The Marriage System of Bengal

The Attibaris of OrissaThe Attibaris of Orissa
The Temple of Jagannatha at PuriThe Temple of Jagannath at Puri

The Marriage System of Bengal is an English article written in 1871 explaining Hindu marriage customs and their deplorable forms. The Ṭhākura gives historical outlines of various types of traditional marriages, and expresses sympathy for the women subjected to the inhumane marital practices of certain groups in Bengal.

The Marriage System of Bengal

by Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura

In no part of the habitable globe is the mind attracted by such various and striking aspects of human society as in India. Wherever we turn, prevailing and peculiar customs everywhere abound. The scene changes as we move onward, and new things come in our way.

The Shastra ascribes to Brahma, the creation and formation of the universe. From him sprang ten sages on whom was devolved the duty of procreation. Their power, as we are told, was supernatural, and as a first step to creation, they formed their species from the wonderful workings of their mind. But human beings did not multiply by them, whereupon Brahma divided his body into two parts, the one he made a male and the other a female, and from the union of both Manu, the Adam of the Hindus, took his birth. Thenceforward man was created by the union of sexes. Yet marriage was not in vogue in that early age and men had their issues from an unnatural connexion.

Mention is made in the Puranas of a ruler of the world, in the Satya Yug called Bain. The period of his sway was marked by his direful misrule and abominable orders, so that every sort of vice overspread the world and barnasankar, or intermixture of castes proceeded. Mankind was then classified into several mechanical orders, who still follow their respective professions as descended from their ancestors, a custom long kept among the Chinese. History relates History relates the peopling of Rome by the rape of the Sabine women. In that age of darkness and depravity, the gods were supposed to cohabit with their nearest kin. Instances to this effect need here no quoting.

After the progression of some centuries, marriage was instituted by SETKATU, son of the sage Uddaluk in India. Yet some dark crimes were committed for a succession of ages under the guise of marriage, and India was stained with corruption.

The Ramayana states that the widows of Bali and Ravana became concubines of their deceased husbands’ brothers and though a woman, who is forced away from home, cannot in these days be taken back, yet it is notorious, that Sita was brought back from her ravishers house; just conforming to the case of Menelaus and Helen. It was not an offence with Kunti, to have connexion with Surya, previously to her wedding. This we are to compare with the fabled incidents of Rhea Sylvia among the Romans and Lydia among the Greeks. Intermarriage too was prevalent in those days, so much so that Joyate the Khatri Rajah espoused a Brahmini damsel.

A prevailing mode of marriage in Germany, authorises her princes and lords to contract union women of inferior rank, but their children are considered as bastards and excluded from inheritance. The Mosaic law, enjoins a man to marry his brothers widow, if her first husband died without issue.* The Hindu law on the other hand, inculated the doctrine of continuing one’s race by the agency of a younger brother, had the former no likelihood of having issue, or died in default of them; but this was not granted to the Sudras who were even exclude from intermarriage. The people of Orissa follow this usage.

*Deuteronomy XXV.5-10

Plurality of husbands was another feature of matrimony, and Draupadi the renowned heroine of the Mahabharat, betrothed the five brothers of the Pandus by the decree of the Shastra. Mr. Mill, who has left no stone unturned to deny the claim of the Hindus to the origin of learning, institutions and arts, vaguely suggests that the Hindus had migrated from Scythia and brought with them this custom. But this is in some measure contradicted by another historian, the Honourable Mountstuart Elphinstone, who denies the Rajput emigration from Scythia, though he maintains, at least for names sake, that the Jats were the emigrants. The Scythian women had occasionally a plurality of husbands.

Another kind of propagation, is worth noting; namely by the agency of gods. Kunti and Madre gave birth to Yudisthir, and his brothers, by means of five deities, because their husband Pandu was liable to incur the wrath of a Rishi should he cohabit with a woman. The Median women espoused many husbands. It is very remarkable to observe that the the very same practice is kept up to this day in Thibet.

But lets us describe marriage, in its several stages. India in early ages was distinguished for eight distinct forms of marriage. The following is the precise account of them, as given from Halheds Gentoo Code: –

Explanation of five forms of marriage.
  1. Brahma
  2. Deva
  3. Asur
  4. Gundarba
  5. Prajapati.

