Kettu Kalyanam, also known as Thali Kettu was the name of an elaborate marriage ceremony of the Malayala Kshatriyas, Samanthans,Nairs, Maaran, Ezhava and Ambalavasis communities of the Indian state of Kerala. The customs varied from region to region and caste to caste and below is the general practices involved.
The Kettu Kalyanam ceremony originated among the non Brahmin castes of Kerala with a view to give their members the credits of a religious Samskara or rite soon after the highly religious and ritualistic Namboodiri Brahmin caste dominated Kerala as the supreme caste. Although it was marriage and celebrated with great pomp and show, with regard to the economic position of the families involved, it was in reality quite a meaningless and name sake rite. However Kettu Kalyanam had to be carried out for girls of the above mentioned castes essentially, on pain of excommunication. The practices of the Kettu Kalyanam bear resemblance to the upper caste Hindu weddings of Tamil Nadu in India.
The age for Kettu Kalyanam is generally taken to be eleven years old though it may be conducted anytime before also. As the ceremony is greatly expensive advantage is taken of a single occasion and all the pre pubescent girls in the family, irrespective of age are married off, including infants sometimes.
The Thali is the major part of the ceremony and is the wedding locket, also known as Mangalsutram. The bridegroom who ties the Thali, in the domains of Travancore in Kerala can be selected only from certain families, appointed for the very purpose by the Kings of the land, known as Machampikar. Every village usually has three of four such families which rank among the most respectable families therein. In northern Travancore and the remaining regions of Kerala the Machampi institution is absent and any body of suitable caste such as the King himself, Thampans, Thirumulpads, Aryapattars etc may tie the Thali. The only difference is that while the Machampi men can tie the Thali only for one girl and take her as his 'wife', the other tiers, mentioned above, may tie the Thali for all the girls.
A day is fixed for the preliminaries of the wedding when all the relations and members of the families involved are invited as also the astrologer who belongs to the Kaniyan caste. He checks the suitable dates and also whether the horoscope of the bride and groom match and accordingly writes down the date and time for the ceremony on the charthu and hands it over to the senior most male member of the Tharavad. The Kaniyan is then dismissed with gifts and presents. The Kaniyan also fixes a suitable day for fixing the main pillar of the marriage hall, known as the pandal.
A few days before the commencement of the construction of the pandal, invitations are sent out and in response to this the invitees come and render substantial aid in building the pandal. The main pillar of the Pandal is made of the Jack Tree (Alstonia Scholaris) which is cut for the same purpose that very day and raised at the south-west corner of the pandal, which itself is built on the eastern side of the house. The pandal is generally square or rectangular in shape.
If the family be of rank and influence a Kathiru Mandapam is built inside the pandal i.e. a raised floor with a groined roof, beautifully decorated with pictures, mirrors and glass globes. It is here that the actual marriage ceremony takes place and the guests are seated around this Kathiru Mandapam.
The first item in the celebrations is known as the Ayani Oonu which is a sumptuous banquet given by the bride's people to the family of the groom, known as the Manavalan. On the first day, in the morning, the girl (or girls), well dressed and adorned with ornaments holding in her left hand a tray containing her wearing apparel after bath, a mirror and other toilette articles and a metal lamp called Changalavatta in her right, is taken to the bathing tank in a procession headed by a lady of a Machampi family with great amount of music and celebration.
After bath the girl is taken back to the house and seated in a separate room and another feast is given to the assembled guests. Then comes the rite called the Kaapu Kettu or Pratisara Bandham, a piece of string symbolical of a solemn resolve to do a particular act) round the wrist of the girl. This is done by the Maaran in Travancore and in other parts of Kerala the Marar or the brother of the girl.This is accompanied by a song known as Subhadra Veli, the account of the marriage of Subhadra with Arjuna, by the Brahmanis, a class of female Ambalavasis who are accommodated for the musical purposes inside the house throughout the four days of the wedding.
Following this the bride's mother goes to the house of the Manavalan personally and placing a garland around his neck formally invites him to start for the marriage pandal. At an auspicious hour, prescribed by the Kaniyan, the grooms party start from their house, the Manavalan himself mounted on an elephant or on foot. Among the Nairs he holds in his hand a sword, symbolic of his position as a warrior.
The groom is received at the gates of the pandal by a few select female members of the girl, headed by her senior aunt by marriage, carrying a tray called the Asthamangalyam, consisting of eight articles symbolic of Mangalyam or Vedic marriage. He is then conducted to his seat in the Kathiru Mandapam wherein his feet are washed by the girl's uncle or brother.
