x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Charity helps Indian couples wed without daunting costs

Forty-nine Indian couples have been married in a mass ceremony thanks to an Abu Dhabi-based group.

ABU DHABI // Forty-nine Indian couples have been married in a mass ceremony thanks to an Abu Dhabi-based group that says lavish dowries are keeping too many young people apart. The Vatakara Non Resident Indian Forum helped the couples wed last month in the southern Indian state of Kerala after raising 4.9 million Indian rupees (Dh371,400) to fund the ceremony. The organisation, which represents an estimated 12,000 expatriates in Abu Dhabi from Vatakara, in northern Kerala, hosted a number of charitable events over the past year to highlight the issue. It then advertised in local papers to find couples or parents of eligible bachelors who have been unable to marry due to financial constraints.

It gave first priority to the very poor, a group that usually includes orphans and the disabled, or children of disabled parents. The group's president, MK Babu, said the mass wedding was its first attempt to change the way marriage is conducted in India. "It is a message for the villagers, that we can do something like this without giving dowry and without spending a lot of unnecessary money on such an occasion," he said.

The ceremony was held on Dec 24 on the grounds of a high school. Local politicians and other dignitaries sat at a podium in the middle while the weddings were conducted on either side. To the right, two priests conducted a traditional Hindu ceremony for 17 couples, which included an exchange of garlands between the new husbands and wives. To the left an imam finalised 32 Muslim weddings, or nikaahs.

"I am very happy," said Ramya, 20, who married B Ajesh, 22. "I cannot say how much I look forward to setting up a household." Sai Krishna, a social worker from Kerala, helped co-ordinate some of the events leading up the weddings, including visiting various families to establish who was eligible to be married. "Communal harmony was very much there," he said. "It was more than a ceremony. It helped many families and gave them a new direction in life. That stigma is not there, that you got married in a mass marriage. They are treated just as others get married."

In addition to the respect the couples gain for having married, they were also given financial support for the future. Each couple received 100,000 rupees, as well as gifts of 40 grams of gold and a marriage trust fund worth 10,000 rupees. The charity also provided honeymoon trips and expenses such as transportation, wedding clothes, decorations, music and a wedding feast. "It is very good because many people get a life because of this," Mr Krishna said. "Because dowry is a factor and here it was sans dowry, and many of these girls would not have a married life if their parents were forced to make extravagant payments."

Although the celebrations took place in Vatakara, most of the couples hailed from the nearby hills of Wayanad, according to Mr Krishna. The region's economy depends on small-scale farming of crops such as pepper, coffee and spices including cardamom, which makes its families vulnerable to economic downturns. The forum originally planned to marry off at least 100 couples, and expects to hold more such ceremonies. sbhattacharya@thenational.ae