Birth, marriage and death are the three pillars of human life and existence. Of these, marriage is a social convention. In the Indian context, marriage has a religious and cultural background associated with it. The Hindus of Assam too have, since ancient times, regarded marriage as an essential responsibility. Therefore it has a distinct tradition of its own and a gamut of customs and rites are intertwined with the ceremony of marriage. Of course, with time, and with evolutions in the broader society/ social set-up, myriad changes have occurred in the Hindu marriage tradition. This article seeks to present an overview of the Hindu marriage system as prevalent in Assam as well as assess the changes that have come over and the continuity (of tradition) that has retained itself in the face of such changes.
The Hindu marriage tradition can be divided into the following three streams
- Vedic tradition
- Medieval age tradition. This can be subdivided into—
- Vaishnavite tradition
- Ahom tradition
- Present-day Trends
Chapter 3 of the Manu Samhita enshrines four categories of the Hindu social order and eight kinds of Hindu marriages. These four categories are Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. Accordingly, the eight kinds of marriage are—Brahma, Daiva, Arya, Prajapatya, Asura, Gandharva, Rakshas and Pishaach. In addition to these eight kinds of marriage as enshrined in the Manu Samhita, we learn of another kind of marriage called Swayamvar Vivaah in the Rajtarangini. The princess, Amritprabha of ancient Kamrup, was betrothed to Meghvahan of Kashmir through this Swayamvar Vivaah.
The Manu Samhita further stresses marriages that take place within the same caste (or social order)—and this applies equally to Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. It terms such marriages as the greatest of all. When a boy of a higher caste marries a girl belonging to the lower caste, such a marriage is called Anulom marriage. On the other hand when a boy of a lower caste marries a girl of higher caste, that marriage is called Pratilom marriage.
a) Vedic Tradition:
In Hindu marriages conducted according to the Vedic tradition, all the principle rites and rituals are performed in the bride’s house. These rituals are enumerated below.
On the day of marriage, the groom arrives at the bride’s gateway which are decorated with banana plants. Once the groom arrives, the bride’s family members welcome the groom, and lead him to the yagya vedi and seat him, on its western side, such that the groom faces the east. Once the groom is seated at the yagya vedi, the bride’s father or the equivalent person who is to give away the bride in marriage (the kanyadata) and the groom offer a set of clothes each to the respective purohits (the shastragya tantradhar) to the chanting of mantras. This ritual is called ‘baran’. These purohits will accompany them in the performance of the ceremonial rituals. After the tantradhar or purohit baran, the Vishnupuja is initiated with the following mantra—
“Madhavo Madhavo Baasi Madhavo Hridi
Smarante Saadhavah Sarve Sarvakaaryesu Madhavam”
[The great sadhus always keep Madhav on their lips and in their hearts. Therefore I too utter Madhav’s name and remember him in my heart]
In this puja, the following ingredients are essential—flowers, chandan, tulsi, incense sticks, pradipa [saaki], naivaidya, water (jal), kosha-arghya, etc.
When the Vishnupuja is over the groom sprinkles aaroi rice around the yagya sthali, in all four directions—chanting mantras to ensure that the marriage ceremony takes place in a proper and auspicious manner; he also seeks the blessings of the society present, and offers his humble prayers for the same. Then, the tantradhaar, on behalf of the samaj, offers his blessings. After the recitation of the prayer (the stutivaachan), the kanyadata,wearing a wristlet made of kusha, worships the groom offering him a garland of flowers as well as a bistor (a bunch of twenty-five kushas tied together) who in turn receives it, chanting mantras, and keeps it under one of his feet. After this, he accepts a brass vessel containing madhuparkka (a special mixture made of curd, ghee, honey) which the kanyadata offers him. While accepting it, the groom recites mantras, and says “I accept the madhuparkka”. After this, the kanyadata, will offer a new set of clothes and a ring to the groom, who is considered akin to Lord Vishnu himself.
