Since at least the fourth century the St. Thomas Christians of Malabar have been sharing the same liturgy of the East Syrian tradition. The St. Thomas Christians had the East Syrian rite of marriage until the arrival of the European missionaries. However, the Thomas Christian marriage is not just a copy of Mesopotamian (East Syrian) celebration. There are also ceremonies in it like the rite of Tali and the rite of Mantrakoti, which are found only among the Thomas Christians. Thomas Christians have the rite of tying the Tali, instead of the rite of rings, which is an important element of the Chaldean and Assyrian tradition of marriage. In this paper we shall concentrate on the specific elements found in the marriage celebration of the Thomas Christians. First, we shall first of all take a general view of the East Syrian marriage, focusing on the theological aspects of the marriage liturgy. This general survey of the East Syrian marriage and its theology is followed by the analysis of the specific elements found in the St. Thomas Christian liturgy of marriage and its theology.
I. East Syrian Tradition of Marriage
Though not all ancient and classical East Syrian authors agree on viewing marriage as one of the major raze (mysteries), we find clear evidence for the liturgical celebration of marriage in the East Syriac tradition at least since the 5th century. A general survey of the important elements of the liturgical celebration of East Syrian marriage will help us to understand the theology of East Syrian marriage.
A. The liturgical celebration of marriage in the East Syrian tradition presently proceeds as follows:
1. Rites preceding the Betrothal
1a. The rite of the consent or rite of sending the ring: the priest sends the ring of the groom through a woman to the bride.
1b. Rite of joining the hands of the stewards, conducted in the house of bride in the presence of priest and witnesses.
1c. Blessing the vestments and crowns: in the house of fiancée; priest and deacons are present; blessing with prayers.
2. Celebration of Betrothal: liturgical celebration in the church.
2a. Introductory rites: the priest asks the consent of the spouses and the guardians; the priest asks the groom about the reason for his invitation of the bride; the priest asks the consent of the father or the guardian of the bride.
2c. Blessings: of the chalice, of the ring, of the chalice with the cross, and of the hnana
2d. Participation in the ‘sacrament’: blessing the spouses with the chalice, ‘the rite of communion’; drinking from the chalice.
3. Celebration of Wedding
3a. Prayers of crowning: prayers, putting crowns on the heads of groom and bride.
3b. Liturgy of Word
3c. Blessings: of the groom; of the bride; of the groomsman; of Bridesmaids; of the assembly
4. Leading the bride to the house of bridegroom
5. Wedding banquet
6. Rites subsequent to the celebration of wedding
Erection of bridal chamber; with prayers of the priest
Dismantling of bridal chamber
B. Celebration of Marriage according to the Canons of the East Syrian Synods
Canon 13 of the Synod of Mar George I (676) requires the consent of the parents, presence of the cross and the priestly blessing as essential conditions for the marriage. ‘Women who are not married and who are betrothed in the house of their parents, must be betrothed in accordance with Christian law, according to the customs of the faithful, with the consent of their parents and in the presence of the holy cross of our salvation, with the priestly blessing.’ The cross has a significant place in the celebration, being the symbol of the sacred communion. The cross bears witness to the sacred moment of alliance to the conjugal communion. ‘It is necessary and expedient that the betrothal be conducted in the presence of the cross, the instrument of our life and the cause of our salvation, in such away that the fiancés behave themselves in accordance with the pact of their union, the sign of our victory by which all secret things will be unveiled, and before the terrible and glorious tribunal by which all actions will be examined, asking for their vengeance.’ The priestly blessing at the betrothal signifies the divine intervention which assists the spouses to live faithfully the mystery of communion. It is indicative of a lasting and fecund union. The mutual consent exchanged before the cross, the witnesses, and the priestly blessing form the first moment of marriage (mkurya). The conjugal communion (shawtaputha) is the second moment of marriage. Patriarch Timothy I (780-823) recognized two conspicuous phases in the celebration of marriage: betrothal (mkurya) and the crowning (kullala). According to him, betrothal, a solemn covenant unto death, is established through the mediation of the priest, deacon (or the bishop) and at least three Christian faithful. Mar Isho’ Bokt, the Metropolitan of Rew-Ardasir, of 8th /9th century emphasised the priestly blessing. According to him the conjugal covenant and the communion become holy with the blessing of a priest. Patriarch Mar Isho’ bar Nun of the 9th century prescribed the presence of the priest, the Christian faithful, the cross, holy water and ring for the celebration of marriage. The religious celebration of marriage consists in the betrothal where man and woman become husband and wife. Mar Abdisho Bar Bahriz (X-XI cent.) insisted that the betrothal is to be celebrated in the presence of a bishop, priest or at least a deacon, and with the handing over of the cross. If the ministers are not available, three of the Christian faithful should witness the ceremony. The rite of betrothal is not allowed without the cross and prayer. Abu’ I-Farag ‘Abdallah Ibn At Tayyib (+1043) describes the celebration of the betrothal as follows: ‘The betrothal should be completed in the temple of holiness through the mediation of the priest, deacons, Christian faithful and through the ecclesiastical ceremony and through prayer, the cross, the ring, and the hnana. Whatever is done contrary to this, but according to the customs of the people in their houses, is invalid.’
Mar Abdisho Bar Briha (+1318) gives a detailed description of betrothal. The bridegroom entrusts the ring to the priest, and the priest sends this to the bride by a discreet lay women or four religious women. They put the ring on the finger of the bride saying: ‘This is the ring of N. (name of bridegroom), to whom your father betrothed you’. If she consents the betrothal is accomplished. There is full freedom of decision for the bride. The rite of betrothal is fulfilled through the prayer of the priest, with the blessing of the spouses, of the ring, and a blessing with the cross. The consent of the spouses will be attested in written form. Abdisho mentioned the benediction of the chalice, the hnana, and the cross. According to him, the betrothal, with the donation of the wedding ring through the ministry and blessing of the priest, leads to the nuptial banquet, a prelude to the consummation of the marriage.
According to Patriarch Timothy II (1318-1332), in the rite of betrothal five things are necessary: a priest, a chalice mixed with water, the blessing by the priest, the cross, the ring, and the hnana. The priest sanctifies the communion between the spouses through the blessing of the chalice at the betrothal. The chalice mixed with water and wine was regarded as the blood of the Christ, which symbolizes the union of the spouses (shawtaputha), as envisioned by God in the creation. By drinking from the same consecrated chalice, divine grace is transmitted to the spouses. Marriage is sanctified through the presence of the cross, which in turn is a pledge of blessings and source of sanctity for the spouses. The ring accomplishes the promise between the spouses. The hnana symbolizes the mercy of God to the spouses.
C. Marriage as Celebration of Communion (Shawtaputha)
The most important elements in the celebration of marriage point to the fact that marriage is the celebration of communion.
In the rite of sending the ring, the priest standing in the person of Christ acts as the mediator. Here the sending and reception of the ring serve as a symbol of the communion between the spouses. It is a communion mediated through Christ’s representative, and hence through Christ himself.
The rite of joining the hands of the stewards of the spouses is still another example of celebrating the communion. Here too the priest mediates and the communion is shown in its broad dimension, including the communion between the families. Since the stewards express their consent to the marriage, it is clear that marriage is not just the affair of two individual believers. The members of the Church have a great role to play in the communion between the spouses. The priest reminds them of the indissolubility of marriage saying ‘What God has joined together, let man not separate (Mt 19:6).’
The rite of the blessing of the vestments points to the aspect of communion in marriage. The prayers of the blessing expound two things: 1) the renewal in life with the garment of immortality and 2) the robe of love and concord the spouses put on each other.
