Invitation to a Lambani Gypsy Tribal Wedding

A Lambani Gypsy family. A Village in Karnataka, India. May 8th 2011. An arranged marriage.

This is an account of a gypsy tribal wedding in a tiny village that had more character than all of the opulent weddings that I have attended in mega-cities like Bombay and Singapore.

I hope that the photographs and the verbal account transmits at least a fraction of the fun I had in those 2 days.

This is a trip I nearly cancelled because of the difficult logistics of traveling to and from the village by myself. But finally I made it. Had I not gone, I would never have known what I would have missed, therefore it would be wrong to say that I would have regretted it ... but now that I have seen what I nearly missed, I am grateful for the factors that led me to make the decision I made! The ride to the village took an hour on well maintained rural roads that ran through fields of sugar cane and other crops. Village shots :      

A woman in her home that lies along the road to the my destination

The men gathered to while away the hot afternoon in the village square

KT is a hamlet of about 25 households, about 50 km outside Belgaum. It is one among the 50 or so villages that are home to only Lambani tribal gypsies settled in Karnataka. Although settled now, they were once gypsies and that culture still remains. This is a "real" Indian village. One where there is a single tap from which pots are filled and carried away by the girls. One where nature's calls are answered under the trees lining the neighbouring fields. One where cows and bullocks are important members of the family. Where chaarpaay beds are brought out at night and everyone sleeps under the stars. Where the women wear all their wealth in the form of gold on their bodies - all the time. Where life is still lived in harmony with the earth. I am privileged to know a Lambani gypsy tribal Babu and it is at his invitation that I attended his son's wedding, as a resident guest in his home in the village.

Babu the groom's father and my host - wearing a cap that is an influence absorbed from the neighbouring state Maharashtra

I arrived on the evening before wedding and lived in the family home of the groom. I slept on the floor on a bed sheet that I had brought along and was given a sack-pillow. Wire connections were arranged and a table-fan was set up near my sleeping space. Nothing missing in the arrangements. The 'shagun' or the carriers of good omen:

A red cloth with rice and mango leaves tied to a pole outside the threshold of the groom's home

A pot that will be used in the ceremonies covered with a gypsy textile, placed above the entrance of the groom's home

THE WEDDING MANDAP (Stage / Canopy) :

Constructed in the hamlet square outside Babu's green home

This mandap cost Rs. 8000 (about USD 200) for 24hour usage including set-up

THE MUSIC:

Loud music is another essential - so two providers were hired. One that played CDs with the latest Bollywood remixes on large speakers, and another live band with very good trumpet players, good drum players, a large casiotone player, a singer and the amplifying equipment and speakers on a cart. The live band therefore was mobile and was taken along on all the little processions.

Both music providers arrived on the evening before the wedding. And the night was filled with loud music. Dancing continued until 11pm, with all the family members, relatives and the few dozen children of the village having the time of their lives!

The groom's mother dancing in celebration

THE FOOD As in every wedding all over the world food plays a major role in the celebration:

The dead branches brought in for cooking the wedding lunch

The menu: Roti, finger-licking good Brinjal Curry, Rice, Chana, amazing Gravy, Raita and sweet Boondi

Preparing the feast

PRE-WEDDING RITUAL

On the morning of the wedding  a special Lambani amulet weaving is tied to the groom's waist

The groom and his family then proceed to the village deity a short distance away from the hamlet, carrying offerings and dancing as they go.

The offerings for the deity carried by family members

Note the large speakers of the mobile band following the dancers

The groom dancing with colorful powder splattered on everyone during the procession

Most dancing in folk life in India is not a male-female event and has little to do with the romance angle that is associated with dancing in the West. Children, old women, men all participate with equal fervour, either solo and with each other, irrespective of age or sex.

Two young men in a spontaneously coordinated step

Praying at the temple with auspicious articles like betel nut leaves, coconut and a lamp

THE WELCOME AND THE SAMMAAN (RESPECT) CEREMONY

Following the custom of the tribe, the bride's family - usually from another village - arrives at the village of the groom for the wedding. The groom's family then receive them formally at the entrance of the hamlet.

The sister of the groom carries the ceremonial pot to welcome them.The pot is decorated with auspicious items such as betel nut leaves, coconuts and also contains the jewelry to be given to the bride by the groom's family.