After, the offerings to the groom have been made, the groom, wearing a bracelet of kusha lights the yagya vedi (which has been specially prepared in the shape of a square following certain rules) from the eastern to the western direction. Once the agnisthapan has taken place (i.e. once the fire has been formally lit), the bride is to be brought in from within the house and is to be seated to the groom’s left, facing him. The kanyadata sprinkles holy water which has been sanctified through the chanting of mantras on the bride, decked in finery, and chanting—“Etang Sampradanaaya Varaaya Namah” and places the bride’s hands over the groom’s right hand. This gesture, along with the chanting of mantras signify the act of sampradaan. The groom invoking Almighty God as witness, accepts the bride. Upon that, the kanyadaata, ties the bride and the groom’s hands with a kusha (a kind of reed), and proclaims “henceforth she will be your companion in everything you do”. Simultaneously, the lagun or the sacred thread is also tied. At that time, the groom addresses the bride—“from today onwards, you are mine, and you are my responsibility”. After this formal acceptance, a member of the groom’s party unties the kusha. Upon the sampradan, the bride garlands the groom with a wreath of flowers and bowing down, touches his feet. The groom too garlands the bride with another such garland of flowers.
The kanyadata gives a dakshina of money and gold to the groom, as per his capacity. This, he does as ‘desiring the blessings of Lord Vishnu, and to ensure smooth execution of the act of kanyadan’. After the dakshina daan, the kanyadata, folding hands, humbly seeks forgiveness for any hurt he might have inflicted (knowingly or unknowingly) onto the bride from the day of her birth. After, this prayer (for forgiveness), the kanyadata says—“Om Anyonang Sameekshetam”—and accords his assent.
It is after this that, the yagya proper begins. There are six different kinds of hom (oblation or burnt offering) used in a Vedic marriage—Aaghar, Aajyabhag, Mahabyahriti, Sarba Prayaschitto, Prajapatya, Swistokrit.
The groom offers ahuti in the name of Prajapita Brhama from the north-west corner (vayu kon; kon=corner) to the south-east corner (agni kon),uttering “prajapataye swaha—idam prajapataye”. After this, he offers ahuti in the name of Lord Vishnu from the south-west corner (the naiwrit kon) to the ishan kon, uttering—“Indraya swaha—Idam Indraay”.
In this, ghritahuti (i.e. ahuti of ghrit or ghee) is offered to Lord Vishnu, first in the name of the lord of the universe and then for the success of the yagya (with the first and second mantras respectively).
The groom recites mantras and offers ahuti for the good of the world, the atmosphere and the solar system.
Sarba Prayaschitto hom
In this, the groom offers ghritahuti to Lord Vishnu for the fulfilment of the bride’s and the groom’s wishes and obliteration of their sins.
In this ahuti is offered to the master of all men (the praja),Lord Vishnu seeking blessings to beget children.
In this, ghritahuti is offered to Lord Vishnu seeking attainment of their wishes.
Laaj hom (or aakhoire hom)
Here, both the bride and the groom offer laajahuti by standing. The bride’s younger brother divides into four parts, the aakhoi (puffed rice) kept in a kulaa (a big plate made of bamboo). He then, takes up one part and places it over the groom’s anjali or offering; somebody pours a little ghee over this, and the bride and groom together offers ahuti to the agni devta (the Fire God) all the while as the bride chants the mantra.
After the laajahuti is offered, the bride faces the eastern direction while the groom stands before the bride, facing the west. The groom holds with his right hand, the fingers of the bride’s right hand, and chants the mantras.
In a Smarto Vivaah, after the pani grahan, and after each laajahuti the groom with the bride ahead of him, walks around the yagya fire, keeping the yagya fire to his right, chanting mantras. The fourth time, the groom exhorts the bride to be as resolute as the pole star—and that way by chanting mantras, enables the bride’s visit of the pole star.
