Sashtiapthapoorthi: The Message behind the Tradition

Interviewing two elderly couples who have celebrated their ‘Sashtiapthapoorthi’ and ‘Sadabishegam’ respectively, Giulia Crouch is captivated by this South Indian custom and finds that behind the celebrations lies the tradition of respecting elders as well as the universal values of forgiveness and harmony

 

Before properly delving into the topic of ‘Arupatham Kalyanam’ or ‘Sashtiapthapoorthi’ as it is known in Sanskrit, I assumed it was nothing more than the Indian equivalent of the Western tradition of renewing the wedding vows. However as I burrowed deeper into the subject via independent research and through discussions with experts in the field, I discovered that this Indian tradition is one that is steeped in significance. Not only is it an event that celebrates the longevity of a couple’s marriage, it also promotes the notions of respect, community, gratitude and forgiveness – messages with an undeniably universal appeal. It is thanks to this that we can all learn something from Sashtiapthapoorthi.

Sashtiapthapoorthi
Sashtiapthapoorthi, a Hindu tradition, revolves around the number sixty. This becomes clear as soon as one picks apart the word: ‘sashti’ translates to ’sixty’, ‘aptha’ to ‘year’ and ‘poorthi’ means completion. Hence the celebration is held once the husband has completed one year of his sixties. In other words, it is not held upon the man’s sixtieth birthday but rather when he has reached at least sixty-one years of age. Upon reaching this age – and as long as both partners are still alive – a joyous celebration is held in which all family and friends gather to simultaneously commemorate the achievement of reaching sixty and the successful and happy marriage of the couple.

The greatness of the event is somewhat elevated by the fact that it is not customary in India to celebrate each wedding anniversary, as it is in Western culture. Whilst in the UK, for example, married couples will mark their anniversary in a small way (perhaps by exchanging gifts or dining out at a restaurant), Hindus will roll all these little celebrations into one big celebration: Sashtiapthapoorthi.

A key aspect of ‘Sashtiapthapoorthi’ is that it is not organised by the couple themselves, but instead entirely arranged by the children of the couple. This is not only an integral feature of ‘Sashtiapthapoorthi’; it is also illuminative as to the thinking behind the tradition

A key aspect of ‘Sashtiapthapoorthi’ is that it is not organised by the couple themselves, but instead entirely arranged by the children of the couple. This is not only an integral feature of ‘Sashtiapthapoorthi’; it is also illuminative as to the thinking behind the tradition. ‘Sashtiapthapoorthi’ can be seen as an act of gratitude from the children to the parents; ways to say ‘thank you’ for the many years of love and care they have received from them. Many of the rituals performed at the ceremony are done in order to promote a long and healthy life for the couple and this is what R.S. Balaji, a Hindu priest with abundant experience in conducting ‘Sashtiapthapoorthi’, highlights as the primary reason for the children wishing to hold the ceremony for their parents. “They [the children] want their parents to live for many more years” he explained, and they believe that by performing ‘Sashtiapthapoorthi’ “God will extend the lives of their parents”. He also notes more pragmatic reasoning behind holding the ceremony – “the children are not able to witness their parents getting married, so this event provides them with the opportunity to see this occasion.” Due to this Balaji praises ‘Sashtiapthapoorthi’ as being “more important than the wedding itself.”

And he is not alone in his assessment. I recently travelled three hours from Madurai to talk to Ramaswamy and Balamma, a couple who had celebrated Sashtiapthapoorthi. My fellow journalists and I arrived at the peaceful, rural village of Pappankulam in Tirunelveli district and were immediately invited to take rest in a shady room – our exhaustion was clearly palpable to our hosts. Upon waking from our thoroughly needed nap, we were greeted with a traditional meal of rice, sambar, poppadoms and an array of pickles, of course all served on the obligatory banana leaf which is said to add extra flavour to the food. After this kind of hearty welcome, I got round to quizzing the couple on their experience of Sashtiapthapoorthi. I asked them why their children had been inclined to organise the function for them and, looking at me as if the answer was obvious, they stated that Sashtiapthapoorthi is “a Tamil tradition and custom that has been followed for years by our ancestors.” Along with this straightforward explanation they went on to concur with Balaji that, “the children would not have seen the parents’ marriage and it is their wish to see the marriage for themselves, plus we normally have grandchildren in our sixties.”

