“I am nobody’s property”: What it’s like to be a progressive Indian bride

The changing attitude towards gender and gender roles within a marriage has raised several questions about gender roles in wedding rituals. What does this mean for a modern Indian bride?

A bride and her soon-to-be husband sit in front of a small pit of fire, all dolled up for their big day. The bride’s father takes her hand and places it in the hands of her groom symbolising the beginning of their union as husband and wife. This ritual is what is called ‘kanyadaan’ in every traditional Hindu wedding.

Chahat Awasthi, a UK-based financial journalist who recently got married, believed that this practice was archaic. She said, “I dint want to do Kanyadaan because it did not make sense to me at all. I am nobody’s property. I don’t think a man can give me a way to another man.”

When Chahat eventually agreed and allowed the ritual to happen, she looked at it as just a representation of a bond and not as the ritual itself. She said, “My parents are separated and my friend’s father was there. That meant so much to me. It was him because of whom I allowed that. Otherwise, Kanyadaan was out of question.”

According to Professor James Hegarty, expert in Indian religions, this ritual is just a reflection of the relationship between a father and daughter and could have been performed to commemorate the daughter leaving her father’s care. He said, “I can’t think of another example of such a poignant and recurrent emphasis on the relationship between a father and a daughter. It’s not particularly gendered.”

Many feminists believe this practice is one of the many sexist rituals which are a part of Hindu wedding traditions, as they believe it signifies ‘giving away of the daughter’4. But it is not all so black and white. While speaking to The Bridge Chronicle, Dr Manisha Shette, a practicing priestess said, “According to the original scriptures, Kanyadaan was always a moral concept, versus the tone it has today. It was about the groom publicly accepting the bride and making a promise to respect her and treat her equal in all manners.”

Like the Kanyadaan, a traditional Hindu wedding consists of many rituals which have various connotations which has become one of the reasons for many millennials to start planning their wedding differently from that of their parents. According to a research report by The Wedding Wishlist, millennials are giving weddings a more conscious and meaningful spin by sticking to smaller weddings with more meaningful ceremonies.

According to research, more millennials want small weddings with <100 guests

Chahat recalls wanting to do a court marriage as she was never very religious. She said, “We were told that if you do a Hindu marriage, and follow the rituals and everything then you’d get the marriage licence really quickly. So, I said let’s do it then.”

However, when she did have a traditional Hindu wedding, she felt differently about the process. Chahat said, “I wouldn’t have gone with the court marriage even without the licence issue, now that I know what it feels like to be in that actual wedding ceremony. It was a rite of passage for me. I could sense the shift while sitting in the ceremony.”

This shift that Chahat felt was not just an emotional awakening. According to Prof James rituals in its very nature mark change. He said, “They are formal, embodied way of marking that change. Without the ritual, the change doesn’t occur. So, they’re not just a marker. They’re the means by which we change.”

However, this is not to say that rituals and traditions cannot be adapted and modified. One such ritual that is now being adapted frequently are the vows which the priest recites towards the end of the wedding, which the bride and groom have to repeat.

An example of one such vow is, the groom says I will provide welfare and happiness for you and the children that we bear and you shall offer me food and help whenever it is required. In response to this, the bride promises to be responsible for the complete household management.

When Chahat decided to go with traditional wedding, she made sure that the rituals she participated in reflected her ideologies and her relationship with her husband. She and her husband both decided to alter some vows which the priest asked them to repeat. She said, “Some of his vows were absolutely unbelievable. He said, you will not leave the house till you have permission from your husband. I am a journalist in the UK and he lives in India. This is impossible. Let’s fix this.”

According to Prof James, any tradition and ritual has to change with each generation. He said, “We’re always in the process of applying that which we inherit from the previous generations, that which we’re told to do, and we’re kind of adapting it in the present.”

In 2018, popular social media influencer Diipa Buller Khosla and her husband Oleg Buller Khosla defied traditions in more than one way. After the wedding, the wife is asked to touch her husband’s feet and seek blessings. However, Diipa and Oleg decided to touch each other’s feet as a sign of being equals in the relationship. They also adopted each other’s surnames as a show of mutual respect. The two now have a daughter named Dua Buller Khosla.

Diipa Buller Khosla is a travel and fashion influencer who advocates cultural integration

Like Diipa, Chahat and her husband too adopted combined surnames in order to retain their own identities while still honouring their union. She said, “My social media handles reads Chahat Awasthi Segan and my husband’s reads Eshaan Segan Awasthi.”

