By: Madison Ruffo
MAHABALIPURAM, INDIA – I’ve written numerous articles throughout my journalism career – some more difficult to write than others – but this is undoubtedly the most challenging article I have ever had to write. I have so many memories and feelings about my time in India that it seems unfair to sum up my experience in 700 words, but let’s give it a shot.
On February 4, my family packed our bags and traveled to the other side of the world for my cousin’s wedding. Kris, who I consider more of a brother than a cousin, was marrying the love of his life: Varsha.
Before this trip, I had a basic idea of what India was like in my head: sarees, spicy food and “Slumdog Millionaire.” While the food was indeed spicy and yes, I did wear a saree, India was nothing like I had imagined. Varsha’s family greeted us with a level of warmth and sincerity that is unmatched in American culture. They invited us into their home, fed the roughly 20 of us Americans dinner and welcomed us into their family. Her (very patient) aunts spent hours shopping with us and explaining to us exactly what we needed for the wedding festivities.
We arrived in Mahabalipuram on Friday and were once again greeted by a crowd of smiling faces as we filed out of the bus. The next day we gathered at Mehendi – possibly the most colorful event I’ve ever been to – to receive our mehendi (henna), perform songs and celebrate the love of the bride and groom-to-be. Fast-forward to that evening and the commencement of the Sangeet – translated as “sung together” in Sanskrit – where the party really began. Kris and Varsha came in looking as amazing as ever and sat on a bench adorned with flowers as their loved ones (myself included) performed dances and gave speeches to honor the happy couple.
Then, finally, at 6 a.m. Sunday morning the ceremony rituals began with a procession to lead the groom to the wedding venue. It was then followed by the Varmala, which is when the bride meets the groom – considered to be the official start of the ceremony – and they exchanged garlands during the Jai Mala. The two made their way to the Mandap, a four-pillared structure where each pillar represents each of the four parents.
The ceremony continued under the mandap with a holy fire, or agni, burning in the middle to serve as a witness to the marriage as offerings are made to it. As the ceremony continued, prayers were said and offerings were made. They arrived at what I considered to be one of the most heart-warming parts of the ceremony, the Saptapadi. Here, the garments of the two were tied together in three knots and they walked seven steps with seven corresponding vows to signify their friendship. Kris then tied the mangalsutra around his bride’s neck to signify his lifelong protection. Following this, we all gathered around the couple, repeated a blessing and threw rice and petals on the couple wishing them a prosperous and happy marriage.
While you might be overwhelmed with the number of unfamiliar words you just read, here’s what they mean to me: marriage is a sacrament, not a contract. After witnessing the love, friendship and commitment that those two shared and the looks of pure admiration that they exchanged, I have never been more confident in a love between two people. The extensive involvement of the couple, as well as their families, in the traditions and rituals entailed made a traditional American wedding seem superficial in comparison.
Yes, many Americans write their own vows, but there is something to be said for the stammeringly high divorce rate in this country. Every aspect of Kris and Varsha’s wedding held meaning, it was rooted in traditions that extend far beyond tossing a bouquet or garter. The value of their marriage is something I feel is often longed for, but seldom attained, in American culture. Yes, they became a husband and wife that day, but they also merged two families into one.
The sincerity of their marriage goes hand-in-hand with the sincerity of Indian culture. This wedding, this trip, has shown me a level of kindness, respect and passion that I will strive for for the rest of my life.