Along with creating the same atmosphere as a wedding, these functions also use the same rituals, making it quite literally a second wedding. On the day of the sixtieth, seventieth or eightieth function, a new thali is tied. The special yellow thread is replaced and new pendants or ornaments to indicate the significance of that particular wedding are added

This is perhaps one of the most special features of Sashtiapthapoorthi. I think it is fair to say that many people would jump at the chance to see their parents get married and whilst photographs and video clips are all very well, they cannot provide one with a true sense of the atmosphere and jubilation of the day. Sashtiapthapoorthi on the other hand, can. Not only do the children and grandchildren get to witness the marriage, the couple in question gets to physically relive their marriage complete with the younger members of the family who could not, for obvious reasons, be there the first time round. In a way, the presence of the children and grandchildren at such an event is a physical manifestation of the success that the couple has had in their marriage. In fact, the couple commented on the trajectory from the first marriage, in which their parents were present, to their second marriage which they shared with their children and grandchildren. In their opinion the latter wedding made for a “happier occasion.”

The Significance of Sixty
So why sixty? R.S. Balaji views the sixties as a naturally reflective time, musing that in our youth, twenty years can go by “without our notice” and that “when we reach sixty years of age it’s time to look back at our past.” Many agree that one’s sixties represent a new phase of life in which the pursuit of spirituality can come to the fore and material and professional gains can take a back seat.

Maturity and reflection are not the only factors behind the choice of the sixtieth. There is a deeper significance lurking beneath the number sixty. In fact, the number six features heavily in Hinduism in general. R.S. Balaji informed me that when a child is born, sixteen days are allowed to pass before the priest gives the child a name. Similarly during our conversation we discussed the story of Markandeya, a tale which has particular relevance to Sashtiapthapoorthi. R.S. Balaji eagerly relayed the story: The legend has it that Markandeya, a young boy, was destined to live for sixteen years only. Yet when Yama (the lord of death) came to take the life of the boy, Markandeya fled to a temple and clutched at a statue of Lord Shiva. The boy’s devotion to Lord Shiva was clear and hence he was rescued from death and incarnated as Kalantaka, the Ender of Death. The boy was consequently eternally stuck at the age of sixteen, which emphasises the importance of the number six in Hindu belief.

Furthermore, the aforementioned temple goes by the name of Thirukadaiyur Temple. It lies on the east coast of Tamil Nadu and is unsurprisingly the most famous and popular temple to conduct Sashtiapthapoorthi in. Due to its association with the legend of Markandeya, the temple is hailed as a place which can bring long life, and since a key concept of Sashtiapthapoorthi is to extend the lives of the couples, it is no wonder that the Thirukadaiyur temple has become revered.

The Triumph of Eighty
Something I am yet to touch on is that is it is not only the sixtieth year that is celebrated. It is now common to celebrate the seventieth and eightieth years as well as, or instead of the sixtieth. R.S. Balaji proudly informed me that he has performed all three functions for his parents. He happily showed me the colourful pictures from the various events while his wife offered me snacks and refreshments.

It seems to me that whilst the seventieth is also celebrated, it is the eightieth that is truly revered and is most popular. The eightieth is known as ‘Sadabishegam’ and in the same village that I met the ‘sixtieth couple’, I was also lucky enough to meet a couple who recently had celebrated this function.

