The majority of Hindu marriages are arranged by the parents though this is changing now specially in the bigger cosmopolitan cities. It is considered highly improper for a young man or woman to take the initiative for his or her marriage. With the spread of education nowadays the boy and the girl are given a chance to see each other unlike the old days when the newly weds saw each other after the marriage.
The initiative for the proposal must always come from the girl’s side, usually through an intermediary. In the olden days the intermediary was generally a priest or a barber but nowadays he is usually a common friend of both the families. Once the negotiations begin, the priest takes over and the horoscopes are matched. A horoscope that does not match is said to lead to an unharmonious marriage.
A betrothal ceremony (tilak) is held which is more or less the solemnization of the forthcoming marriage contract. For this ceremony usually only close friends and relatives are called. For the main ceremony the priests fix the month, the day and the exact time of the ceremony after taking into consideration the influence of the planets. On the lucky day, the boy is taken in a procession to the bride’s house, sitting on a horse, and led by a group of musicians and male members of the family and friends. Ladies are not usually allowed to take part in the procession in some communities. All ceremonies take place in the bride’s house and she normally never goes out of her house during the marriage period.
For the actual ceremony the boy, with some close friends enters the room where the ceremony is to take place while the rest of the party are entertained lavishly in a separate hail. The groom is usually welcomed at the entrance of the brides house. This dwara-puja (door-prayers) is an important part of the ceremony and is usually done by putting a red mark on the forehead and the waving of lighted lamps in front of the groom.
The actual ceremony takes a long time and usually starts in the evening and goes on past midnight. The marriage hail is decorated with flowers and colours of all kinds. The bride and the groom, dressed in rich and fancy clothes, sit cross-legged side by side in front of the sacred fire, with the priest sitting on one side chanting the sacred verses and the parents of the girl on the other side.
Before the ceremony begins, Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles is worshipped. The bride’s face is usually veiled. One end of a piece of consecrated cloth is tied to the boy’s dress and the other end to the bride’s. Then the bride’s father gives the hand of his daughter in that of the bridegroom with the chanting of sacred prayers. The bride band the groom then clasp each other’s hands, usually with crushed leaves of the Mehendi plant put in between. The hands are then covered with a piece of cloth and a thread wrapped around. During the ceremony the bride and the groom are asked to throw rice, clarified butter, etc., into the fire at definite stages of the proceedings. The role of the bride and the groom is passive though they do repeat certain prayers after the Priest.
The marriage is solemnized irrevocably when the bride and the groom together take seven rounds of the sacred fire representing the god Agni, the most truthful and straight- dealing of the gods. The farewell ceremony is held the next day when the girl is sent off to her husband’s house to start a new life. Formerly marriages used to take more than a week but nowadays they take a couple of days.
There are many variations of the above ceremonies depending on the community, region and caste.