We’re back from a big fat South Indian wedding. I can still hear the naadaswaram (which, by the way, is the world's loudest non-brass acoustic instrument), the vaadyaar (priest) reciting mantrams (I think the English translation would be ‘recitation of portions of text from the holy scriptures’), screeching babies and yelling aunties. (We Indians refer to an earlier generation as Aunts and Uncles. See here)
Now, I haven’t seen an actual American wedding yet, but from what I see in the movies, our weddings are worlds apart — not just in the way they’re organized, but also in who organizes them. Here, apparently the bride and groom handle the whole event. But in our case, the bride and the groom take care of their ensembles, if at all; the rest of the work — dirty or otherwise, is handled by the family. All the pre-wedding through wedding rituals and arrangements are taken care of by the bride’s family, and all the post wedding rituals and reception by the groom’s family.
Even in Indian weddings, there’s a world of difference in the rituals of a North Indian vs. a South Indian wedding. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s also a lot of difference between the way the castes and even sub-castes in each religion perform the weddings.
Now, my sister’s wedding was a South Indian one. So there’s no groom on a horse, no bride in a veil; in fact, a cloth over the head of the woman is considered inauspicious in the Tamil-Brahmin culture, whereas it is a mark of respect in the North Indian tradition. I got married into a North Indian family, so to avoid all the confusion, my parents decided to get us married in just one style,the North Indian one. So I had all the aforementioned details in my wedding — typical of how an Indian wedding is portrayed in Hollywood movies.
My sister’s wedding, on the other hand, was simple South Indian fare, with the groom bare-chested and veshti-clad, and the bride in a nine-yard-long madisaar sari. The whole wedding was spread over three days. So while she got to look and feel special, we, her family had to run the extra mile, literally and figuratively, in order to make the event seamless and a truly memorable one.
To give you a glimpse at our weddings: There is a formal ceremony where the bride is made a bride. Fresh turmeric is applied all over her body and henna patterns are made on her hands and legs, signifying the auspiciousness of the days to come. After this ceremony, the bride is always accompanied by a young girl until she is married. This girl is with the bride at all times taking care of her every need while also hogging the limelight. After the bride, she is the center of attention and is also the most photographed!
In my sister’s case this young girl, was actually two “young” girls — my daughter and I. (Hey, I’m still young!) We had specific roles assigned. I took care of the bride’s every need — running to get her water or a snack, helping her adjust her sari and makeup, stalling the groom’s family until she was ready to make an appearance. Seeing how reliable I was, the vaadyaar also enlisted my services to help him with the rituals. You don’t protest at weddings, especially not with the vaadyaar, who’s responsible for reciting all those tongue-twister mantrams.
My daughter expertly handled the limelight. She loves the stage, loves the attention, the clothes; so what’s not to enjoy? And at 4, I think that’s all there is on her wish list.
So while I was slogging it out, DD was enjoying every minute of it, as was my sister. DD got hold of a microphone and started announcing the details of the wedding: “Ladies and gentlemen, please wait for the bride,” “Ladies and gentlemen, today is the reception, not the wedding,” and so on.
It was a fun event. But no wedding is complete without tears.
There are two specific rituals performed by the father of the bride, which can bring a tear to anybody’s eyes. I consider myself very strong, but the flood gates did eventually open.
The first activity is where the father of the bride washes the feet of the groom. The belief is that the groom is equivalent to Lord Vishnu and the father now expects the groom — the equivalent of the supreme God — to take care of his daughter.
Like most girls, my father was the first male figure in my life. Although he is old and a little frail now, in my head, Appa will always be the strong-willed, mustached disciplinarian who held the family together. To see him wash the feet of a man half his age was indeed heart-rending. It was especially painful to watch because like most Indians, we were also brought up with the idea that feet are the dirtiest parts of the body. Pointing your feet at someone, setting your feet on the table, or walking into the house without washing your feet is just rude and disrespectful. And my Appa, my hero, was bending down to wash another person’s feet!
The second ritual is called Kanyadaanam, or in simpler terms, the giving away of the daughter. My father literally offered my sister’s hands into her groom’s, signifying the change in role of the groom from a bachelor to a duty-bound family man, while my mother sprinkled holy water in their hands to purify the moment.
My sister then sat on my father’s lap while her groom tied the thaali — sacred thread — around her neck signifying love, goodwill and the union of marriage. At this precise moment, the naadaswaram reached its crescendo — the vibrations are believed to ward off all evil. The loud but familiar music gave me goose bumps all over. My little sister was now married.
I know she’ll be around when I need her, I know she’ll be the first person I call when I think of family, but she’s no longer just my sister and just my family. She’s a grown woman with a family and responsibilities of her own. I may no longer be able to shout at her at will, and I may no longer win any argument just because Appa supports my point of view against hers blindly.
A marriage changes a lot of things, mostly for the newlyweds. But in India, it’s not just a union of two individuals; it’s a union of two families. I may not have my sister all to myself, but I do think I have a new friend in my brother-in-law, whom I can convince to side with me!
And our DD has yet another person to pamper her silly.
Padmaja Ganeshan-Singh is a new expat from India and a rookie Superwoman. This is her first time managing her family without any help and boy, does she have newfound respect for the American woman. She is the mother of a high-energy preschooler who presents her with the challenges of preserving the culture of her homeland while embracing the culture of her new home in Seattle. From driving on the 'right' side of the road to understanding the craze behind Halloween candy, Padmaja's trying to make meaning out of the madness around her. For a peep into her expat life, check her blog .