Booking the hall, deciding on caterers, choosing the mandap and decorations, sending out the invitations, finding photographers, choosing the Priest – music, bridal outfits, nails, makeup, jewellery, matching colour schemes, groom’s outfit — Aaaaaaaah!! As the stress levels escalate and we strive to organise the wedding of the year, how much time do we get to step back and think about the rituals we are about to perform and appreciate the true meaning of the Hindu marriage ceremony?
According to Hindu Dharma, marriage is a sacrament. Its purpose is to create and develop a religious and spiritual outlook in life. Marriage influences the personality of man and woman as life partners, enabling them to take their rightful place in society.
Hindu marriage is solemnised in accordance with an approved ritual instructed by the VEDAS, the holy scriptures of the Hindus. According to Hindu Dharma the ceremony of marriage is a firm uniting of two souls such that after marriage the individual bodies remain as separate entities but the souls merge into one harmonious whole. The idea behind the institution of marriage in Hindu Dharma is to foster not self-interest, but love for the entire family (and society). It is the love and duty cultivated for the entire family that prevents break-ups. During the nuptial ceremony in a Vedic marriage, both the bride and the bridegroom take an oath for the practice of self-restraint, to work together for the welfare of the family & Dharma and to help each other attain spiritual peace. This lofty ideal of sanctity is a great gift of Hindu Dharma to the world at large.
The majority of a Hindu marriage ceremony takes place inside a four-pole canopy termed the mandap and takes place in different stages.
Stages of the Hindu Marriage Ceremony
Vara Satkaarah: As soon as the bridegroom’s party arrives, they are warmly welcomed by the bride’s family. At the entrance of the hall the bride’s mother receives the groom by applying a tilak (red kumkum powder and uncooked rice) to signify good luck on the groom’s forehead and blesses him. The bridegroom is welcomed and treated like Mahavishnu (Supreme God) as will the bride be treated as Laxmi (Supreme Goddess). The priest and the bride’s parent lead the bridegroom and his parents to the stage where they are given appropriate seats.
The bride then enters at the mandap escorted by her maternal uncles after which she is seated to the right hand side of the bridegroom.
Achamana and Angasparsha: All Hindu religious ceremonies begin with two observances, namely Achaman or sipping a small amount of water and Angasparsha or touching one’s limbs with one’s right hand middle two fingers with a little water. Achaman is purificatory and conducive to peaceful attitude of mind. Angasparsha is intended to pray for physical strength and alertness.
Madhuparka ceremony: Madhuparka is a nutritious drink composed of honey, curd and ghee or clarified butter. The Madhuparka ceremony dates back thousands of years when Rishis and sages used it as a means of welcoming guests. In the wedding ceremony, madhuparka is offered to the bridegroom by the bride’s parents. This act is symbolic of the sweetness and joy that the bridegroom hopes will be a part of his and his new bride’s life together.
Kanya Daan: This is probably the most important and most symbolic part of a wedding ceremony. ‘Kanya’ means daughter and ‘Daan’ means giving away, hence in this part of the wedding ceremony the bride’s parents give her away by entrusting her to the bridegroom. The officiating priest chants appropriate verses in Sanskrit, to notify that the parents have not willingly expressed their wish and consent, by requesting the groom to accept their daughter as his bride.
Vivah-homa: All solemn rites and ceremonies commence with the performance of Homa (sacred fire ceremony or Havan yajna) among the followers of Vedic religion. The idea is to begin all auspicious undertakings in an atmosphere of purity and spirituality. This atmosphere is created by the burning of fragrant herbs and ghee and by the recitation of suitable Mantras. The Achaman and Angasparsha are performed for the second time, with the bride also participating.
Pani-Grahanam: This is the acceptance of the bride by the bridegroom as his wife. The bridegroom raises the bride’s hand with his left hand, clasps it and promises to protect her and their progeny, follow in the path of virtue with her and overcome all obstacles so that they may live a life of happiness and attain their spiritual goals together.
Pratigna-karanam: At this stage the couple walk around the fire and take solemn vows of loyalty, steadfast love and life-long fidelity to each other.
Shilarohanam: ‘Shila’ means stone. ‘Arohan’ means ascending or stepping upon. The mother of the bride assists her to step onto a stone and counsels her to prepare herself for a new life. A married couple are likely to encounter ups and downs, joys and sorrows, sickness and health. In spite of difficulties facing them they are enjoined to remain steadfast and true to each other.