First. Brahma, so called, when a father with entreaty and importunity, has procured a bridegroom of distinction and on that account, making magnificent presents, has married him to his daughter.

Second. Deva, so called, when the Yug is first performed: (the Yug is thus celebrate; they pitch a tent on a select spot of ground, and make a fire there; then they pour ghi upon the fire, uttering at the same time certain prayers to their deities; for the dakina of this ceremony, the parents deck out their daughters with fine ornaments and handsome clothes, and give them in marriage to the Brahmans; (the dakina is the present which a man gives to a Brahman, whom he has procured to pray for him; in this case, the daughter is in lieu of that present).

Third. Asur, so called, when the parents of a girl receive one bull and one cow from the bridegroom, on his marrying their daughter.

Fourth. Gundarba, so called, when a man and woman, by mutual consent, interchange their necklaces, or strings of flowers * and both make an agreement in some secret place; as for instance, the woman says, “I am become your wife,” and the man says, “I acknowledge it.”

*This is all, and no other ceremony was attended to, and no mantar was recited. The love affair was settled in a sudden interview between the lovely pair, in any sequestered place, though they knew not each other previously to that meeting.

Fifth. Prajapati, so called, when the parents of a girl, upon her marriage, say to the bridegroom, “Whatever act of religion you perform, perform it with our daughter,” and the bridegroom assents to this speech.

Explanation of the other three forms of marriage.
  1. Ashur
  2. Rakhus
  3. Paishak

First. Ashur, so called, when a man gives money to a father and mother, on his marrying their daughter, and also gives something to the daughter herself.

Second. Rakhus, so called, when a man marries the daughter of another, whom he has conquered in war.

Third. Paishak, so called, when, before marriage, a man, coming in the dress and disguise of a woman, debauches a girl, and afterwards the mother and father of the girl marry her to the same man.

All the above forms of marriage, save the Brahma has become extinct. A higher and nobler sort of marriage, was Sayambara. In it, the bridegroom and bride joined in the hymeneal vows, before the full court of a prince. It was only reserved for the royal family and girl of uncommon beauty and education only, had a share in it. A large concourse of nobility and gentry, of kings and princes, assembled to witness its celebration, with desires to realize their hope.

A separate lodging was assigned to each, with suitable food and clothing. On the appointed day, the palace court was opened with a large body of spectators. The bride, with oriental pomp and modestly, came over to the court, accompanied by her maids of honour, with a golden cup full of an aromatic called chandan and garlands of smelling flowers in her hand. Meanwhile the Bhat * described the qualification and renown of each prince, his family legend and genealogy, with all he cunningness and eloquence of exaggeration, as she passed them by. Following this routine, the lot was very likely to fall on the most distinguished and agreeable. The nuptials were to be concluded with the mere exchange of garlands. Sometime it so happened, that the bride, invited over her intended consort by letter. These and the Sayambara were the courtships among the Hindus.

*The Hindu marriage was settled by a mediator called Bhat, a lower order of Brahman. Ghatak is the term for a go-between in Bengal.

Marriage among the Hindus in former times was generally celebrated after the age of puberty Unless a girl arrived at maturity, she was not entitled to marry; for, says the Hindu Shastra, a girl should not take a husband, until she can appreciate her duties to him. Verily, a girl cannot frame an idea of her duties and obligation to her lord, unless she arrives at the mature age. Innumerable instances may be given to strengthen this opinion, the established ones are the Sayambara and the Gundarba. The Kulin Brahmans of Bengal are ensnared with an unprincipled usage; they generally marry their daughters at an unnaturally advanced age, but their motive for doing so is very curious. They are obliged to do this, for want of resources, as they are almost duty bound to pay their son-in-laws a certain remuneration on the marriage night, and in default thereof, marriage is deferred. Excepting the Kulin Brahmans, who are fettered, with such and a great many more unlicensed duties, marriage must take place prior to the age of puberty, otherwise parents would be outcasted.