The bride and groom stand up together, and chanting mantras together offer purnahuti to the fire all the while invoking the Supreme. At the end, bride and the groom together pay obeisance to everyone present as well as to the purohit, for their blessings.With the uruli (a teeming sound individually or collectively basically produced by women to mark auspicious occasions/rites), the marriage ceremony comes to an end.
b) Medieval age tradition
i) Vaishnavite tradition:
In ancient times, the Hindus in Assam followed Vedic rites and rituals in their marriages. Of course it was not entirely Vedic but a combination of Vedic and Vaishnavite rites. In such a Vedic-Vaishnavite marriage practice, we witness a mingling of the Brahma, Daiva and Prajapatya procedures. There was also prevalence of the Gandharva tradition. Still, it would be apt to term the Hindu marriage procedure in Assam as Prajapatya. According to this tradition, the groom is worshipped, and with the blessing that ‘together, you fulfil the duties and obligations of Grihasthi Dharma i.e. of family life’ (“Sahobhou Sartaang Dharmamiti Vasanuvashya Sa / Kanya Pradanmbhyarsya Prajapatyo Vidhih Smritah” –Manu Samhita, shloka 30), the kanyadan is performed.
The Kathaguru Charit teaches us that, a Brahmin, in his lifetime performs ten customary purificatory rites- Garbhadhaan, Pungsavan, Seemandonnayan, Jaatkarma, Naamkaran, Niskraaman, Annaprasan, Surakaran, Upanayan and Vivaah. The Kayashthas perform the following six purificatory rites- Jaatkarma, Naamkaran, Annaprasan, Churakaran, Upanayan and Vivaah.
The Vaishnavite marriage procedure of the Vedic tradition (the Vedic Vaishnavite marriage) is accomplished through the purohit or tantradhar in the presence of the community. A purohit each, from the bride’s and the groom’s side, is formally, and ceremonially assigned the task of conducting the marriage. After that, the sampradan is performed through the Vedic rituals of yagya. However, here the Bhagawat is placed in the northern direction of the yagya vedi (the sacrificial altar). Also, at the time of the sampradan and at various other stages of the yagya, obeisance is paid and offerings of agarbatti, pradipa [saaki],flowers, tulsi, chandan are made to the Bhagawat. This is the specialty of this marriage tradition. At the end of the yagya, the bride and the groom invoking Lord Vishnu, bow down and pay their obeisance to the Bhagawat; after which they bow down, and together seek the blessings of the community.
The Brahmins and the Kayasthas belonging to the Vaishnavite tradition used to perform the aagbiya (biya means ‘marriage’) or early / prior marriage of the girl (or the daughter) before she attained puberty. Once puberty was attained, Shantibiya or Paasbiya (paas means ‘after’) was performed and the bride was taken to the groom’s house. Apart from the Brahmin and Kayashthas, the other communities performed the girl’s marriage after she had attained puberty. At the time of puberty, the girl’s particular astronomical combination of the stars was checked by a Brahmin or a jyotishi, and if needed necessary daan- dakshina was performed for the girl’s well-being. Once the girl is purified, the tolani biya (ceremony performed when a girl reaches puberty) is performed.
Apart from the Brahmins, in all other communities the girl’s parents or guardians approach the boy’s family with a proposal of marriage. Once both sides have agreed upon the relationship, a favourable date (and one sanctified by the purohit or the jyotishi) is decided upon.
The groom is first taken to the abode of the Guru (i.e. the Vaishnavite guru),and after making offerings, the groom is formally initiated into the Vaishnava religious fold (this is called sharan lua). It is only after this, that the marriage rites are performed. On the other hand, those families that cannot afford to perform their son’s marriage according to Vedic rituals, could conduct the marriage by initiating the community’s word in this, and offering aagsaul [i.e. putting rice grains (saul) and dubori (a fern) on the bride and the groom’s heads]. However, this marriage is considered ashudh since the proper Vedic rituals have not been performed. In the olden days
when the husband (of such a marital relationship) expired, his widow was married to the Gita, the Bhagawat, or to a banana tree to attain purification of the widow’s body.
With time, the marriage rituals of the Vaishnava Hindus evolved into customary practices. There were religious influences too. After the Mahasamadhi of Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardeva, various divisions crept up into the Neo-Vaishnavite Bhakti movement. Consequently, the Vaishnavites were divided into four groups - Brahma, Kaal, Purush and Nika Sanghati. Madhavdeva (Srimanta Sankardeva’s chief disciple) was taken as the guru and Mahapurusha Srimanta Sankardeva as the Paramguru (the guru of all gurus); and faith was reposed on the Bhagawat. The Nika sanghati (or, in plainer terms, the Nika group), with its emphasis on the purity of body and mind, naturally won over most of the Vaishnavites. Thereby, in subsequent times, the prajapatya marriage tradition was replaced by Vaishnavite naam-prasang in the Hindu marriages in Assam.
