Saturday, May 16, 2009


Continued from previous post

The wedding date having been decided, all near and dear ones were informed by word of mouth, or by a short letter. A week before the wedding a small function ‘kaal nattal’ would be held. A pooja would be performed by the bride’s father, under the guidance of the family priest, invoking the gods’ blessings.

After the pooja the first pole of the pandal (marquee) was fixed in the ground - this was the 'kaal nattal'. The pandal, a bamboo structure with a thatched roof would be put up on the street in front of the bride’s house and adjoining houses. The streets of the Brahmin settlements (agraharam) contained houses like the row houses of today one touching the other. The inside of the pandal was decorated with all sorts of festoons, shining globules of different sizes, and paper garlands of various colours. At the entrance of the pandal two full grown banana plants heavy with fully developed fruits, were fixed, as a sign of auspiciousness. A special manamedai, a place for the bridal couple to sit and perform the wedding rites, conducted by the family priest, was also made ready, decorated with kolams. On this day, the bride would also have the 'kappu kattal' ceremony - a sacred yellow thread was tied round on her right wrist after invoking the blessings of all the gods.

A modern agraharam : My nephew Ramakrishnan
took this picture
of the heritage village Kalpathi.

Once the 'kaal naattal' was done, the preparation for the wedding also started. Relations came one by one. They along with the neighbours took charge of the preparations, without being told or asked. Someone getting groceries and vegetables from the market, another arranging for fresh milk to be delivered twice daily for the duration of the wedding period, another arranging for the curds to be delivered every evening in mud pots. Banana fruits, a must for every meal of the wedding feasts were bought in bunches and hung from the ceiling. And not to forget banana leaves, bunches and bunches of them.

This takes me to my own wedding and my two Chithappas when they came to attend it. After teasing me for some time and saluting my parents , they went for the heavy stack of banana leaves, cutting them to the needed sizes for the various meals of breakfast, lunch, and tiffin, arranging them according to size and rolling them up in gunny bags, so that they remained fresh for a few days.

Another item to be readied was the thamboolam – plates of betel leaves, betel nuts made into edible kalipaakku, chunambu for the women folk For the men it was betel leaves, raw, whole betel nuts (adakkai) chunnambu and tobacco. These were offered to the bridegroom’s people with respectful requests to partake of them. In today’s world, these are unimportant details, but in weddings of those days, any shortcoming in this was enough to upset an elderly aunt or a bachelor uncle to create a misunderstanding and unpleasantness during the wedding. In 1960, not so ancient, I have myself witnessed two elderly uncles of the bridegroom, getting angry and creating a scene because the bride’s people had started having lunch before they had theirs.

There were other preparations to be done. The womenfolk, relatives as well as neighbours, took charge of the kitchen – cooking, grinding, pounding and making sweets and savouries for ‘seeru’ - that is the eatables given to the sammandhis (bridegroom’s family) to take home for themselves and to be distributed, if they wished. The women folk were adept a making murukku, each one 10 to 12 inches in diameter. Appam , adhirasam and monaharam , the sweets were made with jaggery. Of course a professional cook was appointed to cook for the actual wedding days. Big ‘vaarppu, ‘uruli’, big enough to cook for more than 200 people were borrowed from temples. Every household had its own 'uruli', 'varppu', bell metal pots and pans , large enough to cook for fifty. These items were a must to be given to the bride by her parents at the time of marriage. I was also given such big vessels by my parents.

In today’s weddings, maximum money is spent on silk sarees and gold jewellery. A hundred years ago, it was not so. For the bride the nine yards koorai pudavai was the only item generally, and a couple more nine yard sarees. And for the bridegroom a couple of set of cotton dhothi and angavastharam (small dhoti for the upper body), then known as ‘patharu’, as well as a silk set.

The cost of the ornaments was borne by both sets of parents. These were usually an addigai,(choker necklace) a double stranded gold chain, two pairs of bangles, and a pair of earrings.* The most important of these was the thirumangalyam, which was strung on a manjal saradu – thick strand of cotton fibres, dipped in turmeric. In those days there were no jewellery shops. The goldsmith was asked to come home at an auspicious day and time and gold was handed over to him to make the thirumangalyam and other ornaments.

Our own goldsmith Anantham would be sent for whenever required. He was very honest and trustworthy and good in his work. When my mother asked him once for a silver key ring for herself, he did not take any money for it. Also when my mother got a silver toothpick for my father, he refused to take any money An interesting object in silver he made for my mother .was a pair of silver plavila -jackfruit tree leaves shaped into a spoon pinned by a small stick. This was for us to take kanji (gruel) with when we children used to be ill.

