The Groom's Fair
Scenes from a Wedding
Fieldnotes: Negotiating a Marriage
 

The rite of kanyadan at a Brahman wedding.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This young wife performs tusari during the first year of her marriage.

 

One of the most unusual forms of marriage, in world cultures, is the Indian idea of marriage-as-gift. The indigenous term is very close to Marcel Mauss's conception of the gift: dan means, literally, "gift." Kanya is a young girl, a virgin. The most sacred form of marriage for 2500 years in India has been kanyadan, "the gift of a girl." The concept has a prominent place in ancient Hindu lawbooks, and is known everywhere today, as well. The "love match"--well known in India as the Western way of making marriages--is considered scandalous and immoral, especially in Mithila.

When a man's daughter comes close to puberty, he begins the search for a husband for her. It is his responsibility to take the initiative; grooms' families bide their time, waiting for offers. The idea behind kanyadan is that a virgin is the best gift a man will ever have to give; he seeks to give this precious gift, therefore, to a worthy recipient. He likens this gift to a gift to the gods; "My daughter's husband is Vishnu to me," said one Srotriya. Of course, this recipient must be a member of his own caste, but preferably someone of a slightly higher status than his own.

A Woman's Life Stages

Kanya Young girls, prior to their marriage, generally live carefree lives in their father's household with their heads uncovered. They are carefully sheltered from contact with the opposite sex; protection of their virginity is one of their father's most sacred duties. She is taught from the age of five or six to pray to the goddess Gauri to bring her a husband "like Shiva." These days she may be allowed to go to school, but in rural Bihar many Brahmans still worry about letting their daughters get too educated; e.g., 9th grade may be "too educated." Around puberty their father begins the search for a husband. The legal age of marriage in India is sixteen for girls, but many are married younger than this, for traditionally it was a sin of the father to let his daughter come of age while still unmarried and living in his house.

Suhag When a woman is married, she enters the auspicious state of suhag. This term refers a married woman with a living husband; it suggests she is sexually active and bearing children. She wears the mark of her suhag in her vivid saris, in arms jingling with bangles, gold around her neck and ears, and above all in the red powder she puts in the part of her hair every morning. However, the transition may be difficult, for she is taken to live in a strange household in a strange village, married to a husband she has never met. She must keep her head veiled at all times in her husband's village and must observe avoidance taboos with all the men senior to her husband. E.g., if she's sitting on the verandah and her father-in-law arrives, she flees to an inner room.

Vidva  When a woman's husband dies, she becomes a widow (the term vidva is cognate to English "widow"). As her husband's body is taken by men to be burned, women take her to the pond, where they break her bangles, wash the red powder out of her hair, and robe her in a white sari. She will never again wear the ornaments and beautiful saris of a suhagin, but instead will live a life of asceticism in her dead husband's household. She is thought to be quite inauspicious, and she stays in the background during all auspicious ritual occasions such as weddings.

Brahman Women

These women in a Brahman village in Mithila are engaged in a ceremony for a bride during the first year of her marriage (bride's in yellow). You can identify the life stages of the other women from their dress. [Click on the picture to see an enlarged version]