Another pot from a twin wedding that took place on the same day in the hamlet:

Textiles articles of interest - an indhoni and a cowry pouch*

Then, male members from both the bride and the groom's side sit across each other in two rows with the ceremonial pot placed in between.

The 'sammaan' ceremony consists of several steps - each perfromed by one of the male members:

A member from the groom's family stands up, walks across to the bride's side, to wipe the forehead of each of the seated members with a wet betelnut leaf - in the spirit of cleansing.

Then another member from the groom's side goes across to wipe the foreheads of the seated members with a dry napkin.

This is followed by the application of auspicious white powder by one of the host members onto the foreheads of the guest members.

Red powder is then applied. Red powder signifies good fortune.

Raw rice mixed with turmeric is then sprinkled on the heads of the guests. Rice signifies fertility & prosperity and the turmeric signifies good health.

And finally the hosts feed each of the guests sugar - which signifies sweetness in all dealings.

Once the groom's side  completes these rituals for the bride's family, the process is repeated identically in the reverse direction.

While this ritual takes place, the young bride waits - shy and in tears at the prospect of leaving her family. She arrives in simple clothes and remains in these throughout the wedding ceremony. Once all the religious rituals are complete she changes into bridal finery. 

The guests  friends and relatives from all over have arrived and await the main wedding rituals.

 

The Sarpanch and 2 other members of the Panchayat (Local self government)

The bride and close family members are now led into the house of the groom. A small puja or worship service follows.

The groom now ties a wedding chain around the girl's neck - the mangalsutra which is a visible display of her marital status. This custom has probably been borrowed from the land in which they have settled.

THE WEDDING RITUAL

In a Hindu wedding ritual, the bride and the groom take seven rounds around a holy fire. In the Lambani custom, the holy fire is replaced by the sacred thread.

The sacred thread is created in the following manner :

Two planks a placed parallel to each other and married women sit around these planks.

The priest first creates a paste of turmeric and water and hands small lumps of the paste to the women in seated in a circle around the planks.

He then unrolls a white twine and walks around the planks as he hands over the thread to the women.

They hold the thread and knead the yellow turmeric into thread.

The priest takes 7+7 rounds with the twine signifying the pheras of a wedding,  creating 2 ropes each containing 7 threads,  one for the bride and one for the groom.

This is done amidst tribal singing that has a unique flavor

Once the thread is prepared, the bride and the groom are called in and they take 7 rounds around this thread.

taking the 7 pheras with the bride following the groom

Finally the couple sit on one of the planks and the priest ties the thread to the groom first and then to the bride. The yellow marital cord on another couple that was married 3 days prior to this wedding: The groom now carries the bride's veil on his shoulder signifying their wedded role. With this the ceremony is complete. The mother-in-laws now pamper their new 'kids-in-laws' with the token preening gesture that is popular with Indian mothers i.e. pouring coconut oil into their ears and rubbing some into their hair. The newly married couple now get dressed for the reception and arrive on the 'stage' for the garlanding ceremony.

The reception includes the custom of gift-giving "accounts" .... a written account is maintained of the gift given to the couple by each family. Guests first queue up to wish the bride and the groom, and then queue up again at the accountant's desk who notes down the gift along with the name of the family giving the gift! This account is used in future reciprocal events to ensure parity.

Close family members are then given a parting gift of a wrist-tie that includes a betel-nut leaf and a piece fo turmeric root :

The bride's family now brings in the 'assets' that have been negotiated at the time of arranging the marriage. In this case the inventory fell short of the negotiated list and a lively skirmish followed. It was soon settled with promises of balance delivery....

And then they lived happily ever after ! *** Will add some notes based on the conversations I had with some elders that provides a deeper understanding of the Lambani customs. *** The cultural signatures or this group are almost identical to the signatures of Rabaris found in Kutch Gujarat and I strongly suspect that they share common origins. But more about that aspect in a separate article... The sad news is that the signature gypsy costume -  the mirror work head scarf and the hair-plait silver is seen only among the older generation. None of the younger girls use these articles. What is more disturbing is not the lack of use, but the failure to transmit the skills to make these articles to the new generation  - and it will only take a single instance of not passing on a 'meme'  between 2 generations to render this culture extinct! In the next twenty years, many of the articles of this culture may not be seen anymore! Art portraits of Gypsy Lambani women are exhibited on jainamishra.com jm May 2011 * click here to see similar antique  indhonis and cowrie pouches on wovensouls.com


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