My Big Fat Arranged-Marriage Wedding: Part II

My first thought was of Rekha. It was Friday morning, the day of her wedding.

I tried to imagine how she was feeling… excited, distracted, cripplingly scared? I was certain only that these possible feelings would include a multitude of feelings I have never before, and probably never will experience. 

***

The various ceremonies that took place at Rekha’s family home that evening were numerous and intricate. Often, I observed without understanding, and was fascinated by everything.

Rekha’s (soon to be) sisters-in-law arrived before their brother to present her with platters of fruit, nuts and sticky sweets, embroidered saris, and jewellery. Most  memorable were the heavy silver payal they fastened round her ankles. The sisters themselves were decked out in hooped, pearl nose-rings. Curious guests and mischievous children crowded into the central courtyard, hot under the glare of the photographer’s lights, fighting to get a look at the bounty.

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After this, the baraatis (groom’s party) disappeared to the nearby, local school, which Rekha’s father had borrowed for the occasion and where food was being served. Rekha hurriedly undressed in the side-room surrounded by fussing didis (‘sisters’ – of various description), re-washed her hair, and re-dressed into one of her new saris. This time, she wore the elaborate shardi jewellery Helen and I had bought her as a present. I was honoured to have provided something so beautiful and significant; it felt as though a part of me had been admitted into the inner sanctum of this alien, age-old ceremony.

***

We ate a final thali-feast then sat sipping warm kesar milk, waiting for the groom to arrive. At around midnight, he appeared – preceded by loud music and an entourage of wildly dancing young men – riding a white horse. Both he and his horse were elaborately adorned: he wore a jewel-encrusted sherwani, a red turban and carried a sword. Like Rekha, his feet and palms had stained with delicate, red mehendi designs.

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He was helped down from his horse (which immediately thundered off, scattering the crowd), and sat on the sandy path outside the house for a presentation of gifts. He sat opposite his father-in-law and beside his own father, as Rekha had done earlier in her equivalent ceremony.

Male relatives made tilak marks, using kumkum (red turmeric powder), on Rekha’s father’s face, and he did the same to them and to the groom. They then took turns to wear a red turban and be lifted – clear off the ground – by the others. Each time this feat was accomplished there was much manly clapping and hooting. I am unsure of religious significance of this display – but enjoyed it nonetheless!

The errant horse had, in the meantime, been rounded up and led back to the groom. He was then helped onto it and led the few meters to the entrance to Rekha’s house. Her mother and aunts emerged to perform a special Puja (literally, ‘respect’): they carried offerings of cone-shaped, beaded pots on their heads, and shook blessed water from neem tree branches over him. Her mother put a tilak on his forehead and bits of food into his mouth, before prodding him playfully – a symbolic test of his worth. Finally, she made a black kajal mark on his forehead (to ward off evil) and invited him into her house.

Inside, the bride and groom sat in front of a central fire, which represented the fire-god Agni, the most important witness to the marriage. A Brahmin priest placed a lump of mehendi in Rekha’s right palm, placed the groom’s right hand over it and tied them together with a strip of material. A man behind me whispered in English that this was the most important part of the ceremony. I was sitting nearest to Rekha, on her right hand side; the moment their hands were bound she reached over and dug the nails of her free hand into my bare foot. For a panicked part of a second, my instinct told me to intervene – but it passed as quickly as her nails pierced my skin. No-one else had noticed. The priest chanted mantras from the Hindu Vedas and sprinkled water over the couple.

Tied together, Nandu led Rekha around the sacred fire seven times, affirming their seven wedding vows. Each time, Rekha has to be lifted from her stool by her sister, Usha, the weight of her jewellery and sari too much for her. By the time they had finished it was around 3am.

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The whole party then left for the school building, the women crying. There the priest chanted more invocations in front of another fire, and Nandu made a sindoor – a vertical, vermilion streak, symbolising the state of marriage – from the top of Rekha’s forehead into her parting. Hindu women, in rural Rajasthan at least, apply this mark every morning of their married life. (If they are widowed, the sindoor is no longer applied, and other marks of married womanhood, such as jewelled toe-rings, permanently removed.) After this final stage of the ceremony, the bride and groom were untied, and the bride’s party (including Helena and I) made our way back to the house alone. We waited outside while Usha, trying to control her tears, fetched a jug of salty water, which she poured in the corners of the doorway to ward off evil. The family went inside, and Helen and I walked back to our room. It was 4am and I felt numb.

~ by Griselda Murray Brown on April 24, 2009.

2 Responses to “My Big Fat Arranged-Marriage Wedding: Part II”

  1. Wonderful journal! I feel the sadness when I looked at Rikha’s expression at her wedding. It must have been incredibly frightening leaving your family and starting a brand new life with a stranger she hardly knew. Such courage for many of these women. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thanks for sharing as they say in the prosthetics storeroom. These are very good reading indeed, succinct yet uncompromising of the enormous grounds you cover. Your touch is both light and authoritative, uncluttered by any cleverness that might patronise its subject. It somehow remains a very personal account without being about you. In short it finds that line between objectivity and subjectivity that the best journalism seeks and so liitle obtains, or do I mean attains, which rather makes my point I think!. Keep on tapping…

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