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Deeply Rooted Rituals

An Oxford couple shares memories and moments from their Hindu wedding two decades ago. 

Written by Leslie Criss  |  Photographed by Joe Worthem


Planning a wedding is not the easiest task, no matter how much time is allowed for the preparations. Imagine making plans for a wedding to be attended by 300 guests — and a reception for 500 — in only 22 days. That’s precisely what the family of the bride, Premalatha Balachandran, did two decades ago when she married Karthikeyan Rathinavelu in the city of Chennai in India on Nov. 12, 2003.


As is the custom in their homeland, the marriage was arranged. The two met for the first time on Oct. 20, 2003.


Though girls normally marry early in India, Prema’s marriage was intentionally held up, due to her wishes. Because her parents were strong supporters of their daughter’s determination to continue her education, the search for a spouse was put on hold until Prema received her master’s and doctoral degrees in medical biochemistry. When Prema received a post-doctoral offering in Nebraska in 2000, her father reluctantly agreed, once more, to wait a year to continue the search for a husband.


As she’d promised her parents, Prema returned to India in 2002, but within a month she had received an offer from the University of Mississippi Natural Products Center, where she remains today as principal scientist. Her father agreed to let her go to Ole Miss as long as she agreed to come home for her wedding as soon as a suitable groom was found.


Karthik seemed to exceed the family’s expectations — he had finished university, owned his own successful construction business and worked as a stockbroker. Prema returned to India, met her bridegroom, and her family began the wedding planning.


“Weddings are traditionally in a large hall, but since there was so little time and all the halls were pre-booked, my parents planned to have the wedding in a big hotel,” Prema said.


As Prema and Karthik watched videos of their wedding day, along with their younger son, their pride in explaining the many customs and traditions was palpable. 

“The bride’s family is responsible for everything,” Prema said. “Even picking up the groom’s family and getting them to the wedding.”


Karthik laughed and expressed his relief and joy that he and Prema are parents to two sons: Keerthin, 18, a student at Ole Miss, and Sagan, 12, a student at Oxford Middle School.


At a Hindu wedding, the women in the family who have been blessed with long, happy marriages perform most of the rituals, including the welcoming and blessing of the bridegroom upon his arrival. The Pandakkal Pooja ritual, for Prema, took place early the morning of her wedding. Five married women — her mom, her mom’s sister, Karthik’s mom, sister and an aunt — held before the bride a bit of a pipal tree to protect the married couple from evil eyes and negative energies.


The groom’s moving into a new phase of life is recognized in the sacred thread ritual or upanayanam. Karthik’s parents and the priest took part in this ritual. The kashi yatra ritual is a fun-filled traditional event in which Karthik pretended to have second thoughts regarding entering the marriage but was persuaded by Prema’s father and brother to get married.


When Prema was escorted by her aunt to the wedding altar, one of the first rituals for her was to wash the feet of her mother and father with milk to thank them for all they have done. She dressed in the traditional reddish brown wedding sari given to her by her husband’s family. Later, the ritual of kanyadaan, which means “giving away/handing over the bride/cherished bride” in Sanskrit, took place.


Coconuts also play a huge role in a Hindu wedding, as they are associated with fertility, prosperity and good fortune. During kanyadaan, a whole coconut was presented to the groom’s family from the bride’s family.


“It’s like a deed transfer,” Karthik said, smiling.


The most important moment, however, is the thali kattuthal, when thali is tied to the bride by the three knots to symbolize the commitment of the couple, the continued well-being of the bride and the commitment between both families. Later the turmeric-soaked yellow cord was changed to a gold chain and the married woman will wear this always.


“Without the thali, there is no marriage,” Prema said. “It is never taken off.”


Metti or toe rings also signify a woman is married. Prema’s toe rings were placed at the time of their wedding.


Fire is an important element in a Hindu wedding. The sacred fire or homan is kept going during the ceremony with ghee or clarified butter. After the wedding rituals reached an end, the couple, led by Karthik and linked to each other by the pinky fingers of one hand and their clothing tied together, circle the fire seven times. While they circle the fire, the priest offers seven blessings or vows. In circling the fire, the two agreed to the vows.


The day of the wedding began early for most of the participants.


“The priest usually arrives around 2 a.m.,” Prema said. “Others are there at 3 a.m. to begin wedding preparations. It’s a very long day.”


Food for the wedding guests was vegetarian, of great variety and plentiful — there was breakfast, lunch and a reception after the wedding, and snacks, coffee and cold drinks were served in between.


Before the evening reception, the couple visited the temple for prayers/blessings and later returned to be greeted and gifted by guests at the reception.


After commuting for extended visits to India and Oxford, the couple settled in Oxford when their first son was born. Karthik is owner and president of Thik and Thin Constructions LLC. The couple celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary last November.


“The secret of a happy, successful marriage life is finding the right person,” Prema said, as Karthik nodded in agreement. “In arranged marriages, parents take care of that huge responsibility as they understand the wishes and expectations of their children more than they do and thus, arranged weddings almost always end in a perfect match.


“During these 20 years, we both have showed love, utmost care, concern, encouragement, support, served as ladders for each other’s success as we have built this beautiful family.”

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