The Hindus celebrate their marriages at night, but be it remembered that, Gundarba marriages and Sayambara “Were inaugurated by day.” The validity of their marriages, consisted in an agreement, drawn up either by the bridegroom or bride’s parent, and called patra. It purported simply that such an one of such and suck place, will marry on an appointed day, his such a son or daughter with the daughter or son of such an one. Witnesses names were inscribed below. A man was not permitted to marry within six known generations, descended from the same blood, and in case, if either the bridegroom or bride were found in connection with the six foregoing generations of the other, then in consideration to their being of the same descent by blood, their wedlock was put a stop to. A strict observance to this is paid in Bengal.

A few days prior to the wedding, the bridegroom and bride are rubbed with the composition of haridra (turmeric) and oil. This ceremony is known as gattraharidra. Then the nandymukh or obsequies to the dead forefathers are performed, succeeded by udddhibas, another religious observance strictly allied with the nandymukh, it is mainly the worshipping of Shasti and Markunda, two inferior deities, said to preside over marriage. The right hand of the bridegroom and the left of the bride are tied with a bundle of holy grass (durbha) with a thread dipped in turmeric. In Gaya this is not observed; a little skin is taken off the bridegroom’s little finger and medicine is applied to heal the wound. As to this peculiarity, we know not how to account for it; as little can be gleaned from the oral testimony of the ignorant north-west men. Female relatives are fed by day and males at night. A large lamp is lighted on five successive nights with Ghi. Striachar a ceremony performed over the married couple by the females is not known in Gaya. The bridegroom holds a sword, by right of his dignity as a king does his sceptre.

“The marriage of people of equal rank is performed by joining hands; but a woman of the military class marrying a Brahman, holds an arrow in her hand; a Vyas woman a whip, and a Sudra woman the skirt of a mantle.”

Enquirers into Indian history will be amused to hear the grand scale on which a Hindu marriage is carried on. The bridegroom goes to the house of the bride, with unusual pomp, accompanied by a mob of minions and a train of relations. A king is not so honourably escorted as he is. Processions and music, fireworks* and illuminations are attended with unusual and enormous expense. These are succeeded by a company of guards with silver sticks and maces. But only men of large fortunes, as it will be understood, can bear these expenses. Lacs of rupees are thrown away in a single marriage. In short, marriage with the Hindus is a high and important ceremony; it is the greatest of their entertainments.

*The Hindus are so fond of fireworks and illuminations, that they display them at any trifling festival. Occasionally they illuminate the whole town.

As soon as the bridegroom arrives at the house of the bride, he is placed on a magnificent couch trimmed with gold. In the meantime, he is carried to the hall where the marriage is to be celebrated, and placed on the right side of the bride.* Here a Brahman blows a shankha, or shell, and the gurus, or spiritual guides of both parties, recite several texts from the Shastra, and these are immediately repeated verbatim by the bridegroom and his father-in-law. The hands of the bridegroom and bride are tied conjointly, one over the other, as well as their utteris, or neckcloths. They then exchange their strings of flowers and look at each other full in the face, when two men advance and raise the bride on a flat seat of wood, called pira and turn her seven times around her husband. At last the bride passes seven marked circles when the nuptial ceremony is concluded. The women amuse themselves with songs and music.

*Here he is dressed with a suit of crimson cloth with an ornamented turban of sola on his head. The dress of the bride is nearly the same.

This is the complete catalogue of a Hindu marriage ceremony, I mean the ceremony of the descendants of the aborigines of Hindustan. They can take a plurality of wives if the first one prove barren, but polygamy is not so freely tolerated excepting among the Kulin Brahmans of Bengal. I came across a book, the name of which I have forgotten, in which mention is made of a race of Hindus, Rajputs I fancy, who are of so noble and ancient descent, that they cannot find husbands of equal rank for their daughters, wherein female infanticide is the rule of their land. It is the blackest phase of Kulinism ever known and practised.

We proceed now with our subject, “The marriage system in Bengal.” Why this distinction is made, as regards to the marriage system of this province, everyone will ask; to such it is answered, that the Bengalis are a distinct race from the aborigines of India, and from other Hindu races – they have distinct institutions and distinct rites from them, though an inseparable connection and resemblance are in all parts of India.*

*Much curious information on Marriage will be found in the “Domestic Manners and Customs of the Hindus of Northern India” by Babu Ishuree Dass.

