Life in Kerala – and, for that matter in India – involves a lot more social interaction than occurs in the West. This interaction occurs in different settings but one that occurs with frequency is attendance at baptisms, engagements, marriages and funerals. Birthdays seem to be less frequently celebrated except for special occasions like the first birthday of a child or the sixtieth birthday of an adult – the latter is considered a significant milestone in Kerala and in Hindu tradition and referred to as sashti poorthi. Since coming to Kerala we have been invited to several of these occasions.

This past weekend, we went to Trivandrum to attend an engagement on Saturday and a wedding on Sunday. Nothing remarkable about this except that for me it was the first Nair wedding I have attended and the second Nair engagement. The Nairs, of course, are part of the Hindu community in Kerala – it used to be a completely matriarchal group but with the passage of time, the Nairs have, for the most part, gone mainstream and the matriarchal element has receded to the background. The interesting thing for me – quite apart from the novelty of the experience – was how it contrasted with the typical Syrian Christian wedding in Kerala.

Mini is from the Nair community and the engagement that we attended was that of her late sister’s grandson, Tushi to Athira. His father, Gopal, is Mini’s nephew and he is married to Susheela who is close to Mini. Since Mini was the only maternal aunt present – and, in effect, a proxy grandmother – she and I were viewed and treated with deference. The most remarkable thing about both the engagement and – the marriage of another couple that we attended the following day – is the simplicity and brevity of the ceremonies.

The engagement ceremony started with Athira and Tushi being led around to the older relatives and pay their respects by touching the feet of the various individuals while the recipients would bless the couple. Mini, given her role, was one of the primary guests whose blessing was sought – and I was accorded the same attention by virtue of the fact that I am her husband. As they did so, I must confess the thought that passed my mind was that I wished I had polished my Rockport sandals that were a little grubby from the dust that is an inevitable part of life in Kerala!!

Athira being led by her mother as she paid her respects and sought the blessing of the older relatives

During the engagement, the fathers of the groom and bride sat cross-legged on the floor of a raised platform facing each other and exchanged the written horoscopes of the groom and bride – in effect, the bride’s father gave the groom’s father the horoscope of the bride and the groom’s father gave the bride’s father the horoscope of the groom. Of course, these horoscopes had been shared previously to ensure that the stars were in alignment thus enhancing the prospects that the marriage would be a happy one.

Fathers exchanging horoscopes

Following this, the two fathers vacated their seats and the bridegroom and the bride took their place. The groom and bride put a ring on each other’s finger on the right hand – a custom that is not part of the typical Nair engagement but is something that has been borrowed and adapted from the West!

Tushi placing ring on Athira’s finger

A senior male relative, read aloud to all present a document written in Malayalam that basically expressed the intent of both families to proceed with the betrothal and subsequent marriage. With this, the engagement was over – the actual process took about 15 minutes though there was then a lot of picture taking with the engaged couple appearing in each picture with different relatives. We both posed with the couple in a picture – as did many other from the bride’s side as well as that of the groom! There were about two hundred people present for the occasion.

Tushi and Athira made for an attractive couple. We were all particularly impressed with Athira who was a quite vivacious and outgoing young lady. I thought that she was likely constraining herself from being too outgoing since as a prospective bride in Kerala she is expected to maintain a somewhat subdued persona. She came across as clearly more excited than Tushi who even under normal circumstances is on the quiet side – so being the principal participant at his engagement made him even more restrained. Athira is studying to be a company secretary – a term that has a different connotation in India and the UK than it does in the US. A company secretary is essentially responsible for satisfying the regulatory requirements pertaining to legal aspects of corporate governance – something that would fall under the purview of the general counsel in a US company.

An interesting side-note to the engagement was the fact that the couple met on the net through a matrimonial site. This is a huge departure from how things used to be when marriages were arranged as a result of an intermediary making both parties aware of an eligible prospective bride/groom. Thereafter, subsequent to various inquiries being made, if there was an interest, the families would approach each other and then the couple would meet to ascertain if they wanted to go forward with the marriage. The use of a matrimonial site is very much a reflection of the changing times and the use of social media and technology – namely, the internet – which is all the more appropriate given that Tushi is in the IT field! The wedding is expected to take place in May.

Tushi’s parents – Gopal and Susheela

On Sunday, we attended the wedding of Hari and Geetha’s daughter – Hari is Mini’s first cousin – and Harsha was getting married to a young Tamilian guy, Sukirth, who she met while in college. What was unusual about this ceremony was the fact that the bride and groom came from different communities – one from Kerala and the other from Tamil Nadu. This is not as infrequent as it used to be given the interaction between young men and women at college and in the work environment but is still somewhat of a rarity. at least in Kerala.

The actual wedding ceremony did incorporate some of the traditions of the Tamilian wedding protocol but for the most part it was a typical Nair ceremony. Again, what struck me about the ceremony was the sheer simplicity and brevity of the ceremony which lasted about 20 minutes or so. It involved the bride and groom receiving the blessings of the elder relatives from each family as was the case in the engagement of Tushi and Athira. The actual ceremony was conducted in an auditorium and the stage and especially the mandap where the rituals were performed was decorated with loads and loads of flowers – especially marigolds.