In the rite of betrothal the priestly prayers underline the aspect of communion. There are prayers for fertility and mercy upon the union (naqqiputha) and conjugal communion (shawtaputha) of the spouses. The blessing prayer addressed to Christ, shows that the ring is the symbol of the bond of charity and peace that unites the spouses. The priest blesses the ring with the sign of the cross.
The rite of the chalice expresses in a significant manner the communion. It has the eucharistic communion as the model. The signing of the chalice and the signing of the forehead of the groom with the chalice remind us of the rite of the consignation in the East Syrian eucharistic liturgy. The drinking from the same chalice by the spouses is a powerful symbol originating from the Eucharist. Drinking from the same chalice signifies the perfect communion of life and the indissoluble union of marriage bond.
The rite of crowning also has relevance in the celebration of communion. The crown points to the crucified love, the ethos of the conjugal typos. The liturgy of the Word is centred on the celebration of communion. The Gospel reading (MT 19.3-11) makes the spouses conscious of the unity and indissolubility of marriage.
In the rites subsequent to the celebration of wedding we can find yet other aspects of communion celebrated. The erection of the bridal chamber constitutes an important element of the celebration itself. The communion of marriage is to climax in the conjugal communion. The priest himself is present for the ceremony of the erection of the bridal chamber. The priest prays for the indissoluble union of the couple. Even in the dismantling of the bridal chamber the priest prays that God may render the couples worthy of being united one to another by the bond of love.
The Odes of Solomon, perhaps the oldest surviving Syriac Christian work, of around 100 A.D., is quite aware of the significance of marriage as union. While describing the intimate relationship between Christ and the faithful, the author of the Odes makes use of the nuptial imagery. Here the Odes describe the bliss of the union.
The third-century Syriac Didascalia uses the nuptial imagery of the adorned bride to speak of the crowned Church. She symbolizes the glorification of the Church in her eschatological union with her Bridegroom, Christ.
The Acts of Judas Thomas, a third century apocryphal writing, are noted for their negative attitude towards marriage, considering marriage as an obstacle to man’s union with God. However, the same document makes use of the nuptial imagery to speak of the union of Christ with the Church. This is seen especially in the Song of the Bride. Verses 3-4 of this Song remind us of the allegoric interpretation of Israel as the bride of God. According to the Song, the faithful are the brides betrothed to Christ, awaiting the eschatological wedding feast (vv.37-38). The expected eschatological union with the bridegroom is promised to those who enter the heavenly kingdom. The chosen one will enjoy eschatological happiness with the bridegroom (vv.39-42).
St. Ephrem speaks very clearly of Christ’s relationship to the Church as a Bridegroom-Bride relationship. Commenting on Eph 5:21-33 Ephrem writes: ‘This pure love, which was ordained from Adam down to our Lord, was symbol of our Lord’s perfect love. Therefore, the Church has left idols and possessions, like father and mother below, and died for his Church, so that by his death he might give life to the Church which he loved, and might raise her up and bring her to that Kingdom of his.’ While commenting on the miracle at Cana, the term used to indicate the effect of the eucharistic wine is shawtaputha (communion). It is the same word used for conjugal union. The same symbolic language is used for the intimate relation between Christ and the communicant.
According to Ephrem, marriage is a legitimate state of life enabling man to attain union with God. Theodore of Mopsuestia (350-428), a preeminent interpreter of the scriptures for the East Syrian tradition, considered conjugal communion to be the symbol of a supernatural mystery, the union of Christ with the Church. Theodore’s commentary on Malachi 2:14-16 underlines the significance of marriage as a communion. Conjugal love makes man and woman into one body, establishes a communio personarum. This communion is so intense that, even when a woman is repudiated, she is not removed from the communion. She still exists as the body of the husband. The act by which once in the beginning God united her to a man for them form a single body (Gen 2:24) does not cease to exist.
By the time of Narsai (399-502) marriage was considered a liturgical mystery of the Church. For him the marriage is constituted of two moments: the betrothal and the wedding proper. The ceremonial consent of the spouses is the most important element in the marriage. This should be done in the presence of the priest blessing the marriage. Narsai says: ‘Without a priest a woman is not betrothed to a man; and without him their marriage festival is not accomplished.’
