Essay on Arranged Marriages Through Folklore



Stories with similar plots can express drastically different meanings, depending solely on the time and place in which they were written. One such example can be seen from the tale “The Brahmin Girl Who Married a Tiger,” a variant of Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard.” Both tales are categorized as Type 312A, or tales about a bride who is rescued from her husband by her brothers (citation). While Perrault’s tale warns women against curiosity and later warns men against women’s power in the household, “The Brahmin Girl Who Married a Tiger” uses this tale as an origin for the Tamil phrase “Be quiet, or I’ll show you my original shape.” However, both the plot of the story and its various cultural references reflect the importance of another integral part in Tamilian societies: arranged marriages.  “The Brahmin Girl Who Married a Tiger” utilizes a plot revolving around a disastrous love marriage and references to cultural symbols to exemplify the negative stigma around love marriages in India, arguing that marriages initiated by the groom or bride result in an unhappy life for all parties involved, and therefore making arranged marriages seem much more appealing.

Marriages in India, especially in South India, are perceived as more as an obligation than a choice; people are expected to marry to carry their sacred duty of continuing their family lineage, and failure to marry at the appropriate age is viewed as a disgrace to the family (Sheela & Audinarayana 497). Because marriage is considered a “sacred institution,” there are many criteria that need to be fulfilled by the bride and the groom. One of the most important ones is the necessity for the bride to be a virgin; women who have engaged in pre-marital sex are considered impure and unfit for marriage. Because of this criterion, girls are expected to get married soon after they menstruate, as it is an indication of sexual maturity; in addition, the sooner the young girl gets married, the lower the chance she will engage in pre-marital sex and ruin her chastity (Sheela & Audinarayana 498). Other important criteria for marriage include the castes, horoscopes, socioeconomic statuses, and ages of the bride and groom (Wilson 37). If any of the requirements aren’t fulfilled, it is though that the matrimony will “doom the family to unhappiness.” 

In addition, marriage is considered to be “indissoluble,” especially for Hindus (Dommaraju 200; Naga Raja Sarma 330). The Atri-Smriti, an ancient Sanskrit text whose teachings are committed to memory for most Hindus, states that a woman should not be divorced, even if she runs away from home or commits adultery. It is up to the husband to salvage his marriage by rectifying his behavior and disciplining his wife (Naga Raja Sarma 331). Since marriage with the ‘right person’ is of utmost importance in Indian culture, and because divorces are frowned upon by the Hindu society, suitors are commonly chosen by parents and relatives, with little to no choice left to the grooms and brides (Sheela & Audinarayana 497-498). 

This is primarily why love marriages aren’t popular in Indian culture. In South India, love marriages are defined as unions initiated by the bride or the groom, even if either of the individuals’ families takes over the planning of the marriage (Wilson 50-51). Love marriages are viewed as detrimental for both the individuals involved and their families. People don’t always fall in love with others that meet all of the aforementioned requirements, resulting in an unhappy life for them. In addition, love marriages “bring shame” to the individuals’ families, as it represents a break from tradition and a lack of parental respect (Wilson 46). In fact, the feeling of love is sometimes described as an evil spirit that possesses young people, driving them to experience “irresponsible sexual attraction,” make wrong choices about their life partner, and eventually be forced to live an unhappy life. Exorcisms are sometimes performed on young girls or new brides to remove the evil spirit of love, so they can overcome their sexual desires and become good wives  (Nabokov 299).

Reflections of these beliefs are seen throughout the plot of “The Brahmin Girl Who Married a Tiger”. The protagonist of the story, the daughter of a Brahmin man, is described as a spoilt girl who wants to be wedded to any handsome boy she sees. Her parents have to constantly intervene and “[take] her away from her youthful lovers” in order to protect her chastity for her husband. A few years later, before “she came into the years of maturity,” they began searching for a suitable bridegroom for their daughter (Cleeve 119). The first paragraph of the tale already demonstrates parallels between proper customs in marriage. Marriage is described as more of a chore for the parents than a choice for their daughter, indicated by the fact that they were literally looking to “dispose of her hand in marriage” just so they wouldn’t be “driven out of their caste” (Cleeve 119). They wanted her to get married soon after she reached sexual maturity, so her virginity would be preserved for her husband. While these details make the daughter’s parents seem terrible, their actions are deemed acceptable in the eyes of society, merely because of the nature of Hindu marriages. 

