09/11/2015 8:12 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

The Legal Power Of The 'Seven Steps' And Other Wedding Rituals

In this Saturday, March 21, 2015, photo, a bride adjusts her veil during a mass marriage ceremony in Ahmadabad, India. 112 Muslim couples from impoverished families tied the knot in a single ceremony organized by a social organization. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

About a year ago, I encountered a very interesting case in my support group 360 Degrees Back To Life. Sumitra and Haresh were married in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra. Since they both hailed from the same village they were married in accordance with local customs, where the groom's and the bride's side participated in the marriage. The marriage ceremony was performed by a priest and followed by the customary exchange of garlands. Later, the village panchayat was informed about the marriage and they noted this in the village records and on stamp paper with witnesses from both sides.

Haresh soon moved to Mumbai and became a personal trainer in a high-end gymnasium in a club. Things took a turn for the worse for Sumitra, as after around one-and-a-half years of the marriage he became uncommunicative. Eventually, four years after the wedding, he decided to dump Sumitra because he had a found a rich woman was willing to set him up in the gym business. He told Sumitra that the marriage in the village was not legal and that their union would not be recognised in the city.

"[I]t gladdens my heart that all our ceremonies, which are fascinatingly unique, have legal validity too."

When Sumitra came to me she was devastated as she thought she had been living in sin with Haresh as the marriage wasn't recognised or legal.

This is when I pointed out to her the legalities of marriage according to Section 3 of the Hindu Marriage Act.

In this Act, unless the context otherwise requires, the following holds true:

... "the expressions “custom” and “usage” signify any rule which, having been continuously and uniformly observed for a long time, has obtained the force of law among Hindus in any local area, tribe, community, group or family:

Provided that the rule is certain and not unreasonable or opposed to public policy; and Provided further that in the case of a rule applicable only to a family it has not been discontinued by the family..."

Essentially, what defines a custom as per the law is very simple - (a) it has been continuously and uniformly observed for a long time; (b) it is certain that it has obtained the force of law among Hindus; and (c) it is not unreasonable or in conflict with public policy -- in case a rule is applicable only to a family it is not discontinued by the family.

So, the law has given plenty of leeway to include a variety of customs to make marriages legal in India. It does not stick to a very limited or restricted definition of marriages.

india wedding

Similarly, Section 7 of The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, states in the context of ceremonies the following:

"(1) A Hindu marriage may be solemnized in accordance with the customary rites and ceremonies of either party thereto.

(2) Where such rites and ceremonies include the saptpadi (that is, the taking of seven steps by the bridegroom and the bride jointly before the sacred fire), the marriage becomes complete and binding when the seventh step is taken.

This, of course, has been immortalised in countless Bollywood movies. Even a temple wedding by this definition would constitute a legal marriage.

Which brings forth a very important question: why does the law give so much credence to ceremonies and customs and accept them as a part of the legal requirements of a marriage? These are the intrinsic gatekeepers in the law, as India is a vast country where the majority of us define marriage by our local and religious customs. If we were to ignore them then it would be quite disastrous for us as it would provide people like Haresh an easy escape route to walk out of a marriage by pretending that there was no wedding at all. In fact, our marriages are still considered a religious sacrament rather than a contract between two people. (In Sumitra and Haresh's case they have not yet filed for divorce but Sumitra knows that she is legally married and is no longer living under the fear of stigma of "living in sin" or in an illegal marriage as Haresh was earlier telling her.)

The law governing the validity and legality of marriage in India is a perfect example of the tie that intertwines the social and legal aspects of law. Most of our customary laws governing marriages take into account customs such as the sacred fire, garlanding and the saat pheras.

The wedding season is upon us and as we get ready to either enter into matrimony or participate in someone else's celebration, somewhere it gladdens my heart that all our ceremonies, which are fascinatingly unique, have legal validity too.

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