Marriage Hindu style

When TES Primary's senior designer, Keval, married his bride, Shetal, in a traditional ceremony in Watford, Gerald Haigh was among the 850 guests. Your class can take part, too. Photography by Kalpesh Lathigra

"I am the words and you are the melody, I am the melody and you are the words." (from the Vedas)

Keval and Shetal got married in April, on a lovely spring Sunday in the grandly named Watford Colosseum, to the chanted words of the Vedas, the ancient Sanskrit books of knowledge that are the foundation of Hinduism.

It was like all weddings should be - a wondrous mixture of fun, pomp, laughter, solemnity and, at the heart of it, two people promising to love each other for ever. Promises, made before family and friends, are what any wedding is about. It is an opportunity for a couple who wish to make their lives together and, traditionally at any rate, have and raise children together, to make a public commitment of love and duty, each vowing to play the part that their community expects.

In the case of a religious ceremony such as this one, it's presided over by a leader of the faith. For Keval and Shetal's wedding, this leader was a priest who eschews traditional priestly dress. The contrast between his smart Western suit and the fine clothes of many of the participants served to remind us that Hinduism in the West is confident enough to absorb, without any sense of compromise, whichever bits of the host community's ways seem appropriate.

In a religious wedding, there's the added dimension of making promises before the deity, and also of asking for the couple to be divinely blessed. It's important to realise the seriousness of these vows, which in essence are common to many faiths. In a Christian wedding, for example, the promise is, in the beautiful words of the Book of Common Prayer: "I John take thee Jane to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth."

Keval and Shetal's promises, taken in the form of the Saptapadi, or seven steps, were equally solemn: to share all of life's pleasures and pains; to love and protect their families and each other; to learn together and trust each other; to try to lessen the suffering of others; to tend to each other's needs and remain faithful to each other; to live within their means and be spiritually aware; to be true companions for life.

All wedding ceremonies are heavily symbolic. The wearing of specially fine clothes in significant colours, the way the bride and groom arrive separately and are joined during the ceremony, the exchange of rings - these are common to many traditions and faiths.

Another feature that's shared by all weddings is the way that solemn tradition is combined with joy. A priest reads or chants prayers and exhortations, while the delight and love of the couple and their families bring the day to joyful life. With that in mind, let's look in more detail at Keval and Shetal's wedding.

A Hindu wedding ceremony is a collection of rituals. It is not just the business of the couple - the whole event represents the coming together of two families. The wedding of Keval and Shetal was attended by hundreds of people and, in accordance with tradition, many family members played an active part in the ceremony under the wedding canopy.

Some rituals, such as Mehndi - the decorating of the bride's hands and feet with henna, in beautiful patterns, and Pithi - anointing - happen in the family homes beforehand. By the time Keval arrived, beautifully dressed - for the bridegroom is treated as the god Mahavishnu - several hundred guests had already spent some time greeting each other.

And beauty, with dignity, made up yet another theme. We saw the bridegroom, in his finery, welcomed and garlanded by Shetal's mother and sister. He was taken to his place under the brocade wedding canopy where he was temporarily shielded from the view of the bride, as she was escorted to her place by her father and brother.

Then began the wedding rituals - Kanya Daan (consent) and Pani-Graban (offering the bride's hand), where the bride's parents first consent to the marriage, symbolically wash the bridegroom's feet, and then hand over their daughter into his care.

A Hindu wedding goes on for a long time, and, sensibly, the organisers of this one knew that by early Sunday afternoon the guests would all be thinking about dinner. While we finished eating, the sacred fire - the giver of life - was being prepared under the wedding canopy. This is the focus for rituals that together emphasise the importance of this life-changing moment. There are, for example: Shilarohana, where the bride puts her right foot on a stone, and the bridegroom tells her to be as firm against enemies and adversity as the stones of their house.

lLaja homa, where the couple put rice into the fire and pray for a long life together.

lHasta Milap, where the groom's scarf is tied to the bride's sari and they join hands . The priest leads the family in blessing the couple.

Then comes the central act of the ceremony. Craning up in our seats for a better view, we watched Agni Parikama - walking round the fire. Three times Shetal led Keval, and the fourth time Keval led, having approached the fire with seven steps (Saptapadi, the seven promises that are central to the marriage).

The bridegroom then blesses his bride by touching her head with vermilion powder, and they touch each other's hearts: "I touch thy heart unto mine. God has given thee as my husband. My heart be thine and thy heart be mine now."

After the ceremonies were photographs, and the throwing of confetti, and a time of fun and laughter. And, in the Hindu tradition, some ceremonies still to come in the following days, such as the bride's first step into her new home.

Everyone loves a wedding, they say. Even those whose memories are touched with poignancy or sadness are lifted by witnessing two young people embark on the great adventure together. We wish Shetal and Keval good fortune and happiness.

With thanks to Dr Eleanor Nesbitt of the Warwick University Religions and Education research unit, which offers a distance learning MA in RE Teaching points

Hinduism is one of the major faiths studied in school. It provides lively teaching material, with stories, colourful festivals and opportunities for drama. But it's good to explore its deeply spiritual nature, and the best way to do this is simply to talk to Hindus, including children, about what the faith means to them. You'll get a range of answers, and this in itself is a feature of Hinduism, which is a tolerant, multifaceted way of looking at the world. Here are some features to look at. More background research is suggested before you teach about Hinduism in class.

Hinduism

is the world's third largest religion after Islam and Christianity; has its home in India (children need to know something about India and its people as part of learning about Hinduism);

is more than "just a religion". Vegetarianism, for example, is part of the Hindu way of life;

is interpreted and practised in many ways; it has traditionally emphasised respect for other religious beliefs;

recognises many gods, but many would say it's monotheistic because its gods are all manifestations of the one supreme being, who is in everything;

includes the belief in a cycle of birth-life-death-reincarnation; karma is the sum of how you live your life, and determines how you will live the next one;

has numerous sacred texts, of which the Vedas, dating from several hundred years BCE, are probably the most important;

has many festivals, which vary in importance according to local practice. Diwali and Holi are always celebrated, and are founded on enjoyable stories that children can re-enact.

Websites

www.theresite.org.uk Run by Culham College Institute, this is a superb gateway to anything you need on the Web for RE, including links to information on all world faiths.

http:re-xs.ucsm.ac.uk

Another super RE resource, this one from St Martin's College RE and Ethics Department - lots of links and information.

www.hindunet.org

Newsy site for Hindus, with lots of information for browsers.

www.hindukids.org

Child-friendly site, very suitable for primary pupils.

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