Arunachalam Asari (83) and Kamatchi (73) have been married for 63 years. Kamatchi, who donned a beautiful blue saree and took the role of main speaker, (leaving her husband to diligently nod and smile in the background) acknowledged the special nature of the function, “celebrating the eightieth is not something all couples do. It’s fairly rare, so everyone comes to receive blessings.”

I asked her why their children had decided to hold the function for them. She expressed that it is similar to the sixtieth in the sense that the children hope to provide the parents with good health, but she also outlined that, “the marriage is held for the good of the whole family; the children and the grandchildren.” Whilst Sashtiapthapoorthi is undoubtedly a family affair, the eightieth seemed to place even more emphasis on the importance of family. It seems to me that it is very much about getting everyone together and honouring the achievements of the couple. After all, reaching eighty years of age and having such a long and happy marriage is an undeniable achievement. Kamatchi told me that the spectacular number of 2,000 guests (1,000 of which were family) turned up to celebrate the fantastic occasion with them, and she happily exclaimed, “I don’t know about the others, but I was really happy.”

As with the ‘sixtieth couple’, I was again curious as to whether this function was as special, or perhaps even more special than their actual wedding day itself. The pair wholeheartedly agreed that it was more special. “The first wedding was so simple and short,” Kamatchi explained, “this marriage was so grand and amazing!” For me this reiterates the communal aspect of the eightieth celebration. Whilst the wedding day unsurprisingly has more focus on just the couple themselves, the eightieth truly is an event for the whole community. At its essence it is about coming together and celebrating life and the couple believes that the celebration “creates a platform for the community to unite and be happy.”

A Second Wedding
“Like a second wedding” was the way in which the ‘eightieth couple’ described to me how the event felt. When I imagine an Indian wedding, I think of bright colours, lengthy ceremonies, plentiful food and dazzling jewellery. I was shown many photographs by R.S. Balaji of ceremonies he had conducted which confirmed what I had imagined. Similarly, the ‘eightieth couple’ enthusiastically presented me with a laptop exhibiting a video of their Sadabishegam. There was chanting, colours and smiles galore and Kamatchi emphasised the joyous atmosphere of the day, “there were all kinds of flowers, children’s games and decorations. Everyone was enjoying the festival.”

Along with creating the same atmosphere as a wedding, these functions also use the same rituals, making it quite literally a second wedding. R.S. Balaji highlighted ‘Swarna Abishekam’ as the main ritual of the ceremony. This involves pots or ‘kumbas’ being filled with holy water. Kunkumam, turmeric and sometimes even jewels, gold and precious stones are placed in the water and then poured over the couple’s heads through a filter.
Other rituals include chanting of the Vedas and the tying of a new thali or ‘mangalasutra’ which is a necklace given by the groom’s family to the bride on the day of the original wedding. It carries the same significance as a wedding ring in Western culture and is thus a sign that a woman is married. On the day of the sixtieth, seventieth or eightieth function, a new thali is tied. The special yellow thread is replaced and new pendants or ornaments to indicate the significance of that particular wedding are added. Balamma described the moment as “extremely sentimental” and when I asked Kamatchi how it felt to have it tied again she expressively announced, “you saw the photos; you saw how happy I was!”

Many of the rituals performed at the ceremony are done in order to promote a long and healthy life for the couple and this is what R.S. Balaji, a Hindu priest with abundant experience in conducting ‘Sashtiapthapoorthi’, highlights as the primary reason for the children wishing to hold the ceremony for their parents

In terms of location there are three choices for these celebrations: a wedding hall, the couple’s own house or a temple. The first couple I interviewed opted for a temple about 10 km away from their home named Sylappar Temple. They explained that this temple was particularly special because whilst Lord Shiva customarily faces the east side, this is the only temple in Tamil Nadu in which the god faces the north. The couple described the ceremony as “simple” but said that nearly 150 guests attended and “all the most important family members were present.”

