Hinduism is perhaps the oldest continuing religion in the world, with sacred texts estimated to date back to 3000 B.C. Many of its traditions have lasted for eons, with origins lost in time. A Hindu wedding, one of the most sacred of rites, incorporates many of these timeless rituals and customs. In ages past, these traditions and rituals would extend over several days, but in today's hectic society, such a schedule is difficult to accommodate. Today, many of these traditions are performed the night before and the day of the wedding ceremony. The Hindu ceremony centers not just on the bride, but celebrates the coming together of two families. To illustrate this theme, many customs involve both families.
Hinduism has at its core the Vedas, the spiritual scriptures that are the heart of India's culture. The Vedas divide life into four distinct stages, or ashrams: studentship (brahmacharya ashram), householder (grahstha ashram), retirement (vanprastha ashram), and self-realization (sanyas ashram). Marriage, considered a samskara, or sacrament, is the transition from studentship to householder, and as such it forms the very foundation for the remaining two stages of life. Three-quarters of human life, then, depends on the success of marriage.
The Hindu wedding takes place inside a canopy called a mandap. The bride is sometimes painted in elaborate mendhi or henna designs covering her hands and feet before the ceremonies begin. The following ceremonies are meant to honor the couple's love and ensure the success of their marriage by invoking the blessings of various deities and joining the families in celebration.
Some Hindu ceremonies begin with an invocation to Lord Ganesh, or Ganesha, the Hindu god of wisdom and salvation. Ganesha is depicted as having an elephant's head. By invoking him, he removes any obstacles from the wedding ceremony. The ceremony may then be performed without hindrances. The Ganesh Poojan is performed anywhere from a few days to the night before the wedding.
Arrival of the Vara Yatra
As the groom and his party, together called the vara yatra, arrive at the ceremony site amidst much singing and dancing, the bride's parents, family and friends greet them with akshat (a kind of rice), tilak (a dot on the forehead), arati (a plate carrying a lighted lamp), and a garland.
Before the wedding begins, the nine planets are invoked by name in a ceremony called grahashanti (peace with the planets). Blessings are received from each planet for the new couple's life together.
The bride is often led to the mandap by a brother or uncle, where the groom waits with the bride's parents. The bride's parents offer their daughter in marriage in a pious and solemn ritual called kanyadan. They wash the feet of the bride and groom with milk and water, purifying them for their new life together. The bride and groom hold their hands open, and the father of the bride holds his open palm over their hands. The mother of the bride then pours water over her husband's hand, which subsequently falls on the hands of the bride and groom.
This ceremony centers on the joining of the bride and groom's hands. The bride's right hand is placed on the right hand of the groom. Their hands are then tied together with a cotton thread wound several times, while the priest recites holy verses. Although a single thread can be easily broken, a thread wound many times creates an unbreakable bond; thus, the thread acts as a metaphor for the new marriage, bringing the couple together in an unbreakable bond.
The Wedding Ceremony
The bride and groom are next seated in front of a holy fire, or agni, as a priest recites various mantras from the Holy Scriptures. In Hinduism, fire is regarded as a purifier and a sustainer of life. In a ritual called mangalfera, the bride and groom walk around the fire four times (each a symbol of the four ashrams of life), praying and exchanging vows of duty, love, fidelity, and respect. The priest directs family members to make offerings into the fire. At the end of the ceremony, in a ritual called saptapadi, the bride and groom take seven vows, sealing the marriage forever. These vows are traditionally spoken in Sanskrit, and are one of the most ancient aspects of the Hindu ceremony. The vows validate the marriage; no ceremony is complete without them.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, the priest directs the newlyweds' eyes to the pole star, which remains steadfast in the sky though the stars around it move across the sky. So shall their new marriage be steadfast, though others may change around them.
There are additional ceremonies, such as bidhai and vadhupravesh, that center on leaving the ceremony site and welcoming the bride to the groom's home. And certain regions and sects have their own variations on the basic Hindu ceremony. Jain, Punjabi, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil, Kashmiri, and Bengali ceremonies will all have their own unique customs that make Hindu weddings so special. And other Hindu-dominated regions, such as the island of Bali in Indonesia, have their own customs as well. For a religion as ancient and rich as Hinduism, its customs are as countless as they are timeless.