You are on page 1of 12

Jeanne Ranny B.

de Guzman Kristine Marie Reynaldo Eng 11 WFY1 March 31, 2014

Comparative Analysis of Marriage Traditions in the River Merchants Wife and Dhowli

Abstract This paper aims to compare and contrast the different marriage traditions in India and China. It also aims to discuss the different factors affecting marriage such as social status, religion, and political hierarchy. Furthermore, this paper aims discuss how these marriage traditions and how different factors affect the characterization and justify the actions of the main characters in the literary pieces namely The River Merchants Wife (translation) by Ezra Pound and Dhowli by Mahasweta Devi.

1. History of Marriage

Families are considered as the basic unit in the society that aims to contribute to the basic economic survival of family members (1). The structure of a family is highly dependent to the economy, cultural ideologies, and laws created to reinforce its adaptation in the society (1). The society a family lives in grows from time to time and become more complex and stratified. The quality of live experience by each family varies based on the different economies and position of

the family within the economic system (1). Scientific evidences that humans, as early as 10,000 BC lived in female-centered groups made up of mothers and sisters carrying youngsters while male left the group upon reaching the age of maturity. Furthermore, evidences also show that they lived in groups on male kin while females left at puberty or they lived in organized around one male mating with several females travelling with their offspring (2). Even before, there have been division of labor between between men and women which include hunting and taking care of children respectively.

The concept of marriage is something that evolved later than the concept of families. The relationship that developed between men and women in the early times was mostly based on the idea of survival. Men and women needed to cooperate to stay alive. However, the idea whether the earliest societies had monogamous or polygamous, patriarchal or matriarchal is still debatable up until now. Marriage has been universally defined as the legal union between men and women; however, some cultures have already allowed same-sex marriage (1).

In the past, marriage has organized peoples places in the economic and political hierarchy of society (3). The main function of marriage was not necessarily for individual benefit of men, women, and the children they produce. Marriage was the instrument used in building political alliances, dividing labor by age and gender, and deciding what rights parents have on their children and vice versa (3). For most of the people, marriage was more of having in laws, having a mate and a child. However, for people in the upper class of the society, marriage was their way of acquiring wealth and status in the society (3). According to Margaret Hunt, marriage was the means of transferring property, occupational status, personal contacts, money, tools,

livestock and women across generations and kin groups. On the other hand, people who belong to the lower class base their marriage on a much more immediate need such as livelihood. Marriage, indeed, was not really based on love during the early times. It was more of an adaptation, a way of surviving or preserving ones wealth and status in the society.

Marriage usually involves more elaborate rituals than any other life events in most cultures. This is most evident during the preindustrial period wherein religion encompasses all aspects of life, during this time marriage was perpetuated by ritual practices (4). Marriage is classified under the category of life crises because it marks a transition of one phase of life to another. It is usually a happy occasion celebrated with music, dance, food, and drinks which can be as short as three hours or as long as seven days. In terms of how elaborate the celebrations are, it is more evident in traditional marriages.

1.1 Marriage Traditions in India and China

Asia is popular when it comes to marriage traditions due to the diversity of Asian cultures, traditions, and religions. In this paper, the Chinese and Indian wedding traditions will be discussed and will be related to the literary pieces namely, The River Merchants Wife and Dhowli in terms of the characterization and theme of the two stories.

In Chinese history, it was during the reign of Qin (221-206 BC) to Qing (1644-1911) when marriage was highly valued. During this time, China was dominated with feudal system. For the male, marriage was the one that determined the prosperity and the future of his family.

On the other hand, for the female, marriage meant being away from her family for a very long time. This made marriage a very important decision to be made for both individuals and their family
[5]

