As a non- Indian, it is always incredible to see the differences big and small across the cultures of India. When I met my Malayalee husband, I quickly learned that my tiny Indian education in the States was hopelessly shallow and in no way representative of how societies existed in the subcontinent. Growing up, I was exposed to only highlights of Bollywood dancing and dishes akin to aloo gobi and chicken tikka. It wasn’t until I started making friends in Dubai that I found out how simplistic my understanding of Indian culture was.
Naturally, when I found myself engaged to Arjun, I realized that there was a whole new sphere of tradition that I needed to learn about. Not only did I have to teach myself about the special traditions and ceremonies within a Kerala wedding, I also had to educate my non-Indian friends and family members about how our ceremony wouldn’t quite be the Bollywood weeks-long spectacle they were watching unravel with Nick and Priyanka.
To clarify, there is no singular model for a Kerala Wedding to follow. Depending on the religion and even the caste, there are multitudes of variations when it comes to the number of functions, clothes, and traditions. My husband is a Hindu Nair and our ceremony was based on the customs from his caste. To further complicate things, we had a mixed wedding and pruned a few functions off while adding some Western flavor to the masala.
Nair communities are famous for their short ceremonies with few functions. In fact, due to Nairs belonging to Kshatriya, the warrior caste, over 200 years ago marriages were simply seen as useless as the men were in danger and constantly away, unable to provide for the family.
Functions and traditions
Nair communities are famous for their short ceremonies with few functions. In fact, due to Nairs belonging to Kshatriya, the warrior caste, over 200 years ago marriages were simply seen as useless as the men were in danger and constantly away, unable to provide for the family. Most modern functions like engagement parties are recent additions with influence from the neighboring Tamil Brahmins.
However, it is necessary to consult the astrologer about the fortuitous time and date for the wedding, so once Arjun and I announced our engagement, we ended up waiting the better part of a week before being given a date that would be suitable.
Before the wedding, there are few festivities. The respective families may have gatherings, but the bride is not allowed to enter the home until the marriage is conducted. That being said, while I was fighting off a random flu in my hotel in Kochi, Arjun was meeting cousins and having amazing food to get ready for the marriage day itself.
Some brides hold mehndi nights for henna, but it’s not as prevalent as the northern states. Also, it is more common in Muslim households, as the custom is extremely old and still a staple custom in Arabic communities.
The wedding day itself is short, but not lacking in ornate beauty or important customs. In our case, we rented a hall at the Grand Hyatt in Kochi. As I was locked away in my room getting ready, the preparations were being made in the hall. My mom helped fill a container with rice for prosperity, a friend substituting for my brother washed Arjun’s feet, and the ladies all walked in carrying Ashtmangalayam, plates of flowers and lamps, for the purpose of removing any negative energy from the venue.
I was walked in with my mom, us holding right hands. I sat with Arjun and followed along with the procedures. Here, we took a betel leaf and asked for the blessings of our parents. Then at the auspicious time, the thali (also known as mangalsutra) was tied to my neck, with the help of Arjun’s female cousin. This was followed by the application of sindoor. Lastly, the key item is the gifting of the saree from Arjun’s family to me. Before marriage became more of an institution and a legal matter, the Nair community simply used this gesture, called Pudamuri, to mark a relationship. It’s crucial in its significance to a Nair wedding. From here, we follow familiar customs of placing garlands around our necks, holding hands, and then walking three times around the Mandapam. This practice actually was influenced from the Northern states as well.
After all that, the marriage is essentially complete. We were seated in front of the hall again to share a banana and milk. We then stood for several hours taking photos and feasted on a vegetarian meal served on a banana leaf.
Before going home, I was changed into the gifted saree, and was greeted by the family. One thing to note about Nairs specifically is that they are historically a Matrilineal caste. In essence, a husband would go to be welcomed into the bride’s home. However, as culture has changed, brides generally go to the groom’s house. As we reached, we were greeted with flowers and rice thrown at us. I was given a lamp and stepped, right foot first, into Arjun’s family home and set the lantern on the shelf with the deities. We were then fed more milk and took endless photos.
One thing to note about Nairs specifically is that they are historically a Matrilineal caste. In essence, a husband would go to be welcomed into the bride’s home. However, as culture has changed, brides generally go to the groom’s house.
Clothes and Jewelry
For the wedding I had the traditional gold set saree. It is a saree that has two pieces: one for the skirt and one to cover the top. Long ago, people in Kerala were essentially topless, then slowly they began to cover their upper half. In fact, this was a human rights issue not long ago as certain castes weren’t allowed to cover.
After the ceremony I wore a deep green saree to go home in. Generally, reds, pinks, and oranges are still the most popular colors to wear, but don’t be surprised to see green, indigo, and violet shades on a Kerala Bride. Also, Christian brides tend to wear white, and some even prefer gowns over traditional saree.
My thali is a small leaf that represents my husband’s caste. The leaf, which is a symbol of an infant form of Krishna, is originally on a thread that is worn for 4 days before upgrading to the gold chain. This thali must be blessed beforehand at a temple or under the assistance of a Brahmin. Traditionally, a woman is to wear this for as long as she is married. We also placed rings on each other at the time of our marriage.
My jewelry was modest compared to traditional Nair brides. I wore two necklaces, a collection of bangles, two anklets, a hip chain, ear chain, a simple nose stud, and a forehead piece. It is not uncommon to see a Nair bride, and other castes as well, covered in gold to the point where one must wonder how they can move around.
The following day we had a small party with friends that had travelled to see us. It was a Western event, complete with cake, gown, dancing, and heartfelt speeches. We rented an ancestral home and partied until curfew. I spent the evening explaining all the things we had witnessed the day before, myself only just learning all their significance. While I wish more of my family could have made it, I was happy with the way things went. I was able to let go and have the family plan most things, and I was humbled by the amount of love we received. It may have not been endless events of music, dancing, and ceremony, but it was perfectly concise and made us feel like we truly were a family.
About The Author
This is a guest post by the lovely Eliza who is an American living in Dubai. Before the UAE, she spent time in South Korea, Texas, and NYC. When she’s not teaching English to high school girls, she’s traveling the world, cooking new foods, and teaching herself Malayalam. She loves cats, playing ukulele, and meeting new people. She’s always looking for her next big adventure.
You can subscribe to her blog Perpetually Eliza, where you can read more about; How We Got Engaged and Our Wedding Story. Or be sure to follow her on Instagram @perpetually.eliza or @eli.kutty where she showcases her Malayalam skills.
*Images are courtesy of Eliza and are original copyrighted content and cannot be used without the express written consent of Eliza.