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The 'sacred' thread of control

SM: Marriage remains a Utopian desire.However, each year at the sanctum of the the Koothandavar temple, the Transgenders wed Aravan. The priest ties the thali and gives them the status of Aravanâs bride. Photo: Sindhuja Parthasarathy   | Photo Credit: GRJGM

My first significant experience with the concept of a Thali was when my father passed away in January 2007. The rituals related to the death of a patriarch include his bereaved wife removing her Thali on the 10th day.

My mother, who was already finding it hard to come to terms with the demise of my father, had to get up early in the morning, remove the Thali from around her neck and immerse it in milk. No other person but the eldest son is allowed to see her that morning. The Thali is then given to the son, which I interpreted as a gesture of passing the control of the family to the new patriarch.

All through, I was surprised at the utter disregard that such a ritual had to the emotions of my mother. Compounding the grief was the fact that this ritual also initiates her into "widowhood," which is the socially enforced alienation from religious and cultural occasions. No longer will her participation be accepted in anything "auspicious" for she has lost her very identity in the death of her husband.

These memories of my mother relinquishing her Thali came back to me when a fringe Hindu outfit took offence to the promo of a debate that Puthiya Thalaimirai was scheduled to air on World Women’s Day. The discussion sought to analyse the relevance of Thali, the "sacred thread" of wedlock, in modern-day society, raising the hackles of the culture police, which viewed it as an affront to religious beliefs. As a consequence, crude bombs were thrown at the channel’s office in Ekaduthangal.

The response to the controversy has clearly been two-fold. Those claiming to bat for progressive thought have argued that the concept of Thali was most probably a medieval introduction to wedding rituals in this region. The ancient Sangam literature in Tamil makes no reference to Thali as a symbol of union. Rather, forms of Thali represented rewards for valour. Experts feel it is the later Bhakthi works like the ‘Divya Prabandham’ which mention this concept in the context of marriage.

On the other side of the fence are those who state that the Thali has come to be accepted as an integral part of Hindu marriages, at least in the South. A majority consider it sacred and questioning this aspect of faith amounts to degrading them.

In Hindu culture, marriage is considered ‘Punitha Kattu’ or a sacrament in contrast to the Western concept of a contract. As Dravidar Kazhagam president K. Veeramani points out in his Suyamariathai Thirumanam-Thathuvamum Varalarum, the concept of divorce is alien, and to a large extent unimaginable, to traditional Hindu thought. In consequence, the woman is forced to live with the man come what may. This narrative is best reflected in the often quoted Tamil idiom - kal aanalum kanavan, pull aanalum purushan (He is a husband even if he turns into stone or grass).

The Thali has remained the ultimate symbol of this sacred bond, which epitomises the image of a faithful wife. But the rationalist movement led by E.V. Ramasamy provided a radical reinterpretation of this concept, leading to pioneering legislations in Tamil Nadu encouraging civil union without the burden of rituals.

What exactly were Periyar’s views on marriage and the Thali? For him, the traditional wedding, as enunciated in religious texts, was the medium through which a man attained ultimate control over a woman. The control permeates every aspect of a woman’s life, stripping her of any independence over sexuality and labour.

In this power struggle, the Thali acts as a perpetual reminder of the subservience of the woman, who is “gifted” to the man through the process of ‘Kanya Dhanam’. Periyar dismissed conventional explanations given to establish the utility of a Thali. This symbol of patriarchal control over a woman’s body, overemphasises chastity and perpetuates her treatment as a possession of a man. This undermined basic human rights. If women have to bear the burden of an overt symbol of marriage, why not men?

As writer V. Geetha points out in an essay on self respect marriages, Periyar likened the Thali to the hardened rope attached to a cow’s nose. The animal is dragged to the owner’s place with this rope, which in a way is a representation of the master-beast relationship. Should a modern, progressive individual, whether man or woman, accept the Thali and live with it? In a society which strives to achieve gender equality, space for any symbol of control and subservience, as Periyar put it, should be rejected.

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 6:09:37 AM |

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