Isho’dad of Merv of the 9th century considers Christ’s union with Church as the perfect model for Christian marriage. On the equality of woman in marriage Isho’dad says: ‘God took a rib from the right side to show that woman is equal to man in nature and she is a half creature, for every creature is limited by two sides. The right side that covers the ribs indicates the protection for her from man; because it was ordained for man to love his wife as his own body (Eph 5:28)’.
According to the Anonymous Author of the 9th century, the marriage of Christ with the Church is the original, and that between man and woman is its image. The Anonymous Author speaks of the blessing of the priest in the marriage. The blessing of the priest sanctifies the union between the spouses. The communion between the spouses signifies the joy and the sensual pleasures which are expected and which are better desired than all visible things.
For Patriarch Timothy II (1318-1332) the conjugal communion is a mystery of the union between Christ and the Church. As Christ is united with the Church, so also man should be united in love with his wife and his love should sanctify her (Eph 5:22-30). All things that constitute the betrothal symbolize the union of the spouses and that of Christ and the Church.
The conjugal partnership is an intimate sharing of lives, elevated to the sacramental mystery of communion, sanctified and consecrated by grace through the priestly benediction.
In the East Syrian tradition the mystery (raza) of marriage is the symbol of Christ’s love for the Church. The rite of marriage symbolizes the union of the selfless and sacrificial love of Christ and perfect grateful love of the Church. The East Syrian liturgy celebrates the eschatological union of Christ with Church. Rabban Brik Isho’ clearly describes this eschatological union between Christ and Church.
‘The holy Church, the bride of Christ composed of the saints and the faithful will begin to receive with joy the true Bridegroom, our Saviour Jesus, praising and glorifying him with all honour. He will receive his bride, the Church, and take her up with him to heaven: he will lead her into the eternal bridal chamber and will seat her at his right, making her happy by his vision, and make her enjoy eternal and everlasting bliss. She will be pleased in him and together with the heavenly hosts will sing to him sweet songs.’
The union of Christ and Church is the sublime ideal to be followed by the spouses. The spouses are married for the Kingdom of heaven, and they are witnesses to the mystery of Christ’s redemptive love.
II. Celebration of Marriage among the St. Thomas Christians
We do not have evidence that St. Thomas Christians ever had a liturgy of marriage entirely identical to the East Syrian ritual. Though their marriage liturgy had an essentially East Syrian structure, the St. Thomas Chrsitians differed from the East Syrians in a number of elements of the marriage celebration. It seems that the Indians did not have formal celebration of the rites preceding the Betrothal. The preparation for marriage was more social in nature than ecclesiastical. Thus we do not find the formal sending of the ring, rite of joining hands, and blessing of vestments and crowns in the house. There is little evidence to prove that St. Thomas Christians had the rite of chalice. However, there is strong evidence to show that Thomas Christians had the rite of crowning within the marriage celebration. In the absence of the solemn rites of giving consent and blessing the vestments and crown outside the church, we may conclude that these rites might have been part of the liturgical celebration in the church itself.
The most important rites found exclusively in the marriage celebration of Thomas Christians are the rites of tying the Tali and offering the Mantrakoti. These two rites are also found among the customs of the Hindus of Kerala. The Christian rites of Tali and Mantrakoti are indeed examples of inculturation by the Christians in India.
Tali or minnu is a tiny gold pendant, having the shape of the leaf of the bunyan tree, worn by the bride on her neck. The Tali of Hindus has either ‘Om’ (the auspicious letter symbolizing the sacred sound) or the image of any Hindu god on it. The Christian Tali has 21 minute balls embossed on it in the form of the cross.
