Mass marriages in India promote debt-free coupling
- By John B. Monteiro

  • Sat,20 Apr 2019 07:45:18 AM

April 20, 2019

Marriage and hanging go by destiny; matches are made in heaven.” – Robert Burton (1576- 1640), English writer, philosopher and humorist.

While matches may be made in heaven, weddings are celebrated on earth, often driving the celebrants into deep debts that cripple the newly-weds at the start of their marital journey. That was the rationale of starting mass marriages 44 years ago at Cathedral church of Holy Rosary, one of the first three churches built in Canara region of the then Madras Province of Raj rule, the other two being at Monte Mariano at Farangipet (town of foreigners - Portuguese, in this case) on the Mangalore-Bantwal highway, and Paneer, near Ullal, along the coast south of Mangalore. Why and how mass marriages were started has been tracked by me from the beginning, starting from an exclusive article in The Hindu, then the leading Madras-based daily in south India and now spread across India.

This is a recall to mark the 44th Mass marriage mela scheduled to be held in the Rosario Cathedral and its campus on May 5 (first Sunday of May every year). How did it start and why? As I write this 15 couples have registered to be married, according to C. J. Simon, President of St. Vincent De Paul Society of Cathedral parish, which organises the event which this year will take place on May 5. So, I go back to the time when this mass marriage movement commenced and its rationale which holds good even today.

On the first Sunday of May since 1975 young Catholic couples have marched to the altar under the ornate dome of Rosario Cathedral in Mangalore. They participated in the free community wedding ceremonies and celebrations organised by the Cathedral Chapter of St. Vincent De Paul Society. The late Fr. Fred Pereira, then parish priest at the Rosario Cathedral parish, actively encouraged and guided this initiative. Since the community wedding program was initiated in 1975, and now in its forty-fourth year, over one thousand couples have walked up the church isle, pronounced their wedding vows, exchanged rings and garlands. But the story should start from the beginning as the rationale of its founding still holds good – as I wrote covering the first event for the Madras-based The Hindu then.<

In 1975, St. Vincent De Paul Society’s Cathedral Parish Chapter was marking its silver jubilee. It thought of free community weddings as a novel addition to the string of charitable work it did. And it had good reason to zero in on this project. The objective was to discourage vulgar display of wealth (often borrowed) through conspicuous consumption of food and drink in celebrating marriages. The organisers wanted to save the newly married couples the burden of expenses associated with private single-couple weddings. In the case of poor people, such celebration not only wiped out economic foundation of married life, but in most cases, the newly married couple started life with a burdensome legacy of debts. This, instead of starting a joint life on a joyous note, introduced a dreadful note of worry and depression on the marital canvas.

Wedding celebration among Canara Catholics is not a one-day affair. Conspicuous consumption starts days in advance of the wedding and lasts much beyond it through a series of dinners and return dinners, with drinks forming integral part of the menu, given in honour of the bridal couple and their parents. Any excuse is good enough to start an entertainment cycle. The bride viewing, which need not be one-time affair, is an occasion for a dinner for the visitors. Then comes the engagement which is hosted by the bridal party. The wedding-eve Roce, the ritual bath for the prospective bride and groom, separately in their respective houses, and now even in hired halls, is also an occasion for lavish entertainment. The post-nuptial dinner is an expensive affair with hundreds of guests on both sides participating. Though the other feasts following the wedding are supposed to be for the close relatives, the list stretches to cover scores of guests – in a competitive show off of large circle of relatives. All through these celebrations, a band of “helpers” has to be entertained through breakfast, lunch, dinner and spirits.

The starting of community weddings in Mangalore represented the beginning of revolt against the waste indulged in by Catholics in pointless celebrations. Catholic lay people and clergy banded together into a committee to organise the community weddings. The then Bishop of Mangalore, Basil D’ Souza, had been the chief celebrant for this annual event and, since his death, Bishop Aloysius Paul D’ Souza has been in this role. In the latest event, the new Bishop, Peter Paul Saldanha, is expected to be the chief celebrant.

The initial organisers viewed with alarm the consequences of wasteful expenditure on wedding celebrations. In many cases agreed marriages were indefinitely postponed due to lack of funds. Prospects of such expenditure meant constant nightmare for parents, specially of grown up girls. It induced some girls to elope with those who promised to marry them without much expense. Some opted for civil marriages.

Against this, the Mangalore community wedding organisers took care of both religious and social aspects of weddings on a collective level. They work months ahead to set the scene. On the appointed day the church ceremonies start with reception to the nuptial couples and ending with wedding feast. Each couple is allowed to invite 60 guests for the celebration. The bridal couples are given a pair of nuptial rings along with household articles and dress materials. More than the gifts, the bridal couples are given advice – not to have any more festive dinners at home by invitation to mark the wedding.

