Keralite Syrian Christian Weddings
A Beautiful Amalgamation of Hindu and Christian Practices
Text: Major General Jacob Tharakan Chacko, Sena Medal (Retired)
Photographs Courtesy: Weva Photography
Christian weddings, to most Indians, are what movies show. What people get to see in Indian movies are, formally attired grooms and brides in flowing gowns, walking down the aisle of ornate churches or the newlyweds and scores of fellow dancers gyrating to pulsating music at a beach resort. Far removed from movie screens Keralite Syrian Christian wedding is a seamless amalgamation of Hindu and Christian customs and traditions in purposeful solemnity. These practices, alien to Western and Eastern Christianity, as also other Christian communities of India, are so integral to Keralite Syrian Christian weddings, its origins and distinctive identities are seldom noticed. Keralite Syrian Christian weddings are, in fact, shining examples of how beautifully native rituals influence religious practices.
Ceremonies, of the wedding day, commences with a prayer before the bride or groom leaves the house. After the prayer, the bride or groom, as a mark of respect and gratitude, gives “Dakshina”, a customary gift, normally, of lemon and a silver coin or cash, placed on a betel leaf, to parents, selected teachers and elders, who, in turn, blesses the bride or groom. This is how, the mandated Christian commandment, “Honour thy father and mother”, subsumed in the Hindu saying, “Mata Pita, Guru Daivam”, is demonstrably implemented.
Keralite Hindu wedding ceremony culminates in “Thali Kettu” where, the groom ties the sacred “Thali” or “Mangal Sutra” around the bride’s neck. “Mangal”, drawn from the word, “Mangalam”, in the context of wedding, means “auspicious” or “happiness” whereas “Sutra” means “discourse”, and at a practical level means “strings” (thread), that holds things together. “Mangal Sutra”, is a gold pendant, that resembles a “Banyan Leaf”, signifying longevity of relationship. The “Thali”, is strung on sacred thread and subjected to chanting of shlokas by the pundit before being given to the groom. After tying the “Mangal Sutra”, groom and bride take “seven rounds” around the “Sacred Fire” to complete the seven wedding vows. “Mangal Sutra”, is believed to bind the groom and his bride to a relationship of marital bliss that will last “seven births”.
The Syrian Christian Groom ties a pendant, called “Minnu” also shaped like a banyan leaf, with a Cross in it. The “Minnu” is, held in place by “seven threads” drawn from the “Mantra Kodi”. The seven threads with the “Minnu” represents, one each for the bride, groom, one each for the two sets of parents and the seventh for the Church or society. There is a school of thought which considers the seven threads, as substitute for the “seven rounds” around the holy fire undertaken by the Hindu couple. The Minnu is blessed by all the priests present in the church for the wedding ceremony.
One significant ritual, of a Keralite Hindu wedding, is the event where the groom gifts the bride with a dress. Through “Pudava Koduckal”, (“Pudava” means dress and “Koduckal” means “give), the groom assures the bride and declares to the society at large, that he, from then on, shall be the provider and protector of the bride. Keralite Syrian Christian grooms, likewise gift their brides with the “Mantra Kodi”. “Mantra”, has its origins in Hinduism and denotes “chanting” and “Kodi”, means dress. Though in different formats, “Pudava” or “Kodi” is given during the wedding ceremony, in both, Hindu and Syrian Christian weddings. In the Christian wedding, the “Mantra Kodi” is kept in the designated place throughout the ceremony, blessed by the priests and then given to the bride. As soon as the function at the church finishes, the bride changes into the “Mantra Kodi”, proudly declaring that from then on, the groom is her protector and provider.
A very poignant part of the Hindu wedding, is “Kanya Daanam” where, the bride’s father gives her hand to the groom, formally “entrusting” the bride to the groom. In a Keralite Syrian Christian wedding, the presiding priest, on behalf of the society and church, does the honours. It is common to see the bride’s father and mother reach for their kerchiefs at that moment.
Lighting of the “traditional lamp”, by the groom and his bride, together, is an important event in the Keralite Syrian Christian wedding feast. Fire for the lamp, is given by the groom’s parents symbolising continuity of the rich family traditions through the newlyweds. Syrian Christians, however, have incorporated the western practice of “Cutting the Wedding Cake” and “Proposing Toasts” as part of the event.
Entry of the bride into the groom’s house for the first time, is a very important part of the ceremonies associated with a Keralite wedding. The bride on arrival at the groom’s house, is received by the groom’s mother with a lighted lamp. In some houses, the traditional measure called “Para” filled with paddy and a bunch of coconut flowers is kept at the main door signifying abundance in the groom’s house. The mother-in-law, hands over the lamp to the bride, who then steps into the house, right foot first, signifying her assuming the role as the “light of the house”. Although there could be variations of how this ritual is conducted, from place to place, both Hindu and Syrian Christian households follow it in one form or another.
Hindus, in general, take care to ensure that important functions are conducted only during “auspicious” periods. Thus, setting out from the house for wedding will always be outside “Rahu Kaalam”. Though discreetly done, most Keralite Syrian Christians, generally plan and ensure that, the time to leave the house, “Minnu Kettu” and the brides entry into the groom’s house are kept out of “Rahu Kaalam”.
“Minnu Kettu”, “Mantra Kodi” and “Kanya Daanam”, not being part of the Christian liturgy, are performed in the church after conclusion of the pure Christian rites. “Dakshina”, “Mangal Sutra”, “Pudava Koduckal”, “Kanya Daanam”, “Lighting of Lamp”, and “Welcoming with Lamp” are distinctively Hindu customs and alien to Western and Eastern Christianity. Keralite Syrian Christians, adopted local customs, rooted, in Hinduism and elegantly incorporated them into their wedding rituals making it unique.
Rituals integral to Keralite Syrian Christian weddings vary in practise, as one travels from the North to South. But, invariably all these are rooted, predominantly to native Hindu customs and rituals, blended to suit requirements of religion. Religion do influence the manner in which local customs and traditions are practised and the resultant diversity is what makes each place uniquely vibrant. A Keralite Syrian Christian wedding, with all its attendant solemnness, gaiety and splendour, is an excellent gateway to understanding synergic evolution of local customs, traditions and rituals.