On 21 May, a video showing BJP leader and former Cabinet minister Subramanian Swamy making the embarrassing mistake of tying the thaali around the bride (instead of handing it over to the groom) went viral. It was a moment of blankness or perhaps it was just Swamy reimagining his marriage. No matter which of the two was the case, it was certainly a sight to watch Swamy’s party colleague wrench his hands away at breakneck speed to stop him from committing the most ‘unflattering’ deed of all — tying the thaali when it is not in the hands of the ‘rightful’ groom.
In almost all Dravidian states, the thaali is an integral component of Hindu wedding rituals. Described as the sacred thread commemorating the union of a man and a woman, it has a wide variety of names across cultures. More often than not called the mangalsutra (derived from the Sanskrit word mangala meaning holy and sutra, thread), it is also called the thaali by Hindus in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, minnu by Malayali Christians, mangalyasutra in Karnataka and pustelu in Andhra Pradesh.
“It is a sacred symbol that represents the bond between a husband and a wife. Ideally, a wife must adorn such symbols to ensure that her husband lives long and to keep the flame of the marriage alive,” says a 44-year-old teacher from Mangalore, Karnataka.
Earlier, the thaali was considered to be far more significant for the institution of a marriage than it is now. To most women and men, the ritual that once marked the sanctity of a marriage has now turned into a mere formality to be completed at the time of the wedding. Amropali D Shetty, 26, a Bengali married to a Marathi businessman, explains how the thaali is little more than a fashion accessory to her. “I have never been a person who wore jewellery,” she says. “When my family members asked me to pick a necklace before the wedding, they said it had to be of a certain length and of a certain kind. Accordingly, I picked an extremely simple one that met the specifics. Many married women around me said I could change it later and make it fancier. But I haven’t changed it. The minimalist design suits me and I wear it whenever I feel like. You know how some days you just feel like wearing a certain dress or having a certain dessert.”
Traditionally, the thaali had a few fixed designs across geographical regions and castes. In Tamil Nadu, the kumbha thaali, the vanniyar thaali and the pillaiyar thaali represent caste differences. These mostly heavy and clunky designs have now been modified to keep them as simple as possible even while retaining the features that make them region- and caste-specific.
“I removed my thaali two days after the wedding,” says Thara Poduval, 25, from Kochi, Kerala. “My relatives preferred a traditional wedding and I went along as I did not want to embarrass them. Neither my partner nor I believe in what the thaali is supposed to signify. We do not see it as a symbol of togetherness. However, people from my office, relatives and random strangers have often asked me why I do not wear one. Some have even made remarks on how I do not love my husband enough.”
Early morning on 14 April, the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) in Tamil Nadu organised a thaali removal event even though fringe Hindutva outfits had approached the Madras High Court demanding a stay and also attacked a TV channel that was planning to telecast a debate on whether the thaali is “a boon or a bane”. Later in the day, the court cancelled permission for the event, but only after it was already over. A two-judge bench overruled this decision of the court after a few days.
Interestingly, most of the 21 women who removed their thaali in public were wives of DK cadre. “Without obscuring the politics of the protest and its necessity, why were the wives of the cadre wearing the thaali in the first place? Did Periyar (EV Ramasamy; one of the pioneers of the anti-caste Dravidian movement) not advocate no-thaali marriages? Have they given up on his legacy?” asks a Chennai-based activist.
In the 1920s and ’30s, a movement demanding equality for the lower castes began taking shape under Periyar’s leadership. He also introduced the idea of “self-respect” marriage system into the movement as a way to break away from the norm of extravagant and orthodox arranged marriages presided over by Brahmin priests. Part of Periyar’s critique of Hindu orthodoxy involved a rejection of the thaali, which he likened to a rope tied to a cow’s nose.
“In Tamil Nadu, the middle classes have begun seeing the thaali as a mere accessory,” says Jeny Dolly, a former journalist, theatre artiste and activist from Tamil Nadu. “Women don’t wear it every day but neither do they abstain from wearing it on the day of their wedding. On the other hand, the working class and the oppressed castes that once saw the thaali in a far less orthodox manner are now making it a point to get their thaali blessed by Brahmin priests. This is perhaps a bid to imitate the upper classes and castes. That said, I really feel that women see the thaali with less seriousness than what the social norms prescribe. It won’t be long before the symbolism becomes redundant.”
In films down south, though, the thaali continues to have far-reaching consequences. Here, it is not only a sacred thread, but also doubles as an important plot device masquerading as the climax, the supernatural or the surprise hero/heroine of a movie. For instance, in most movies, tying the sacred thread translates into “the only possible ever after that a couple can imagine”. A fight sequence erupts between two grooms or families when it comes to tying the pustelu around the neck of the hapless bride. Sometimes, tying the nuptial knot absolves the rapist from his sin of sexually assaulting a woman and, at other times, selling the thaali chain or the locket because of poverty is the mother of all tearjerkers.
While songs with the hero promising to take the woman home and making her ‘his’ is a must in most romances, dialogues where the woman wants the man to pop the question or do the deed (in this case, tying the knot) is a symbolic reference to her chastity. If a live-in relationship makes a couple anxious in a movie, tying the thaali towards the end ensures the couple a secure life thereafter.
Fascinating as all this might sound, it must be remembered that almost half of the rituals cutting across religions have women bearing the brunt. The north Indian Hindu woman is expected to observe Karva Chauth by staying hungry for her husband’s longevity. Hindu women are also asked to apply the vermillion mark, while Muslims are expected to wear perfume only for their husbands.
Yet, for some men, the boat can still rock both ways. As Sandeep V Iyer, 27, co-founder of Three Bags Full, a “creative shop” in Mumbai, puts it, “My children can take either family name (mine or my wife’s) as their surname. I don’t know what the thaali stands for but I know that my parents won’t be okay with a no-thaali wedding. I would ask my wife to wear it just for a day to keep the folks happy during our wedding. To wear or not to wear the thaali is purely a woman’s choice. I would see it as a woman’s accessory until one day it becomes unisex like the engagement ring.”