Hinduism is one of the oldest religions of the world. Hence it is only natural that wedding customs have changed a great deal from its Vedic origins. Furthermore the Hindu population is divided into innumerable regional, linguistic, kinship and caste groups – all of which have their own variations of the wedding ceremony. Add to these factors like modern practicality and geographical compulsions and Hindu weddings are an ever-evolving affair. However certain basic rituals and the obeisance paid to the divine Hindu pantheon mark Hindu weddings as specific to the religion.
Since Hindus have traditionally followed the system of arranged marriages, the matchmaker is an important figure. He is the first link between two families that are to be linked in marital bond. Along with giving the details of horoscope and lineage of the prospective groom and bride, the matchmaker also assists in negotiations over dowry. Once all the practical details are thrashed out, an auspicious date for the wedding is chosen according to the Hindu almanac in consultation with the priests of the two families.
The great degree of variation in Hindu wedding customs among various communities is usually noticed in the pre-wedding rituals. While a few of these like the worship of the family ancestors may be performed according as religious rituals, many have their origin in folklore and everyday culture. Most Hindu communities have some kind of engagement ceremony where the young man and woman are declared to be betrothed to each other; during this event extended family members on both sides are introduced to each other and blessed the betrothed couple with gifts. In some communities, the engagement ceremony involves an exchange of rings while in others it could be ceremonial blessing known as the “ashirwaad” performed by family elders to the prospective bride and groom each.
Among other pre-wedding customs popular with certain Hindu communities are the application of henna on the hands and feet of the bride on the day before the wedding as well as 'Sangeet' or a night of music and festivities. On the morning of the wedding day, almost all Hindu brides and grooms perform some version of the haldi ceremony in their respective homes. According to this the women of the family along with female cousins and friends apply turmeric paste on the limbs and face of the bride and the groom as a way of symbolizing the cleansing and beautifying of the individuals who are going to get married. The ‘haldi’ ceremony may also involve sending of gifts from the groom’s family for the bride or an exchange of gifts.
The wedding ceremony
The actual Hindu wedding ceremony can be considered to begin with the arrival of the groom with his family at the house of the bride. This involves the performance of the ‘Vara Satkaarah’ or the ceremonial reception of the bridegroom and his kinsmen at the entrance gate of the wedding hall where the officiating priest chants a few mantras and the bride's mother blesses the groom with rice grains and applies tilak or dot of vermilion and turmeric powder on the groom’s forehead.
The next important ritual in a Hindu wedding is the Madhuparka ceremony where the groom is received at the altar by the bride's father and is presented with ceremonial gifts. Madhuparka is actually a libation made of honey, curd and ghee or clarified butter which the groom is supposed to partake of accompanied by religious chants. The symbolism of the ‘Madhuparka’ lies in hoping for a marital union that would be both sweet and nourishing. In the old days this would also entail a gift of a real cow, since that was the most precious asset with which a newly wedded couple could start life. This part of the tradition is now usually substituted by a symbolical presentation. At the conclusion of the first part of the wedding ceremony, it is customary to present gifts to the bride. The bridegroom presents the bride with gifts of clothing and jewelry thereby acknowledging his life-long duty to provide her with the necessities of life.
The next part of the wedding ceremony consists of the ‘Kanya Dan’ according to which the bride's father gives away his daughter to the groom amidst the chanting of sacred mantras. Then follows the Vivah-Homa or the sacred fire ceremony symbolizing that the main wedding ceremony is being conducted in an atmosphere of purity and spirituality because of the cleansing properties of the homa or the sacred fire. Amid the chanting of holy ‘mantras’, the groom takes the right hand of the bride in his left hand and accepts her as his lawfully wedded wife – this is known as Pani Grahan. This is followed by ‘Pratigna-Karan’ when the couple walk round the fire with the bride leading and take solemn vows of loyalty, steadfast love and life-long fidelity to each other. Around this stage most Hindu families observe a ritual known as the Shila Arohan where the mother of the bride assists her to step onto a stone slab thus symbolizing her preparation for as well as entry to a new life. This is followed by the ‘Laja-Homah’ or the offering of puffed rice as oblations into the sacred fire by the bride while keeping the palms of her hands over those of the groom.
However the most important ritual in a Hindu wedding is the Parikrama or Pradakshina or Mangal Fera according to which the couple circle the sacred fire seven times as the wedding priest recites the mantras or religious chants which explain the essence of marriage according to Vedic traditions. It is also during this time that the groom fills vermillion or Sindoor in the center parting of the bride and\or puts Mangalsutra around her neck. This aspect of the ceremony legalizes the marriage according to the Hindu Marriage Act as well tradition.
Closely associated with the Mangal Phera and sometimes referred to in conjunction is the Saptapadi which literally means the “Seven Steps”. According to this one end of the groom's scarf is tied to the end of the bride's wedding sari or veil where the knot symbolizes the marital bond. The couple then take seven steps representing nourishment, strength, prosperity, happiness, progeny, long life and harmony and understanding, respectively. After the last of the ceremonial rituals, the newlyweds observe Anna prashan where they make food offerings into the sacred fire then feed a morsel of food to each other not only expressing mutual love and affection but also breaking the fast that they may have been observing since daybreak. Last of all comes the ‘Aashirvaad’ wherein the elders of the family bless the newlyweds.
The wedding reception
Among Hindus, the wedding is followed by the journey of the newlyweds to the groom’s house. There another series of rituals may be observed according to the cultural and family traditions of the groom’s family. Commonly these involve the welcoming of the bride with certain rituals and the blessing of the newlyweds by the elders of the groom’s family. Some communities observe the ceremonial cooking of rice by the bride so as to feed her new in-laws among the plethora of post-wedding ceremonies observed at the groom’s house.
On the bridal night, the flower-bed ceremony is observed where the bride wears a lot of floral ornaments and their marriage bed is decorated with flowers by the groom's family. Also this is the night where the new couple consummate their marital relationship. The wedding reception is usually held on the second night after the wedding and is generally hosted by the groom’s family. Apart from family members and relatives, the reception is attended by friends and other guests who wish the couple good fortune and present them with gifts.