My A La Carte Hindu Wedding
Faced with the task of creating a traditional Hindu ceremony in a Western context, I chose two rituals most meaningful to me.
BY: Aparita Bhandari
The first takes place when the groom comes to the bride’s house. He takes off his shoes, and the bride’s father then washes the groom’s feet. I love this ceremony because it gives the perfect opportunity for the bride’s sisters and friends to steal the groom’s shoes. This is one of fun customs of the wedding--the shoes are hidden from the groom until he pays off the sisters and friends.
The other ritual I wanted to include was our version of the kanyadaan (giving away of the daughter). The bride’s mother stands behind her and has to pour a steady stream of water onto a plate in front of the bride. This is a backbreaking ritual--traditionally the bride’s mother would have to ensure that the water stream remain unbroken for 10 to 15 minutes--and it can be a very emotional ceremony. One my favorite photos from my mother’s wedding is of my nani (grandmother) performing the kanyadaan; in the photo, you can see a single teardrop shimmering at the tip of my nani’s nose. When I told my father that I wanted these two ceremonies included, he said he wasn’t sure if it would be possible.
“There is a method to carry out these ceremonies," he said in Hindi. "I am not sure the priest here would be aware of the ceremonies and the mantras. And we don’t even have our Pahari religious book here. We could have used that to find out the appropriate method.”
“Can’t you buy one? Or have one sent from India?” I asked.
My father explained to me that I couldn't just pick and choose certain rituals just because they caught my fancy. The rituals carry meaning, and unless they are done in a proper manner, they become empty symbols, performed just for the sake of performing them. He then explained the significance of the rituals, which I hadn't know previously.
Traditionally, the bride and groom, and sometimes even the two families, didn’t know each other before the wedding. When the groom would arrive for the wedding, the pundits from both family stands at the gate. Before the groom is allowed to enter, a gotrachar-- introduction of the lineage--is done. The bride’s priest asks, "Who is the boy? Who is his father? Who is his grandfather?" Once the answers are given, the groom’s pundit reciprocates.
“This is why we say it’s important to have a family priest because the priest keeps an account of the family,” my father told me.
The groom is then led to the door, my father continued, where he is greeted by the bride’s father. From this point onward until the end of the wedding, the groom personifies Lord Vishnu. So the bride’s father propitiates the groom as Lord Vishnu, and washes his feet. The groom is then led inside, where the jaimala ceremony (exchanging garlands of flowers in a welcoming gesture) is performed.
As for the kanyadaan ceremony, my father explained that the bride’s mother pours the water over the bride’s thumb, which is held by the groom. The holding of the thumb signifies Lord Shiva’s union with his consort Parvati. This also made sense. I have seen many shivalingams in various temples--structures that represent or symbolize Lord Shiva. Usually there’s a small pot with a small hole situated above the shivalingam, and water constantly drips onto the shivalingam.
I was happy to find out the significance of the rituals I had chosen. It made the ceremony seem even more special. It’s common for many Hindu couples to go through the motions of the wedding ceremony, without fully understanding the meaning of the rituals, and we were able to avoid that.
In the end, I missed out on some Pahari rituals, and adapted others for the situation. My turmeric paste-application ceremony, for instance--usually carried out by the women of the family a day or two before the wedding day--was hastily and symbolically performed an hour before the bridal make-up.
But despite his initial reservations, my father agreed to my pieced-together ceremony. On the day of my wedding, he washed my husband’s feet when he came to door. My sister and my friend stole my husband’s shoes. My mother cried during the kanyadaan ceremony. And as is traditional in our Pahari weddings, there were disagreements among the priests. (Our family often jokes that if the two priests from either side of the family don’t argue at least once, then it’s not a Pahari wedding.)
All in all, it turned out to be my dream wedding.