HANGING BY A THREAD
If Manu the ancient lawgiver could have forseen the effect of devising a mangalsutra as a symbol of wedded bliss, he might have revised his prescription. It is to his credit that the custom has sustained through 15 centuries according to ancient manuscripts which proclaim the origin to 6th Century A.D. In Sanksrit, mangala means “holy or auspicious” and sutra is thread.
India being a land of diversity there are are various mangalsutras. The Lakshmi thali worn by the Telegus, the Ela Thali by the Malayalis, the kumbha thali worn by the Tamil Kshatriyas, the diamond pendant on black beads by some North Indians, and the Maharashtrians, wear a pendant of two vati ornaments. Originally in South India only the yellow thread was worn, but given up due to impracticality and fashion trends in the chain designs.
Adi Sankara in his Soundarya Laheri emphasised on the significance of the mangal sutra presumably worn for the long life of the husband. Hindu women led by religious custom and social expectations would never remove the thali, even on dressy occasions when other heavy necklets were worn. Of course the other symbols of a married woman, a sumangali were the toe rings, the kumkum or bindi, and glass bangles.
The woman was shorn of all these symbols when her husband died. In the old days it was this custom which branded a woman a widow, so no man went near her, and devoid of these beautiful adornments she looked “less attractive”, to men who would otherwise give an unattached woman the glad eye. In some communities the head of the widow is shaved and she wears widows weeds which loudly proclaim her status. White in India is also associated with widowhood, all of these cruel customs which need to be dispensed with.
Feminists today question the significance of the mangalsutra, and, recently spotlighted in the news was “unequal power play” between the married couple, describing the thali round the woman’s neck as merely shackles, and controlled by a man who “owned” her. We all recall the big hooha that went on followed by debates, in the media which is quick to grab unusual stories. Some women went to the extent of removing the thali and throwing it off in the presence of a smiling husband, and it was certainly a show of emancipation and that too in conservative South Indian society.
Society is indeed dynamic and cultural traditions were cast for certain reasons which were valid for that period of time. One needs to bow down to the wheels of change, to a very modern society which does not recognise the need for all these symbols. Why then do we go through the rituals of marriage? Is it a drama, a spectacle endured for the benefit of a large audience? Why stretch it to five days, including traditions which might not be really ours like mehndhi, sangeeth and so on?
For some of us, the thali is a comfort jewel, when we as young brides valued and honoured it. It becomes so much a part of daily dressing that, the occasional absence when it needs to be redone, or during hospital stays, one feels lost and deprived. Not so the next gen I thought, so it surprised us no end when our Bengali daughter-in-law, so thali driven wears it all the time!! To me, it is a security symbol, and I am so conditioned to it, that bereft of this chain, I don’t feel fully dressed.
A symbol of marriage be it a wedding ring, or a chain, or just the yellow thread, does seem important at the time of the wedding ceremony, and there are only a handful of women and men who would sign at the registrars office without a sentimental symbol of being married, irrespective of religion. caste or creed.
I have to share this about an aunt in her younger days, who would hang her thali over a peg on the coatstand every night before she went to bed, wearing it only after her bath in the morning. She did this surreptiously, covering the chain with a towel, knowing it would incite a great deal of criticism from elders in the household, not to mention having to face the horror writ large on the face of the maids! One fine day, thanks to a memory lapse she forgot to wear it. As she was stirring her curry, she remembered, and reached the coatstand in a flash only to find the thali gone.
Unable to publicise her loss she went about in asking her children and her husband in whispers whether they had seen the four sovereigns thali . The immediate family was amused, as they watched her pull out the drawers in a frenzy and diving into the clothes cupboard in a futile hunt. Aunty dare not ask the maids, knowing she would be reprimanded , and she was nervous to incur the wrath of her in-laws. Happily, her husband produced the chain, which he had safely put away, and couldn’t resist lecturing her on carelessness. On his part he couldn’t care a whit whether she wore it or not.
68 years of Independence and are our women independent or not and are they hung up on age old customs or is it plain conditioning? Would you rather not wear a thali or is it part of your skin? These are questions I would love to hear the answers to!!