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Marriage Customs Of India

( Originally Published 1897 )



IT is doubtful whether the Vedas and other ancient sacred books of the Hindus countenance the polygamy which prevails among the richer classes in India, and against this degradation of the sex Hindu marriage ceremonies, which have descended from remote ages, make their constant, albeit useless, protest. The whole spirit of their marriage ritual is opposed to plurality of wives, and inculcates firm and undeviating allegiance between man and wife. The peasants and the poorer inhabitants of towns are necessarily restricted to one wife, and among them married

life is often very happy. Neither do the sacred writings appear to sanction the child-marriages which are so prevalent and so injurious.

Indian Wedding Ceremony
In Hindu law the marriage-tie is very binding, and may only be broken for some grave reason. If the wife is drunken, or unfaithful to her spouse, or excessively extravagant, or if, after eleven years she bears him no son, he may take a second wife ; but, even then, his first wife still rules the house. There are at least five things essential to the marriage ceremony, viz., the betrothal, the gift of the virgin, the acceptance, the seizure of the hand, and the seven steps, or sapta-padi.

As the girl's father, or guardian, gives her away he must say, in the presence of the Brahmins, to the bride-groom's father, " I give you, for your son, my beautiful virgin daughter : accept her therefore." The father of the youth must reply, With my hand, with my voice, and with my body I joyfully accept thy daughter for my son, and religiously receive her among my own kindred." The girl's father then declares his tribe, and gives grains of rice tinged with red, and leaves of the betel plant to the bridegroom, declaring again that he gives him his daughter and promises to defray all the expenses of the marriage. He usually gives a present of cows as well, and especially a certain stone which is used as a charm. It is hardly necessary to point out that in a great country like India, with a population of nearly three hundred millions, and a very large number of different races, the customs and ceremonies attending marriage vary very considerably ; we shall presently give a few selected examples of curious customs, but at present we are dealing with the case of an ordinary or typical Hindu wedding.

Addressing the assembled Brahmins, or priests, the father says, " O Brahmins, to this youth, learned in the Vedas; I give my daughter, dressed in gay apparel, and adorned with gems." They answer, So let it be." The father-in-law, having taken the hand of his daughter, now puts it into the hand of the bridegroom and pours over them water, sacred to Vishnu, which has been previously blessed by a priest. This is perhaps the most solemn and important of all the marriage ceremonies ; for the pouring of water, according to Eastern custom, makes a gift irrevocable. Another important rite is the tying on of the tali, a jewel set in gold, on the neck of the bride. In India all Hindu married women wear this ornament as a sign of their being in the married state. It is fastened by a short string dyed yellow with turmeric, and composed of many fine threads. To the guests, sandal-wood, paste, perfumes, and flowers are offered : the couple receive congratulations from the assembly as they prostrate themselves at their parents' feet to receive a blessing. In Northern India, part of the ceremony consists in tying a string or thread round the wrist of the bride ; and with many of the races of India the man and the woman, or the boy and the girl, as the case may be, are tied together by the corners of their garments and made to walk through the village, to signify to all that they are tied together for life. In order to impress upon the bride the duty of complete submission to her husband, the wooden yoke of a bullock is laid lightly for a moment on her head. A veil is then held up between her and the bridegroom and certain prayers, or verses, are recited. In these they call upon the gods, the saints, the trees and the rivers, to witness the union.

Then follows the honam, or offering to Agni, the god of fire, in which the bride and bridegroom take together the seven steps, or sapta padi, amidst the loud chanting of the Vedas. This is an important piece of symbolism, for the action implies eternal friendship.

In India, as in so many other countries, marrying a wife means buying one. The father-in-law, of course, gets the highest price he can for his daughter. The young man must stipulate to pay a certain sum of money. The bride, being only a child, has no voice in the matter, and everything is arranged for her. The young man thinks chiefly of the purity of her caste, while her relations are more anxious about his wealth, and the disposition of his mother ; a very important matter, for the poor little bride, when she comes to her new home, is entirely under the rule of that important person the mother-in-law. If, after the marriage has taken place, the bridegroom does not pay up like a man," as the saying is with us, he is liable to be brought into court by an angry father-in-law. Or, more probably, the young wife has to be sent home as a pledge until the money is all paid. In other words, she is pawned ! Among the poor people. of India there is much litigation over such matters. Among the rich the money received by the father is laid out in jewels which become the bride's property, and can on no account be disposed of by the husband.

