I’m not Hindu and in fact, I do not consider myself to be a follower of any particular institutionalized religion. Before I started to dig into the meaning of rituals performed during Hindu marriages I used to see a ceremonial side more as a “show” element – which was in no way a disrespect, but rather ignorance towards a seemingly excessive symbolism of the ceremonies. Besides, many of my questions about the rituals often remained unanswered, which gave a feeling that even the primary participants of the ceremonies were not always aware of the real reasons behind many details.
Once I started to search for explanation of symbolic attributes of the ceremonies, my whole attitude towards the Hindu ceremonies started changing. The more I was reading, the more I was realizing how rich in meaning every tiny rice seed is. Moreover, even though often explained through the names of Hindu Gods and references to their fable life stories, every symbol and action refers to values and natural powers, which are present in lives of every human being, regardless, their religion.
Different states, different priests and even just different families will offer you different explanations of the same rituals, so some of my explanations can deviate from what you’ve heard or known. However the core meaning remains the same, and I hope that my rough explanation of some very basic attributes of Hindu marriages will give you a useful introduction into the spiritual side of the ceremonies. This article is primary based on the book “New Age Purohit Darpan: -Hindu Marriage”, which explains Bengali wedding traditions, as well as on conversations with friends and relatives from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, hence, even though the descriptions are very basic and general, they would mostly be relevant to weddings held in North India.
Auspicious objects used during the rituals
Tilak – Red paste (not to be mixed up with sindoor), which is placed on the forehead of the groom, bride, family members and sometimes guests. The paste can be made out of sandalwood, clay, curcuma, charcoal, and even fire ashes, depending on a state, occasion and available materials. Tilak is not just used during the wedding ceremonies, but during any pujas (prayers) – and it is exactly that red dot you receive from a priest in a temple, as a sign of good blessings. Despite religious meaning there is a scientific reason behind the use of tilak, too. A spot between eyebrows is considered to be a major nerve point, thus pressing this point when applying tilak stimulates blood supply to face muscles and is believed to retain good energy in the body.
Kalash (holy pitcher) – is a pot, which symbolizes five great elements of life: energy (by capturing it through the top from the sun), water (by containing water inside), earth (by sitting on a bit of soil), air & cosmos (which naturally surround the Kalash). Hindus believe that life is based on these five elements and after death our bodies dissolve in nature, in the form of these elements, symbolizing our union with nature.
Thread tied on a wrist – During the different ceremonies it can be tied on the wrist of a bride or a groom. Usually it is ought to serve as a reminder of divine protection when they are challenged in life.
Flowers (often dipped in sandal wood) – common worship items, which are offered to Gods and ancestors during the ceremonies.
Tulsi (holy basil) – a sacred plant mostly used during the worship of God Vishnu; it has auspicious meaning and is usually planted in the center of Hindu houses. It is also a widely used plant in ayurvedic medicine. It is assumed that a “holy” status was assigned to the plant for its rare medical qualities, to ensure it is treated with care; besides, keeping Tulsi in the house prevents insects from entering it.
Seed bearing fruit – symbol of fertility
Swastika – Means divine protection.
Holy Fire – The holy fire will be the center of all wedding rituals. It is believed that the auspicious ceremony should be witnessed by the Fire God (Agni), as one of the most powerful nature elements, which symbolizes light, power and knowledge.
Ghee (purified butter) – Symbolizes prosperity.
Paddy Rice – symbolizes fertility and prosperity. Also used as a common worship item.
Sindoor (Vermillion) – A red paste, which was traditionally applied daily by married women on the parting of their hair.
Red is seen as a color of power and female energy. Besides psychological and esthetical significance of sindoor, it also carries medical purposes: mercury is believed not only to control blood pressure, foster stress relief and strain, but also activate sexual drive.
Aarti (Greeting with an Oil Lamp) – The Arti is moved in circular motion around the face of the person being greeted. It is believed to give good energy and keep all the evils away, as the fire has unlimited divine energy.
Rituals before the main marriage ceremony
1. Tilak – during this ceremony a prayer to various Gods controlling the environment is performed, who are asked to bring success to the coming events and remove all obstacles. After the prayer Tilak and blessings are done by a priest and members the family, by placing the paste between eyebrows of a groom and a bride. The young couple is blessed with long life, removal of all obstacles in life, as well as safe and healthy life, prosperity and peace. This ritual serves as an official confirmation the acceptance of the union by both families.
2. Ancestral worship (carries different names depending on a state) – this ritual is an integral part of the celebration of life, whereas ancestors are always remembered and paid special respect to. Typically, the ceremony begins with the prayer to River Ganga, which is believed to be a savior of ancestral souls, and followed by the prayer to the main Gods. The prayer is completed by the Sun mantra (a mantra devoted to Sun energy, which takes a form of a Goddess Gayatri), as sun energy is a basis for all creations, and followed by the prayer to the Sun God. The ring of the bell declares the start of the ritual.
