Marriage, Birth & Death

Ceremonies for important occasions, such as marriages, vary in the many religions found in the subcontinent (see Religion later in this chapter) and each would need at least several pages to describe.

In Hindu-dominated India, although sam­skaras (rites of passage ceremonies) have been simplified over the centuries, they still hold great importance. One highly auspi­cious event is the marriage ceremony, which is usually an elaborate and expensive affair. Although ‘love marriages’ have risen in recent years (mostly in urban centres), most Hindu marriages are arranged (see also Women in Society later in this section). Discreet inquiries are made within the com­munity, or, where the community isn’t very close-knit, such as in big cities, advertise­ments may be placed in the local newspa­pers or on the Internet. Many Non Resident Indians (NRIs) also advertise via newspa­pers or the Internet. They will make a special trip to India to meet prospective applicants who have made it to the shortlist.

Horoscopes are checked, and if they match, a meeting between the two families usually takes place. Many potential matches are rejected on the basis that the astrological signs are not propitious. An astrologer is consulted again when it comes to fixing a wedding date. Dowry, although illegal, is still a key issue in many arranged marriages. In theory, the larger the dowry, the greater the chances of the bride’s family securing a good match for their daughter. Families can often go into horrendous debt to raise the re­quired cash and merchandise.

On the day of the wedding the bride­groom is escorted to his future in-laws’ home (often accompanied by an exuberant brass band and plenty of friends and well­wishers) where offerings of roasted grain are tossed into the hearth fire. The cere­monies are officiated over by a priest and the marriage is formalised when the bride­groom holds his bride’s hand and they walk around the fire seven times.

The birth of a child is another momen­tous event, replete with its own set of spe­cial ceremonies. These rituals centre on the casting of the child’s first horoscope, name giving. feeding the first solid food and hair cutting (performed on boys once they are about five years old).

Divorce and remarriage are becoming more common but are still frowned upon in India. Among the higher castes, widows are not expected to remarry, but are admonished to wear white and live pious, celibate lives.

Hindus cremate their dead, and funeral ceremonies are designed to purify and con­sole both the living and the deceased. An important aspect of the proceedings is the sharadda, or paying respect to one’s ances­tors by offering water and rice cakes. It’s an observance that’s repeated at each anniver­sary of the death. After the cremation the ashes are collected and 13 days after the death (when blood relatives are deemed rit­ually pure) a member of the family will usu­ally scatter them in a holy river such as the Ganges, or in the ocean.


Devout Hindus are expected to go on yafru (pilgrimage); at least once a year is desirable. Pilgrimages are undertaken for various rea­sons: to implore the gods to grant a wish, to take the ashes of a cremated relative to a holy river, or to gain spiritual merit. There are thousands of holy sites to which pilgrims travel; the elderly often make Varanasi their final goal, as many believe that dying here releases them from the cycle of rebirth.

Despite the camival-like atmosphere of some fairs (like the Pushkar Camel Fair in Rajasthan), most festivals in India are rooted in religion and are a magnet for pilgrims.

The Caste System

Caste is the basic social structure of Hindu society. Living a righteous life and fulfilling your dharma (duty) will augment your chances of being born into a higher caste and thus better circumstances (see Religion later in this chapter). Hindus are born into one of four vamas (castes): Brahmin (priests), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaishya (merchants) and Sudra (peasants). The Brahmins were said to have emerged from the mouth of Lord Brahma at the moment of creation, Ksha­triyas were said to have come from his arms, the Vaishyas from his thighs and Sudras from his feet. Beneath these castes are the Dalits (formerly known as Untouchables and offi­cially known as Scheduled Castes), whose lives were the most menial of all; even today sweepers and latrine cleaners are invariably drawn from their ranks. Within the vamas are thousands of jati, or groups of ‘families’.

Today the caste system is weakened but still wields considerable power. The rela­tionship between caste and politics is potent; politicians may look to certain jatis as po­tential vote banks. The government reserves significant numbers of public-sector jobs, parliamentary seats and university places for the Scheduled Castes. This has angered many who claim they unfairly miss out on jobs they would otherwise get on merit.

Women in Society

Although the professions are still very much male dominated, women are making inroads – in 1993 the first women were en­listed in the armed forces, and women cur­rently account for around 10% of all parliamentarians. Less visible to the public in the woman’s influence in family affairs, especially when it comes to ceremonies.

For village women it’s much more diffi­cult to get ahead, but groups such as Self­Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in Ahmedabad ( Gujarat ) have shown what’s possible. Here, poor and low-caste women, many of whom work on the fringes of the economy, have been organised into unions, offering at least some lobbying power against discriminatory and exploitative work practices.