There is, of course, no courtship. But, if a young man takes a fancy to a little girl, he must get some friend to visit her parents and ascertain whether his suit would be favourably received. If they have no objections, he selects a fortunate day to visit them and ask for her hand. She may give him her heart some day, long after, but that is all a matter of chance. The presents he brings with him are usually a cloth, cocoa-nuts, bananas, and some saffron. The Hindus are great observers of omens. Thus, if the man, while on his way, should meet a cat, a fox, or a serpent, and it should cross the road before him, he would instantly return home and postpone the journey to a more fortunate day. In like manner the girl's father defers his answer until one of those little lizards which creep on the wall, making now and then a small shrill cry, gives a favourable augury by one of its chirps. Not until " the lizard has spoken " (as the people say) will he take any of the steps necessary for the betrothal.

Marriages take place only in March, April, May, or June. Second marriages, however, may be made in November or February. The months from March to June are very hot, and country labour is then suspended and the harvest has been gathered in ; these appear to be the reasons for the above limitation.

The various ceremonies of a Brahmin wedding are very elaborate, and are spread over five days. First, the bride and bridegroom are placed under the alcove, or canopy, with twelve pillars. This is a common and useful appendage to the principal houses in India, being erected before the door and covered with boughs of trees, as a shelter from the heat of the sun. Under this alcove, gorgeously decorated for the occasion, the young couple are seated with their faces turned to the east. The married women then advance and wave lighted camphor before an image to avert the evil eye " : this ceremony, called arati, may be otherwise performed. All the Hindu gods are invited to the wedding, and requested to remain the whole time. The same prayer is made to the god's ancestors, which rather suggests that the gods are only deified heroes. The god of obstacles is an important person and greatly feared, since his displeasure might cast some impediment in the way of a happy ending. So they place his image under the pandal, or alcove, in order that all may be well.

The bridegroom must be able to show that he is " pure," or free from sin, but these little matters are easily settled in a country where ceremony counts for so much, and he is merely called upon to offer, on the second day, a gift of fourteen flags to one of the Brahmins.

Then follows a little piece of acting, which must strike the Western mind as very absurd, but is probably connected with Brahmin notions of ceremonial purity. The bridegroom professes an eager desire to quit the village, upon a pilgrimage to Benares, in order that he may wash in the sacred waters of the Ganges. He equips himself as a traveller, and being supplied with provisions for the journey, departs with instruments of music sounding before him, and accompanied by several of his relations and friends, as if he were really proceeding on that holy adventure. But, no sooner has he got out of the village than, upon turning to the east, he meets his future father-in-law, who, of course, begs him to give up his good intention, and offers him his daughter. The would-be pilgrim readily accepts the conditions, and they return together to the house. The bridegroom has done the right thing in offering to go, so the father takes the will for the deed, and the Brahmins doubtless are satisfied.

The ceremonies are then allowed to proceed, and the next thing is the tying on of the thread, which is fastened to the right wrist of the man and the left one of the bride, to show that they are now tied together for life. Then the young man being seated with his face to the east, his father-in-law approaches, and, looking steadily at him, fancies that he beholds in him the great god Vishnu himself, and with this impression actually makes an offering to him.

The father of the bridegroom must next fix his thoughts on all the gods of the Hindus, naming each one separately ; and he even adds the month, the day, the cardinal points of the compass, the woods, the mountains, and many other things. This is followed by the pouring of water over the couple, and the tying on of the tali, as described above. The ornament is so highly honoured that they even offer incense to it.

Just before the tying on of the tali, the Brahmins put a screen of silk between the bride and bridegroom, while certain prayers are being recited.

Next, fire is brought in, and the honam, or sacrifice to Agni, the god of fire, is performed ; the man and the woman, hand in hand, walk seven times round the fire, and so make " the seven steps " together—symbol of everlasting friendship. Lastly, the man touches the woman's ankle with a small stone, called the stone of sandal, and in so doing he must fix his thoughts on " The Great Mountain of the North," the native place of the ancestors of the Brahmins. This little ceremony will be specially interesting to students of ethnology and etymology because the Sanscrit language affords evidence that the original Hindus, or some of them, came from the north.

