Thursday, September 25, 2008

Tying the Thaali

Have you ever had a Madras plaid shirt? Madras plaids were very popular when I was a teen, and have come in and out of fashion ever since. They are light and cool and the colours tend to run together a bit when washed, which is part of their charm. They were a perfect addition to the Southern California beach lifestyle of my youth.

Madras…now called Chennai…is actually a city in the southern Indian state of Tamil Naidu. My husband’s nationality is South African, but his ethnic heritage is Indian…Tamil, to be precise. It may surprise you to know that more than a million people of Indian origin live in South Africa…Durban, in fact, is the largest settlement of Indian people in the world, outside India! And with that many Indian people living in the same community, many of the traditions of their homeland have remained intact.

Hubby and I were married nearly five years ago by a non-denominational minister in California. The thinking was this: the American government can be unpredictable about accepting such things as marriage certificates between an American and a foreigner if the marriage is performed outside the country. Furthermore, the US Immigration service might frown on a marriage between a 56 year-old American woman and a 31-year-old foreign man: they seem to think any foreigner marrying an American only has a “green card” in mind, and given the age difference, we decided to minimize the number of possible objections to the legitimacy of the marriage (foreign wedding) by getting married in the US. It’s rather moot, considering we live in South Africa, but if we ever want to return to the US and live as a married couple there, his ability to get a green card must be preserved.

The upside of getting married in California was that my friends and family could attend. The downside was that his friends and family could not…and the traditions of his culture could not be adhered to, either.

Well, our fifth anniversary is coming up in November and that is about to be rectified. His mother has consulted a Brahmin and the actual day of our anniversary has been pronounced an “auspicious day.” This is good, because one must perform important rituals on auspicious days, and the sentimentalist in me wants a ceremony officiating our marriage in his traditions to be on the same day as our marriage was performed in my traditions. So, on the eighth of November this year, we are going to the temple and we will participate in the “tying of the thaali.”

“Thaali” is a Tamil word and the thaali is the symbol of marriage in the Tamil (and many other) culture. The tying of the thaali is the most important ceremony in an Indian wedding, similar to our custom of exchanging rings. An Indian woman takes the thaali to be the most esteemed token of love offered to her by her husband.

Legend has it that the thaali was originally a tigers claw or tooth, and if you look at the thaali in the picture above, you can see the stylized tooth shape. The groom gifted his bride with this token of his bravery (apparently he was supposed to have killed the tiger himself, quite a feat in the days before hunting rifles!) and as a symbol that he was brave enough and strong enough to protect and provide for her.

Hindu married women, often wear a necklace with a gold pendant...In South India, the necklaces are often made from a colourful cord. The shape, size and number of gold pendant(s) used are rather dependant on the cultural background of the wearer.

To an Indian woman, this is rather like wearing the wedding band, it is a bit longer and heavier than the gold wedding band, but it serves the same purpose - an overt signal to all around, that the lady is spoken for.

The necklace is invariably given by the groom to the bride at a key stage during the wedding. It is his way of saying, “You are as precious as this gold to me” and his way of showing that he values her above all else.

It is called mangal sutra [in North India], because it represents “auspiciousness”. By wearing it, a woman announces that she is happy and fulfilled in her life, this is what makes her “auspicious”. The sutra represents the many strands of emotions, love, faith, trust, friendship etc that go into making up a relationship, especially one that is suppose to last a life time. It also represents the many relationships that bind them now, those of the two families that are now woven into one.

In my husband’s family, the thaali is worn on a thick yellow cord, and it is kept beneath the clothing rather than displayed like a necklace or fashion accessory. It is also a custom made article…one cannot walk into an Indian jewellery store and say “Let me see your thaalis,” because it doesn’t work that way.

In my husband’s family the tradition is that a senior member of the family must order the thaali (I am guessing that this signifies acceptance/approval of the marriage by his elders). Each family has its own distinct thaali design, and apparently certain jewellers make thaalis for certain families and they know what the design is supposed to look like. Since we are already married, the whole Indian wedding thing can be dispensed with (to Hubby’s great relief), but I will still have to enter the temple barefoot and in a sari…Hubby has requested that I wear my wedding sari from our marriage in California. With a small number of family members present, the priest will direct him to tie the thaali around my neck and then give us his blessing. We will then be officially married in the eyes of the Hindu community.

Why is this important? Well, at least one of his relatives asks me “Do you have a thaali?” or “where’s your thaali” almost every time we visit. Although the thaali is worn inside the clothing, the thick yellow cord is visible, so if you aren’t wearing one, it is obvious. My husband respects the traditions of his family (and may be a bit intimidated by those formidable aunties of his!) and I would like to feel that we have honoured both his traditions and mine.

So, in November we are off to Durban for our anniversary and this year the gift will be one of tradition and great meaning.


  1. Oh SV, have a wonderful visit to Durban. The ceremony, although brief, sounds lovely. Hubby's family does seem to appreciate you, and isn't that a good commentary on tolerance.

    I have enjoyed your comments on the aunties through the years. They sound like fun ladies.


  2. Hi I think your blog is very interesting! My husband is also Indian - he is originally from India. I look forward to reading more of your blog!

  3. this sounds so beautiful! here's wishing you and your husband much happiness and many blessings. may you wear your 'thaali' in joy.

  4. GO! Smell the flowers26 September, 2008 16:24

    Hey thanks for sharing and hi from the OSHO retreat in Pune....where I'm smelling the flowers but all is not what it seems!

    I tried what sounded like 'tali' for lunch but not sure if I've spelt it right...

    Oh & congrats -you've made it to the GO! Smell the flowers blogroll!

  5. Vernakum! Congrats on the thali tying - you are not really married without it! I spent three years living amongst Tamils in Sri Lanka, and know the British shipped the Tamil people all over the world to act as our administrators, including South Africans.

    Say hi to Durbs for me - I have spent much time there too!

  6. congratulations ! that is just really cool.

  7. Wow, that sounds like a very special occasion! Enjoy every minute of it! Congrats.


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