The girl is then brought into the pandal, carried by her brothers and uncles, completely veiled like Namboodiri ladies, holding in her hand an arrow and a looking glass. She is then made to sit on the left side of the groom or in front with her back to him, each facing the east.
At the auspicious hour the groom receives the Thali or wedding locket from the Illayatu priest (in the other parts of Kerala). He places it around the neck of the bride and ties a single knot while his sister ties the two other knots, in the total number of three knots. All this is done amidst music and hurrraying of men and women. A song called the Amachan Pattu or the song of the maternal uncle is sung and the bride and groom are taken out of the Pandal. With reference to this, Edgar Thurston in his "Castes and Tribes of Southern India" says,
A Machampi man, generally brother to the groom, bears the newly wed bride into the Manavara, a decorated marriage chamber in the inner part of the house wherein both the bride and groom are required to stay for the next three days under religious pollution. The master of the house then distributes pan supari to the guests and for the next three days of the wedding every guest is treated to a rich feast. Then follows a massive banquet in which women are served first.
During the four days of the marriage various sports and amusements are arranged for the delectation of the guests. On the second day no great banquet is thrown, just a small feast for relatives and friends.
On the third day a feast is given to all caste members of the village who do the cooking themselves, the master of the house having to supply only the required materials. This is a gigantic business of feeding, as even the slaves, artisans and all inferior castes and poors of all religions are fed on this day. After this meal all those present gift presents to the Karnavan of the family according to his means.
On the night of this third day, the bride groom and all his friends and relations make a procession from the girl's house to that of a near friends where they are treated to a feast known as Avalteetu, consisting of beaten rice, sugar etc. The procession is accompanied by music and a vast display of fireworks and swordplay.
When the bride groom, the Manavalan returns after the function, the bride shuts herself in the Manavara and songs of entreaty known as Vathil Thura Pattus (literally open the door songs) are sung by the groom and his men to open the door. Reply songs are sung from inside by the bride and her young cousins stating that the bride suspects her husband's returning home so late. This completes the ceremonies of the third day.
On the fourth day a procession known as Mannu Neeru Vari Kondu Varuka (bringing of water from a neighbouring tank) is formed by the females related to the bride and groom and with great pomp and show it is conducted. On this night the female members of the bride's house make sweetmeat presents for the family of the groom. The same night the Maaran removes the string tied on the wrist of the girl and groom and performs all the required purification rites, making them eligible once more to enter temples etc. The water used for this rite is the same brought during the above mentioned ceremony of bringing water from a tank.The couple then go together to the tank and bathe. Then the bride groom is dismissed with presents of money, gold ornaments, rings, earrings etc and this concludes the marriage ceremony.
The Kettu Kalyanam ceremony is mostly meaningless as after all these highly expensive ceremonies and rituals the bride groom returns to his house, never to meet the bride again, who, for all religious and ritual purposes, is his wife, and he her husband. Both of them later enter into actual marriage with other individuals through the simple ceremony known as Sambandham. In some parts of Malabar immediately after the ceremony a formal divorce is constituted whereas in some other areas the groom enters into Sambandham with the girl and becomes her husband in practice, if the girl be of marriageable age. Otherwise the ceremony has no practical meaning and is strictly ritualistic. Only among the Maarans there is a class called Orunul who allow their women only to marry their ritual husbands through Sambandham or else only a Brahmin.
Anyhow the Kettu Kalyanam ceremony, in spite of its wealthy elaboration has no meaning excepting that on the death of the groom, his ritual wife must maintain the widows pollution for the required number of days and her children must mourn although they be children of another man who married their mother through Sambandham. Thus the status of 'husband' is for the man who ties the Thali to the woman through the above mentioned ceremony, though the actual husband, known as Sambandhakaran is the man who consorts with the woman through Sambandham. However no woman may have a Sambandham until she has a Thali around her neck.
There is no real alternative for the Kettu Kalyanam ceremony though its elaborations can be cut down for economic reasons. If the girl is from a poor family she may have her ceremony done in the house of a well to do neighbour. If even that is not possible her own mother may tie the Thali around her neck, placing a sword as substitute to the groom, in a temple.
The Kettu Kalyanam ceremony is no longer practised and has been non existent for the last hundred years or so. This is because social reformers such as Narayana Guru, realising the meaninglessness of this economically ruinous ceremonial, strived towards doing away with it. The modern marriages of the castes practising the Kettu Kalyanam however do include some of its aspects in it.
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