In this, the groom, his family and friends arrive at the bride’s doorstep, whereupon, he is offered customary welcome by the bride’s family, and led in. At the site where the marriage is to take place, a Bhagawat is placed before the bride and groom, who are seated together and naam-prasang follows. To lead the proceedings, and guide it with his wisdom, an Acharya is chosen from amongst the senior most members of the community. It is he who initiates the naam-kirtan and the others follow, and accompany him suitably. The proceedings of this marriage are as follows—
First, a borgeet (devotional songs initiated by the great saint Mahapurush Srimanta Sankaradeva) is sung. After that, a few ghoshas (part of a song or verse in which the company joins the singer or the chanter) from the Naamghosha composed by Madhavadeva are sung. Thereupon, two padas (a kind of Assamese metre of two lines that rhyme at the end) from the Kirtan are sung jointly by the company. The bhakats present (as also all the people present) clap hands and keep the rhythm, and accompany the Acharya. At the end of the naam-prasang, prayers are offered and an upadesh (the lines in which the writer addresses the people at the end of a chapter) is read out from the Bhagawat Purana. At the end of the naam-kirtan, the bride and the groom’s families bow down and pay their respects to the community and the Acharya blesses them all. The Acharya after this, offers his valuable advice to both the bride and the groom as to how they are to conduct themselves in the relationship henceforth, for the happiness and well-being of each other, and their family, and how they are to maintain their relationships with the society, and with humanity at large, with what devotion they are to serve their elders, and society as a whole and so on. After such advise, the bride and the groom pay their respects to the Paramaguru, Mahapurush Srimanta Sankaradeva, and to the community—which in turn blesses the newly married couple and declare the marriage as solemnized.
ii) Ahom tradition
The traditional marriage system of the Ahoms is called Soklong. However, prior to the main wedding ceremony, there are a few related customs at both the bride’s and the groom’s houses. They are described below.
Rikhwan or Ayutola : In this, two or three Molungs or Ahom purohits, with a traditional fishing implement called jakoi each proceed to the nearest river, beel or pond. There, they make offerings of eggs, paan leaves, rice etc. and chanting Ahom mantras pay their obeisance to Khaokham- the water god. The molung dip their jakoi thrice into the water, and thereby pray for the bride and the groom’s life and health. If some fish do come up when the jakoi is immersed, then such fish is packed and taken to the bride’s or groom’s (as the case may be) home; there the fish is hung over the bride’s (or groom’s) head. Early next morning, the fish is cooked and the bride (or the groom) is made to taste it.
Aaptang : After Rikhwan, Apatang is performed. It comprises ‘cutting’ of the water to the accompaniment of ahom mantras and mixing sarva oushadhi (Bajrashil, Bajrakuthar, tiger’s tooth, the tooth of wild boar, water thorn, triangular slab of mud thrown up by the earthworm, black turmeric, tongloti (a plant that exudes a pleasant scent), the earth that supports a cooking vessel, ashtadhatu etc.). With that water the bride or the groom is bathed. While doing this, the bride (or the groom) sits on a raised bamboo platform, and looks up to a tree full of leaves all the while as she (or he) treads on a chicken and invokes Fra-tara (God); and in that position pours the water over herself (himself). After that, the bride (or the groom) will don new clothes and stepping back a bit, will make a mark on the earth with a sickle, all the while invoking the name of Fra-tara.
c) Present Trend
At various stages in history, the traditions of marriage, particularly those rites pertaining to the shastras have remained basically the4 same. What has changed is certain customs which have either lessened in importance or grown in significance or others which have been newly introduced/added as a consequence of various influences or changes in the broader society. The change of mindsets and (to a great extent) of lifestyles have been the more significant of changes in the present times. People live much more complicated and ‘fast’ existence—where no one has
time for others; values are changing greatly. At the same time, the material aspect of existence has become much more crucial today than it was ever before. Consequently, certain rituals have not been merely condensed, but have become symbolic even.
