Traditional Kerala Marriage
The key traditional Kerala marriage rituals involved
- Nirapara - filling a large rice measure with paddy
- Nilavilakku - lighting a traditional, oil-burning lamp
- Thalikettu - tying the thali around the neck of the bride and
- Pudava koda - gifting a pudava by the bridegroom to the bride.
We look first at today's Kerala marriage functions among the Nairs (a major Hindu community). Next we look at the interesting backgrounds of the key rituals. The modern day function is a mix of traditional and new rituals.
Kerala Marriages Today
The bride, along with her close relatives, visits a temple on the morning of the wedding day (or the evening the day before). She might light the wicks on the temple lamp-pillar (pic left) and pray to the deity to make her married life a happy one. This would appear to be a new ritual in today's world of durable, long-term marriages. Such was not the case with Nair marriages of an earlier time.
Marriages are typically held in large halls that accommodate a large audience. The audience would consist of relatives and friends of both the bride and bridegroom. Arranging this function is the responsibility of the bride's parents.
The function would be held on a raised platform at one end of the hall. The nirapara would be filled with paddy in a traditional manner by the bride's parents. The nilavilakku would be filled with oil and the wicks would be lit. There would also be thalams, plates filled with a small lamp and other symbolic articles. The bridegroom and bride would be led to the stage by girls bearing these thalams.
When the bridegrom and bride are seated on the stage, the former ties a thali around the bride's neck. The thali was traditionally a golden yellow string with a gold pendant hung from it. The pendant was a small one, made in the shape of a banyan leaf. These days, a gold chain is typically used instead of the yellow string.
In modern day marriages, there would be an exchange of rings and garlanding of each other by the bride and bridegroom (see the garlands in the pic left). These are new rituals that were not there in the traditional Kerala marriages.
The bridegroom then formally presents the bride a pudava i.e. a mundu in earlier days and a sari these days (pic left). This was originally the only ritual in traditional Kerala marriage among Nairs. In some localities, the bride receives the gift standing up while in other localities both the bride and bridegroom would still be seated.
The bridegroom and bride would then rise and walk around the stage signaling the completion of the function. Several other minor rituals are also observed, few (if any) of them really traditional. We would now look at the significance of the key rituals.
Nirapara and Nilavilakku
Nirapara means a "filled measure". Para is the largest measure, a wooden container, used traditionally to measure paddy. This measure would be heaped up with paddy and a bunch of coconut tree flowers would be inserted into the heap. The large measure and heaped paddy stand for prosperity (in the traditionally agricultural community).
Nilavilakku is a large brass lamp on a stand that has a cup at the top. The cup is filled with oil and wicks are placed in it with one edge projecting out of the cup. This projecting end is lighted and it would continue to burn by drawing the oil. The lighted lamp represents agni - the god of fire - who should witness all auspicious occasions.
Tying the Thali
Traditionally, the thali was a yellow string with a banyan-tree-leaf-shaped-pendant hung on it. This was tied around the neck of a girl before she reached the age of puberty.
It was tied by a member of certain castes or a family acquaintance. This person did not become the husband of the girl. Instead, he was given a gift for the service and sent away.
The tying of the thali, known as kettu kalyanam, was celebrated on a grand scale. There would be a large shed, mani pandal, to accommodate sumptuous feasts, singing of folk songs and traditional games. The celebrations lasted four days.
Considering the heavy expenditure involved, all the girl children in a family typically had their thalis tied at the same function.
Among the Nairs, the traditional marriage function was a simple one, involving just one ritual, the Pudava Koda. Pudava means a cloth that Kerala women wore traditionally.
The bridegroom arrived at the bride's house with a few of his closest relatives. He handed over a pudava to the bride in the presence of a few close relatives of the bride. This ritual made the bridegroom and bride husband and wife, and was the real marriage.
The Nair marriages of those days were not all that durable. The woman continued to stay with her family and could end the marriage at any time. There was also the fact that Nairs were warriors who often had to leave for distant locations to fight for their lords. Many would not return.