Guests of Honor

Reading the language of roots and blossoms in wedding rituals

AS WE ENTER NAMDAPHA NATIONAL PARK and Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh, where sunlight first touches the Indian subcontinent, we begin to see them: butterflies,mostly solitary, sometimes in a tiny group, indifferent to us but also quick to levitate. The brochures have prepared us for this—this forest has more than two hundred species of butterflies—and they arrive like good employees: saffron, koh-i-noor, yellow vein lancer, zigzag flat. . . . A purple one with black-and-white stripes sits on Paramita’s hand, turning it into a flower. If the forest had been a Bengali household, we might have screamed in delight, “You’re getting married!” It’s one of those folk inheritances, accepted and passed on without testing: like the frog whose insistent croaking invokes the rain, so does a butterfly perched on a human signal an impending wedding.

“Sri Sri Prajapataye Namaha . . .” Hindu Bengali wedding cards begin with an invocation to prajapati—“butterfly,” but also the god Brahma, creator of the universe. Two lines, like an X, two arcs connecting its ends, and two feelers, the butterfly sits on every card as if they were flowers. Before the invitees’ names can be written, other marks must be made, reminders and remainders of a culture of nonliteracy. I remember sitting with my father, stamping every envelope with a turmeric and vermilion dot. Every detail implied something—not just what they “represented” but also the intimacy and affection of an invitation touched by hand.

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It seems quite obvious to my mind, untrained as it was in the mantras, that everyone would be invited—the elements, plants, and animals, and, almost as an afterthought, even humans. The evening before my wedding, my aunts invite the river. They speak to it as they would a human, in daily spoken language, their tone colloquial: Our daughter is getting married, please come for the wedding. . . . Before coming to the river, they had, accompanied by a solitary drummer and a flautist, gone to a few houses in our neighborhood carrying a ghoti—“metal bell urn”—and collected water from the well in these seven houses, inviting their water for the wedding.

The invitations continued—not to water alone, but to all the elements. Without fire, the marriage wouldn’t be “legalized”; the bride, walking behind the groom, would have to walk around the fire seven times. Fire is witness, but also, in a Hindu colloquial understanding, a purifying agent. (I’ve seen shop owners in towns and villages in Bengal light a fire after closing, moving their torch-like temporary fires in circles, requesting the fire to take care of the shop for the night.) 

The rituals are not just an invitation to the elements—they are invocations of the five senses, their allies, where their presence is urgently and immediately registered. These occasions, worship and weddings, have a fragrance that marks their difference from other days on the emotional calendar: not of flowers alone, whose intensity is the most subtle among the mix, but also of various things being burnt: camphor, coconut coir, mustard oil, or  cotton wicks burning to give light; incense sticks and dhuno, a kind of resin; fragrant rice being washed and cooked; the dominating and affectionate aroma of ghee, melting, burning, solidifying. 

It is not just the visible that is invited. The wedding would be incomplete without those who live underground, away from the eye. And so haldi, turmeric. I think of the Latin from which its name is derived—terra merita—occasionally, when I put it in almost everything I cook, and also of its rituals of beautification without which weddings and other auspicious occasions seem incomplete. Like tulsi, the holy basil, and honey, turmeric’s antiseptic qualities are highlighted in folk wisdom. Whether at a wedding or the morning of Saraswati Puja, the day that inaugurates spring in our hemisphere, all I remember is a cosmology of human arms, rubbing and grinding, digging and dyeing oneself with turmeric. Its peculiar smell, of the goodness of earth condensed into a lump, a clod, a rhizome, is subtle but almost as stubborn as its stain. In all these names is an awareness of its ritualistic use on various occasions: gauri (to make fair), bahula (plenty), bhadra (auspicious), haridra (dear to Hari, to Krishna); Yamini and Nishakhya, Ratrimanika, the damp grace of darkness rests in them, the memory of soil, its older life; also Kaveri and Vairagi, one prostitute and one free of desire, antonyms in one being. Turmeric, like other root vegetables, has color but rejects gloss. Orange, yellow, white, pink—competitive with those above the earth, it overcompensates like those from a culture of deprivation. 

