My apologies for taking so long to post this. I’ve been trying to verify the facts regarding the rituals, but haven’t been able to do so for everything. It’s best to ask a priest or other knowledgeable person, but be warned: everyone tends to have a slightly different version of the why and wherefores…
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief on the day of R’s wedding. The awful wet weather which had plagued both his brother’s and sister’s wedding was definitely taking a holiday. No one had to worry about jumping over mud and puddles in delicate sandals and shoes whilst hiking up expensive saris and praying they didn’t keel over or unbalance–especially me in my borrowed sari (mum’s blue one). I hadn’t worn one for over six years. Fortunately, I hardly trampled the pleats.
We made our way to the upmarket hotel, spent a couple of minutes making sure we weren’t going to crash the wrong wedding, and took an extremely claustrophobic elevator to the roof. We were a little early, but that was OK because we had to find our seats and had time to sign the guestbook (a wonderfully rustic one), and to admire the view up and down the Umhlanga coast.
I hadn’t been to a wedding for over six years (another cousin’s wedding), and couldn’t stop taking photos. The venue had dinner settings for all guests, about 120-140 (a smallish wedding by traditional standards), a stage set for the ceremony, a buffet running along one side and a crew of photographers and videographers, including a Steadicam operator! Off to one side stood a non-traditional wedding cake with a delightful carving of the bridal couple. I took a look around at the individually decorated tables.
The Hindu priest and his assistant had already consecrated the stage. Here was no flour kolum like the one for the Nelengu. For the wedding the whole stage took the place of the kolum. On stage, two chairs dominated—one for the bride and one for the groom. Although modern ceremonies are much shorter these days, the Telugu/Tamil wedding ceremony still takes the better part of an hour.
In front of the chairs, within reach of the priest, bride and groom, a hawaan was set — a metal container which holds the sacred fire for the longest part of the wedding, the prayer which completes the cleansing of couple. There was also a grinding stone, a tall pole dressed with banana leaves and trays of all the materials needed. Only the rings were not on stage.
The ceremony begins…
Stirring music signaled the start of the proceedings. Down the red aisle came the bride’s closest family, followed by the groom’s family (trailing the naughty nephews from the day before). I finally got my first glimpse of my cousin’s bride. She’s stunning; even without her wedding ensemble of gold and red, she would turn heads. My cousin R, handsome in his dark suit, had never looked so good. He had foregone the traditional turban/hat thing in favor of his thick (and always ever so slightly unruly) hair. He had only eyes for his bride, K. They walked up to the stage, then three times around (R leading), and settled into their places: the priest to the far left, then K, then R. Behind K stood her helper (her sister, I think), and behind K, stood his sister (N).
Then it was time for the proposal. The official proposal is done on stage, literally minutes before the actual wedding. I’ve never been to (or heard of a wedding) where the proposal was refused, but I guess this is what it’s for, just in case one family is having doubts.
I was lucky enough to be sitting near the aisle and got to see much of the action, which involved a lot of holding of fruit and hands. The parents of both the bride and groom stood on stage, flanking their children, as the priest, who spoke both English and Telugu, made extremely sure, in a very jovial way, that the bride’s family accepted my cousin. As this goes on, the fruit that the bride and her parents hold while being quizzed by the priest, is passed on to the groom and his parents along with the questions.
Once all parties are satisfied that the bride and groom (and their families) mean to honour their word, the ceremony gets down to the nitty-gritty, beginning with the final of the three nalangus. This non-messy one is done only by two people—both sisters.
A tray of seeds, bark and ghee (a vegetable fat) was handed to the bridal couple. As the priest said a set of mantras, all three placed the mixture gradually into the fire. This took a few minutes.
Another tray with shredded marigold petals was the next offering for the hawaan. Some sticks followed, another coconut was blessed and so was the thali.
A thali is a yellow string or cord. It has a small gold amulet called a boothu. Boothus vary from family to family. The Naidoo Boothu is a smooth convex circle with a little knob. It reminds me of a pot-lid. The Govender Boothu is angular: sometimes likened to a frog, always hard to identify its origin. The thali is the most sacred symbol of the marriage. This is why Telugu’s hide it from view when tying it around the bride’s neck.
A white cloth screened the prayer surrounding the tying of the thali. R’s uncle (his mother’s brother), along with one of K’s uncle’s, held the cloth,. Another married woman helped with the process and verified that the thali was tied properly.
A modern aspect of the ceremony came next. R’s oldest nephew was the ring bearer. He walked onto the stage and handed the rings to the R and K. Once they had exchanged rings, they moved along to the more traditional Hindu rings. For this, they needed the grinding stone.
While K sat down with her foot on the grinding stone, R knelt down to carefully place the rings on each foot in turn.
Toe-rings are traditionally more important than the wedding rings. It is usually just a plain thin adjustable circle of metal which is placed on either the second or third toe of each foot.
Once done, garlands were exchanged for the second time; they walked around the stage (K leading with the leafed staff; and exchanged seats. This marked them officially married by Hindu tradition. All that remained was for the parent’s to exchange gifts, for the newly weds to fall to all four parents’ feet and for the marriage officer to do his part.
R’s sister held the god-lamp which will be placed in the care of K to bring in light to their home. It’s the wife’s duty to wash the lamp, decorate it with turmeric and kumgum and for the married couple to light it daily. This lamp will be the focus of their home prayers, big or small.
Hindu traditional wedding ceremonies are not recognised by the South African government. Most Hindu weddings have a Marriage Officer present who then performs the official legal marriage where all guests can witness it; so we all got to see R and K seal their marriage vows with thumbprints.
Cutting the cake, enjoying the meal, toasts and speeches and taking photos with all the guests quickly filled in the next hour…
The food and drink:
No Hindu wedding is complete without food. It was all so sumptuous! On arrival, we had fruit juice to quench our thirst. Sweetmeats (burfee) was in a box instead of chocolates. Once the rings had been exchanged and the toe-rings placed, appetizers appeared almost magically. Plates were laden with samoosas, patha spring rolls, spanakopita and fritters.
As soon as the main ceremony was over, the buffet opened which included a variety of curries, breyani, salads, pickles, vegetables and roti. But that wasn’t the highlight for me. Outside, near the entrance room, stood the dessert and beverage spread. Lemon curd, decadent chocolate brownies, sorji (a semolina based traditional Hindu sweetmeat) and swiss roll slices made for a popular spread. Beside them stood the all important coffee and tea bar offering us a choice of teas, including Earl Grey and Lemon.
Once the official photos were taken, it was time to say goodbye after collecting our wedding favours–bottled hot chocolate servings complete with marshmallows! This merely confirmed (for me) that R and K have impeccable taste 😀
Back home, R and his wife will have broken the coconut (carried in that pouch) in a special prayer. From that point on, they would have been able to eat meat again (they had been abstaining from meat from before the first nelengu). Thereafter, they will have gone on to their fabulous honeymoon in Europe.
I’d like to thank both my cousin R and his gorgeous wife for inviting me to their wonderful wedding, as well as granting me permission to blog about it. I would also like to wish them happiness, joy and good health in this–their greatest adventure together 😀 Cheers!