We must not omit to mention the eating together, which is so important a ceremony among many peoples. According to the late Abbe Du Bois, to whose book we are indebted, another ceremony is the sprinkling with rice of the bride and bridegroom, each standing in a basket made of bamboo, while the one throws rice over the other. This ceremony appears to be symbolical of fertility and abundance of temporal blessings.

On the third day, the astrologer points out to the newly-married pair the star Irundhati, to impress upon them the duty of faithfulness. The bridal procession takes place at night, the bride being covered with jewels and precious stones. Friends and relations come out of their houses to hail the young couple, and women endeavour to avert the "evil eye" by the ceremony of arati, or waving a lamp over the heads of the bride and bridegroom.

The youthful wife is taken back to her father's house, to live there until she has grown up and can keep house for her husband.

When this epoch of her life arrives, it is made the occasion for much feasting and rejoicing, and many of the ceremonies above described are performed again.

In bygone days women were sometimes allowed to choose their own husbands. Occasionally a prince or king would hold a swayamvar, or tournament, at which the fair princess would choose some knight who took her fancy and showed great prowess. There is an old Indian fairy tale illustrating the marriage-choice ceremony: the fair princess placed a garland on the neck of the young man who had won her heart.

In old days the " Brides of Venice " were all married on the same day, and so also in some parts of India young people may have to wait for years before they can get married. Thus, with the Kadava Kumbi of Gujerat an interval of nine, or even twelve, years elapses between one marriage season and another. When nine years have passed the priest consults the goddess, to see if he can obtain her consent. This is the way they proceed : two bits of paper, one containing the word "Yes " and the other the word " No," are thrown before her, and a virgin is asked to take up one of them. Should she take up the one with the word " Yes," it is interpreted as a consent for the celebration of marriages that season. But if unfortunately it is the one with No " written on it, the goddess is supposed to withhold her consent. In that case they must wait two years before consulting her again. But if, after that interval, she again appears to refuse, their patience becomes fairly exhausted, and they go on throwing the paper until a favourable answer is obtained.

There are in India, as every one knows, a large number of Mohammedans ; but their marriage ceremonies will, be described under the head of Turkey. Our illustration shows the bringing home of a Mohammedan bride ; the bearers have set down their burthen, and are taking a rest.

With the princes, rajahs, and the rich people weddings are very expensive affairs, and presents are given on a princely scale. Thus, when Prithi-raj carried off the daughter of Jye-chand, her father nevertheless gave him the richest gems, which he had won in victory, pearls, elephants, and dyes. And when the same rajah married the daughter of Dahima of Biana, her father gave him 8 beautiful damsels, 63 female slaves, 100 Irak horses, 2 elephants, 10 shields, a pallet of silver for the bride, 1 00 wooden images, 100 chariots, and 100 pieces of gold ! The desire of marrying into a higher family is so great with them (as it often is in our own country and America) that a father is willing to make great sacrifices to mark his sense of gratitude to a son-in-law for his condescension in marrying his daughter. It seems that a dread of marriage expenses and pride of race are among the causes leading to infanticide. The Kadava Kumbis have invented an ingenious device by means of which the expenses of a wedding may be very much reduced. If the parents fail to find a rich husband for their daughter she is solemnly married to a bunch of flowers, which is afterwards thrown into a well ! The girl is now a widow, so when next time she really is married it counts as a second marriage, and these alliances can be done cheaply ! Another way they have is to marry the girl to some man who is already married, on the distinct understanding that as soon as the ceremony is over he will divorce her. She can then be given in second marriage to any man who wants to marry her. People who are determined to do things on the cheap " can generally find ways of doing so !

In Kangra, a district in the Lieutenant-Governorship of the Punjab, is a hill people with fair complexion and good features, whose neighbours are polyandrous. Here it is not an uncommon thing for a man to sell his wife to another man ; and it is said that such agreements are sometimes executed on stamped paper and presented at the courts for registration ! Among some of the people of India a wife is reckoned among a man's " available effects," and can be turned into money, as the saying is. So, if a man owe money to his neighbour he can, if hard pressed, pledge his wife (or his daughter) to the creditor, who may either accept them or pass them on to some one else. On the debt being paid, the man may claim his wife, and any children born in the interval !