The second couple I interviewed opted for their own house as the venue for the function. They described how “at eighty it was nice to have the marriage at home because we have lived here for many years.” Furthermore, the fact that it was in their own home was convenient for the whole community. If it had been held in a temple far away, not everyone could have traveled there, the couple explained.

The Sanctity of Old Age in India
The location, length and lavishness of the function is a matter of personal choice but one thing remains a constant and that is the act of giving and receiving blessings. Blessings are a major part of the ceremony and go in different directions depending on the age of the couple. In the sixtieth marriage, the couple gives blessings to the youngsters but also receive blessings themselves from other couples who are more elderly than them. In the eightieth marriage however, all the guests queue up to receive a blessing from the couple. As you can imagine at a function with attendance reaching around 2,000 people, blessing everyone can be a lengthy process as Kamatchi and ‘Arunachalam’ fondly reminisced.

Whilst Sashtiapthapoorthi is undoubtedly a family affair, the eightieth seemed to place even more emphasis on the importance of family. It seems to me that it is very much about getting everyone together and honouring the achievements of the couple. After all, reaching eighty years of age and having such a long and happy marriage is an undeniable achievement

The blessings, in this context, have several different connotations. The priest R.S. Balaji emphasised the notions of reunion and forgiveness as key reasons behind the blessings. He advises anyone thinking of having the event to put aside any bad feelings or disputes within the family and invite anyone to the function “from whom we need to seek forgiveness and apologise to for our mistakes.” In his substantial experience he has observed that “families come closer” as a result of the celebration. In a sense the function can be seen as a clean slate for the families and the blessings are all part of establishing and cementing a new, fresh start.

However, when I asked both sets of couples whether their celebrations acted as a vehicle for forgiveness and reunion within the family, they both ardently rejected that this had been the case in their situations. The ‘eightieth couple’ endearingly declared, “No disputes will come to our family! Don’t even think about it.” The ‘sixtieth couple’ was in accordance that no disputes had been settled as a result of their celebration but admitted, “we have lots of family festivals in India and generally disputes do get resolved by these kinds of events.”

Blessings are not only about forgiveness however. The elders are seen as an exceptional symbol of good luck and many couples come to receive blessings from them so that they may have a life as good and successful as the older couple. The elderly couple are exemplary not only to the youth but to everyone present at the function. “We believe the elders’ blessings are extremely effective,” the ‘sixtieth couple’ stated, “this is why even the neighbours come to receive blessings.”

For me, the practice of receiving blessings from the elders is indicative of one thing: the sanctity and respect that is given to old age in India. In Western culture the elderly can sometimes be brushed aside, patronised and even ignored by society, whereas in India the elderly are treated with an admirable amount of respect and honour. The elderly are seen as the wisest and most knowledgeable members of the community and are consequently given the respect they deserve. The fact that people consider blessings from them to be so potent is illustrative of the culture of respect surrounding the aged in India.

Community, Respect, Gratitude
I was lucky enough to be invited to receive a blessing from the couple who celebrated their ‘Sadabishegam’. One must bend down and touch the feet of the couple before they apply holy ash to your forehead. I feel so grateful to have met such an inspiring couple. Despite being in their seventies and eighties, they were so sprightly and full of character. At the end of our chat, Kamatchi happily remarked, “you can come to the 100th marriage.” She also grasped my hand and told me to remember her. I definitely will not be forgetting her, or the other people that I interviewed, any time soon.

At the start of this article I claimed that there was something that we could all learn from this Indian tradition and I hope I have made my point clear. I asked the couples if there was a particular message they wanted their functions to promote and the both echoed each other in stating that, “people should be united and be happy.” At a superficial glance, ‘Sashtiapthapoorthi’ and ‘Sadabishegam’ appear to be solely a celebration of marriage but when one looks a little closer it is apparent that these functions are a celebration of life in general. All the community is brought together to harmoniously commemorate, give thanks to and respect the life of the elderly couple and these are definitely practices worth emulating.