Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Images of India: A Bombay Wedding

The following passages is found in Modern India, a book containing a series of letters written for The Chicago Record-Herald during the winter of 1903-04 and recounts the American journalist's experiences at a wedding in Bombay:

"The home of the bridegroom's family is an immense wooden house in the native quarter, and when we reached it we had to pass through a crowd of coolies that filled the street. The gate and outside walls were gayly decorated with bunting and Japanese lanterns, all ready to be lighted as soon as the sun went down. A native orchestra was playing doleful music in one of the courts, and a brass band of twenty pieces in military uniforms from the barracks was waiting its turn. A hallway which leads to a large drawing-room in the rear of the house was spread with scarlet matting, the walls were hung with gay prints, and Japanese lanterns were suspended from the ceiling at intervals of three or four feet. The first room was filled with women and children eating ices and sweetmeats. Men guests were not allowed to join them. It was then half past four, and we were told that they had been enjoying themselves in that innocent way since noon, and would remain until late in the evening, for it was the only share they could have in the wedding ceremonies. Hindu women and men cannot mingle even on such occasions.
The men folks were in the large drawing-room, seated in rows of chairs facing each other, with an aisle four or five feet wide in the center. There were all sorts and conditions of men, for the groom has a wide acquaintance and intimate friends among Mohammedans, Jains, Parsees, Roman Catholics, Protestants and all the many other religious in Bombay, and he invited them to his marriage. Several foreign ladies were given seats in the place of honor at the head of the room around a large gilt chair or throne which stood in the center with a wreath of flowers carelessly thrown over the back. There were two American missionaries and their wives, a Jesuit priest and several English women.

Soon after we were seated there was a stir on the outside and the groom appeared arrayed in the whitest of white linen robes, a turban of white and gold silk, an exquisite cashmere shawl over his shoulders, and a string of diamonds around his neck that were worth a rajah's ransom. His hands were adorned with several handsome rings, including one great emerald set in diamonds, so big that you could see it across the room. Around his neck was a garland of marigolds that fell to his waist, and he carried a big bridal bouquet in his hand. 


The Parsees wore black or white with closely buttoned frocks and caps that look like fly-traps; the Mohammedans wore flowing robes of white, and the Hindus silks of the liveliest patterns and the most vivid colors. No ballroom belle ever was enveloped by brighter tinted fabrics than the silks, satins, brocades and velvets that were worn by the dignified Hindu gentlemen at this wedding, and their jewels were such as our richest women wear. 

They brought us trays of native refreshments, while the nautch girls danced, handed each guest a nosegay and placed a pair of cocoanuts at his feet, which had some deep significance--I could not quite understand what. The groom did not appear to be enjoying himself. He looked very unhappy. He evidently did not like to sit up in a gilded chair so that everybody could stare and make remarks about him, for that is exactly what his guests were doing, criticising his bare legs, commenting upon his jewels and guessing how much his diamond necklace cost. He was quite relieved when a couple of gentlemen, who seemed to be acting as masters of ceremonies, placed a second garland of flowers around his neck--which one of them whispered to me had just come from the bride, the first one having been the gift of his mother--and led him out of the room like a lamb to the slaughter.
Nautch dancers (picture found in Modern India)
When we reached the street a procession of the guests of honor was formed, while policemen drove the crowd back. First came the military band, then the masters of ceremonies--each having a cane in his hand, with which he motioned back the crowd that lined the road on both sides six or eight tiers deep. Then the groom marched all alone with a dejected look on his face, and his hands clasped before him. After him came the foreign guests, two and two, as long as they were able to keep the formation, but after going a hundred feet the crowd became so great and were so anxious to see all that was going on, that they broke the line and mixed up with the wedding party, and even surrounded the solitary groom like a bodyguard, so that we who were coming directly after could scarcely see him. The noisy music of the band had aroused the entire neighborhood, and in the march to the residence of the bride's family we passed between thousands of spectators. The groom was exceedingly nervous. Although night had fallen and the temperature was quite cool, the perspiration was rolling down his face in torrents, and he was relieved when we entered a narrow passage which bad been cleared by the policemen.