Among the Kol tribes, and others, the price of a wife is sometimes as high as forty head of cattle ; the result is that a girl may have to wait a long time before finding a husband. Old maids therefore are plentiful.

These tribes have a ceremony called by some writers Plant-marriage, the meaning of which is, however, obscure. When an old maid is married, she clasps a mahwa tree, and the bridegroom a mango tree, and, at the close of the ceremonies, the bridesmaids pour a jar of water over the heads of the pair, who then retire to change their wet garments.

In the hills of North and South Arcot and the Salem districts (Madras Presidency) are the Malayalis, a timid and harmless people, who have a most remark-able custom. A man who has young sons, mere children, takes new wives for himself, who are, how-ever, called his sons' wives, and the children they bear to him are called his sons' children. And so it goes on from one generation to another. This appears to be a relic of what is called the Matriarchal system, which still prevails in various countries, as once in India.

" Marriage by capture " was the rule of old, and relics of this are to be found in various places. The Mahi Kantha is a group of native states under the political agency of the Government of Bombay, but subject to a number of chiefs. The Posina Fair in the North gives the Bhils of these parts a great matrimonial opportunity, for if a Bhil succeeds in taking the woman he wants to marry across the river without being discovered, their respective parents agree to the match. But if, on the other hand, he is found out before they can cross the river, he is severely handled by the girl's father. The Kolis also have customs which appear to be survivals from the old days of violence. The father generally finds a bride for his son ; but, even when all has been peacefully and properly arranged, the young man must go through the form of starting to find a bride. When matters have been settled, the girl's father asks the young man and his father to come and dine. During the ceremony the women of the family strew grains of corn on the threshold, and as the boy's father is leaving the house they rush at him as if to beat him, and he, making for the door, slips, and falls down. So important is this little ceremony on his part that, without it, no marriage would be considered lucky or prosperous ! Only it is curious that the girls should show signs of combat and resistance to the father and not to the bridegroom.

The Kurmis and others celebrate the marriage by a pretended combat. The bridegroom sometimes marks his forehead with blood, and here we seem to have the origin of a singular and nearly universal custom in India, namely, the marking of the bride's forehead with vermilion. We find it cropping up among the Ooraons, who celebrate a child-wedding somewhat after this fashion. The uncles, who are very important personages, pick up the bride and bridegroom and set them astride on their backs just as older people in England sometimes play with their young ones. One takes the little girl and the other the boy, and thus burdened they pretend to be " gee-gees," and paw the ground, as if impatient to start off' at a gallop. They exchange their burdens and begin a sham quarrel, which ends in a prance of reconciliation. The young people, who have been well rubbed with oil, are presented with a lighted lamp emblem of conjugal love—the flame of which. must be fed by the husband. Then follow two important ceremonies. First, the bridegroom presses his toe upon the bride's heel, while she throws herself backwards, her head touching his shoulder. Secondly, he marks her brow with a red stain from a drop of his blood, a solemn act, which those outside announce by the discharge of firearms. The parents present the " cup of love," out of which the two drink. These three symbols the loving-cup, the crimson mark, and the conquering toe, are to be found in nearly every region of India. Two of them are clearly relics of the old way of " marriage by capture."

In central India we meet with a curious little custom which perhaps serves to explain our habit of giving presents to bridesmaids. The Kurku girls pretend to resist the removal of the bride. When they get near enough to the young man they pelt him with balls of boiled rice, then coyly retreat, followed of course by the men. At the door of the bride's house they make a final stand, only suffering the men to enter when they have paid toll in the form of presents to themselves.