The present civilization has destroyed many ancient customs and ritual. The reasons that were at the root of ancient rites and rituals have long been forgotten; with time people’s perspectives have changed. This has led to extermination of many traditions. Personal, communal, class-based self-interests have added to a deterioration of the situation.
The same-caste marriage advocated in the Manu Samhita has been replaced, with inter-caste marriages becoming widespread. The Western influence on the Assamese society is prominently noticeable in a few aspects—in comparison to earlier times where the parents decided relationships, today the girls decide upon their own life partners thereby reducing the parents’ responsibilities to a great extent. This has contributed to a slackening of the tight hold of caste- community differentiation. Another Western influence is the breakup of the joint family system. Consequently, girls and boys getting married against their parents’ wishes live separately. Further, in marriages where the parents are not in agreement, and yet the wedding is being held, a senior male relative performs the rites instead of the father (this is the case with the girl as well as the boy).
There are also many instances of a registered marriage in the Court, where no other rites are performed and a party is thrown afterwards. Another prominent Western influence that is beginning to hold the youths of the Assamese society in sway is that of ‘living together’ or ‘live-in relationships’—where an unrelated girl and a boy (or a man and a woman) live together and have physical relations without getting married.
On closer observation, it is seen that it is the social customs and traditions (rather than the main religious rituals) that give the marriage traditions of Assamese Hindus its distinctive quality. In an Assamese marriage, the preparations begin from the day the marriage (the relationship) is decided upon.. Traditionally, when the families decide upon each other’s children (the girl in the case of the groom’s family and vice-versa) and their respective families (that include class/caste considerations), and when the respective rashees of the girl and the boy are matched, a suitable wedding date and an auspicious moment are fixed. The respective families inform their relations, clan members, neighbourhood, et al. Preprations are begun in earnest and the guests are invited for the wedding. Earlier the groom’s or bride’s family members would offer betel nut-paan in a sarai and reverentially invite people to their ward’s marriage. Nowadays, printed wedding cards have taken precedence. The groom’s family buys clothes dresses (mekhela-saador), jewellery etc. to gift the same to the bride at juron (a special ceremony a day or two before the main wedding where the groom’s family arrives at the bride’s home and gifts them to her and the groom’s mother pours oil and puts some sindoor on the bride’s forehead). Besides fish, curd, sweets etc. are also bought to gift the bride’s family. After the juron, the bride’s family too sends, for the groom, a gamosa, seleng sador (a special kind of cloth wrapped over the body or the shoulders), dhoti as ‘nouwa kapur’ i.e. clothes to be worn at the time of bathing the groom. After the juron, the women of the respective families along with the bride’s or the groom’s mother proceed to a nearby water body; and through certain rituals draws in some water from that river or pond or beel and brings that home to bathe the bride or the groom (as the case may be). This is called nouwa: and in this, the bride (or groom) is seated beneath a ‘bei’—a wooden frame placed over the bride or the groom while bathing. While bathing the older women apply turmeric, gram paste, curd etc. Today of course the bathing procedures have shortened so much that at times, the bathroom has replaced the traditional bathing beneath the bei.
The day before the wedding the bride and the groom have to eat plain boiled rice (called hobisiya bhat). The evening witnesses great mirth in the respective households at the time of gathiyon khunda (grounding of turmeric, black gram and making a paste out of it). The next
morning, at the break of dawn, the bride/groom is bathed early and the noh-purushor shraadha is performed. In this, the bride’s/groom’s father’s, father’s mother’s, and the bride’s/groom’s mother’s ancestors (of upto three generations) are invoked and paid obeisance to.
In the evening, the groom arrives at the bride’s gateway with his family, relatives, friends and neighbours. The groom is ceremonially welcomed by the bride’s mother, and led in to the mandap. After the sampradan is over, exchange of rings, betel nut-katari (a traditional knife) etc. are different customary practices. In Ahom weddings, after the main soklong marriage is over, there is one practice related to the issue of fertility. This is the kori khel.(khel means games). In this, a shield is drawn on the ground and cowries are played. It is only after this that the lagun-gathi or the knot of the sacred thread tied at the time of marriage is untied. In all these, (whether in Vedic, Vaishnavite or Ahom traditions) the biyanaam (special songs sung on the occasion of wedding) and uruli are essential complements.
