A Rabari Gypsy Tribal Wedding Ritual

'Luck by Chaanus'* was on our side Mr. V.bhai - my self appointed guide for the day - declared observing that we had just witnessed two pre-wedding rituals an hour apart from each other. (Luck-by-chance - one of the cutest Indlish phrases has many phonetic variations each following the phonetic pattern of the native language of the speaker - it means just plain & simple luck or serendipity. Also known as probability or God) We had made our way through a village and stopped at two 'wedding homes' ('lagan nu ghar' - which has no equivalent phrase in English because there is no cultural equivalent) one after the other about 2 hours apart. And we were fortunate to have witnessed the main ceremony of the day in both the homes. Had we taken the counter-route and changed the sequence of visitation, we would have missed the ceremony in both the homes. 'Luck by Chaanus' was definitely our side. I was in Kutch, Gujarat. This was my third trip - timed to coincide with dates that were considered auspicious for wedding ceremonies by a particular sub-tribe of a large gypsy tribe in the region. And so we set off early to visit villages in search of a wedding. Mr. V a handsome senior citizen and great grandfather was himself a Rabari gypsy having herded goats. sheep and camels across 3 states for decades. He did not know a soul in the villages we were visiting. But Indian villages are very hospitable even to strangers and here we had Mr. V - a tribesman leading us into their world. At the entrance of every village was a tree with a large cement slab on which old men congregated, sat and spent lazy afternoons on as they discsussed important matters such as the new beedi shop and the cow that had recently given birth. Mr. V shook hands every single man on the slab - not in the Western way - but by holding both hands lightly. He'd give a summary of his identity - his village, his tribe and his name and all the distant connections with this village - e.g. his brother's wife's cousin's father-in-law's sister was from this village - were mentioned to forge the bonding. Everyone was now comfortable with everyone else and I was a mere woman so I did not seem like a threat to anyone and so did not merit much of a mention. If anyone was curious about me and asked who I was, I was explained as someone who was visiting from Mumbai. And when I spoke their language - I was asked which village in Gujarat I hailed from. The few words and smiles we exchanged created a bridge that led me into their lives. A bunch of playful boys hung out near the tree and the resting slab under the watchful gaze of the elders. A little 4 yr old curious boy Deepak initiated a conversation with us and was appointed the guide for teh village tour. He walked us to the first wedding home about 400 meters into the village. [pictures and videos below are taken from both the wedding homes] Across the compound wall made of stone, a little crowd could be seen and women could be heard singing. I waited for Mr. V to go inside and repeat the process of introductions. He was invited to sit with the hosts and join the wedding by the men who had never seen him before that day. Again, no one cared about my guarded quiet unobtrusive presence even though I was obviously an alien there. Slowly with every passing minute I began to feel the indifference change into acceptance - and when they invited me to sit with the elders and offered me water I was delighted. And then my grinning and chatting and clicking started! I am happiest among these beautiful tribal people. And relish every moment of their lives that they graciously share with me. An account of my experiences : The yard is divided into several distinct areas. The shade of the tree provides the natural spot for seating while the preparations take place. The men sit around chatting and discussing matters over shared beedis. Supari & sweet anise mouth fresheners are passed around at regular intervals. Old women mind the little children across on a chaarpaayi - or rope-n-bamboo cot. Two corners are allocated for cooking and the area near the entrance is occupied by singing women. http://youtu.be/07sYWFD3sPY COOKING THE FEAST Women have gathered around to cook the feast. At one end of the yard rice and dessert (Sewai) are being cooked in large pots and in another Puris are being rolled and fried. Drywood is being used as fuel - a great eco-friendly choice! http://youtu.be/Uzp2TskIvF4 SINGING Older women who no longer have to bear the harder jobs - gather together in a circle to sing wedding songs. http://youtu.be/RViU9u39COc TURBAN CEREMONY This is the most important ritual of the day and has immense social significance. The turban is a symbol of self respect, dignity and pride. Disrespecting or lowering the dignity of this article of dress is equivalent to doing that to the owner of that turban. The bride's father, on the eve of the wedding ceremony takes the turban off his own head and places it on the groom's - signifying that the honor of the bride's family is now in the hands of the groom and his family. By placing his own turban on that of the groom, he is also stating symbolically that the groom is now in a higher position in the social ladder than the bride's father. And so the men gathered around, including the mother's brother and the father of the bride, prepare the turban by twisting a cloth that is 21 hands long. (1 hand = the distance between the elbow and the finger tips) After twisting, this is then wrapped around to create an independent turban. Once the last step of fixing the turban ends is taken care of, the turban is ready and we all wait for the right signal for the ceremony to begin. The groom is first led into the home by the mother & grandmother of the bride. But first there is an elaborate welcome ceremony at the entrance. The head of the groom is covered by a sash held by two little assistants while his  to-be-mother showers him with sindoor/roli for good fortune, turmeric powder for good health and rice grains for fertility. She then shakes off any evil eye cast upon him with currency notes and paan leaves in the 'nazar utaaro' ritual. The video below (taken with a phone in one hand and a heavy camera in another) is shaky but conveys the atmosphere of the welcome ceremony at the second home. http://youtu.be/ImiRwTu1PX8 The groom or the "laada" steps into the inner room and waits for the arrival of the bride's father or maternal uncle. The father of the bride is now ready to lay down his honor wrapped up in his turban at the mercy of the groom He enters, approaches the groom, says to him that his honor now rests with the groom, takes off his turban and places it on the head of the groom. The groom is too young to understand the implications of this ritual and smiles in glee at having received an article of clothing - which is all it means to him - but the  look on the face of the father tells me that the social significance of this act is not lost on him. The ritual is over and the Laada steps out with his new turban. It is now time to eat. I had a plane to catch later so we could not stay for the lunch feast. It didn't matter - because my soul was brimming with the fulfilment of  the experience of yet another tribal wedding! More article on the Kutch listed here. jm August 2012


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