The sun had crept behind the statue of Bahubali as I sat on the stoop of a closed souvenir shop considering where I should eat my evening masala dosa. The shopkeeper waved at me: Hello! Why aren’t you at the mass wedding?
The unfortunate part about not speaking or reading curlicue Kannada script is that you actually have no idea that right this instant was actually a very exciting time: The Sri Kshethra Dharmasthala 44th Free Mass Marriage 2015.
I scampered down to the covered auditorium, and sure enough, under the greenish din of gymnasium lights, a hundred-fifty bored-looking future couples were arrayed in aisles facing each other (not unlike the cafeteria). Crowds of slightly less bored family members huddled over them. The men in white with pleat-fanned hats, the women in multicolored saris. Every part of their bodies that could plausibly withstand the weight of ornament was enlisted to do so. On the floor before each couple, coconuts, rice, bananas and lit oil-lamps. Outside, an elephant dutifully took ten-rupee bills and blessed people by unfurling her trunk and bopping them on the head (yes- of course she blessed me).
This was not what I had envisioned an indian wedding to be. Yes, there were ornaments dripping off of the wedding parties, but I had anticipated a lot more celebration— any celebration. What I observed approximated the enthusiasm one would find at the motor vehicle department. I tried taking photos of the newlywed couples, but their families were more interested in taking photos of me. Perhaps a sweat-sheened pasty white man is an auspicious sign for a shared life together.
Of course, as I’ve come to learn over and over again, my initial presuppositions are often woefully misguided. This mass-wedding served a very noble purpose. In keeping with Dharmasthala’s mission of serving the devout regardless of caste, religion or wealth, the wedding program was instituted to serve the poor who didn’t have the means for an elaborate wedding. Apparently the average Indian wedding costs about $3,000, while the average annual household income hovers closer to $1,500. Many of the brides were actually wearing saris and jewels that were donated to them by the foundation. This was in fact a very wonderful occasion.
The next morning before packing to leave, I decided to follow the sound of a wailing, reedy horn that bounded from a back-alley. Several men smoked outside. I asked if it was a restaurant and the men whisked me inside. The tail end of a wedding, with the bride and groom sitting cross-legged on the floor under a decorated proscenium. I snapped a few shots and then whoosh! the men swept me into another room where three more weddings were being performed concurrently. Where the mass wedding was a rather sleepy affair, these were kinetic: each wedding was its own living organism, throbbing to the drum and horn— tying and pacing and tikka dabbing, lamp-lighting and rice-throwing. The parties still looked somber as ever (hindu marriage is more of a vow of fidelity to a framework of social and religious obligations rather than the american Prince Charming fantasy) and I didn’t actually realize that these couples didn’t really know each other.
At first when I talked to young people about arranged marriage, many said that nowadays “love marriages” are more common. Of course, the parents are still consulted to initiate the formal framework of arrangement and dowry giving. More and more, however, it seemed that outside of the major cities, this was not the case. I met one friend who nervously informed me that his fiancée was nearby with her family and he was absolutely not to be seen by her father, as if it were the sixth-grade dance. Another told me that he did not even meet his wife before the ceremony. And, interestingly, in the near-nonexistent gay community, the men almost invariably identify as bisexual. Their marriage to women, of course, is a foregone conclusion.