Turmeric carries its color to the wedding, to the “haldi” ceremony or the “Holud Kota.” The paste, often mixed with mustard oil, must be exchanged between the bride’s family and the groom’s, the two portions mixed and then applied on their bodies. It is as if the staining of the skin by turmeric is also a stamp of something, only that it will never be said directly, for all these rituals and the invocation of plant life in particular are like poems whose interpretations must be left open. Everything is symbolic, everything is more than what is being done, everything being made visible is a reminder of the power and authority of the invisible. If the stain of the henna designs on the hand are deep, so will be the husband’s affection; if vermilion falls on the bride’s nose, it is because the husband’s love for her will always be a surplus.

There’s chandan as well, sandalwood, which offers its fragrance to any piece of wood in close proximity. They are as much for beautification as they are for worship. Ground to a paste, sandalwood becomes an agent of ornamentation—temporary tattoos once available to everyone, even those without gold, without jewelry. The designs on the bride’s face, her forehead, over her brows, along the temple, and then curling to the middle of her cheeks with the hint of an afterthought on her chin, are borrowed from the plant world. The simplest of these are made by stamping the bride’s face with a clove, as though tiny delicate flowers have rained down on her. Paisley, flowers, paddy stalks on her face. . . . Waking up in my father’s village around dawn, I would watch, through slits in the uneven wooden windows, my grandmother and my aunts massaging the skin of the earth. The uthon, courtyard, was rubbed with a paste of mud, water, and cow dung. By the time the rest of the large family would get up, much of that paste would have dried, like an ubtan, the paste of turmeric and gram flour used as a scrub on a woman’s face. There would be arc-like patterns on the courtyard, an archive of the movements of the hands of the women, the mother, and her daughters and daughters-in-law—their right hands moving from left to right like a car’s windshield wipers. I would notice similar shapes, the same undulations, on an aunt’s forehead when she got married. It surprised me, I still remember—the ten-year-old girl who felt like she had been let in on a secret: that how we adorn ourselves is only a continuation of how we perform shringar, love, on the earth. 

When dry like the foundation on a woman’s face, the drawing begins. White from rice ground to a smooth paste or chalk powder mixed with water on the brown skin of the earth; white on the forehead and cheeks of the bride. Alpana, rangoli—they go by various names and mathematical prehistories, the circles and squares, the triangles and rectangles, and, hidden in them, an unbroken history of the human’s relationship with the earth. The triangles of hillocks and mountains, the circles of the moon and the well—from and through which the sky and water leak into the earth—and the geometrical mandala-like designs of the thalami of flowers. Like the mudras of dance, where a combination of the fingers of our hands, held in various ways, can denote not just an action but also a mood or the weather or the age of the person, these marks of white, whether on the skin of the earth or on a bride’s face, are shorthand annotations of the natural world that we see and imagine.

It is not just the yellow, created underground, that is essential to the wedding. There’s also the yellow of marigold, without which no Hindu ritual seems complete. One is led to forget that the marigold—from “Mary’s gold”—arrived in India from the New World only a few centuries ago. It’s a reminder that these rituals, which are passed off as “ancient” or “timeless,” are not a solidified tract, that there have been edits all along. This “foreign” flower has by now become a cliché—strings of marigold flowers, tied into a garland or hanging from the ceiling, wrapped around pillars and other architectural details—is the dominant optic of almost all Hindu rituals. Increasingly, perhaps because these traditions affect popular culture, particularly cinema, as much as they are created by it, wedding guests throw marigold flowers—often tearing them up—at the bride and groom as they walk around the ceremonial fire.

The rituals are not just an invitation to the elements—they are invocations of the five senses.

Large brass and bell metal plates decorated with flowers and leaves, grains and seeds, sandalwood paste, with four banana plants nearby, look like a meeting of the plant world, as if they have sent their representatives to a parliamentary gathering. Fanciful and fantastic as it seems, it is also helpful to imagine the world as it might once have been, where kinship meant something more than blood and clan, and the presence of those who did not look like us might have been more desirable than those with faces and feet. There are the grains of the earth: paddy, with its husk, as if to emphasize that the presence of both seed and fruit, sowing and reaping, were necessary; sesame seeds, both black and white, used for worship and to bless the marriage; haritaki, the Indian hog plum with its astonishing medicinal properties, in the boat-shaped kosha kushi; bael patra, leaves of the Bengal quince, shaped like three eyes of the goddess Durga, without which no puja is complete. There’s “dhan-dubbo,” a pair always mentioned together to show how they work, paddy and grass, used to worship the gods and, by extension, their creations, humans. 

