Last time, it was a Hindu wedding; this time, let’s move along into the deeply religious wedding ceremony held by Kerala’s Christians.
Christianity has been present in Kerala since the 1st Century AD (appropriately enough) and it has its divides and differing beliefs, but that’s for another article. In simple terms, I understand there to be two major groups: the Syro-Malabars, so named for the Syrian Christianity that was introduced 2000 years ago and the local flavour it subsequently developed; and the Roman Catholics, with whom you are no doubt familiar. In this case, my well-to-do colleague was a Syro-Malabar, and he had invited us to his son’s wedding in Kottayam. A (lengthy) bus ride from Trivandrum was organised, and our group eventually stumbled into the chapel about twenty minutes into proceedings.
Having by this time been to so many Hindu weddings, comparisons were hard to avoid at first. For example, a Hindu ceremony’s renowned colour wasn’t exactly present here, but the congregation’s sparkling saris and bangles made for a more vibrant look than the Christian (or Christianity-based) weddings back home in the West. The bride herself wasn’t swathed in white as one might expect, as a surprisingly understated blue sari took the place of a gown; on the other hand, the groom’s highly patterned maroon sherwani coat made him look ten feet tall and very definitely ‘not to be messed with’. Quite a contrast, this, when compared with the plain white dress of a Hindu groom.
My mind soon drifted away from comparisons as I understood that in Kerala, a Christian wedding is all about devotion. It is less a celebration of two lives and families coming together as it is a testament to God’s glory at allowing them to reach this point in their lives. No less than four priests held court before the happy couple, all dressed in flowing robes of white/black/red and suitably official headgear, as verse after verse was recited to the letter. The church itself was grand in that impeccably Christian way: imposing purely for the height of its ceiling, all angles, points and wings, but certainly not wanting for ornate carvings and elaborate stained glass windows.
All this was viewed from a vantage point at the rear of the church. Having arrived late, and with all seats already filled, we found standing room only – and for those wishing to attend a Christian wedding in Kerala any time soon, I highly recommend that you get there early and grab that precious chair… because Christian weddings in Kerala are LONG. No blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em Vegas-style vows here; those scriptures won’t recite themselves, and in this case they took no less than two hours and forty minutes. An elderly gentleman offered me his chair during the final innings but I gamely declined, wanting neither to deprive an old man of his comfort nor to give in to my lack of muscular fitness. Instead, I tried to lose myself in the musicality of the recitations as they flowed from English into Malayalam and back into English again – as a language buff, I found this to be the most intriguing aspect of the ceremony.
Suddenly, it was finished, and in another departure from Western tradition the groom did not kiss the bride. From there we were herded into a cavernous auditorium next door for the meal we’d all been waiting for. I had expected a mob charging down the doors and busting through the walls, but the congregation’s orderly transfer was impressive – all the more so for the fact that it was now pushing 3 o’clock and none of us had eaten for at least three hours. And what food! There was biryani, chicken & mushroom in cream sauce, fresh salad… and wine! I never thought I would see alcohol at a formal function in Kerala, and yet here it was. (Only one small glass, of course, with which to drink a toast to the newlyweds.) There was wedding cake, too, and just when I was starting to feel a bit more at home, I realised that the standard gender segregation was in effect: men eating in silence on one side, women eating in silence on the other.
After a quick meet-and-greet with the couple, we were back in the bus (air conditioned, thank goodness) for the long haul home. As an outsider, I felt that this Christian wedding ceremony had been less accommodating than the Hindu and Muslim ceremonies had been to, where there were always at least three people ready to tell you exactly where to go or what to do next. Of course this made the whole experience a little more confusing, and my memory a little paler as a result, but such a lack of hand-holding was actually quite refreshing – I could take it all in at my own pace. Again, the purpose wasn’t to open up a new world for the saip, but to speak and sing God’s praises.
The Muslim wedding I attended was very different again. Come back next week for the final instalment in the series.