Bengal had no connection with the other parts of India, so far back as the time of Yudisthir and his descendants, notwithstanding Arjuna’s sojourn in Burmah.* It was peopled by emigrants from foreign lands, its origin may be fixed at more than three thousand years past. Bengal is spoken of in the Mahabharat, one circumstance will at once establish its antiquity and that is the history of Sagur, the first ruler of an island called after his name, bordering on the Bay of Bengal. His deeds are celebrated both by Vyasa and Valmiki. The Mahabharat further relates that Bhugadatta, one of the generals of the Kurus was a resident of Bengal. Kalighat, a place of Hindu worship, is mentioned in some Sanscrit works. Some account of Kamrup it also recorded. Not long ago, a stone house with a tank was discovered by the exertion and researches of some Europeans in the Sunderbuns. Again, the adventures of Sundera are said to have been related by Burraruchi, a head member of Vicrama’s court; the scene laid in a flourishing kingdom called Burdwan. The tale has been versified in Bengali by Bharut Chunder Roy of Nuddea. On account of the ignorance of the people, in the deficiency of some broad narrative, no fact can be deduced of the state of Bengal before the reign of the Sen dynasty.

*The Burmese are said to be descendants of Arjun.

The Bengalis of that period were worse than the modern inhabitants of Satgong, or Fureedpore. The communication of Bengal with other provinces happened under the latter Mugadha Princes and Buddhism must have travelled from Pataliputra and directly came down to Bengal, thense it passed into Burmah, China and the eastern Islands. In the decline of the Magadha dynasty, the Sen family of Bengal took the lead. Adisur, its first king, intending to celebrate a Yugna* invited five Brahmans from Kanauj for that purpose. During the time we are speaking of, there lived 700 Brahmans in his kingdom named Saptwasata, whose descendants are the boidiks of Rajpuri and Hurrinavi and other places. These seven hundred Brahmans knew nothing of the Yugna the Rajah intended to perform, and as the Brahmans of Kanauj were famed for their learning, he invited five of them on that account. After the conclusion of the Yugna, they were divided into Kulins and Mauliks by Rajah Bullal and places were confided to them to make permanent settlements. They brought with them five servants of the Kyasta caste, who too were divided into two orders and received places for their settlements.

*Religious festival.

Their marriage system is the counterpart of the noted marriage of Siva. By the laws of Bullal, the Mauliks cannot intermarry, but a Maulik Brahman may marry his daughter with the son of another Maulik and can receive presents from him. The law prevents its toleration in the case of a son. The Dutt family, the Maulik Kyasta of Hatkholah in the town of Calcutta, never intermarry with a Maulik, so the Rajahs of Sobhabazar, yet the latter are of an inferior caste; the Dutts being the heads of the Mauliks. In Bengal, a girl is betrothed before her puberty, excepting for a Kulin Brahmani, whose wedding is sometimes delayed until the age of eighty. A man can marry whenever he pleases. The Ghataks, as already observed, are the proposers and mediators of marriage; their duty is very nearly supplanted by females of all castes. Whoever can approach to the zenana is well suited to negotiate any important affair, and the females of the profession can easily manage their duties with the fickle women of Bengal. There is not Ghatak with the Surnabaniks a very low, mechanical caste: their mediator is a relative, or the purohit.* The bridegroom and bride are examined by the nearest kindred, and f they be a suitable couple the putra (marriage agreement) is drawn.

* A spiritual preceptor that worships the household gods.

Among the Hindus, marriage is prohibited in some months. The Romans did not marry during the calends, nones and ides of every month and the whole of May. At Athens, the cold season and the month of January were the time of marriage. A Hindu cannot marry within a year of his parents demise, neither is an eldest son or daughter wedded in the month of Joisti.* The Hindus have the privilege of marrying a deceased wife’s sister.

*Between May and June.