Traditionally, especially in less-affluent parts of Indian society, the desire to have male children is so strong that the govern­ment has had to prohibit the abortion of healthy foetuses. ‘Sex determination’ clinics are also banned, but abortions, following ex­aminations in illegal ultrasound clinics, con­tinue. In poorer families girls are often regarded as a liability for the family, not only because they leave the family when married (traditionally boys remain in their parents’ home even after marriage), but also because an adequate dowry must he supplied-an im­mense financial drain for many families.

Arranged marriages are still the norm rather than the exception. A village girl may find herself married off while still in her early teens to a man she has never met. She then goes to live in his village, where she is expected not only to do manual labour (at perhaps half the wages that a man would re­ceive for the same work), but also to raise children and keep house. She has no prop­erty rights if her husband owns land, and domestic violence is not uncommon.

For the urban, middle-class woman, life is materially much more comfortable, but pressures still exist. She is far more likely to be given an education. Once married, she is still expected to ‘fit in’ with her new in-laws, and to be a homemaker above all else. Like her village counterpart, if she fails to live up to ex­pectations – even if it is just not being able to give her in-laws a grandson – the conse­quences can be dire, as demonstrated in the practice of ‘bride burning’. It’s claimed that for every reported case, some 320 go unre­ported and that less than 10% of the reported cases are pursued through the legal system.

A married woman faces even greater pres­sure if she wants to divorce her husband. Al­though the constitution allows for divorcees (and widows) to remarry, few are in a posi­tion to do so simply because they are con­sidered outcasts from society – even a woman’s own family will often turn its back on a woman who seeks divorce, and there is no social-security net to provide for her.

Divorce rates are, not surprisingly, low. The majority are in the larger cities, such as Mumbai and Delhi, where it is generally more acceptable (although not necessarily socially desirable) for women to pursue ca­reers and independent lives.

Indian Clothing

Although many younger women sometimes wear Western clothing, the sari, which would have to be the world’s most graceful attire, is still widely worn nationwide. Saris range from simple cottons to dazzling silks.

Buying a sari is an experience in itself. Invited to sit on a cotton-covered mattress, you watch as the sari seller pulls out sari after sari, rolling them out to reveal brilliant colors and patterns. The sari comes in a single piece (between 5m and 9m long and I m wide) and is ingeniously tucked and pleated into place without the need for pins or buttons. Worn with the sari is a choli (tight-fitting blouse) and a cotton draw­string petticoat. The pnlloo is that part of the sari draped over the shoulder. Many travellers use the fabric to make striking Western-style garments to wear back home.

The suhvar kameez, a loose tunic over drawstring trousers, is also widely worn and is popular with travellers (see Women Trav­ellers in the Facts for the Visitor chapter). The salwar• kameez is accompanied by a scarflike length of matching fabric called a dupatta, usually draped across the neck at the front so the two ends cascade down the back. The dupatta is also used as a head covering at holy sites, or in front of elders (especially in-laws) as a mark of respect.

There are regional and religious varia­tions in costume. Some Muslim women wearing the all-enveloping tentlike burkha.

Indian men generally wear Western-style trousers and shirts, although the dhoti and (in the south) the lungi and the mzrndu are also commonly wom. The dhoti is a loose white garment pulled up between the legs like a long loincloth. The lungi is more like a sarong, and is always coloured. Its end is usually sewn up like a tube; the wearer merely pleats it at the waist so that it fits snugly. The mundu, worn in Kerala, is like a lungi but is always white. Men frequently tuck the hems into the waist giving the garment a skirtlike appearance.

Treatment of Animals

India’s ancient reverence for the natural world manifests itself in numerous ways; in myths and beliefs that are an intrinsic part of the cultural fabric. But in a country where millions live below the poverty line, survival often comes before sentiment. In addition, big money is involved in the trade of animal parts for Chinese medicine, which has been a major factor in bringing India’s national animal, the tiger, to the brink of extinction.

The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) is working to raise aware­ness of cases of cruelty and exploitation, with one recent campaign focusing on danc­ing bears. Endangered sloth-bear cubs are captured from the wild, their muzzles are pierced so lead rope can be threaded through the hole, and their teeth are pulled out. The bears’ nomadic handlers ply tourist traps in Karnataka, and more usually in Agra and Jaipur. WSPA implores visitors not to phot­ograph the bears or give money, which is what leads to this cruelty in the first place.

Animal-cruelty cases extend from bears to snakes – according to the W WF, around 70,000 snakes (including the endangered King Cobra) perish annually due to ap­palling living conditions in captivity.