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Wed as teens, they renew vows 71 years later — and share secrets to everlasting love

When I ask my grandfather the secret to a healthy marriage, he says, it is simple: Avoid unnecessary confrontation. We say things that we don't mean when we're angry, he told me. Better to be patient and speak calmly at a later time to avoid hurt feelings.
B Soma Sundaram
When I ask my grandfather the secret to a healthy marriage, he says, it is simple: Avoid unnecessary confrontation. We say things that we don't mean when we're angry, he told me. Better to be patient and speak calmly at a later time to avoid hurt feelings.

Our family's ancestral home is brimming over with guests. Every inch of its wide, open courtyards, flanked by massive pillars, is filled with the smiling faces of friends and relatives. The sounds of laughter and chatter are drowned out by the overpowering melody of the nadaswaram — a kind of classical flute music that is traditional to Southern India and played during marriages.

But while we are here to celebrate a wedding, it is one that happened 71 years ago.

"We met in 1952," my grandfather, PR Meiyappan, tells me. "The first time I set eyes on your grandmother was when we were at the altar." She was 16, he was 19. Their parents had arranged their marriage.

Were they nervous about marrying a stranger, I ask. "We trusted our parents to make the right choice for us," she says. My grandfather, with a smile, adds, "You can only truly get to know your spouse after marriage. It takes a lifetime."

Family members enjoy a festive meal — with 18 different foods — at the wedding vow renewal ceremony. Thousands of guests came, starting at 8 a.m., and were served breakfast and then later, lunch, on banana leaves.
/ B Soma Sundaram
/
B Soma Sundaram
Family members enjoy a festive meal — with 18 different foods — at the wedding vow renewal ceremony. Thousands of guests came, starting at 8 a.m., and were served breakfast and then later, lunch, on banana leaves.

And now, a lifetime later, they are about to do it all over again to mark his 90th birthday. When my mother and her three sisters started to plan for this milestone, they contemplated a simple family prayer at a temple so as not to strain him physically. Even though both of my grandparents are relatively healthy for their age, free of diabetes (an illness that plagues many elderly Indians) and fairly mobile, my grandfather has slowed considerably in recent years.

But it is Hindu custom to renew one's wedding vows during a milestone birthday. Most couples do this on their 60th birthday. Few are well enough to celebrate their 90th together. "Everyone told us how blessed we were, and how we should celebrate it," says my aunt, Usha Periakaruppan. Ultimately, my grandfather decided for himself: Being 90 means keeping your loved ones close, he says, and he wanted to see them all.

The home where we held the ceremony is older than my grandpa: It was built by my great-great-grandparents nearly 150 years ago.
/ B Soma Sundaram
/
B Soma Sundaram
The home where we held the ceremony is older than my grandpa: It was built by my great-great-grandparents nearly 150 years ago.

Welcome to the party palace

Invitations went out to 1,000 guests to join us in the small rural village of Nachandhupatti in Tamil Nadu state. The home in which we're holding the ceremony is older than my grandpa himself — it was built by my great-great-grandparents nearly 150 years ago. The sprawling mansion spans over an acre of land and is filled with beautiful carved woodwork, much of it imported piecemeal from Burma (now Myanmar).

My grandparents live in a smaller house opposite this one. The big house where the festivities are being held is jointly owned by several extended family members and remains empty except for major celebrations and family events. There are at least 10,000 similar mansions used by families all across this region of Tamil Nadu called Chettinad, which extends over 600 square miles. These opulent homes were built by chettiars, a clan of successful businessmen and bankers, between the 1850s and the end of World War II. In the present day, many struggle to maintain them. My family has managed by pooling funds regularly for maintenance and never neglecting even the smallest of repairs.

But the house, as grand as it is, only has two bathrooms. So to accommodate such a lengthy guest list, we arrange for guests to access bathrooms in neighbors' homes.

A dance performance by my daughter.
/ Kamala Thiagarajan
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Kamala Thiagarajan
A dance performance by my daughter.

Rife with rituals

The festivities begin two days before the actual birthday event. Close family members gather together to smear red turmeric paste on a long green bamboo shoot — the very first pre-wedding ritual that marks the onset of the celebrations. While doing this, the family prays that everything will go smoothly. Even the littlest relative — my 1-year-old niece who lives in Florida, presses the turmeric onto the stalk with her tiny fingers, while dressed in a pink and yellow silk gown.

My parents pour holy water over my grandparents — a ritual that is part of the vow renewal ceremony.
/ B Soma Sundaram
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B Soma Sundaram
My parents pour holy water over my grandparents — a ritual that is part of the vow renewal ceremony.