To putra follows the gatra haridra. And this I will describe. The women rub the body of the bridegroom and bride with turmeric amidst peals of exultation* and blowing of shells. On another occasion, Jeburrabhat or the grand feast of the bridegroom and bride with their friends and relations, is made in their respective houses. Then after the nundimukh and udhibas, the bridegroom is shaved and bathed with some ceremony by the barber. Both the bridegroom and bride and their parents observe a fast on that day, till the marriage ends. The two former are allowed to take milk and plantains. A singular and at the same time ridiculous ceremony named Konakanjulli has the bridegroom to perform, which is putting some money and rice in his mother’s palm, and saying, “Mother! I am going to fetch down your slave,” – alluding to the bride, for a slave she is, under the frowns and tyranny of the mother-in-law, whose empire is uncontrolled. Great glee is felt by the marriage party. The bridegroom is dressed in splendid attire bedecked with lace. He is decorated with jewels and ornaments of gold and pearl. He is carried on a throne of silver in a procession with flags, huge umbrellas and fans all embellished with gold work on satin, with a train of guards as told before – with men carrying silver sticks and maces, mimick hills and paper boats, false chandeliers and fire-works and illuminations. As soon as he enters the bride’s residence, the sankha is blown, the servants present him with two nuts, and he cuts them with his nutcrackers which he retains from his gatra haridra festival. He is then conveyed into the female apartment, where the maidens execute some funny and ludicrous ceremonies, too insignificant to relate, pass a volley of strictures and jokes and throw a heap of raw sugar and rice right over his body. In some villages, a madman is not so tormented as he is. His ears are squeezed, shoes are cleared away and clothes are dirtied. A sad spectacle to the beholders.

*The native term is holu dhuni.

The bride is turned seven times round her lord, when they would take a full view of each other; the ceremony is continued a second time after the nuptials. The main part of the nuptial ceremonies differ very little from those celebrated by the Hindustanis; the only difference is the throwing of khoye* and plantains into the fire. Here the marriage ends. The bridegroom receives presents of cots, silver and brass plates and pots, ornaments and sundry other articles from the father-in-law, but the latter would not take a pice from the former. The marriage parties are honoured with garlands of flowers and chandan and entertained with curds, sweetmeats and fruits.

*A sort of simple food produced from rice baked.

Calcutta has witnessed several grand marriages. Here it is that English bands are brought in procession and hired dancing women to amuse the guests with songs and music.* The marriage couple being united into one body pass the night amidst great rejoicings. Lots of fairy-like ladies surround the bridegroom. With wit and humour, laughs, sarcasms and merry sayings and doings, they tease him. The village females sometimes entertain him with songs, and sometimes torture him to their heart’s content. The day succeeding, another ceremony of the females exclusively takes place, known as basybia. Before this ceremony, the bridegroom pays for nunad khami, to his sister-in-law, nunud is the Bengali term for a sister-in-law. He has also to pay for sujatolani, or the removal of bed clothes. The basybia is the shaving, rubbing with turmeric and oil, bathing and playing the youtuka. That is called the youtuka when the married couple play with cowries or shells and obtain resents from the female members of the house as gifts of blessings.

*The above is the picture of marriage with rich people. It is celebrated with less expense by the poor according to their circumstances.

Finally, their gift to the rawus and bhats* are made, and the bridegroom returns home accompanied with his wife. Their conveyances are a little distinct in shape, for be it recollected, they are placed in separate conveyances. Now the palanquins of both are put down near the entrance of the zenana, and two earthen pots full of water are emptied underneath. The bridegroom is made to stand on a stone, the bride on a metal plate containing a mixture of milk and alta,** holding a fish in her hand and a kunki***of dhan**** on her head – signifying that she will live upon rice and fish under her husband’s roof. We are very particular with our descriptions, and we have related every minute fact which would have interest for the curious and inquisitive. To proceed, the husband throws and cuts the dhan with his nutcrackers. After this, the youtuka succeeds. Night comes on, and the bridegroom makes over to his wife a dish of rice, saying that he will maintain her with food and raiment ever after, agreeably to his means. They do not on that night take the same bed. Separate rooms are allotted to each. The next day, the bride’s father sends in abundant presents of sweetmeats, fruits, clothes, flower ornaments and flower garland, and phul suja is attended to with great eclat. The bride is adorned with flower ornaments and the bed is strewed with flowers, this night the husband receives his wife. Here the curtain falls The first week after the marriage, the bride goes both to her father and husband’s a day alternatively, returning the day following.