Nowadays the mandapams and caterers take care of all these arrangements. In the beginning when the mandapams were a novelty, all the arrangements, even the caterer had to be fixed by the people concerned. In 1967 when my eldest daughter Raji got married in a kalyana mandapam in Madras, Babuji’s uncle and aunt were there to make all the arrangements. In 1977 our son Bala’s wedding also took place in Madras in a kalyana mandapam. We had an easy time for we were the bridegroom’s party!

Our younger daughter Viji and Gowri got married in Delhi in 1974 and 1986. Though there were one or two kalyana mandapams in Delhi at that time, we had the wedding conducted near our own home under a shamiana put up in a vacant plot of garden.

Back to the old days. The bride’s family would make all the above arrangements and wait for the bridegroom’s party to arrive.

*Diamond earrings came into vogue only in the 1930s. They were not brought ready made. Stones were ordered from dealers and tested and certified by experts. Whenever diamonds were brought at home, my father would have them sent to Professor Sivaramakrishna Iyer, an expert in diamonds, for approval. Anantham, the thattan, would come, and was shown the stones and asked to make the gold setting. Within a week he would be home, with the required gold setting, which looked nothing like gold or an earring setting. The diamonds would be handed over to him one by one for settings by my grandmother, who would watch over him like a hawk, till the 14 stones were set. And as if by magic, after removing the setting from the wax base, and cleaning and polishing, the shining and shimmering thodu were ready.

And the cost? Just Rs. 500/. But it is wrong to say Rs. 500, because Rs. 500 was a very big amount those days.
More to come

Photo of Murukku: courtesy
Photo of a meal on a banana leaf: courtesy

Sunday, May 10, 2009

WEDDINGS - A Hundred Years Ago

These days conducting a wedding is very easy, though not very simple, provided the father of the bride has lots and lots of money to spend. Kalyana Mandapams (wedding halls) have appeared all over the place, whether it is a village, or a town or a city. All of them are also heavily booked during the wedding seasons. One used to say jokingly that one has to book the mandapam first and then fix the marriage date. The kalyana mandapam takes care of everything needed for the wedding, from start to finish. The bride’s people are also treated like guests.

Things were different a 100 years back. The first step in deciding the marriage is the exchange and matching of horoscopes. This system is also followed even today when it is an arranged marriage. One can get a horoscope from marriage brokers, or advertise in any of the newspapers. It was not so in those days. The girl’s father had to approach the boy’s father with his daughter’s horoscope and request the boy’s horoscope. After hearing from the girls’ side that the horoscopes matched, the boy’s people would approach their astrologer. The horoscopes were a means of knowing each other’s family tree and gothram. It was considered wrong for a boy and girl of the same gothram to get married. According to my limited knowledge, the matching of the horoscopes was to see that each had a different period of good and bad dasas – so that one could shelter the other one in difficult dasas.

In my mother’s case she got married when she was eight in 1902. It was my paternal grandfather, an advocate who approached my mother’s father, a schoolmaster, for my mother’s horoscope. He was much impressed by my mother’s family, their general behaviour and my mother’s own conduct, for both sets of grandparents lived in the same street. My mother never forgot this unusual act of my Paatta. She always used to say that my parents as well as all their children are well settled in life due to Paatta’s blessings. We the grandchildren never knew our Patta. He died some six years after our parents got married, and just before my parents started their married life.

My third sister and her husband - this photograph
was taken in a studio in Trichy in 1940, a year after her wedding.

Once the horoscopes were matched, and both sides happy, the next step was to fix a wedding date. There were no questions asked about dowry, no cash exchanged hands. The ornaments for the bride including the thirumangalyam, or the thali (mangalasutra), were taken care of by both sets of parents. There was no boy-meet-girl also. Everything was decided by the parents. But things progressed a little bit as time went by. In 1927, when my eldest sister got married, it was her mother-in-law with her sister who came to see the girl. My sister was barely twelve years old at that time. More changes happened when my two other sisters got married in the late 1930s. They had the chance to see their life partners before getting married – they even had a chance to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, though anyone hardly used that option, because the parents’ decision was final.

My three sisters in front of our house, Lakshmi Nivas, Trivandrum, in the 1950s

When Babuji and I got married in 1945, we saw each other only after the wedding date was fixed.
My father-in-law and his elder brother came to see me. My husband who was working in Delhi only had a short leave to attend his own wedding.

More to come...