The next day is marked by prayer. Priests chant mantras, holy verses in the ancient language of Sanskrit. They bless pots of holy water, collected from rivers across India that are considered sacred. It takes painstaking effort to collect the water, explains my aunt, Meena Vairavan, my mother's youngest sister, who runs a school for low-income children in the city of Vellore. "We collected water from three holy rivers — the Kaveri that flows through Southern India, the Ganges in the North and from Manasarovar Lake near Mount Kailash in the Himalayas," she says.

Before the celebration, the youngest members of the family apply turmeric on the bamboo shoot. The ritual is said to ensure a smooth and joyous celebration.
/ B Soma Sundaram
/
B Soma Sundaram
Before the celebration, the youngest members of the family apply turmeric on the bamboo shoot. The ritual is said to ensure a smooth and joyous celebration.

The water is collected in sealed containers when someone pays a visit and then stored until it can be used for events like this. Usually, the custom is to pour the waters over the couple the next day — as many pots of water as their age. "We thought 90 pots of water would be too much though, so we limited it to 16," Vairavan says. "The waters are infused with 14 different kinds of herbs and we believe that [this custom] can be good for them."

The big day

The birthday celebrations begin at the break of dawn on June 9, with the youngest grandson, Ganesh Meiyappan — named after my grandfather— blowing a milky white conch. The shell's booming sound is considered sacred in Hinduism and an auspicious way to begin any event. On this warm June morning, my grandmother is dressed as a bride again, resplendent in a green and gold silk sari with a garland woven with jasmine and rose petals. My grandfather sports the gold silk turban he wore as a young groom.

Pots filled with holy water from three of India's sacred rivers.
/ B Soma Sundaram
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B Soma Sundaram
Pots filled with holy water from three of India's sacred rivers.

Today is when the thousand guests will arrive, starting at 8 a.m. As the morning advances and the house fills with people, a family member is always tending to the panthi — the rooms where guests are served breakfast and then later, lunch, on banana leaves. With 18 different foods prepared for each meal, my huge banana leaf is filled with small quantities of ... everything. I savor all the delicacies, especially the nongu payasam, a sweet milky treat with bits of jelly-like fruit.

You can't have a wedding ceremony without live music — flutes and drums.
/ B Soma Sundaram
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B Soma Sundaram
You can't have a wedding ceremony without live music — flutes and drums.

Given my grandparents' advanced ages, we don't pour the pots of holy water over their heads but over their laps and feet instead. Only close family members, children and grandchildren take part in this ritual. The couple changes out of their wet clothes and into their wedding outfits — a shimmering pink silk sari for my grandma and a crisp white shirt and dhoti (a sarong-like dress fastened at the waist by a silk cloth belt) for grandpa.

Then came the moment we were all waiting for. "We may have missed your first marriage, but we sure won't miss this one," my cousin Hari Valliappan jokes, as my grandfather ties the sacred thread called the thali around my grandmother's neck, signifying that they are married. The nadaswaram music reaches a crescendo at this point, as if announcing the happy union of hearts.

There was a lot of horsing around as kids in our family decided to sit on my uncle's lap at the same time.
/ B Soma Sundaram
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B Soma Sundaram
There was a lot of horsing around as kids in our family decided to sit on my uncle's lap at the same time.

A love story spanning 71 years

Their relationship is a gift to all of us. Over the years, the family has gotten a glimpse of their deep bond that often went beyond words. Fifteen years ago, when my grandmother had an angioplasty procedure, she could only choose one visitor at the hospital. She chose my grandfather. "I was stunned at the time," says Ganesh Meiyappan, my conch-blowing cousin. "I thought she'd ask for one of her daughters."

Our grandfather is known to be more expressive. "It's clear that he admires her a lot," says Meiyappan. "He's proud of her discipline and always telling me that he can set his watch by the way she goes about her routine. But that incident brought home to me how much she relied on him as well."

When I ask my grandfather the secret to a healthy marriage, he says that it's simple: Avoid unnecessary confrontation. We say things that we don't mean when we're angry, and we tend to hurt each other's feelings. It does no one any good, he says. Talk it out when you're in a better frame of mind. Patience can keep the harmony and peace going in any relationship.

If you do that, life will be like this song, he says. And as he often does at family gatherings, he breaks into a tune by his favorite Tamil poet Bharathiyar. "Let's sing, let's dance and enjoy the sheer bliss of freedom," he sings.

A family portrait from the ceremony.
/ B Soma Sundaram
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B Soma Sundaram
A family portrait from the ceremony.

Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, Southern India. She reports on global health, science, and development, and her work has been published in the New York Times, The British Medical Journal, BBC, The Guardian and other outlets. You can find her on twitter @kamal_t

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Kamala Thiagarajan