. In a feudal society, the marriage was usually decided by the young couples parents

after consulting a matchmaker. The conditions of a mans family must be similar to that of the womans for the marriage procedures to go forward. Wealth and social status are one of the most important factors that are being considered by the family. If a man comes from a high-class family, his family would never permit him to marry a woman from a poor family (5). The traditional Chinese marriage process is composed of Three Letters and Six Etiquettes. The three letters, betrothal letter, gift letter, and wedding letter respectively are used by the groom upon meeting his bride at his home. The betrothal letter serves as the formal document in the engagement and is a requirement in the whole marriage process. The gift letter includes the list of the types and quantity of gifts for the wedding once both parties finally agree to accept the marriage. The wedding letter is given to the brides family on the day of the marriage to serve as a formal acceptance of the grooms family. After the Three Letters, the Six Etiquettes will eventually lead to a final wedding ceremony. The first etiquette is proposing wherein parents of the young man indentify a woman they wish to be their daughter-in-law. The young mans family would invite a matchmaker to the young womans house. Matchmakers are considered as an expert in terms of making proposals. They are the ones who formally present the clients requests to the family of the young woman. Once the family agrees to the marriage, the matchmaker will not ask for the young womans birth date and birth hour to ensure compatibility with the groom. The matchmakers will now see if the bride and groom are indeed compatible in terms of astrology, once they are deemed compatible, the marriage procedure will go on.

However, if they are not compatible and will only bring misfortune to each other, the proposed marriage is ended immediately.

Traditional marriage ceremonies in India are heavily based on the Hindu religion which is considered as the most influential religion in their country. In India, it is believed that parents should be responsible to arrange the marriage of their daughter once she reaches puberty. This implies that parents indeed serve a greater role in Indian marriage traditions. Marriage is indeed not just a union of a bride and a groom; it is envisioned as the joining of two families. Throughout the years, the marriage traditions have changed and evolved but still follows a general template. The whole wedding is composed of smaller ceremonies: Ganesh Puja, Agni Puja, Kanyadana, Mangalsutra, Saptapadi or Saat Phere, and Silarohana (6). These ceremonies are headed by the Pandit or the priest. Months before the wedding, an engagement ceremony is held known as Mangni. The two families meet and make the engagement official this is done on a specific time and date which is based on horoscopes (7). Traditional Indian weddings last for a week and usually start with pre-wedding ceremonies which include a ritual holy bath and Mehendi ceremony. In a Mehendi ceremony, the brides hands and feet are decorated with elaborate patterns by application of henna which is a plant-based dye. The female friends and relatives of the bride also take part in this ceremony. Pre-wedding ceremonies also include Pitthi wherein a paste made from turmeric is applied on the skin of bride and groom for good luck. In Northern India, pre-wedding ceremonies also include the so called Sangeet and Tilak which is an event filled with music and enetermaint hosted by the brides family. This event aims the bride to be introduced to the family of the groom and usually lasts for three to four days. Baraat which is the procession of the groom along with his friends and relatives is done on their way to the

wedding venue. The ceremony begins with puja or prayers to Ganesh, the destroyer of all obstacles. The bride arrives the wedding hall and is escorted to the mandap, a canopied altar where the ceremony proper will be held. Upon the arrival on the altar, the bride and groom exchange garlands as a sign of acceptance of one another. Kanyadaan is the giving away of the hand of the brides father to the groom. The lighting of a sacred fire, also known as vivah homah is done to symbolize the divine presence of Agni as witness of the ceremony. The bride and groom walk around the sacred fire for seven times, the bride leads the first three rounds while the groom leads the last four rounds. The couple then take seven steps while taking a sacred vow for each step. After this, the groom applies vermilion powder on the forehead of the bride signifying that she is now his lawfully wedded wife. They also exchange rings during this part. The aashirvaad is the part where relatives whisper blessings to the brides ear. The couple then bows and receive the final blessings from their family (8). The whole wedding ceremony ends with the bride finally saying goodbye to her family for she will now live with the grooms family. Although different religions are dominant in both India and China, namely Hinduism and Buddhism, we see a parallelism of the existing marriage traditions in both society. Marriages in both countries start with an engagement ceremony and consultation with an astrology or an expert on horoscope to test compatibility. Pre-arranged marriages are also dominant in both countries. Once the man and woman are officially wed, the woman is obliged to leave her family and live with the husbands family. 2. Factors Affecting Marriage There are several factors that affect marriage in the society. The first and probably the prominent basis of marriage highly depend on social status. In China, parents usually choose their childrens partner and it is usually someone of the same wealth or social status as them.

India on the other hand is famous for its caste system and this is a major factor in marriage in their society. India strongly complies with this caste system and as part of their culture marriage from different castes is prohibited. In general, marriage is not really based on whether you love your partner or not, it more of an investment especially for the parents and they want to invest well.