There are many interesting ceremonies related to the Tali. The twine is to be prepared by the party of the bridegroom. On the eve of the marriage the twine with which the Tali is tied is prepared in the house of the bridegroom. Usually threads are taken from the wedding garment, the Mantrakoti. Both Brahmins and St. Thomas Christians shared the tradition on the formation of this thread. Three threads were twisted into one and out of seven such composite strands the final cord was prepared. For the Christians, three may represent the Holy Trinity, and seven may stand for the seven liturgical mysteries (raze), or seven days.
For the laity the tying of the Tali is still the most significant moment of the marriage rite. The very act of tying the Tali by the bridegroom on the neck of the bride gives the name to the celebration of marriage in the popular understanding. In Malayalam language it is ‘pennu kettu’ (tying or binding the woman). People say the bridegroom ‘ties’ or ‘binds’ the bride. Here it is not to be understood as one person binding another person. Perhaps the male-dominated society gave such an interpretation. In the mind of the Church tying the Tali refers to shawtaputha, or communion. It is God who is binding. God binds man and woman together. This is the act of God making the partners enter into communion. The partners enter into communion in Christ. The priest blesses the Tali and entrusts it to the groom. By tying the Tali on the neck of the bride, the bridegroom unites his wife to himself. He offers his pledge of love by the gesture of tying the Tali and declares her to be his wife. The couple gives great spiritual significance to the Tali. The Tali proclaims the bride as a married woman. No married woman ever parted with Tali. When she died it was either interrered with her body or deposited in the treasury box of the parish church.
The rite of Tali symbolizes the commitment that the spouses make through the sacrament of marriage to become one. For the Thomas Christians, the Tali is a symbol of the strong bond and intimate union between the spouses. Among the Thomas Christians, in the case of matrimony there could not be separation, except at the death of man or the wife, otherwise they must live together for better or worse.
The mantrakoti is the nuptial vestment for the bride presented by the bridegroom. Even though the East Syrian tradition has the rite of the blessing of the nuptial vestment, the St. Thomas Christian custom of Mantrakoti seems to have originated from a Hindu custom. Among the Hindus of Kerala, there is a marriage ceremony called ‘pudava kodukkal’ (conferring of nuptial vestment). The expression ‘pudava kodukkal’ is synonymous with marriage. Thus the conferring of nuptial vestment to the bride by the bridegroom is understood to be the vital part of marriage among Hindus. The Christians do not give such a meaning. It is understood more as a rite manifesting the communion between bride and bridegroom. Christian marriage liturgy has the ceremony of the bridegroom adorning the bride with the Mantrakoti. Mantrakoti is the symbol of the intimate union of life between bridegroom and bride. To vest someone shows the intimacy between the persons. The groom adorns the bride with the Mantrakoti as if it were clothing for both of them. It is Christ who facilitates the communion of bride and bridegroom. Therefore, adorning the bride with the Mantrakoti is understood as the couple putting on Christ.
C. Theological Significance of the Rites of Tali and Mantrakoti
Even though for the laity the tying of Tali is the most significant moment of marriage, according to the present understanding of theology of the mysteries (raze), influenced by the Western theology, the rite of Tali does not constitute the most important rite of marriage. But since the East Syrian tradition views the marriage as the celebration of communion, tying of Tali has to be seen as a very important rite. If the tying of Tali is the most important gesture expressing the nuptial union, then why can’t we attribute the sacramental value to the rite of tying Tali?
Does such a theological understanding justify the customs of the St. Thomas Christians with regard to marriage? The parents take the initiative in finding out the partners, and in most cases the consent of the parents and close relatives is a vital factor of the arrangement. The bride and bridegroom need not be people who know each other personally for long time. In most cases they come to know each other casually during the so-called ‘ceremony of searching the bride and bridegroom.’ The dramatic appearance of both the boy and girl, in the strict traditional framework, gives little possibility for a profound mutual knowledge. In fact the marriage appears to be a ‘leap into the darkness’. Each partner trusts the other partner, not based on the personal knowledge. It is almost blind trust. Perhaps some partners believe that it is the will of God that he or she should join with the other for a life-long commitment. Marriage may be seen more a covenant between the spouses and God than between the spouses themselves.