In these wedding rituals is a reminder of what must have once seemed like the inexhaustible fertility of the earth—hence the presence of food, whether paddy or banana or coconut, both as blessing and as aspiration that the marriage bring similar abundance. There are variations on the folds, and the expert will use the stem of the betel leaf to pierce its skin and lock whatever is inside. That perhaps also explains the recurring womb imagery, such as putting betel nuts inside a heart-shaped betel leaf. The Bengali bride covers her face with a pair of betel leaves for the Shubho Drishti, a commemoration of the moment her eyes first meet the groom’s. She sits on a piri, held up in the air by her male relatives, usually her brothers or cousins—perhaps a way to even the height difference between the bride and groom, so they can meet at eye level. The betel leaf must play both curtain and camera for this moment. 

Sometimes, on the day after the wedding in Bengal, in what is called the “bashi biye”—literally a “stale wedding” but more like “the morning after the wedding”—folk rituals take over. The groom and bride play games designed with rice, potatoes, water, and other members of the kitchen. The axis of these games is usually hide-and-seek, as if that were an affectionate premonition of the romance to ensue. The most well known among these games—and certainly my favorite—is the new husband searching for his bride’s ring, which has been hidden in a miniature ad hoc pond made by the women in the family. The man, allowed to use only his right hand, gropes for the ring inside this dark muddy water without looking. I have always liked to think of this game as an unconscious and playful revenge on Dushyanta, the king in Kalidasa’s epic. His wife Shakuntala had, while on her way to meet him, lost the ring he had given her to mark their marriage. Now all newlywed husbands must search for the ring as poor Shakuntala had to look for hers.  

The bride and groom are only an excuse for the families—and, by extension, their cultures, the dialects of their cultures—to display the wealth of their soil, its abundance. The flowers—garlands of roses, white and red and yellow, and strings of tuberoses, their fragrance delicate and quick to surprise and fall limp, mystical and powerful as the evening grows, named as they are after “rajani,” the night—are not only on the bodies of bride and groom or their bed and chairs and houses, but now also clung to the body of the automobile in which the bride and groom will travel. 

Though Jainism and Buddhism were countermovements against Hinduism, its hierarchical and dehumanizing caste structure in particular, the invocation and invitation to members of the plant kingdom continued—a few new members came to be added to the list, a few retired. One of these was the lotus, whose significance in Buddhist cosmology is immense: the botanical gives it its idiomatic and spiritual connotation, the ability to produce something beautiful in spite of the dirt or mud it is born into, a teaching that emphasizes this as the aspiration of the human. The Buddha’s first steps after enlightenment were said to have led to the growth of lotuses in Bodh Gaya, a moment now embalmed as an architectural detail. In Buddhist weddings, the lotus stands for the Buddha himself, like the gandhakuti, a house of sweet-smelling flowers, did for him when he was alive. 

In the Tibetan weddings I have attended in the Himalaya region, prayer flags give a natural dignity to the room, almost as if they were shing, or trees, themselves. I have heard messages read in a soft-paced manner—words by the Dalai Lama and from the Sigalovada Sutta—which contain discourses on harmonious relationships. The food and flowers and fragrance offered to the Buddha are not so much to worship him as a means to make him a part of the ceremony. Offerings are often made to the monks in nearby Buddhist temples. The bride then walks on a path covered with barley and tea leaves to enter the groom’s house, where she is welcomed with a cushion filled with barley and wheat. It seems like a natural continuation of the gifts brought by the groom’s family to the bride’s during the marriage proposal: barley wine, yak butter, a khatag. . . .

Jain wedding rituals are similar to many Hindu customs, with regional variations. The houm, with its sacrificial offerings of food and wealth to the gods in the presence of fire, is an invitation and invocation of Yama, Nairuta, Varuna, Vayu, Kubera, Ishana, Naga, and Brahmasthan—the planets, the stars and constellations, the muses, the elements, the forest and sea gods—with the priest offering ghee, betel nut, jav (cereal), and til (oil seed) to the sacred fire as he recites the mantras. In the saat phere, where the bride and groom walk seven times around the fire, the bride passes rice grains, as if returning a debt to the priest, who directs it to the fire. During kanyadaan, whose literal meaning would be “the giving away of the bride,” the bride’s father must hold jav and til and a blade of grass in his hand as he repeats the mantras. The offering of grains, whether rice or sesame seeds or millet, to the fire continues. The fire watches; it waits, like a marriage must. 

