A few weeks ago I attended a Hindu wedding for the first time. I was struck by the prominent role that food rituals played in the ceremony, and how each food had a symbolic significance.
A traditional Hindu wedding can last for several days, though the one I went to was an abbreviated two-hour version, which followed a Western-style civil ceremony (the bride, my friend Padma, is an American-born Indian and the groom, Joe, is Caucasian). The ceremony took place outdoors under a mandap, or canopy, and was performed by a priest who spoke Sanskrit. I found it interesting that, although there were seats arranged for the guests to sit in while viewing the ceremony, it was acceptable for people to walk around, talk quietly, and even go grab a refreshment at the bar set up a few yards away from the mandap.
The ceremony began with Padma's parents welcoming Joe into the mandap. A curtain was held up in front of him so that when Padma entered, the bride and groom couldn't see each other (as the bride's sister explained in a running play-by-play, traditional Hindu weddings were arranged by the families of the bride and groom, and the concerned parties may have never laid eyes upon their future mates before the ceremony). The lifting of the curtain is a dramatic moment in the ceremony, even for couples who have met before.
A coconut was placed in Padma's hands; her father then held her hands and, together, they handed the fruit to Joe. The coconut was a divine offering to ensure the marriage was blessed, Padma explained to me later. Coconuts are considered a symbol of prosperity in Hinduism.
Next, a paste of cumin seeds and brown sugar were crushed together and placed in a betel leaf; as the priest recited Vedic mantras, the bride and groom in turn placed the leaf on the other's head. The mixture represented the bitterness and sweetness of life, Padma said.
Rice also played a major role in the ceremony. In the Western tradition, rice was thrown at a newlywed couple as a symbol of fertility. However, in the Hindu tradition, rice represents sustenance. Guests were invited to the mandap to throw sprinklings of turmeric-colored rice on Padma and Joe as a blessing. Offerings of puffed rice were poured into the sacred fire, which the priest kept burning by dousing occasionally with ghee, or clarified butter.
Although the Hindu ceremony was mostly solemn, and rooted in spiritual beliefs, there were moments of levity, including games (which probably helped break the ice for a young couple getting to know one another). One of my favorite parts of the wedding was the game where Padma and Joe competed to see who could throw the most rice over the other's head. The outcome was said to indicate who would be dominant in the relationship. In a way, it reminded me of the somewhat polarizing custom among some Western brides and grooms of smashing cake into the other's face, although more lighthearted and with less chance of hurt feelings. As far as I can tell, the cake custom—a variation on the much more widely acceptable tradition of feeding one's new spouse a bite of cake—has no symbolic meaning today, although it may stem from the ancient Roman custom of smashing a barley cake over the bride's head to ensure her fertility. Considering the reaction of some modern brides to having their perfectly done hair and makeup destroyed by frosting, I imagine it might have the opposite effect nowadays.