Weddings: they're a constant feature of Kerala society. Since arriving here two years ago I've attended somewhere between 10 and 20 weddings or wedding receptions, and the invitations come thick and fast from colleagues, friends and neighbours alike. It is something of an insult not to be invited to a couple's wedding if you have any connection whatsoever with either of the families; likewise, to skip a function for any reason can be quite offensive, something I have unfortunately learned the hard way. As a result, Malayali weddings (and, from what I read, all Indian weddings) are grand affairs with an average congregation of about 500 people.
I only ever went to three weddings back in New Zealand – all those of family members – and though each was unique in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, they all followed essentially the same Christianity-based format. In Kerala, however, I've been fortunate enough to attend weddings of three different faiths: Hinduism, Islam and the Kerala version of Catholicism. They have all been fascinating in their own ways and, of course, challenging in others. In this three-part series, I'll try to give a sense of my experience in attending the respective marriage ceremonies of each faith, starting right here with Hinduism.
A Hindu wedding is dominated by colour: the red of the bride's one-off sari, the tint of the gold chains around her neck, the white and green of fragrant jasmine flowers, the black of the groom's hair and moustache – all illuminated in intense clarity by the camera crew's megawatt bulbs. My first Hindu wedding was on merely my second day in Kerala, my venerable new neighbour eager to have the new saip present at his second son's marriage, and the whole experience was utterly intoxicating. Some of that initial sheen has worn off after attending so many more, but enough of the magic remains that my enjoyment of each occasion extends beyond simply paying my respects, or 'blessing with presence' as one friend's elegant invite read.
Apparently a traditional Hindu wedding is a long and elaborate procedure, but the ceremonies I've witnessed have all been brief – no longer than twenty minutes – and beautiful, with slight variations according to familial or regional tradition. I've never been able to get close enough to the stage to see the whole ceremony clearly, but one gets a sensation that the bride is a delicate flower plucked gently from her father's shelter and placed into the hands of a new man, who will now re-plant and shield her. It's like all of her rougher elements are ironed out for a day, leaving something pristine, silent and beautiful: her old family will always love and care for her, and her new family will (hopefully) protect her at any cost.
The groom, for his part, behaves simply like a capable guardian. Whatever nerves he feels under the surface are not manifested in his movements. He dresses in simple white clothes, with the plain, starched masculinity of his mundu contrasts with the flowing majesty and beauty of his bride's unique sari. This distinction is mirrored in the attendees, who sit segregated according to sex: mundus one side, saris the other. Up until the bride's entrance, there is usually a cacophony of sound from traditional instruments, or perhaps a selection of heavy beats bellowing out over the PA; as soon as she arrives, it all shuts down and there is silence until the proceedings finish.
Then, suddenly, it does finish – no instructions from the stage, it just ends and people start getting up. I suppose everyone else has been to so many of these that the know the whole programme off by heart, but I still have to follow a few steps behind.
If I'm completely honest, the main thing I've taken away from each of the Hindu marriages I've attended is an overstuffed belly. When you go to a Hindu wedding, you eat. It starts the night before with a meal served up by the bride's family; on the day, the main ceremony is immediately followed by a sadya, for which there is a mad rush to get seated and served first. It can be so competitive, in fact, that I generally relax and wait for the second wave, watching as the congregation clamours and shoves at the entrance to the dining hall. This often gives an opportunity to appreciate a now-empty stage, the remnants of a life-changing, though oddly commonplace (as weddings are so frequent), experience allowed to rest for a moment before later being swept away. That food, by the way – always the same, always delicious.
The ceremony is by no means over at this point, with various rituals still to be performed at the groom's home, but to cover the whole system would be both very long and redundant as a quick Google search will reveal all that you wish to know. The feel of a Hindu wedding in Kerala, then, is one of feminine grace and fragility held aloft by a steady and simple masculine foundation. All is awash in colour and gold; in the Hindu tradition, everything (save for the men) is typically ornate. Next time, I'll go to a Christian wedding – join me!