Traditional Hindu weddings are known for being a spectacle. Weddings contain at least 19 discrete parts each of which is packed with cultural and religious significance. The highly ritualistic nuptials traditionally took place over a long period of time. Many Hindus who can afford a long ceremony have weddings that last nearly a week. Such long weddings have become less common over time as people lead busier and busier lives. When a Hindu wedding must be shortened, the necessary rituals can be conducted on the night before and the day of the wedding. The shortest ceremony possible, while still including all the necessary rituals, will still take more than two hours.
Marriage for Hindus is an extremely important moment. For men, it marks the transition from their stage of life as a student to that of a householder. As soon as the ceremony is complete, the groom is responsible for his bride and their future together. For a woman, a marriage marks her transition out of maidenhood. Traditionally, she leaves her family behind to join her husband’s family, and her relationship with her parents becomes minimal and formal. When couples marry, their purushartha, or their “soul’s purpose,” changes. They are to focus on artha, or abundance, and work to increase the wealth, power and status of their family.
The many rituals found in Hindu weddings date back to ancient times, and each ritual has a religious significance that is over 4,000 years old. Hindu weddings focus on the bride’s and the groom’s families coming together and traditional ceremonies are known for their beauty and color. Both brides and grooms often wear colorful clothing, and Hindu brides are known for wearing intricate henna designs and ornate jewelry.
Mistakes made during a wedding ceremony have serious spiritual consequences as well. Marriage is an obligatory duty unless a person becomes a renunciate and turns their back on all life’s comforts and pleasures in favor of meditation and contemplation. If certain parts of a Hindu wedding ceremony are either skipped or done incorrectly, the wedding is not considered to be valid. Hindus also believe that the bonds formed during marriage do not dissolve when this life ends. Instead, the souls of the couple are intertwined for at least seven reincarnations. The couple may not be married in all seven lifetimes, but the two souls will work together to resolve karmic issues on earth and ensure their mutual salvation. As such, it is extremely important that each stage of a Hindu wedding is carried out correctly.
The Ganesh Poojan is an invocation to Ganesha, the god of wisdom and salvation. He removes any obstacles from the wedding ceremony so that it can be performed without hindrances. The Ganesh Poojan can be performed a few days prior to the wedding or on the night before the nuptials.
The baraat marks the beginning of the wedding ceremony itself. The groom and his party, also called the vara yatra, enter while the groom’s family dances to the Dhol drum. Traditionally, the groom enters on a white horse, though this custom is, understandably, not always logistically feasible.
During the milni, the bride’s family welcomes the groom and his family. The bride’s family greets the groom’s family with akshat, a type of rice; tilak, a dot drawn on the forehead; arati, a ritual involving a plate with a lighted lamp; and an exchange of garlands.
Before the ceremony begins, the nine planets are invoked by name. The couple-to-be receives blessings from each planet for their married life.
During this solemn ritual, the bride is offered to the groom. She is led in by a brother or uncle while her parents wait with the groom. Both the bride and the groom have their feet washed with water and milk to purify them for their new life together. They then hold their hands open and the bride’s father holds his open hand over their palms. The mother of the bride pours water over the bride’s father’s hand, and the water falls onto the bride’s and groom’s open hands.
The bride places her right hand on the right hand of the groom as part of the hastamalip. A cotton thread is wound several times around the couple’s hands as a priest recites holy verses. The thread is meant to be a metaphor for a married couple’s unbreakable bond. The cotton thread is thin, delicate and easily broken on its own, but when it is coiled it is durable and resilient.
Shilarohan and Laaja Homa
During this set of rituals, the bride climbs over a rock or stone to symbolize her willingness to overcome difficulties in her marriage or obstacles that keep her from performing her traditional duties. The groom and bride then take part in sindoor. Sindoor is the moment when the groom paints the parting of his new wife’s hair with red kumkum powder for the first time. This red strip is the traditional symbol of a married Hindu woman.
Pradakshinam or Phera
The phera, also called the pradakshinam, is a critical part of any Hindu wedding. During this ritual, the bride and groom walk around a sacred fire seven times to symbolize the walk of life. The groom leads the bride for the first four circumnavigations, and the bride leads the groom for the last three. The priest then calls on the two families to place offerings in the fire. In Hinduism, fire is a purifying force and the sustainer of life.
For the sapta-padi, the bride and the groom take seven steps forward and exchange a Sanskrit vow on each step. The first vow deals with food, the second deals with strength, the third is for prosperity, the fourth for wisdom, the fifth for progeny, the sixth for health and the last for friendship. After these seven steps are taken, a symbolic matrimonial knot is tied.
The sapta-padi and the phera are the most important parts of the Hindu wedding ceremony. The phera deals largely with the spiritual aspect of the wedding, but the sapta-padi is the legal portion of the ceremony. Without this exchange of vows, the marriage is not recognized as valid.
Surya Darshan and Dhruva Darshan
After the vows are exchanged, the priest will direct the newlyweds to look toward the sun in order to be blessed with creative life. The couple is then told to look at Dhruva, the polar star. Dhruva never moves or wavers in the night sky. The bride and groom recognize this and resolve to remain just as steadfast in their marriage as Dhruva is in the heavens.
During this ritual, the newly married couple is blessed by the priest and the elders that are present. The new husband and wife are wished a long and prosperous married life, and the ceremony is concluded.
While traditional Hindu weddings all share the same basic structure, traditions vary across India. Each region has its own customs, and a follower of the god Shiva may use different ritual wording than a follower of the god Vishnu. That said, the ancient holy Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, still form the heart of Hindu weddings, and all rites and rituals in Hindu weddings focus on uniting the two families. Bringing two unique souls together, after all, is the spirit of every wedding.