The young girl, however, does not seem to care about society’s standards; she falls in love with any beautiful boy she sees. The tiger uses the girl’s infatuation with external beauty to transform himself into a handsome, scholarly man and trick her into marrying him (Cleeve 119-120). Because love is linked with external beauty in this tale, it can be argued that the tale perceives love as an insincere feeling, one that changes as appearances change. The girl’s desire for love and beauty is also linked to her spoilt, immature nature, painting it as a childish feeling. Love is structured as the cause of the girl’s eventual downfall; after all, the tiger uses this very infatuation to trick her into marrying him. If she hadn’t been besotted with the tiger’s good looks and had gotten married to a man of her parents' choice, she may have been able to live a happy life. 

The tiger “[scatters] holy ashes profusely over his body” before appearing in front of the girl (Cleeve 120). Ashes have an ambivalent nature in Hinduism; they can be viewed as both symbols of protection and death. Ashes are directly linked with Lord Shiva, the destroyer. By having a connection with the divine being that rids the world of evil, ashes are primarily symbolized as an item of protection and holiness. However, Lord Shiva is also the “haunter of graveyards,” the destroyer of life. In this manner, ashes also symbolize the final destination: the funeral pyre (Swallow 137-138). By smearing ashes over himself, the tiger is viewed by both the girl and her parents as a holy, good figure; however, he also foreshadows the funeral pyre and death that will follow after his marriage to the girl.

The girl brings the disguised tiger to her parents, and after inquiring about things like his “parentage” and the other criteria he is required to meet, they agree to marry the two of them together (Cleeve 121). The tiger deceives both the girl and her parents into thinking he meets the criteria, but because he doesn’t truly meet the criteria of an ideal groom, it serves as a foreshadowing event of the misfortune that is going to fall on their family. Even though the girl’s parents arranged the marriage, since the bride initiated the relationship, it is still classified as a love marriage. Because of this minutiae, the misfortune that befalls on the girl is viewed by society as ‘her fault,’ and not that of the parents. 

When the tiger decides to take the girl back to his house in the forest, her mother places “one or two margosa leaves [on her head] to keep off demons” (Cleeve 122). Margosa leaves are commonly used to protect women during periods of weakness, such as menstruation, travel, and pregnancy (Petitet & Pragathi 130). They are also used to rid of evil spirits that have already possessed a person (Nabokov 303). In the tale, almost immediately after exposure to this leaf, the tiger reveals “his original shape” to his wife. The evil spirit of love had left the girl, and she was finally seeing the true face of her husband. This scene also reflects another common conception about love marriages: individuals who fall in love do not know the true nature of their lover, and only fall in love with a facade. Traditional South Indians argue that the lover’s true characteristics do not arise until marriage has occurred, until it is too late to prevent an unhappy life (Wilson 37). After the girl realizes her husband is a tiger, she is terrified of him. Her marriage out of love led to her current feelings of terror and misery, and the disgrace she brought to her family because of it, effectively proving all traditional theories about the form of marriage. While the audience sympathizes with the girl, it is made evident that her predicament is a result of her naivety and infatuation with appearance.

The tiger promises to provide for his wife as long as she cooks and maintains his house while he’s out hunting for food (Cleeve 124). This resembles typical married life in South India; men were meant to work and feed the family, and women were meant to stay at home, cook the provided food, clean the house, and give birth to a child (Jejeebhoy & Zeba 702-703). The fact that the Brahmin girl does not feel content with these tasks indicate that she does not feel content with her marriage, accurately representing the fears of the Tamil culture in choosing an incompatible partner. 

The first dish the girl is asked to cook by the tiger is a curry from pumpkin and flesh. Pumpkins are primarily masculine items in Hindu culture, and, when broken, symbolize a self-sacrifice and the beginning of a new, sinless life (Roberts 73). However, because they are masculine items, women are not meant to break them; if they do, they risk their fertility and ability to produce a male offspring (Upadhyaya 33-34). But, if the girl was to cook the pumpkin and feed her husband, she would be required to break it herself. Her breaking of the pumpkin could symbolize a sacrifice, but not necessarily a good one; because she broke a cultural norm by shattering the pumpkin, it could represent a sacrifice of her life and motherhood.

