Sunday, March 1, 2009
Jewelry looms large in South Indian culture, and marriage is perhaps one of the easiest places to see exactly how large. Among the rituals that take place around betrothal is the groom’s family’s presentation of a thali (TALL-ee) to the bride. It’s a necklace, a long, thick gold chain connected to a string of beads and amulets that signifies the woman’s married status as well as the traditions of the family she’s marrying into. Mine has two discs imprinted with the image of Lakshmi, the goddess of material and spiritual wealth and prosperity.
Mowgli and I have done many things out of sequence, and so I received my thali from my in-laws three weeks after our Western wedding. On the other side of the world, my mother-in-law had purchased it, along with another necklace, several saris, bangles, earrings, and an outfit called a churidar, in anticipation of the wedding. These preparations were comforting; I had been worried about the family accepting me, but the moment I heard my Amma-to-be was going shopping for me, I realized I could relax.
Here in the U.S., a co-worker of Mowgli’s recommended a sari blouse seamstress. Because they are tight, they tend to be custom-made from fabric purchased at the same time as the nine yards that comprise the majority of the garment. Once the blouses were ready, I got a sari-wearing lesson, and the in-laws, Mowgli and I went to the local Hindu temple on a date that was selected for its auspiciousness, with me in an auspiciously yellow sari and Mowgli in new clothes.
As on any other temple visit, we removed our shoes, washed our feet (there’s a low shower for that), and went up to the main altar, where a priest said a special blessing over the thali and Mowgli put it around my neck. The whole process took perhaps five minutes, a far cry from the usual days of ceremonies around Indian weddings. But the brevity didn’t make it any less momentous for me; even without understanding everything about thalis, I know they symbolize commitment just as surely as my wedding ring does.
And just like a wedding ring, a thali is worn constantly. When I asked a masseuse in India if I should take mine off, she very excitedly said “no, no, no, don’t do that,” waving her hands around and looking horrified that I would suggest such a thing.
Recently I’ve been unable to wear my thali because of a (harmless, non-contagious) rash, and its absence has been unsettling after over a year of wearing it nearly 24-7. It has heft and presence and even sound (the two tiny-tiny Lakshmi, as my niece calls them, make a nice friendly jangle against the central bowl-like piece). The soft gold beads bear the marks of wear, just like my wedding ring. And similarly to my ring, I look at it and noodle with it throughout the day, often semi-consciously. It reminds me of my commitment to Mowgli and his family, and it takes me back to the moments in the temple just before he put it on me.
At the temple, I sometimes see women touching their thalis to the four sides of an altar as they walk around it, and that makes me want to know more about its religious functions. But for now, I’m content in the knowledge of what it means to me, and what it says about my mother- and father-in-law’s faith in their son’s choice.