She was dressed simply in a two-piece mundu set with white jasmine flowers adorning her long plait – which was all the ornament she had on, other than perhaps a broad gold chain. And to my young eyes, she looked lovely. Like the pretty bride, she was. As for him, I must say I was more than a wee bit disappointed. He looked much older. To someone who was just beginning to understand the nuances of romance, it was a little dampening to find that the groom was nowhere like the heroes of the Mills & Boon romances sneakily borrowed from her mother. And I wondered how she had agreed to it. But she was coy and shy. He was tender and caring. The gentleness with which he caressingly spoke to her and her blushing responses would have made one truly believe it was a match made in heaven. And thus it was for the next few days that he was there and perhaps over the next maybe 20 years when he visited her home.
Years and many weddings later I realised that the protocol followed was quite unlike not only the naach-gaana-sangeet-mehendi of every ceremony of today but also what came after.
There was no bidai; no setting up house together, and more importantly, no nuclear in-laws as we know them now.
This coming together of a couple belonged to another time, another era.
Over the centuries, the Nairs – the martial nobility of Kerala – have followed a system of matrimony that has evolved from an arrangement known as Sambandham. An astrologer usually fixes the date and on that day the groom would arrive at the bride’s residence accompanied by some maternal male relatives. He would sit under a decorated canopy while the bride was brought out by a female elder to the sound of conch shells and nagaswaram. At the appointed time, he would hand over two pieces of gold-bordered cloth to the bride and in return, the bride would give him athamboolam consisting of betel leaves and supari. This was all that was required to cement the union.
There were no priests, no mangalsutra, no exchange of rings and certainly no chanting of mantras. Only a lamp-lit next to an ornate gold and black drum filled with rice and sheaves of banana florets that held pride of place (even to this day all Nair wedding ceremonies are similar in nature, but with the ring and mangalsutra as add-ons). It was always followed by a sumptuous feast – the sadhya. And since all girls needed to marry ‘up’, the more prominent the Nair family or higher in caste they were, they married Brahmins or Nampoothiris (caste wise higher than Nairs) and more often than not, became the second or even third wives of well-placed much older Brahmin or Nampoothiri men who already had a wife or two and children of their own caste.
And what I had witnessed that day – I must have been 12 or 13 then – was one such Sambandham, my grandaunt’s. But it was a Sambandham that had evolved with time to become more regularised and permanent than in the past because my grandaunt went on to bear many children who grew up in her home under the matrilineal system, while her husband (with his first wife and children at home) visited ever so often. It was all very civilised and even had all of them come calling once in a while.
Sambandham marriages were contractual and could be dissolved at will with neither party being victimised.
Related reading: Love, Live-In and the Law
They were quite regulated because there had to be some rituals for the bride, omitting which could lead to ex-communication.
Couples in a live-in relationship today are possibly playing out the Sambandham of yore but without the benefits or disadvantages of a joint family or a ceremony. Do you agree?