The Thomas Christian tradition recognizes the mysterious aspect (Eph 5:32) of marriage. Great importance is given to the work of God in bringing about the communion.
Another important aspect of the St. Thomas Christian marriage is the communion of two families: this tradition puts great emphasis on the relation between the families of the bride and bridegroom. Marriage is not just a communion of two individuals, rather it is of two families and their relatives. Hence the importance of the family members in the arrangement of the marriage. The marriage is a true shawtaputha it should be modeled on the communion of Christ and Church. Consequently it should help further horizontal communion. Therefore, the communion between the families is a necessary result in an authentic Christian marriage.
In the Roman Catholic tradition the consent of the bride and the bridegroom is the most essential element making a Christian marriage. ‘The Church holds the exchange of consent between the spouses to be the indispensable element that ‘makes the marriage.’ (CIC Can 1057 §1). The need of consent for the validity of marriage is made explicit by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). “The absence of the proper consent makes the liturgical act of marriage invalid” (CCC 1626). However, the marriage liturgy of the East Syrian tradition seems to suggest that giving the mutual consent is not the important element of the liturgical celebration of the marriage. The act of the partners expressing their consent is indeed a human endeavour, seen as a prerequisite for the liturgical celebration of marriage. It has more social implications than theological implications. If liturgy is understood as the work of the Holy Trinity (CCC 1077-1112), then the work of God is to be emphasized in the celebration of marriage. The East Syrian tradition views the priest himself as the celebrant of the marriage whereas the Latin tradition views the bride and the bridegroom as the celebrants. According to Latin tradition, the spouses as ministers of Christ's grace mutually confer upon each other the sacrament of Matrimony by expressing their consent before the Church. The vital difference is that the Latin tradition stresses the human endeavour in the rite of marriage whereas the East Syrian tradition stresses the work of God, that is the work of communion.
The Thomas Christian marriage was not an identical copy of the Mesopotamian (East Syrian) celebration. The rite of Tali and the rite of Mantrakoti are seen only among the Thomas Christians. Thomas Christians have the rite of tying the Tali instead of the rite of rings, which is an important element of the Chaldean and Assyrian tradition of marriage. In this paper we have concentrated on the specific elements found in the marriage celebration of the Thomas Christians. We first of all took a general view of the East Syrian marriage, focusing on the theological aspects of the marriage liturgy. This general survey of the East Syrian marriage ritual and its theology was followed by the analysis of the characteristic elements found in the St. Thomas Christian liturgy of marriage and its theology.
The marriage liturgy of the St. Thomas Christians of India, though strikingly different in some aspects from the original East Syrian tradition, maintains clearly the East Syrian theology of marriage, however, through inculturated elements. The Tali and Mantrakoti agree well with the East Syrian theology of marriage as a communion of the partners. Thus the marriage liturgy of St. Thomas Christians is a remarkable example for inculturation without any damage to the Christian faith. One and the same East Syrian theology of marriage is very well presented through the inculturated elements. With the adaptation of Hindu elements into the marriage liturgy, the St. Thomas Christians do not deviate from the East Syrian theological tradition, but express the same theology in a more vigorous manner.
Abdisho, Ordo Iudiciorum Ecclesiasticorum, FCCO II, XV, J.M. Voste, ed. & trans. (Vatican City, 1940), p.183. Abdisho recognizes the extraordinary form of marriage. If the priest is not available the mkurya can be celebrated in the presence of the Christian faithful. Abdisho insists on the presence of four or five faithful so as to give witness, to take the cross, ring, the hnana, and to recite the Pater Noster and the trisagion at the betrothal ceremony. Later the ceremonies should be completed by the mediation and ministry of the priest at least before the nuptial banquet. Abdisho, Collectio canonum, p. 44.