The marriage rituals of the South Indian Brahmins are very interesting. Basically all the Brahmins in India perform Vedic Marriage Rites, which are similar throughout India. However, there are regional and local flavours. Kashmiri Pandit marriages are very elaborate and used to last a month with a lot of singing and rejoicing. Shorter versions of Vedic rites are used in marriages conducted for other communities by the Brahmin priests. One of the most interesting marriages observed by me was the marriage of my niece Gauri Parimoo (a half Kashmiri and Half Gujrati girl) to Krishnan, an Iyengar young man. The marriage took place in Delhi as per the Iyengar rites.
During the marriage ceremony normally the girl wears a nine-yard, arakku red silk saree with zari border and the groom wears only a silk upper and lower cloth (a dhoti and an angvastram) and is bare bodied but adorned with a gold sacred thread. However, Gauri to begin with wore a red bandini Gujrati saree and later changed into a nine-yard Iyengar Madisar.
Among Iyengars the first ritual in the process of marriage is celebration of the Nischayartham (settling the marriage). There are basically two types of Nischayarthams. The first one is a legal contract to conduct the marriage between the two individuals, entered into by the elders of the family. It is a written document, which specifies all the terms and conditions of marriage including the dowry and the tentative date, time and place of marriage.
The second Nischayartham, which is indeed religious, may take place on the day of the marriage, prior to the Muhurtham. It is in the form of a promise made by both the parents concerned, to conduct the marriage, under the will of God, with their entire mind and spirit. This ritual is also known as the ‘Poorvanga Subha’ or the ‘Raising the Curtain’.
After this the parent who is going to carry out the Kanika Dhaanam (giving away his daughter) undertakes the Sankalapa mantras. He vouches religiously with prayers and slokas that he will be willing to give his daughter as Kanika Dhaanam. Since the Brahmins have a right to give and receive dhaanams, the bridegroom’s father ensures the promise by giving a token amount as compensation for receiving the girl. In the case of Iyengars, instead of the girl’s father giving a dowry, it is the groom’s father who gives a monetary compensation.
It is said that this custom has been prevalent even from the time of the legendary marriage of Lord Ventatesha to Goddess Padmavathy. The Lord of Tirupati had to borrow money from Kubera, the god of wealth, to pay the monetary compensation to the father of Goddess Padmavathy. Incidentally, Lord Venkatesha is yet to pay-off his debt to Kubera. The girl’s family gives her gifts of household objects like utensils, cots, bed linen and other requirements, not intended as a dowry but to facilitate starting a home. Hence the custom of dowry, as understood today, did not find place in the Iyengar customs.
After Poorvanga Shuba the Muhurtham, which is the main ritual, takes place. The time within which the chief ritual has to be completed is called one Muhurath Kala, which is about three and three fourth Nazahigai (one and a half-hour). This time factor is very important for Mantra Shastra and for the principles of Yaga. The full effect of the Vedas and Mantras shall be valid only for this Muhurtha period.
Before the Muhurtham takes place there is another ritual which some call ‘Kashi Yatra’. Initially, the groom is in a state of renouncing the world. He is taking Vanaprastha and proceeding to Kashi (Varanasi) as no one has offered him a girl in marriage. At this stage he is intercepted by the prospective bride’s father who promises him the hand of his daughter. He also gives him some gifts and then escorts him with fanfare to the celebrations. At the venue of the celebrations, he is ceremonially welcomed and this is known as the Mapillai Azhaippu (the bridegroom reception). The bride’s father also washes the feet of the groom with milk and honey. At this point the bridegroom is treated as the very form of Lord Vishnu.