Hinduism may dominate India's religious life, but weddings across the subcontinent are far from homogeneous. The food, language, and even climate vary from region to region, and wedding ceremonies are just as diverse.
In the U.S., Hindu priests have standardized the wedding ceremony to avoid conflicts when the families of the bride and groom are from different Indian regions. If the families wish, they can pick and choose from local traditions to enhance this basic format, says Dr. Anand Mohan, a professor of religion and philosophy at City College in Queens, NY, and a Hindu priest. "There's no stiff formula that's required," Dr. Mohan says, "and there's not that much hoo-ha about religion. Any amount of latitude is allowed." In other words, when it comes to a Hindu wedding, think festivity and creativity, not solemnity and rigidity.
What makes up the Hindu wedding
The Vedic ceremony, named after the Vedas, or ancient Hindu scriptures, is the typical ceremony performed in the U.S. It includes a general sequence of rites and rituals:
The ceremony begins with a prayer to Lord Ganesha. Salutations are offered so that Ganesha may remove all obstacles during the couple's married life.
Cords are tied to the wrists of both the bride and the groom. Marriage is considered to be an arduous stage in life, and the cords are meant as protection.
The offering of the bride is the purest form of marriage. During the ceremony, the father of the bride places his daughter's hands into the groom's hands as a gesture of giving her away. In the Hindu tradition, no man can claim a woman until she is offered.
Before the wedding, an auspicious time is fixed for the event. Using the bride and groom's dates of birth, astrologists calculate the position of planets and stars to reflect the celestial union of the couple. During the ceremony, the gautra of both bride and groom (going back at least three generations) are announced. A gautra is the ancestral lineage or the ancestor's original clan (this is not related to caste or religion). In Hindu law, marriages should not take place within the same clan.
The bride and groom exchange garlands. This expresses the desire of the couple to marry each other. In the U.S., the ring ceremony usually follows.
The groom places a necklace of black and gold beads on the bride, a custom that came about relatively recently. Traditionally, the goddess Laxmi is invoked in the mangal sutra and the bride is said to receive blessings throughout her marriage.
In the center of the mandap, or wedding altar, a fire is kindled. A Hindu marriage is a sacrament, not a contract. To signify the viability of the ceremony, fire is kept as a witness and offerings are made. The bride's brother gives three fistfuls of puffed rice to the bride as a wish for his sister's happy marriage. Each time, the bride offers the rice to the fire.
In South India, the couple walks seven steps together to signify their friendship. In the North, each round is a specific blessing they request of the gods. The main significance is establishing friendship since friendship is the basis of a Hindu marriage.
Sindhoor is a red powder, which is placed in the parting of the bride's hair. It is outward evidence of her married status.
A priest's blessings conclude the ceremony.
Although those not familiar with Hindu weddings might find all this overwhelming, Dr. Mohan emphasizes that the focus is firmly on fun: "There's a lot of frolicking, horsing around, and games." The traditions of particular Indian regions contribute to the lighthearted feel. "In the North, there's the mehendi [henna body painting] ceremony at the bride's house before the wedding. Also in the North, the groom's shoes are kept hidden until the bridesmaids are paid the amount of money they want in exchange for the shoes. In the other parts of India, a ring is dropped into a pail of water and the bride and groom try to find it. It's said that whoever finds it first will dominate the household."
Color and Kin
The vibrant tones of most Hindu weddings are one of the first things Westerners notice, says Meenal Pandya, author of Vivah: Design a Perfect Hindu Wedding (Meera, 2000). "Red is an auspicious color all over India," she points out. "In Gujrat, the bride wears white symbolizing virginity and red symbolizing auspiciousness." New York photographer Karen Hill remembers the "beautiful deep reds and specks of gold of the traditional Indian wedding dress. During the wedding ceremony, the parents tossed colorful flowers on the bride and groom and the couple walked in a circle while holding a bright yellow cloth between them."
And no Hindu wedding would be complete without the couple's relatives taking a central role. "Hindus believe that family should be together during auspicious occasions," Pandya says. "These traditions are like the glue that holds families together."
A Blend of Traditions
For American Hindus, the wedding can be a time to honor both their Indian and U.S. roots. Raj Dutt, 25, and Mona Mukherjee, 28, are blending traditions in their Los Angeles nuptials. "The first day, we'll have a civil ceremony in which we're planning to exchange vows and notarize the marriage license," Mona explains. "The following day is a very traditional Hindu ceremony with the fire and seven steps, complete with Raj arriving on a white horse with a dholak [drum] in the background. The day after that will be the reception, which will be very similar to an American reception with dinner, dancing, and cake cutting."
As Mona concludes, "Our objective is to maintain our Indian culture while recognizing the fact that we have grown up in America."