The worship begins with the offerings to all Gods controlling the environment (foundation of universe, earth, sun, moon…). It is followed by the establishment of Kalash, which symbolizes the beginning of all creations (thus, water held in the kalash, for example, symbolizes the ocean at the moment of creation) and a clear off from all evils.
In many communities, a structure resembling a cross in a pot is built as a “proxy” for universal energy and a welcome place for ancestors’ souls. After that, all ancestors are called by name and are invited to join the auspicious occasion. Even though the ritual is called “Ancestral worship”, during the worship all the living creators on Earth are also invited to the ceremonies – in Hinduism it is believed that every creature regardless size and function is an inevitable part of the universe and nature balance, and everything should be paid an equal respect to ensure a successful event.
All the ancestors are offered food, drink and worship items (like flowers dipped in sandal wood)– it is believed that the ancestors should be satisfied with the welcome in order to give good blessing to the couple and keep all the obstacles away. An important part of the worship is a prayer for the salvation and forgiveness for those who made mistakes in life.
The worship is completed with the formal blessing of a son/daughter by placing tilak on their foreheads. From now on, marriage rituals can officially begin.
3. Haldi ceremony and ceremonial bath.
You can see an example and explanation of a modern haldi ceremony in one of my previous blog posts.
Before the beginning of marriage rituals, a priest prepares a mandap by establishing a kalash, sanctifying the water and the seats and calling for protection during the ceremony from a spiritual leader (Guru), God of Wisdom, Lord Brahma (the creator) and Lord Vishnu (the preserver). The following main rituals are performed during the ceremony (sequence can vary):
Varmala (garland exchange and auspicious look) – before the ceremony begins, a couple publicly exchanges garlands made out of flowers. By performing this ritual the couple demonstrates that they marry each other at free will. In old times it was also a moment when a bride and a groom would see each other for the first time, and for this reason the look at each other during this ritual is believed to be auspicious.
Kanyadan or Sampradan (giving away a daughter by her father) – during this ritual a father literally “gives away” his daughter to yet a stranger to her, who is ought to build a new family together with her, and it is performed with the blessings from Gods. The ritual is marked by the mixed feelings of joy (beginning of new life and new family) and sorrow (separation from the parental home). During the ceremony a groom is treated as a God – because a bride’s and her father’s happiness now depend on him, as regardless the distance, an emotional bond between the bride and her parents will never be interrupted or forgotten. Through the mantras, a groom is given special respect and welcome, he is offered medical herbs, rice and honey, and is treated as a divine power.
A bride’s father performs this ritual by placing his daughter’s hand (decorated with beautiful henna ornaments) on her future husband’s hand and by placing auspicious objects on their hands under a piece of clothes. Groom accepts a bride with words: “Oh Lord of the Love, come and bless me with Passion, after receiving your blessings I will be able to see the ocean of Love and receive the sacred knowledge of love”.
Sacred Knot – a small clothes bag with five nuts (or other items depending on a province and a family) inside is tied to a bride’s and groom’s clothes. It symbolizes a union of two souls and blesses this union to be fruitful (which is symbolized through the items placed in the clothes). Continuation of family and creation of new life are believed to be the main goal of the marriage, and a bride is in the center of the creation.
Vivah Hom/Mangalphera (4 circles around the fire) – at the beginning of the ceremony a couple will walk four circles around the holy fire with a groom leading his bride. During the ritual a couple prays for the protection and long life of each other. Each circle refers to one of four holy principles:
(1) Duty to each other
(2) Providing for material needs of the family
(3) Unconditional love
(4) Striving for enlightenment
Offering of rice to Fire God – a bride will offer rice to the sacred fire, as a symbol of her fertility and her role of a substance for their healthy relationship. During the ritual her husband holds her hands form behind, demonstrating his full support.
Saptapadi (Seven Promises) – seven steps taken around the fire are the center and culmination of the ceremony. During the steps a bride takes a lead, as she is supposed to be the center of the married life, and a groom follows her, demonstrating his full support. The ultimate goal of their joint life is peace, prosperity and happiness and seven vows are taken in order to achieve them. The promises are the seven main principles of the married life (the meaning varies significantly in different sources):
(1) Performing religious obligations together and growing spiritually together (“Towards our united spiritual thoughts”)
(2) Building happy and strong family together (“Towards our mutual happiness”)
(3) Honesty and faithfulness to each other (“Towards our faithfulness to each other”)
(4) Respect, care and patience towards each other (“To be righteous to each other”)
(5) Respect to whole universe, attaining harmony and love (“To be kind to all living beings”)
(6) Fame and wealth of future family, performing duties in the society (“Towards our good name and fame in society”)
(7) Remaining life-long friends (To help us keep the promises we made to each other”)
After the ceremony bride changes her seat and seats on the left side of the groom – from now on he recognizes her as his wife and she is meant to be closer to his heart.
Placing Sindoor – when a groom places Sindoor (a red-colored paste applied by all married women) on a hair parting of a bride, he officially declares her to be his wife. From now on, a couple is considered to be officially married.