Tuesday, December 02, 2008

"Thank you for marrying me again"

Our primary purpose for this ceremony was for the tying of the thali, the wedding necklace. In the Tamil culture (the Indian ethnic group to which most South African Indians belong), the tying of the thali is the single most important part of the marriage ritual. It is the most sacred symbol of marriage, so much so that if the bride becomes widowed, she must return to the temple to have another ceremony for the removal of the thali. It is meant as a symbol not only of the wearer’s status as a married woman, but, through its sacred power, to protect the wearer and her loved ones from harm. During the ceremony the thali and the flower garlands are offered for the blessings of the divine power.

The thali is actually five pieces of wrought gold tied by the priest onto a gold-coloured cord. It is custom-made, each family having its own design. The groom’s family has the thali made in their particular design. The first official symbol that his family supported our marriage is his mother taking her own thali to the goldsmith to have a copy of it made for me. Immediately prior to the ceremony, with the assistance of one of the aunties, the priest took the pieces of gold, threaded them onto the cord and knotted them into place. He then wrapped the thali around a coconut and set it aside.

When it is time to tie the thali, the priest takes it out and blesses it. The groom unwinds the cord from the coconut and the bride holds the coconut in both hands. The groom, facing west ties the first knot of the wedding necklace around the bride's neck. As one of the aunties bent down to hold the gold thali charm at the right position between my breasts (so the cord would not be tied too short), the priest turned on a CD player from which the loudest, most cacophonous music burst forth! It was a recording of a black long flute-like instrument intended to resound at a high pitch and crescendo to muffle all other sounds in the immediate area. The tying of the three knots is timed precisely to the most auspicious moment as determined by the astrologers and priests. The thali tied with the help of his aunt, Hubby then reached his right arm around my head to put a dot of kum kum, a vermillion saffron powder, on my forehead symbolizing that I am a married woman now. Another auntie, holds up a flame in a clay lamp symbolizing the divine witnessing the nuptial knot: the three knots represent the union of mind, spirit and body.

The priest took a piece of white cloth, about the size of a handkerchief, and placed rice and herbs in it, topped with the coconut. Hubby was then instructed to tie the corners of the cloth together, making a packet, which was then handed to me. I got to carry this coconut for the rest of the day, until we came to auntie’s house and I could put it down next to the god lamp.

You may have noticed the beautiful garlands we are both wearing. These are made by the “garland ladies” (the Indian community has ladies for everything…samoosa ladies, garland ladies, sweetmeat ladies…) the day before the ceremony, long garlands of carnations and baby’s breath that are worn and exchanged by the couple during the ceremony. The garlands are exchanged three times during the ceremony, symbolising a sweet and endless partnership and a life of hope and love to be shared. From the moment of this exchange, the bride becomes an equal partner in the discharge of duties (dharma).

Because the fire is such a significant part of the entire Hindu custom, the nuptial couple must pay reverence to it. Agni, the sacred fire, symbolizes light, warmth, power, eternal cosmic energy and purification. We take twigs of trees that have been dipped in ghee and feed them to the fire in the brazier. The fire acts as universal witness to the ceremony and conveys all that is happening to the Gods. Since the flames always travel upwards and never return, once the message of the wedding reaches the Gods, it is considered eternal.*

In the bigger, longer ceremonies, the couple take seven steps around fire, each step symbolising an aspect of married life: nourishment, moral support and strength, chastity, happiness in parenthood, commitment, cherishment., friendship, respect and love. Because we were already legally married, the priest has us take flame in a lamp and describe circles with the lamp, symbolising the walk around the fire.

The priest dispensed with the grindstone which the bride customarily puts her foot on. But he did not dispense with the placement of the silver toe rings on my feet. The toe rings symbolises that I shall be as strong and steadfast as the stone, with courage and faith in the face of adversity. In the Hindu culture, one does not wear gold on the feet as it is an insult to the goddess Laxshmi, goddess of wealth, to tread upon her sacred symbol, hence toe rings must be of silver. Hubby soon found himself kneeling at my feet, working those toe rings over my chubby little red-tipped toes. (When you know your feet are going to be in the wedding ceremony, a good pedi is de rigueur!

Finally, the priest takes back the turmeric wrist threads and the grass rings, and the guests come forward and shower flower petals on our heads. His mother first, as she is his only surviving parent, then his grandmother. “Showers of blessing” they smile at us, flower petals flying everywhere. “Showers of blessing!”

And so we are now officially married in the customs of his family and culture. In the back of his mother’s Mercedes, we are driven by his brother to the home of a maternal aunt and uncle, where the wedding feast is to take place. His grandmother has made the most wonderful vegetarian breyani…the whole meal must be vegetarian…and a dessert called “soji” that is made from, of all things, cream of wheat. “Wedding soji” is a subclass of soji. And my husband’s particular favourite.

But before we can go into the house and begin the feast, there are still rituals to be performed. An auntie stands at the entrance to the house holding a metal vessel with a mixture of water and herbs. She says a prayer and sprinkles the water on us, then lights a camphor cube and places it in the water where it burns…taking the blessings and prayers to the gods, and ward off evil spirits. “Step into the house on your right foot,” she warns us, so that our married life will begin “on the right foot.”

I place the wrapped coconut next to the god lamp until Hubby takes it outside and breaks it against a stone. Breaking the coconut symbolises the sacrifice of ego, the milk signifies love, the white meat is for purity, and the broken shell symbolises the end of selfishness. An auntie ties up the rice and herbs in the white cloth and instructs me to put it into my rice jar at home (and yes, I do have a rice jar), mix it with the rest of the rice in the jar, thereby ensuring that my rice jar will never be empty…there will always be food in the home.

We eat…truly a feast of fabulous proportions, with Hubby’s talented grandmother the chief chef…and afterwards retire to the “lounge,” South African for living room, but really more of a parlour for special occasions. Two dozen people cram into the room and the family reminisces until fatigue sets in and people begin to drift away from the gathering. I spend the time listening avidly as these people speak their minds on politics, now and then, family and the mundane events of daily living.

The last to leave, we climbed into our little rentaPolo and made our way back to the B&B. We were tired, ready for rest but, at a red light, he reached over and patted my right hand and gave me a serious smile.

“Thank you for marrying me again,” he said, and my heart melted.



  1. What a beautiful story. Thank you so much for sharing this. I learn something new every day.

  2. This was such a wonderful post. I loved the photos and your remarkably clear description of all things. You were so thorough that every question that popped into my mind was answered. Thanks so much for sharing this beautiful and meaningful experience. May your marriage be richly blessed with happiness, fulfillment and prosperity.

  3. Thank you for an interesting read and I love the photos!

  4. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.




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