Marriage Customs Among East Indians
By Albert Rodrigues
In the mad rush of modernization and the senseless aping of Western manners and usages, East Indians are slowly but steadily losing count of some of their most cherished customs and conventions.
Whilst some of these customs may admittedly be discarded with profit to the Community, there are others which fostered by our fathers and by their fathers before them, and dating back from the very beginnings of the East Indian Community it would certainly be a pity for us to forget.
In this category may be placed many or most of our Marriage Customs. Among the more advanced of us these customs are practically forgotten, and judging by the trend of the times, it will not be long before they are as dead as the proverbial dodo as far as the entire East Indian Community is concerned.
This complete relegation to oblivion of our time honored customs would indeed be a tragedy of no mean caliber. It would mean the severance for ever of the only link in the chain of our history that binds us to the past. He question before us then is : Shall we stand by and see its precious heritage of our fore fathers smolder in dust before us, or will we be up and do our best to preserve them for posterity ? It is for us present day East Indians to decide.
Converts from the Hinduism and living continuously among the Hindus, it would indeed be strange if the Marriage Customs and Conventions of East Indians did not bear a close resemblance to those of their ancestors and neighbors. While, however, these customs are now steadily dying our in some of the more advanced areas, as Bandra and lower Salsette, where English conventions are being gradually grafted into the system, in Upper Salsette, Bassein and the Dharavi island of Utan, Manori and Gorai, it is still considered an almost unpardonable sin to deviate in ever so small a detail from any of these time-honored customs.
Marriage among East Indians are (or, were before we were dragged into depression) generally contracted when the parties are comparatively young, the bride being still in her teens and the bridegroom in his early twenties. In Salsette, proposals of marriage usually emanate from the girls side and are carried by middle men or women. In Bassein the proposal comes from the boys side. The dowry being almost always the stumbling block, the match-makers are more often than not, mercilessly shuttled to and fro, until and agreement is finally arrived at, the popular local saying it needs seven pairs of sandals to make on match bearing ample testimony to this fact.
On the successful arrangement of a match, the Sugar Ceremony , which is a sort of preliminary to the Engagement, is held at the boys place, when a definite promise of marriage is made, the amount of the dowry is confirmed and the date of the engagement fixed. The ceremonial part of the affair consists in the parents or responsible representatives of the contracting parties thrusting spoonfuls of sugar into one anothers mouths, this act signifying that the matter has been settled to the satisfaction of all concerned. At a simple ceremony, call sakhar-puda, among Hindus, sugar and betel leaves are offered after the necessary puja is over.
Weddings are invariably celebrated on Mondays. The nearer relatives arrive on the preceding Thursday on which day the pandal, indispensable at Hindu Weddings, is erected in front of the house and the fatted pig killed. The feasting proper commences at both the wedding houses with the Sunday dinner which is in honor of the pandal erectors. Late in the evening the village barber is called in and all the male members submit themselves to the ordeal of being publicly shaved, the bridegroom who has his turn last, having his face firs well massaged with the white of an egg.
While the shaving goes on, the women are engaged alternately in kneading the dough for the following day and in teasing the men. It is indeed remarkable the East Indian women, otherwise a very sober set are generally the most noisiest and most turbulent element at weddings. Now fanning a lathered face with an old broom, now holding the sole of a slipper before it in place of a mirror or waiting until the shaving is over to smear the face of their unsuspecting victim with soot, they flit about cracking jokes, dancing, and singing appropriate Marathi folk songs.
At about mid-night a torchlight procession or Sivar wends its noisy way to the village well from which water is drawn for the brides or bridegrooms morning bath, The arrival at the spot is made an occasion for dancing and drinking and singing the songs mostly in praise of the well.
Early on Monday morning the bride and the bridegroom, at their respective homes, are given a bath by their women guests. It is usual among some people to give the bridegroom a public bath in the pandal after first smearing the exposed parts of his body with turmeric powder, a pigment that figures very prominently at Hindu weddings. Widows, however are not permitted to assist at the bathing, the Hindu superstition being still current that their participation brings ill-luck to the couple.
The bridal party usually goes in procession to the church, accompanied by a band of local pipers and drummers, the bride or the bridegroom being conducted under a satir, a long handed silk umbrella of variegated colors. When the two parties have met in church, the priest celebrates the wedding. On their leaving the church after the ceremony, the entire party adjourns to the brides place where a reception is held. The quaint custom of congratulating the bridal couple with sugar is often followed, each guest in turn throws a few petals, feeding the couple with a spoonful of sugar and shaking hands. After the reception the bridegrooms guests retire to a near-by utarghar or rest-house, which they convert for convenience into their headquarters for the day.
A very indispensable part of the proceeding on Monday is the presentation before dinner of the Sara or gold-bordered sari, together with a cholie or blouse, a comb and a necklace. These articles are the bridegrooms present to his bride and are brought in state from the rest-house under on of the big umbrellas by a responsible group from the bridegrooms party. On being delivered, they are subjected to a very minute and critical inspection by the women folk at the wedding, Before leaving for the bridegrooms house that evening, the bride discards for ever her nuptial dress or sari, and decks herself in this new equipment. The Sara doubtless corresponds to the Shallu and Shella in Hindu weddings, while the pote or necklace, which sometimes also contains black beads, is the mangal-sutra, the tying of which by the bridegroom around the brides neck constitutes a very essential part of the Hindu marriage ceremony.
The Monday Dinner is on of the important items in the days feasting, an outstanding feature of which is the rigmarole of toasts, that must of necessity be taken. A strict order of precedence in toasting is rigidly adhered to , the Mamus, or maternal uncles of the bride, and her god-parents standing high in the scale of importance. Oftener than not, one toast follows so closely on another that guest have to forego their next round of drinks or else toss away the unfinished contents of their chawnis
From Monday evening until the following Thursday, it is just a ding-dong affair between the houses of the bride and the bridegroom, the couple being moved to and fro every evening. A curious custom prevails in accordance with which a formal invitation is always necessary when taking the bridal couple from one wedding house to another. The party generally goes in fancy dress, a recent instance, when two of the company by going dressed almost identically as the bride and bridegroom caused no little confusion and no end of merriment, beating all previous records for originality. Another queer custom requires the bride to take some little present from her mother to her mother-in-law on Monday evening, the occasion affording her the first opportunity of addressing her mother-in-law as Mai or mother.
The reception and dinner at the bridegrooms on the following day are mere repetitions of Mondays affairs. Tuesday night, on the couple returning to the brides, their progress is arrested in the drawing room, and not until the bridegroom has submitted to having his feet washed and paid reluctantly for the service according to his means, is he permitted to leave his seat. This money, together with collections made from the guests is used for the next days feasting known as vence. The washing of the feet is repeated at the bridegrooms the next day when the brides feet are washed, she contributing to the extent of about half the sum paid by her husband the previous evening.
The whole affair can be said to be over on Thursday evening after having lasted for just five days, the exact duration of a Hindu wedding. On Friday morning the guests depart, the very near relatives staying on until Sunday- and the newly married couple settle down to the not very easy business of living happily ever after.