The mass weddings at the Cathedral have spawned many imitators. The Pakshkere parish has its own annual mass wedding program. The idea is adopted by other religious communities including at Dharmasthala where 150/200 couples tie the knot annually with goodies, including gold kariamany to the bride, presented by the Dharmadhikari. Muslims have their own mass weddings and the movement has reached to Indians in the Gulf. To those who might call it a gathering of paupers, it is notable that a son of an MLA has taken this route.

While the original show at the Cathedral is having less patronage over the years, Simon, noted earlier, says the organizers spend Rs 60,000 per couple. However, Catholic couples have to undergo strict church documentation before they join the mass marriage bandwagon.

An empty sack doesn’t stand erect and soldiers march on their stomach. So, Simon financially more challenging and any helping hand is welcome.


For those wishing to know more about Rosario Cathedral, here is a brief recap.

Rosario Cathedral is 450+ Years Rosario Cathedral, one of the three first churches to be built in the Mangalore diocese, marked its 450th anniversary in 2018.

In Tulu it is called Poyyeda Ingregi, meaning sand church or church on sand. Unlike a sand castle, it has survived for over four centuries in its different avatars, starting as “Factory Church” and now high-domed landmark of Mangalore, designated as Cathedral for the last 168 years. Cathedra, for the uninitiated, is the seat or throne of a Bishop in the principal church (Cathedral) of the diocese. Rosario Cathedral, originally titled, before it was declared as Cathedral in 1850, The Church of Our Lady of Holy Rosary, is situated off the north-east bank of Nethravati River at Bolar.

The history of Rosario Cathedral goes back to Alphonso de Albuquerque, Portuguese explorer, who conquered Goa and remained Viceroy of the Indies from 1510 to 1515. The Portuguese, under Diego de Silveira, attacked and occupied Mangalore in 1658. They built a fort called “Port of St. Antony” at the place where DC’s office at Bunder now stands. The Portuguese had trade links with Canara and Malabar where they established factories for curing and storage of spices and condiments prior to their export to Portugal. They felt the need of a church for the spiritual welfare of those working in these factories. Thus, the first Catholic Church in Canara came to be built at Bolar. It was one of the three churches built then, the other two being at Ullal (Paneer) and Farangipet (town of foreigners). Incidentally, the present Cathedral stands on the ground where the Factory Church stood and the royal stone emblem of the Portuguese king is lying at the entrance to the Cathedral to this day. The Italian traveler, Pietro Della Valla, visited Mangalore in 1623 and has noted in his travelogue the existence of the three churches cited above.

The Holy See (Vatican in Rome) appointed Thomas de Crasto, a native of Divar in Goa, as Vicar Apostolic of Canara in 1625. Fr. Joseph Vas, now declared saint, played an important role in the history of Rosario Church in 1691 by renovating it. The period from 1784 to 1799 was a turbulent chapter in the history of Catholics in Canara. On January 30, 1784 the British surrendered to Tippu Sultan’s forces. Suspecting the loyalty of the Christian community to him as also its covert support to the British, Tippu issued orders (firman) to his commanders to arrest all Christians in Canara, confiscate their land and valuables, destroy their churches and drag them as captives to Srirangapatanam. This was carried out on February 21, 1784 which happened to be Ash Wednesday – making it easy for soldiers to identify Christians on the basis of ash imposed on their forehead.

Skipping the details of what happened to the captives, suffice it here to note that the captivity ended with the defeat, capture and death of Tippu at Srirangapatanam by the British in 1799. Rosario Church was among all the churches, 26 in all, excepting one at Farangipet, razed to the ground by Tippu’s forces. Before that the church is said to have been rebuilt thrice. After the return from captivity, commencing in 1810, Rosario Church was rebuilt with the help of some benefactors, mainly Saldanha-Shet, Gonsalves and Noronha families. The British Government contributed Rs.4000 for rebuilding Rosario and Milagres (another heritage church at city centre) churches.

The present Rosario Cathedral was built between 1910 and 1924. It was modeled by its architect, Br. Divo SJ of Bombay, on the lines of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It had taken fourteen years to complete, reminding us of the challenges of building cathedrals, as noted by Henry Ward Beecher, US writer (1800-1878): “Many men built as Cathedrals were built, the part nearest to the ground finished; but that part which soars towards heaven, the turrets and the spires, forever incomplete”. But once built, a Cathedral is an inspiring visual treat as pointed out by Robert Louis Stevenson, Scottish writer (1850-1895):

“I never weary of great churches…mankind was never so happily inspired as when it made a Cathedral”.

Incidentally, presently there is much discussion about the cost and time-frame for rebuilding Notre Dame Cathedral burn down in early April 2019.

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