3. The River Merchants Wife Ezra Pounds translation of Li Pos The River Merchants Wife is considered as the most famous among the eleven English translations of Li Po pomes on Cathay (1915). The poem is about a young wife writing a letter to his husband that has been away for five months. This poem however is not just a simple letter but it also reflects the Chinese marriage tradition and culture. The poem starts with the wife reminiscing her childhood. This is shown in the first two lines of the poem, While my hair was still cut across my forehead/ I played about the front gate pulling flowers. The young girls straight bangs represent youth and innocence. She also recalls her first encounter with his husband which is also during her childhood. However, the wife described their first meeting as something not that romantic compared to the usual love stories. There was not really special about it and this is supported by the line, And we went on living in the village of Chokan/ Two small people, without dislike or suspicion. Therefore, they indeed lived separately despite the fact that they are in the same village. In the next stanza, the wife said that she married her husband at the age of fourteen and refers to his husband as My Lord. The young wife admits of being shy at the early stage of their marriage. The wife stopped scowling and she desired my dust to be mingled with yours (husband) forever and forever, and forever after a year of their marriage. Being a river merchant, the husband had to leave to work and earn

for the family. When she was sixteen, her husband went into Ku-to-Yen which is a place from where they live in and she described the river as full of swirling eddies. An eddy is a type of current that usually involves circular motion; the wife fully understands that the work of her husband is a dangerous one. She recounts the day her husband left and described it as, You dragged your feet when you went out implying that the husband did not really want to leave her but he has to. His husband has been away for five months but the wife says that the moss has grown deep by their gate now and it is difficult to clear them away. The wife uses this metaphor as a passage of time to emphasize that it has indeed been a long time since her husband left and five months seemed longer it actually is. In this story, one obvious Chinese marriage tradition that can be observed is the arranged marriage. In China, this is a practice widely used and sometimes the bride and the groom first meet each other during engagement or the wedding day itself. The wife in the story clearly did not mention what happened between her childhood and her marriage. It is not explicitly said that it was an arranged marriage, lines from stanzas one and two show that the start of their marriage is not the usual kind. The wife felt shy during the start of the marriage which is not the norm because in real life, before one gets married he or she probably does not have any shame left for her partner because as a couple you should be comfortable with each other. In Chinese marriage traditions, the wife has to live with the family of his husband from the day of their marriage. As a wife, she is in charge of everything in the house while his husband works for the family. In the story, no matter how sad and melancholic the wives has become since her husband left, she cannot just leave the house and meet him because it is her duty to take care of the house and do house chores like maintaining the flowers in the garden, etc. Also, as the husband is the one who should work or earn for the family and

not really the wife, this is shown on the husbands leaving in the story to work as a river merchant. 4. Dhowli Mahasweta Devi is considered as one of the leading contemporary writers in Bengali which is located on the eastern part of India. Mahasweta is famous for her writings about social and political critique from a leftist perspective. Many of her literary peices talk about outcastes, women, and tribal people who are marginalized in India. Dhowli tells a tragic love story about Dhowli, the main character of the story, who is a young Dusad widow who falls in love with Misrilal. It might seem simple but the central conflict here roots from the fact that Dhowli and Misrilal belong to the extremes of the caste system in India. Dhowli is an untouchable while Misrilal is a Brahman which is the highest rank in the caste system. In Indian culture, having a relationship with someone not from different castes is forbidden. The lovers in the story are aware of this condition but they still pursue their relationship despite of it. Dhowli is a widow in this story and in India, once a woman becomes a widow she is ostracized in the society. Widows have a very low status in the Hindu system and they are often blamed for their husbands death. Widows are discouraged to remarry in India however, in lower castes they allow women to remarry. On the other hand, the Brahmans strictly discourage the practice of remarrying of the widows. In addition, India has a tradition called sati wherein a woman voluntarily or with force burns to death along with his husband. Other forms of sati also include being buried alive of the wife along with his husband and also drowning. This implies that India is indeed a patriarchal society. With this in knowledge, Dhowli in the story is in a difficult situation wherein she is bounded by the social and cultural traditions of India. These things hinder her relationship with Misrilal. Dhowli knew from the start that this love affair is an impossible mission but Misrilal