Among the Gonds we see marriage by capture still in force. A young man, having seen in some neighbouring village a girl whom he would like to marry, goes with some friends to the place where she is working, and makes a rush to seize her. But his companions will not aid him to carry her away by force unless he succeed, unaided, in touching her hand before she reaches the shelter of her village. The women often contest every inch of ground with their pursuers, and sometimes beat them off ; but, if once the man can touch the girl's hand, it is considered a match. Doubtless it lies with the girl herself to decide whether he shall do so or no, and in this way she can exercise her own choice. Writing of the Khand race in Orissa, Sir John Campbell says that on one occasion he heard loud cries proceeding from a village close at hand. Fearing some quarrel, he rode to the spot, and there he saw a man bearing away upon his back something enveloped in an ample covering of scarlet cloth. He was surrounded by some twenty or thirty young fellows, and by them protected from the desperate attack made upon him by a party of young women. On seeking an explanation of this novel scene, he was told that the man had just been married, and his precious burden was his blooming bride, whom he was thus conveying to his own home ! Her young friends were seeking to regain possession of her, and hurled stones and bamboos at the head of the devoted bridegroom until he reached the confines of his own village.

If a man and a woman have been living together, and the man dies, the woman is so loth to be considered unmarried that she is willing to go through some kind of ceremony by which she may be, as it were, sealed to him before his body is committed to the earth—at least among the Komati caste. And so it occasionally happens that a marriage is performed between the living and the dead ! The sad intelligence of her man's death is communicated to the neighbours ; a guru, or priest, is summoned, and the ceremony takes place at once. According to a writer who once witnessed such a proceeding, the dead body of the man was placed against the outer wall of the verandah of the house in a sitting posture, attired like a bridegroom, and the face and hands besmeared with turmeric. The woman also was clothed like a bride, and adorned with the usual tinsel ornament over the face, which, as well as the arms, was daubed over with yellow. She sat opposite the dead body of her late lamented partner—we cannot say husband, for the ceremony is not yet done. Now she spoke to it in light unmeaning words, as seems customary on such occasions, and then she chewed bits of dry cocoanut and squirted them on the face of the dead man. This continued for hours, and not until near sunset was the ceremony brought to a close. Then the head of the corpse was bathed and covered with a cloth of silk, the face was rubbed over with some red powder, and betel leaves placed in the mouth. Now she might consider herself married, and the funeral procession started.

The cruel treatment of widows among the Hindus is the result of ancient superstition. The horrible practice of Suttee, or burning alive, was only sup-pressed by the Indian Government about the year 1830, and cases have occurred within the reign of Queen Victoria. The custom was certainly ancient, though not so old as some of the native codes. Diodorus relates how the two widows of Geteus, an Indian general of Eumenes, disputed the honour of being burned with the body of their late husband. His description corresponds in every detail with the ceremony as performed in recent times. One of the wives, he says, could not be burned because she was about to become a mother. The other advanced to the funeral pile crowned with myrtle, adorned as for a wedding, and preceded by her relatives, who sang hymns in her praise—all of which no doubt would be very comforting, but hardly likely to diminish the pain of such a cruel death to any great extent. Having bestowed her jewels on friends and servants, she lay down by the side of her husband's body and died without uttering a cry ! Early in the last century, at the funeral of the Prince of Marava, all his wives, to the number of forty-seven, were burned on the pyre with his body. The prince was eighty years of age when he died, and his body, richly adorned, was placed in a large grave filled with wood. The unfortunate victims were covered with precious stones, and at first appeared very brave, but as soon as the flames reached them they uttered loud cries and rushed on each other. Then the onlookers endeavoured to diminish their suffering by stunning them with pieces of wood which they hurled at them. When all was over, and these poor wretches had joined their lord and master in the spirit world—for that was the idea in all such sacrifices —their bones and ashes were gathered up and thrown into the sea. In time a temple was erected to their honour on the site where they perished. These hideous and revolting practices were not compulsory, i.e., the law did not enforce them, but it was considered a point of honour for the widow to die on the funeral pyre of her husband, even when her relations endeavoured to dissuade her from so doing. Death, however painful, was considered preferable to living in a kind of disgrace. What will not mortals do to avoid contempt ?

In Bengal the woman was bound firmly to the corpse, and the two bodies were covered with bamboos. In Orissa the widow threw herself on the pile, which was in a pit or grave. In the Deccan she sat on the pile, and placed the head of her husband on her knees. Sometimes she was overthrown by the fall of heavy logs of wood attached with cords to posts placed at the four corners of the pile. The smoke from the burning logs often suffocated the victim before the flames reached her, and it is said that, in some provinces, she was previously intoxicated with opium. But, if none of these precautions were taken, it might happen that she would rush madly out of the flames, in which case the spectators cruelly thrust her back !



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