In ancient Indian history marriage is described as the beginning of a new alliance which involved exchange of land, kingdom and power. The giving away of the woman to the other family was a means to solidify this exchange. The change in the socio-economic status of women is a big contributor to couples now wanting to be treated as equals.

 Chahat believes that partners are now companions and that’s what they want their wedding to reflect. She said, “We don’t share properties, there was obviously no dowry. We don’t share anything. I have a job and he has a job. Companionship is the only thing here.”

In accordance with that notion, Prof James believes that socio-economic change in any segment of the society has a huge impact of religion and traditions. He said, “With more women active in the workplace, there’s been an enormous shift in patterns of activity in South Asia for women and huge changes in the perception and understanding of what’s acceptable.”

This change in the status of women has led to a change in the dynamic between partners and what marriage means to them. Talking about her marriage and her reason to get married, Chahat took to her social media handle and said, “A week back when our parents asked if we want to take things forward, I said no. We are hardly ever on the same page. And as I made these points, he stood by me. That day on my way home I realised that I have never seen a more loving, kinder person.”

Many Indian couples find it harder to navigate through their own wedding and make decisions that might oppose family, in comparison to western couples. According to Chahat this may be because of the long-standing culture of arranged marriages.

She said, “When your parents have arranged everything for you, they might just want to control the other aspects as well. It starts right from childhood. Like which stream to choose in school, what career to follow, whom to get married to, what to look for in a partner. Somewhere, I think we just lost the plot.”

The way to approach your family about wanting to change rituals and traditions is bound to be different for different families. But speaking from her personal experience, Chahat felt that having a conversation is the only way to go about it.

She said, “We all sat in a drawing room. And we talked about it…Everybody was open to listening to the other person’s viewpoint. I’m just lucky, that’s a privilege I had.”

There is a constant conflict between people who are hanging on to traditional ways and the people who want to change, alter and adopt these traditions to represent what they stand for. One of the main contributing factors to this conflict is because rituals largely imply continuity. Prof James said, “What is feared is the loss of an inheritance or loss of continuity, or loss of values that have been cherished and transmitted over many generations.”

However, Chahat thinks that wanting to stick to rituals in the interest of upholding tradition is only a part of parents wanting a big wedding. She said, “My in-laws like rituals because they’re very social people and they like going to weddings. There’s also a social obligation, where you think we went to their weddings, they should come to our wedding. It is like a transaction.”

This social obligation is also what leads to marriages in India becoming massive expenditures for a family. According to a recent report, on an average an Indian family spends 20% of their life income on a wedding. The industry is deemed ‘recession proof’. Apart from not agreeing to what rituals represent, this expenditure is a massive contributor to millennials wanting simpler, smaller weddings.

Families in India take loans to have a wedding

Chahat recalls the time when she and her husband decided that they do not want to have a big fat Indian wedding. She said, “I have a single mom who struggled with two daughters. So, we didn’t have basically a lot of money growing up, and he knew that…If you spend too much money, you’re actually creating examples, you’re creating a normalcy around that kind of wedding. I think it’s wrong on so many levels”

According to Prof James in the current day and age most weddings are about wealth, the rituals are just a part of showcasing that. He said, “A lot of Hindu and Muslim are generally about making sure that it’s a solid display of wealth… The bigger the wedding, the higher your status.”

The pandemic helped many young couples have the more intimate, non-traditional weddings by cutting of access to resources and limiting the guest list majorly. Chahat feels that having only 15-20 people at her wedding and deciding to have a wedding in just three days, definitely helped in keeping it simple. She said, “Different people come with different expectations. And then if they’re not fulfilled, they feel bad. I dint want people I dint like at my wedding.”

As the meaning of marriage evolves and changes, the way people get married and what traditions they incorporate also changes. Chahat believes that in the end marriage today is completely a reflection of your values and ideologies. She said, “It comes down to personally what you want and what your values are. If you think marriage is important to you go get married, if you think that the label is useless, then don’t do it.”

According to Prof James, the argument made in favour of retaining rituals and tradition is actually an argument for continuity. He says, “It’s important to try and understand where that person is coming from, why they think what they think and what they think is at stake and what can be lost.”

Having an intimate small wedding, culminating her and her partner’s ideologies with rituals and traditions that mirror their belief system was the ideal combination of Chahat. “I’ve seen weddings where people spend so much money but the bride is upset and the family is upset. And everybody is just stressing about things. That didn’t happen. It was a big party for me. I wouldn’t change anything about the way it happened.”