Laja Homa: During this stage of the ceremony, oblations are offered to the sacred fire. The brother of the bride puts fried rice into her hands, half of which slips into the bridegroom’s hands under hers, which then slips into the fire. This is done three times over whilst the bride prays to Yama, the God of death, for the long life, happiness and prosperity of her new husband.
Agni-Parikrama/Mangal Fera/Pradakshina: This stage is one of the most auspicious parts of the ceremony and consists of the couple walking around the fire clockwise four times. It is believed that the moon protects the bride for the first seven years of her life followed by the sun in the next seven years of her life after which agni (fire) acts as her custodian. Hence appropriate respect is given to agni by carrying out this custom of walking around the fire. This custom coupled with that of saptapadi establishes an indissoluble matrimonial bond between the couple. In the first three rounds the groom leads the bride around the fire during which God’s blessings and help are sought; loyalty to each other is emphasised and a promise for the well-being and care of their future children is made. In the final round the bride leads the groom around the sacred fire and she promises that she will lead her life according to Dharma and Satya (devotion and truth). At the end of the four rounds they exchange seats, the bride taking her seat to the left of the bridegroom.
Saptapadi: The ends of the bridegroom’s scarf and upper garment of the bride are tied together by the priest, signifying the marriage knot. Then both stand facing the north ready to take seven steps. The bridegroom places his right hand on the right shoulder of the bride and they take the first step in the northeasterly direction.
Uncooked grains of rice are placed in a line at equal distance at seven places. The bride and the groom take seven steps together as the priest recites mantras – each step signifies a different aspect of marriage that they hope to uphold together with the final goal of being true companions and remaining life-long partners through wedlock.
The wife takes her rightful place on the left side of her husband as the marriage is now religiously solemnized in its entirety. Now the couple are husband and wife. The husband garlands the wife and she in turn garlands her husband.
Saubhagya-chinha: The bridegroom blesses his bride by putting sindhur (vermillion powder) at the parting of her hair on her forehead and by giving her a mangalsutra (sacred necklace).
Abhishekh, Surya Darshan & Dhruva Dhyaanam Darshanam va: The priest sprinkles water on the bride and groom after which they both meditate on the sun to give them power to lead a creative, useful and meaningful life. Finally they both meditate on the pole star and the Arundhati star (Dhruva Dhyaanam Darshanam va). The Pole Star is stationary and fixed in its position; likewise the couple is expected to be steadfast and firm in fulfilling their vows and responsibilities . Arundhati was the devoted wife of the sage Vashishtha, therefore by meditating on the Arundhati star they both consolidate their devotion for each other.
Anna Prashanam: In the last symbolic rite the couple make offerings of food into the sacred fire with chantings of Vedic Havan Mantras. Having done this, the couple feed a morsel of food to each other – symbolic of mutual love and affection.
Aashirvaadah: This is the final stage where there is benediction by the elders. Firstly the priest blesses the newly wed couple, after which other elders do the same.
What role does a Hindu marriage play in the UK?
Living in the western world, many third generation British Hindus have ruled out the Hindu marriage ceremony opting for the quicker, more westernised ceremony of being married by a registrar. Is the traditional wedding ceremony still necessary in a land far away from out Motherland? The answer most definitely lies in the actual significance of the Hindu marriage. According to Sanatan Dharma, marriage is not just a social contract in the modern sense of the word, but a religious or spiritual institution; a sacrament. As Hindus we must recognise that besides the two human parties, the bride and the bridegroom, there is a third superhuman, spiritual or divine element in marriage. In Hindu Dharma, a marriage between two persons is a sacred relationship that is not limited to this life alone. It extends across seven or more lives, during which the couple help each other evolve spiritually. It seems fitting therefore that the marriage of a Hindu couple be solemnised at a high spiritual level and in a spiritual atmosphere.
Hindu seers and sages were responsible for the advent of Marriage as institution to regulate the good order in society. It was the beginning of civilisation as we know it and ruled out women being regarded as just objects of pleasure. God is worshipped as Shakti, the mother of all creation. The rites and rituals of Hindu marriage date back to our forefather Manu. In Manu Smriti it has been laid down that Hindus should conceive of marriage as a union meant for the performance of religious and spiritual duties. It could not take place without the performance of sacred rites and ceremonies. Although the modern age has given rise to adaptations to the way in which we carry out Hindu weddings, it seems appropriate that we continue passing down certain traditions that have been with us since time immemorial.