Stage decorated with flowers and the mandap in the center

The respective fathers led the bride and groom around the mandap -ceremonial dais – which was located on a stage three times. Then the groom did the same with the bride. They then both sat on the mandap cross-legged and the groom tied a thali around the neck of the bride and the bride and groom garlanded each other. The groom handed the bride the pudva which is the ceremonial saree that the bride would wear after the wedding – in a typical Nair wedding once those actions are completed the couple are viewed as being married. In the case of this wedding – in deference to Tamilian customs – the groom placed a large gold bangle over the head and around the neck of the bride.

Harsha bedecked with gold ornaments with Sukirth

Following both the engagement and wedding ceremonies the guests partook in a sadhya which is the traditional feast served on these occasions. The entire meal, served on a banana leaf is vegetarian with multiple courses of different “curries” that are served with the rice in addition to the various vegetables and pickles and other garnishings. Mini warned me as we were getting started that the idea is to have each different type of “curry” served on just a small portion of the rice because there would be multiple such mixers – so I should not mix the entire rice with the first serving! It was a typical sadhya and included rice, several varieties of pickle, curries and sweets. Avial, thoran, olan, kalam, pacchari, payasam, pappads among other items were all part of the elaborate meal.

Sadhya served on a banana leaf

The food was delicious and it was expertly served to the guests who sat in a row at long tables while the servers came with the different items in very large vessels each held by two servers with one hand while they used the other hand to ladle out the food to each guest! It is done with a proficiency and expertise that is quite impressive to watch.

Some thoughts and observations about the two ceremonies and the contrast with the Syrian Christian marriage ceremony:

There was no religious component to the wedding whatever – no priest or pujari or any prayers or blessing by anyone officiating over the ceremony. It was essentially a ceremony presided over by the two families. It is the absence of the religious element that probably accounts for the brevity of the ceremony.
This, of course, is very different from the Syrian Christian marriage where the rituals are conducted in a church and it is the priest who officiates over the entire ceremony including the actual marriage of the couple – which, in turn, accounts for the length of the service that usually lasts at least an hour and often quite a bit longer. Interestingly, I was talking to a Nair neighbor and telling him about the wedding I attended and he said that he felt that one of the things lacking in the Nair wedding was the absence of any religious component such as prayers, etc – he felt that prayers and the blessing of the Almighty needed to be part of the ceremony.

The whole occasion is viewed as an opportunity to socialize both before and after the wedding or engagement. Relatives usually come to attend from near and far and many meet at such occasions not having met previously for months – or whenever the last such occasion offered itself. Mini got to meet a lot of relatives – some after years and even decades given that we live in the US and usually miss such occasions.

The bride at the wedding wore a spectacular saree and had more gold ornaments (jewelery) that I have ever seen on one person. She was literally covered with these gold ornaments with numerous necklaces, a heavy waist chain and each arm loaded with gold bangles. I would not be surprised if those gold ornaments weighed at least 6 pounds! Keep in mind that in Kerala the gold used is 22 carat in purity and so if I am right in my estimate of six pounds of gold ornaments, their value likely exceeded $180,000 just for the jewelery alone! Again, in Syrian Christian weddings although ornaments for a bride are an important part of the wedding, there is nothing like what I saw on the bride at this wedding.

Horoscopes are an important part of Nair weddings – and most Hindu weddings – but they are inconsequential when it comes to Syrian Christian weddings.

There was the same organized chaos that one finds at all Indian functions. There were official photographers who were taking pictures and a video of the ceremonies but, in addition, there were numerous other people – family and friends – wanting to take pictures with their cameras and cellphones and in the process they would obstruct the view of the ceremony for the guests who were attending the function.

All in all both the engagement and the wedding were quite an experience for me. Quite apart from the actual ceremonies, I had an opportunity to meet many of Mini’s relatives who were universally welcoming and hospitable to me.

The contrast in terms of wedding ceremonies and the attendant celebrations are very different in various parts of India. Kerala wedding – and most South Indian weddings – are relatively simple affairs though the number of guests tend to vary from several hundred to several thousand! Weddings in North India by contrast are long, elaborate and opulent affairs lasting several days with multiple ceremonies and festivities. My personal preference as I wrote in another blog entry is for the simpler version and the Nair ceremony was the epitome of simplicity both when it came to the engagement and the wedding. There were probably 300 guests at the engagement and 600 guests at the wedding. With the exception of the jewelery on the bride, there was nothing ostentatious or over the top about either event. Even the bride’s jewelry is viewed in Kerala as something akin to part of her inheritance.

Unlike in the West and in North India, there is no entertainment element – celebrities are never invited to such events to make them more glamorous although at this wedding a former prominent actress in Malayalam movies during the 80s’ who used to go by the screen name of Karthika was in attendance. Her real name is Sunanda and she is the daughter of Mini’s first cousin. She was there as a guest with her parents – because they are related to the bride and her father. Sunanda is now well into her forties but still retains the grace and beauty that she was famous for during her acting days.

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2 Responses to “Nair weddings – the antithesis of conspicuous consumption”

  1. Peter says:

    excellent posting, enjoyed it thoroughly. What stuck to my mind was the picture of the food on the “ela”….mouth-watering, especially since I know all about those”sadhyas”. The engagement couple Tushi & Athira are a good looking couple. Brevity and simplicity, I like that style hope they don’t try to change its format.

  2. Saira says:

    I really enjoyed the food description as well…it all sounded delicious. I might need to make a trip to Amma’s one of these days for a weak proxy.

    I can’t get over the jewelry…that’s amazing.

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