*Vile oppressive beggars who commit gypsy-like outrages at shrads (obsequies to the dead) and marriages. A legal measure must be had to check their uncontrolled privilege.

**Red composition of cotton used in dying.

***A thing very commonly used for weighing rice.

****Rice in its unbroken and original state.

So much has been said about the marriage of the Kyasta order. It presents the same at its celebration as that of a Brahman, differing in few points. The Brahmans have their Kusundika and Kusundika is the pouring of ghi in consecrated fire called hum. It is prolonged through the greatest part of the day. The bride steps seven times and the marriage terminates. A Kulin Brahman receives presents in silver, which a Maulik pays for and contracts the marriage. Without presents nothing is done, and marriage is kept suspended on their failure.

There is a little peculiarity in the marriage of Sarnabanik. A man of his caste would not marry, unless the bride brings in such and such a quantity of golden ornaments.

They did not entertain the marriage party until lately. Again, the bride remains a year in her father’s residence after the union. They are divided into Kulins and Mauliks as also the weavers. The tantees or weavers have no basyabia.

I cannot close “the marriage system of Bengal” without adding a few facts to it respecting Orissa. The queer and peaceable people of the province in question, close the bridegroom in a closet the day before the marriage, and he is prevented looking on any one of his species. Their hum is performed with sixteen seers of ghi. They don’t practise the striadiachar, that is the customs in which the females largely take a part; and they feed their guests with rice and curry. The married couple return home seven days after. The bride is not brought back by her husband until she arrives at puberty.

The sanctity of Hindu wedlock is polluted by the pernicious custom of garbhadhan, the second marriage as the natives call it. It is practised in the event of the primary stage of a girl’s menses. She is kept in the most deplorable state, in close confinement for four days with a mat to lie on and none is allowed to enter her apartment. The Hindus consider her most impure; they would to touch her body, regarding such an act as the defilement of their frames. Early in the morning of the fifth she is bathed in a tank, a hole is dug where two women assuming to be husband and wife perform some disgraceful ceremonies, whilst the hired female amateurs flourish some ribald songs with a due degree of buffoonery and uncouth dancing. It is called kada; signifying weltering in mud.* A few days after the second marriage,** the husband and wife offer pujah under the directions of the gurus and purohit, and a ring is thrown from the middle part of the girl’s abdomen by her husband. Having done this, the husband raises a number of banian leaves containing images of children of rice powder, previously thrown by his wife. They then betake themselves to the play youtuka on which a feast to females follows. In Burrisal and other eastern villages of Bengal, evening is the time for the second marriage. There the couple conceal a ring seven times respectively in the hole, which should be discovered by both in opposition to the other. The second marriage is beyond doubt a national stigma, the sooner it is done away with the better.

*The Hindustani women cover themselves with clay and proceed to the river with singing.

**It is also termed pusputsub.

Polygamy is the bane of native society – a curse that enslaves many of the softer sex. The Kulin Brahmans are inseparable companions of polygamy. In their society it is as firmly advocated as is American slavery in the Southern States. The Kulin women are no better off than the African blacks. But an African black has many advocates around: he has a voice in the “Anti-Slavery League,” whilst a Kulin Brahmani has no zealous friend to tell of her sorrows and relieve them.

The Legislature ought to hear the cries of the people as far as their interest is concerned. Reform in every thing is sought for and as the first movement, we desire the removal of polygamy by an enactment. Did not the natives petition to this effect before the passing of the Widow Marriage Act? Mr.Ward has mentioned that so early as the year 1815, the natives appealed for the prohibition of Kulinism.

(The Marriage System of Bengal was originally written in English by Bhaktivinoda Thakura in 1871)
The Attibaris of OrissaThe Attibaris of Orissa
The Temple of Jagannatha at PuriThe Temple of Jagannath at Puri

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