The bride's house was decorated in the same manner as the groom's, and upon a tray in the middle of a big room a small slow fire of perfumed wood was burning. The groom was led to the side of it, and stood there, while the guests were seated around him--hooded Hindu women on one side and men and foreign ladies on the other. Then his trainers made him sit down on the floor, cross-legged, like a tailor. Hindus seldom use chairs, or even cushions. Very soon four Brahmins, or priests, appeared from somewhere in the background and seated themselves on the opposite side of the fire. They wore no robes, and were only half dressed. Two were naked to the waist, as well as barefooted and barelegged. One, who had his head shaved like a prize fighter and seemed to be the officiating clergyman, had on what looked like a red flannel shirt. He brought his tools with him, and conducted a mysterious ceremony, which I cannot describe, because it was too long and complicated, and I could not make any notes. A gentleman who had been requested to look after me attempted to explain what it meant, as the ceremony proceeded, but his English was very imperfect, and I lost a good deal of the show trying to clear up his meaning. While the chief priest was going through a ritual his deputies chanted mournful and monotonous strains in a minor key--repetitions of the same lines over and over again. They were praying for the favor of the gods, and their approval of the marriage.
After the groom had endured it alone for a while the bride was brought in by her brother-in-law, who, since the death of her father, has been the head of the household. He was clad in a white gauze undershirt, with short sleeves, and the ordinary Hindu robe wrapped around his waist, and hanging down to his bare knees. The bride had a big bunch of pearls hanging from her upper lip, gold and silver rings and anklets upon her bare feet, and her head was so concealed under wrappings of shawls that she would have smothered in the hot room had not one of her playmates gone up and removed the coverings from her face. This playmate was a lively matron of 14 years, a fellow pupil at the missionary school, who had been married at the age of 9, so she knew all about it, and had adopted foreign manners and customs sufficiently to permit her to go about among the guests, chatting with both gentlemen and ladies with perfect self-possession. She told us all about the bride, who was her dearest friend, received and passed around the presents as they arrived, and took charge of the proceedings.

The bride sat down on the floor beside the husband that had been chosen for her and timidly clasped his hand while the priests continued chanting, stopping now and then to breathe or to anoint the foreheads of the couple, or to throw something on the fire. There were bowls of several kinds of food, each having its significance, and several kinds of plants and flowers, and incense, which was thrown into the flames. At one time the chief priest arose from the floor, stretched his legs and read a long passage from a book, which my escort said was the sacred writing in Sanskrit laying down rules and regulations for the government of Hindu wives. But the bride and groom paid very little attention to the priests or to the ceremony. After the first embarrassment was over they chatted familiarly with their friends, both foreign and native, who came and squatted down beside them. The bride's mother came quietly into the circle after a while and sat down beside her son-in-law--a slight woman, whose face was entirely concealed. When the performance had been going on for about an hour four more priests appeared and took seats in the background. When I asked my guardian their object, he replied, sarcastically, that it was money, that they were present as witnesses, and each of them would expect a big fee as well as a good supper.

"Poor people get married with one priest," he added, "but rich people have to have many. It costs a lot of money to get married."

Every now and then parcels were brought in by servants, and handed to the bride, who opened them with the same eagerness that American girls show about their wedding presents, but before she had been given half a chance to examine them they were snatched away from her and passed around. There were enough jewels to set the groom up in business, for all the relatives on both sides are rich, several beautifully embroidered shawls, a copy of Tennyson's poems, a full set of Ruskin's works, a flexible covered Bible from the bride's school teacher, and other gifts too numerous to mention. The ceremony soon became tedious and the crowded room was hot and stuffy. It was an ordeal for us to stay as long as we did, and we endured it for a couple of hours, but it was ten times worse for the bride and groom, for they had to sit on the floor over the fire, and couldn't even stretch their legs. They told us that it would take four hours more to finish the ritual. So we asked our hosts to excuse us, offered our sympathy and congratulations to the happy couple, who laughed and joked with us in English, while the priests continued to sing and pray."

Modern India by William Eleroy Curtis (1904)

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