This sacrifice is reflected by the birth of her son, “which also turned out to be a tiger” (Cleeve 125). By stating that the girl’s son was the same monster as her husband soon after stating that she specifically made a pumpkin curry, the story correlates the two details, arguing that one of the reasons the girl’s child was born a tiger was because of her disobedience towards her traditions. She is stripped of the opportunity of being a loving mother, merely because she broke a pumpkin. The consequences of her tiger child are dire; she despises her newborn son the same way that she despises her tiger husband, viewing him as the same beast his father is. A mother who hates her husband and her son would not create a happy, loving family. Since the main purpose of Hindu marriages is to create a family and continue the family lineage, an unhealthy family is considered an extremely terrible quality, since it jeopardizes the longevity of the family (Sheela & Audinarayana 497-498). 

Soon after the birth of her son, the girl sends a message to her brothers, asking them to save her. She writes a message on a palmyra leaf with an iron nail and delivers it using a crow (Cleeve 125). All parts of a palmyra tree are linked to a new birth, and using a palmyra leaf as a medium of transmitting her message indicates the girl’s rebirth into a woman with more autonomy (Davis & Johnson 251). However, this gain in autonomy is considered negative in Hindu culture; men are meant to be strong and powerful, and women weak and submissive (Jejeebhoy 300). Women are always owned by someone: their fathers before marriage, and their husbands after marriage (Derné 204). So, the fact that the girl is trying to leave her husband by her own will is alarming to the audience, and foreshadows an unfortunate end for her.

Both the crow and the iron nail are symbols of Shani, the Hindu god of justice. Shani typically has a negative connotation to him, as he typically delivers justice in the form of punishment to sinful people. He is depicted as riding a crow, and is associated with dark metals, like iron (Kalidos 107; Dalal 373; Lochtefeld 608-609). The girl uses these symbols to bring her brothers to deliver justice to her husband. However, the husband has done nothing wrong to be punished; in fact, the only one who made mistakes was the girl. So, in an attempt to deliver justice to her husband and escape her terrible life, the girl ends up getting punished for her sins.

Her brothers arrive shortly after receiving her message, and together, they scare the tiger out of the house. The girl then tears her sleeping son into two and hangs him over the hearth before bolting the door shut and fleeing with her brothers (Cleeve 126-128). This series of events marks the change of the Bluebeard figure. Prior to this event, the tiger was viewed as the horrible, deceptive husband, making his wife feel miserable and fearful of him; however, by fooling the tiger with her “monstrous” brothers and killing her son, the girl becomes the abhorrent, “cunning” figure, and the tiger becomes the “terrified,” sorrowful figure (Cleeve 128). This evolution of the girl indicates that she has truly become a tigress: a devious and terrifying figure. She has gained her husband’s masculine qualities during her time with him, and has stepped outside the gender norms society has set for her. On the other hand, the tiger also steps out of his societal gender norms by “[running] away” in fear, “[grieving] for the loss of his son” and wanting to exact revenge for an emotional cause (Cleeve 128-129). This step outside societal gender norms is considered unnatural and negative, and further foreshadows their depressing end (Jejeebhoy 300). 

This negativity in the exchanging of gender roles is reflected by the outcomes of both characters. The tiger, in his anger, was determined to “bring her back to the wood, and there tear her into many pieces in place of only two” (Cleeve 129). He goes back to the girl’s village in his disguise and, in his determination to exact his revenge, is tricked by the girl’s brothers into falling into a well to his death. The girl builds a pillar over the well for her dead husband, plants a tulasi shrub on top of it, and worships it every day “for the rest of her life” (Cleeve 129-130). Tulasi is commonly found in Indian households as a protector of the house, and during and after a Brahmin’s death, a tulasi plant is placed on his pedestal and is worshipped by his wife. The plant is said to protect the Brahmin’s soul after death (Simoons 30). Neither of the two get a happy ending; the tiger dies, and since divorces and remarriages are questioned for women, the young girl is forced to keep her husband’s soul protected and stay loyal to him for the rest of her life (Dommaraju 197). The tale implies that the girl’s misfortune began when she childishly fell in love with the tiger’s disguise, arguing that while love marriages may seem desirable, they lead to an unfortunately depressing life. Their alternative, arranged marriages, are a much safer option, and, if done properly, will result in a happy life (Sheela & Audinarayana 497-498).

“The Brahmin Girl Who Married a Tiger” structures the story and uses cultural and traditional symbols to reflect the idea that the Brahmin girl’s infatuation with love is found responsible for all the misfortunes occurring to her. This plotline maintains the notion that love marriages lead to unhappy lives. Even though arranged marriages aren’t specifically mentioned, they are the only acceptable alternate to love marriages; therefore, the tale argues that if love marriages result in a disastrous life, a properly planned arranged marriage would avoid these disasters and result in a serene, happy life. 

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