kept in convincing her that things will be okay. Dhowli became pregnant and this made them both believe that their relationship will now succeed. Misrilals family ordered him to move to another village for a month or so and he assures Dhowli that they will still be together. Dhowli soon heard the news that Misrilal will be wed to another woman who is also a Brahman. Misrilal convinced his mother to take care of Dhowli and their son but his mother did not completely comply to their agreement. Dhowli soon lived in poverty with his son, she was struggling to feed her family. In the end, Dhowli decided that she does not want to live in poverty forever so she decided that to do everything just for her son to live and she decided to be prostitute. She was selling her body to anyone who was willing to pay the price and she did not allow credits. Dhowli and her family were able to cope because of this. However, when Misrilals family found out about this, they were dismayed not just by the fact that Dhowli has become a prostitute but also because it is happening in their village and they are more concerned about their reputation and rank in the society. Misrilal found out about this and decided to visit Dhowli and he couldn t believe that Dhowli did it. Misrilal said, No Brahmans son is to live by the filthy handouts of the untouchable! As a Brahman, reputation is everything to Misrilal and he is disappointed with what Dhowli has become. However, Misrilal is also at fault in here because he promised that he would provide for their son but his mother did not do so. Misrilal did not even bother to ask if Dhowli has received any help from his family as part of his promise. But in the end, Dhowli and Misrilals love affair is illegal and violates the Hindu culture which is why it did not succeed in the end. In here, we see that as an untouchable in the Indian society, there are a lot of things that are predetermined already. Dhowli, who is now a legalized prostitute in their society and still an untouchable and a widow considerably hit rock bottom in the society. 5. Conclusion

Marriage is indeed considered as one of the joyous events in ones life. However, marriage is not as easy as we think it is. It is not a mere union of man and woman but it is more of a union of the families. Marriage traditions also vary from one place to another and are affected by several factors like religion, politics, and social status. It is therefore significant to be knowledgeable in these differences in traditions and culture so as to understand the situation of characters in literary pieces that discuss such aspects of marriage. As readers, this pieces of information help understand better the characterization of the people in the story. In addition, the historical and social context of the story also helps the readers understand the actions of the characters in the story and justify these actions. Characters might do unexpected things in the story but it is only upon knowing the historical and social context that a reader fully understand the text. 6. References (1) The Evolution of Families and Marriages. Web. 24 March 2014

<http://www.sagepub.com/upm-data/41374_1.pdf>. (2) Joanning, Harvey. The History of Marriage. Web. 24 March 2014

<http://www.fairhopeuu.org/PDF/TextHistoryMarriage.pdf>. (3) Coontz, Stephanie. The World Historical Formation of Marriage. Web. 25 March 2014 <http://www2.sunysuffolk.edu/wilsonv/Articles/transformation_coontz.pdf>. (4) Marriage Rituals. Web. 25 March 2014

<http://cw.routledge.com/ref/religionandsociety/rites/marriage.pdf>. (5) Ancient Chinese Marriage Custom. Web. 27 Match 2014

<http://www.travelchinaguide.com/intro/social_customs/marriage/>.

(6)

Hinduism:

Hindu

Wedding

Ceremony.

Web.

27

March

2014

<http://www.minutes.haringey.gov.uk/Published/C00000503/M00002226/AI00008147/$additio nalnotesforHinduweddingceremonies.doc.pdf>. (7) Gullapalli, S. Sagi, A. Indian Wedding Traditions. Web. 27 March 2014 <file:///C:/Users/user/Downloads/Indian%20Wedding%20Traditions.pdf>. (8) Pawari, D. Inisght: The Enchanting Rituals of an Indian Wedding. Web. 28 March 2014 <http://www.thecultureist.com/2013/05/31/vivaah-traditional-indian-wedding-ceremonyrituals/>. (9) The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Web. 28 March 2014

<http://briancroxall.pbworks.com/f/Devi-BreastGiver.pdf>. (10) Johnson, E., Shyamala. Widow Remarriage: A New Dimension of Social Change in India. Web. 30 March 2014 <file:///C:/Users/user/Downloads/02_16346-IJHSS__pp%20195-

205%20new1[1].pdf>.