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India: Neither ancient nor uniquely Hindu

Saturday 14 March 2015, by siawi3


March 13, 2015
Updated: March 13, 2015 10:18 IST

Tamil Nadu has a long history of performing the marriage without a thaali. It is all the more valid in terms of equality and self respect for women

The thaali (mangalasutra or the sacred thread tied by grooms around the bride’s neck) was not referred to as a symbol of marriage in ancient Tamil literature. The great epic Silappadhikaram describes the marriage of Kovalan and Kannagi, which was a simple ceremony without a thaali. Sanskrit epics also tell the stories of princes, and none of them tied a thaali in any swayamvaram. So the thaali is not a symbol of the ancient culture of Tamils or of Hindus.

Read: TV channel targeted for talk show on mangalsutra

We have earlier references in Sangam literature about an Aimbadaiththali, a pendant for children made of five major metals, considered to be good for health. Thus, the thaali was meant for children, not for women in marriage.

Poems from a later period narrated how the hero presented a nail or a tooth of a tiger, killed by him in a one-on-one fight, to his lady love as a gift. The heroine preserved it close to her heart by tying it around her neck as a precious jewel. That concept faded away long back. It will obviously not fit in the present day context because no man will bring a tiger’s tooth or nail — attempting any such thing would land him straight behind bars.

Individual’s desire

So, in no way is the present-day ceremony of tying a thaali connected to Tamil culture. Even if it is proved to be of Tamil heritage, wearing any cultural symbol reflects an individual’s decision. This cannot be forced on anyone. Our dress code today, for instance, was not there 100 years ago. If anybody wants to follow it, he or she has every right to, but no one can force force or criticise a person who does not want to wear it.

If it is argued that the thaali is part of Hindu culture, it can be asked which scripture in Hinduism made it mandatory for marriage and whether it has a binding effect on all sections and schools of Hindu religion. Who made the thaali or mangalasutra sacred? Who associated honour, pride and dignity with this rope, to be tied to the Hindu woman who was likely to be treated badly anyway and prevented from making public appearances after her husband’s death?

Why should a woman wear this symbol and bear social ignominy when it is removed in the most cruel manner after her husband’s death?

Ultimately the debate on thaali cannot be closed without referring to the historical role of the Self-Respect Movement and its founder Periyar, who fought for women’s rights in all spheres of life in the 1920s and 30s. It was the relentless struggle of Periyar that was instrumental in the amendment of The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, which included Section 7(A) to declare that the marriage between two Hindus can be solemnised by exchanging garlands, rings and/or by tying the thaali.

We should remember that thousands of self-respect marriages have taken place without waiting for legal sanction. My parents’ marriage was one among those. Thanks to the first Chief Minister of the Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam, C.N. Annadurai, who was known as Anna, this amendment was brought about with retrospective effect. Otherwise, I would have been termed an illegitimate child even though my father tied the thaali to my mother.

The self respect marriage is a legal form of marriage. We have a long history of performing the marriage without the thaali. It is all the more valid in terms of equality and self respect for women.

(Arulmozhi is a Chennai-based advocate.)