hair was meticulously braided and enhanced with rhinestones, her arms were painted with detailed henna, and her wrists were hidden beneath gold bangles. The wedding saree of the bride is a gift expected from the groom’s family. The bride receives it on stage at the wedding, and then changes her dress before the ceremony with the groom begins.
I’ll be honest. For the majority of the wedding ceremony, I had no idea what was happening, and am not qualified to talk about the significance of each processional act (if you’re really curious what happens at a South Indian Hindu Wedding/why it happens, I whole-heartedly endorse your googling “South Indian Hindu wedding processional,” which I guarantee will grant you much more reliable knowledge than I can).
Here’s my summary. The bride and groom separately entered and left the wedding stage multiple times. Family members often joined. Music blared throughout the hall (vows are not exchanged orally; audience members are free to talk amongst themselves throughout the ceremony). Multiple poojas (communions between people and God created through a series of ceremonial actions) were performed. Food was eaten. The bride was showered in rice, confetti, and attention. A camera crew documented the whole thing. The bride and groom exchanged garlands. We ate.
Suddenly, they were married. Two people who had probably explored each other’s Facebook pages to make sure they were suitable, who had then spoken on the phone a few times, and who had met in person once or twice, were now committed to spending their lives together. Their parents arranged the partnership based on knowledge of their future son’s/daughter’s spouse they acquired through distant relatives (Do they drink? Do they smoke? Do they have a reliable income, and similar habits of life?). The bride and groom are, necessarily, of the same caste. Marriage is a matter of practicality, trust, perseverance, and hopefully, joy.
I couldn’t help but impose western biases as I watched this wedding, though. To me, the bride appeared terrified at worst, indifferent at best, and happy only once or twice. The bride and groom hardly, if ever, made eye contact. My Caste, Gender, and Politics professor explained to me, though, that women are:
- A) Not used to such an inordinate amount of attention (literally decorated and put on stage in front of hundreds of guests)
- B) Not encouraged to express too much emotion. Remaining reserved is more respectable
- C) Not in control of what’s going on during the ceremony, and probably anxious for it to be over
The bride, therefore, may have been (and hopefully was) excited about her marriage, but too stifled or anxious to express her happiness in the setting of a loud, crowded marriage hall in which she was the center of attention.
My favorite aspect of the ceremony was a game played by the bride and groom on stage, in which they competed to fish a ring out of a large ceramic pot, as an ice breaker, of sorts. Both the bride and groom laughed and smiled. They seemed happy to be together.
Still, I wondered, what if he talks too much? What if they find each other to be tolerable, but nothing more? What if they’re not sexually compatible? What if he doesn’t like her cooking? What if she doesn’t want to cook for him? What if they hate each other? What if abuse, what if domestic violence, what if, what if, what if?! The mentality surrounding marriages here seems to be that if problems arise, they can be dealt with, no matter how severe. If a problem is severe enough, the parents of the bride and groom will meet to discuss options, to intervene, and to solve the problem. Divorce is uncommon and highly stigmatized.
Granted, these mentalities are present in the U.S., too. Divorce certainly isn’t smiled upon, and people can (and do) radically change throughout marriages. A bride and groom in the U.S. can discover, within a month or within 10 years, that they’re completely incompatible. Domestic violence certainly occurs in the U.S., and marriages are not the fairytales our culture tells us they are.
People can find themselves stuck or will themselves to be stuck in mediocre partnerships anywhere in the world. This is not particular to arranged marriages. Nonetheless, at this wedding, perhaps because arranged marriages are so novel to me, I found myself thinking harder about the idea of “stuckness.”
The commitment to working through problems with a partner does not necessarily connote stuckness. This commitment in itself can be seen as a form of letting go: letting go of the idea of perfection, letting go of the happily-ever-after narrative we’re all fed, letting go of the perpetual search for something more, something better, something righter, something that may or may not exist.
To me, though, not being stuck also means having the agency to gracefully let go of things, people, and relationships not meant for us, especially things, people, and relationships that cause us harm. I believe all people are worthy of respect, and I believe in the freedom to move on from disrespectful partners.
I believe in freedom, period. I don’t intend to imply that people who find themselves in arranged, Hindu marriages are any less free than couples in the U.S. who choose the partners they marry. This was the very thought I struggled to combat as I sat through the wedding. As poojas and photo shoots and confetti throwing and garland-exchanging commenced, I tried, with all my heart, to temper my brain’s tireless resolve to ask, again and again, what if…?
The second Hindu wedding I was invited to, I did not attend. The wedding was scheduled for 6:30pm, which was odd for a Hindu wedding (inauspicious hours), but nonetheless, adorned in sarees, our group of 10 American students showed up to the wedding hall, only to discover we were 12 hours late. The wedding had commenced at 6:30am, and our invitation had been misprinted. Instead, we went out for a delectable buffet dinner. Win-win.
The third wedding was a Christian wedding. I was invited by the founder of a non-profit I had just begun to volunteer for.
We entered a giant cathedral filled with wooden pews arranged in a semi circle. A marching band greeted wedding guests at the entrance with the booming sound of drums. The bride wore a pink saree and a wedding accessory I actually recognized: a white veil. She looked stunning.
The groom, and then the bride, walked down the aisle, meeting at the altar to alternatively kneel and stand before the priests who officiated the wedding. Guests were led in Tamil prayer songs. Verses from the Bible about love and commitment were shared by a priest, mostly in Tamil. The bride and groom were repeatedly blessed. They signed their legal marriage papers right there in the cathedral, and off to the reception they went!
This, too, was an arranged marriage. But the smiles on the faces of the bride and groom throughout the ceremony gave me less pause about the arrangement than I had felt at the Hindu wedding.
At the reception, the bride and groom fed each other cake. Christian songs played (in English!), as did some Hawaiian music and some Elvis Presley, which made me chuckle. Honored guests made speeches. A video and photo crew, again, documented the entire occasion. Just like at the Hindu wedding, long lines formed, as guests waited to pose for pictures with the bride and groom.
I congratulated the couple, and wished them happiness.
Many of the same what ifs popped into my head as did in the first wedding, but I was a little more desensitized to my own questions after having thought about them so much already, and perhaps a little more comfortable with a wedding that incorporated features of the western weddings I’m used to.
This is why I’m here. I know I’m biased. I will always be biased. I will always be most comfortable with what I’m used to. But evaluating the things in this culture that make me tick, that make me ask, ‘How? Why? What if…?’ reminds me that I should be asking the same questions of things I readily accept within my own culture. On the other hand, I wonder if accepting what we’re taught without ample evaluation of each and every “norm” makes for a more contented life. How this contentment perpetuates systemic inequality, I’m still grappling with, but I’m thankful to be thinking.
….And, I’ll be honest, I’m thankful that I don’t have to worry about my parents arranging a wedding for me anytime soon (ever)…