Certain traditions (amongst the Brahmins and the Kayashthas) such as performing child marriages prior to a girl’s attaining puberty has been prohibited by the law. Matrimonial agencies, and search for good brides/grooms through advertisements in the newspapers are recent additions to the Assamese social life. A recent addition is the custom of engagement, whereupon the bride and the groom exchange rings in the presence of their family members and close friends. There are also instances of offering gifts on the occasion. Today, the number of people from the groom’s family who visit the bride’s home on the occasion of juron has multiplied. This is unlike earlier times where a handful of ladies would visit the bride’s home and perform the rites.
From, the home front, the wedding has reached the vivaah bhawans (marriage halls)- whether due to lack of space or time even in semi-urban areas, the vivaah bhawans or the marriage halls are the newest trends. The whole wedding procedure has condensed now a days from three, five, seven, or even nine days to a day or two.
A great deal of impersonality has consequently crept in. The materialism is palpably felt, while the familiar warmth seems to be missing from present-day weddings. Though certain changes are understandable yet to what extent would these changes have any positive influence on the Assamese society and Assamese culture is a debatable issue. Of course, as mentioned before, the main rituals are still intact—although often in a symbolic vein. Though change with time is inevitable, the importance and necessity of the continuation of our traditions—our paramparaa—is undeniable.
: This is a religious ritual that is performed a day prior to the wedding. It comprises invoking and offering prayers to the Ahom gods- Langkuri, Langdon, Laareng, Jaasingpha, Jyonsaaihung—by making offerings of betel nut-paan and chanting of mantras. Seven casks made of the sheath of the plantain tree are stuffed with betel-nut and paan, and sent to the bride’s home. There, along with these casks, twelve eggs, aroi saul (a variety of rice), naamlau (a vegetable), and twelve betel nuts along with singkora flowers- are all offered in reverence to the ancestors who are invoked by the purohit chanting Ahom mantras..
After completion of these three rituals, the main wedding ceremony commences in the bride’s home. On the day of the wedding, a hundred and one pradipa (Saaki) are lit (they are called saaki in Assamese, baanfai in Tai language)- the pradipa-s are arranged on the ground in the shape of a giant lotus or a giant circle. Two flower garlands comprising a hundred and one petals, three pairs of betel nut-paan, a gamosa, a dunori (a small traditional vessel) of rice, aakhoi, paramanna (rice boiled with milk and sugar), two sarai (a traditional Assamese object-like an offering tray atop a stand with or without a cover) with panchamrit (a mixture of mik, curd, sugar, ghee, honey), a pair of traditional utensils called lota-soriya, three khorikas (the strong and stiff part of thatching grass), and a hengdang (a single edged sword with a long handle, traditional weapon of the Ahoms) are also readied.
In time, the groom, along with his family, and other members of his clan and friends arrive at the bride’s gateway. The bride’s family welcomes him and leads him to the main mandap. He is seated before the maral (colourful motifs drawn on the ground with different coloured powders). The bride is also brought in and seated to the groom’s left. First, both the bride and the groom offer handfuls of flower, rice and til to the maral, invoking the supreme god Fra-tara-aalong and chanting hymns. After this, the kanyadata offers clothes, jewellery, etc. to the groom, and places the bride’s hand on the groom’s. After which, the bride, and the groom exchange garlands prepared with a hundred and one flower petals. The molung then offers prayers for the bride and groom’s conjugal felicity. He also offers his valued advise to the newly married couple on their duties, responsibilities and obligations. The kanyadata then presents the groom with the hengdang, and the latter touches it and promises to destroy the evil and uphold the good. The bride too presents the groom with a special piece of cloth called tongali vastra which acts as a kind of akshay kavach to protect the groom (her husband) from all harm. Alongwith this, there is also the tradition of relating the histories of the bride’s and the groom’s respective clans.