The presence of plant life extends beyond the wedding, in seduction and conjugal life, emphasized, for instance, in the Kama Sutra, the text on erotic love. “Kama” means “love,” but also much more—a manner of living where sensuous and sensual pleasure are part of one’s exploration of life. Among the sixty-four subjects of the text, some have a relationship with erotic love that seems so tangential that one wonders whether they might actually be jokes: making the mynah and parrot talk; arranging flowers and making garlands or toys with them. The closeness to plant life is constantly emphasized, whether in the instruction to have an orchard and water body near the house or to keep lemon peel, betel leaf, garlands (particularly of amaranth leaves) near the head of the bed, a swing in the orchard with flowers on it. Besides these are the “daily routines” of applying sandalwood, wearing garlands of fragrant flowers, chewing betel leaf to freshen the mouth. Plants seem to have charged the subconscious of the erotic—why else would the various “positions” of sexual union be given names such as the “twining creeper,” “climbing a tree,” “sesame and rice,” “splitting the bamboo”? Why else should a woman learn to become lotus and her man water? 

Leaves and flowers must also do the work of telegrams—for both men and women declare their interest and advances by biting and leaving marks on betel and bay leaves and floral ornaments. The woman, when she has become the “wife” of Kama Sutra’s Book 4, must maintain a well-weeded garden that includes sugarcane, herbs, greens, cumin, fennel, aniseed, cinnamon, gooseberry, magnolia, hibiscus, jasmine, flowering plants, various kinds of grass, radish, potato, pumpkin, cucumber, brinjal, gourds, beans, onion, garlic, all while wearing flowers in her hair. 

Perhaps most botanical of them all is the Gandharva marriage, performed without rituals or the presence of family. In Kalidasa’s play Abhigyan Shakuntalam, a text that gave to the Indian subcontinent much of its early literary character, the forest produces the irrepressible romantic attraction between King Dushyanta and Shakuntala, the adopted daughter of a sage living in an ashram. Kalidasa almost insists that we see Shakuntala as a plant herself: one of her friends calls her “as delicate as a newly-opened jasmine”; she responds soon after with a complaint, that her “bark-garment” has been tied too tight. The king, someone from the city, sees her as a plant—“though inlaid in duckweed the lotus glows,” “her lower lip has the rich sheen of young shoots, her arms the very grace of tender twining stems; her limbs enchanting as a lovely flower.” Perhaps for this reason humans and their wedding rituals become unnecessary to the couple who get “married” in the Gandharva tradition—the forest is witness enough, and perhaps that is why the king forgets his wife and his marriage when he returns to the city, as if to emphasize that such a relationship, without any consciousness of rituals, as natural as pollination, could exist only in the natural world, not the social.

Milk was boiling in a clay pot on an open fire when I stepped into my married home. This had been made possible by the orchestration of my husband’s aunts and cousins. The milk was to spill over at the moment I entered through the gate in my wedding sari. It was a good omen, they concluded, a sign that abundance would overflow. I felt sad for the fire that had been stoking the milk’s actions—after all its work during worship, it had been asked to rest. I can’t tell whether it was the voltage of conch shells being blown and ululation that led me to feel the intimation of sweating on that early spring evening. There were the steps to climb to the first story—dipping my feet in a mixture of milk and red alta, after having overturned a pot of rice grains into the entryway of the house, I would now have to walk over a white sari with a red border, leaving my footprint on it. The footprints of the Goddess Lakshmi are drawn as alpana on the autumnal full moon night when she’s worshiped in Bengal—they always lead inward, a request for the goddess to stay, to never leave the family. Beside her footprints are drawings of paddy stalks, made with a paste of rice powder. To be compelled to imagine myself in the same tradition of the health of harvest and abundance as the goddess is both intimidating and playful; why I had to crush clay lamps with my feet as I walked up the stairs, I was too nervous to ask. (So many rituals invite the feet, a part of the body usually ignored as impure . . .) Sometimes, when I think where those broken earthen lamps or the windlike sari stamped with my footprint might be now, my mind comes to rest on long rows of paddy eating the sun. I imagine that I feel a bit like it—its feet always returning to the earth, the oldest marriage that the human body knows.

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Sumana Roy is the author of several works of nonfiction and poetry, including How I Became a Tree. She teaches at Ashoka University in Haryana, India.