It takes a village: The practice of community gifting in Kerala weddings

Wedding gifts are typically given to the new couple but in certain parts of Kerala, a system lets guests support the host families with event expenses.
Kerala marriage
Kerala marriage
Written by:

Ashish, a native of the northeast of India, once attended a friend’s wedding in a rural town in Kozhikode district in Kerala, but it wasn’t just the taste of dum biryani cooked in a huge chembu that he recalled, he said. What surprised him most was the sight of a man in his 60s sitting at a table and chair outside the wedding venue with a long accounting book and several envelopes in front of him.

“The guests arrive one by one, take out some money from their pockets, put it in a cover and give it to the person. He writes down the name, house name and amount given by each guest. When I asked my friend what it was, he said the house, the local people, relatives and friends help in paying for the wedding through gifts," said Ashish.It’s a system of gifting that’s in place throughout Kerala, where guests and the host are able to cooperate to make the event, from weddings to housewarmings, a success. This money isn’t meant as a gift to the couple, but rather donations of a sort for the host family — which could be the bride or groom’s parents — to pay for the wedding. The account book that Ashish saw will be kept safe at the house until one of the guests who donated money invites the family for a wedding. The money isn’t returned like a loan but rather paid forward when the guest has their own celebration at home.

According to 70-year-old Raveendran from Vatakara of Kozhikode, “The family will check the book to recall how much the invitee gave. Depending on the present value of money, an amount will be returned for their wedding. If a person gave Rs 100 for my daughter's wedding 10 years ago, for a wedding at his house now, I may give Rs 500 to Rs 1000. This system still exists in families with low financial means as well as those in middle class families.”

Though wealthy and financially-secure families rarely continue this culture, in rural areas, where class differences are not evident, most households practice it. "It's still being followed here. People used to donate from Rs 500. Not only relatives and friends, but acquaintances, neighbors, etc," Prakashan from Anchal of Kollam said.For many families, the money can come as a major source of support while organising an important event. “There is a majority of people for whom these small gifts are a big relief. For a middle class family, spending a large amount of money [on a wedding] is always difficult. In that case, these small sums can bring a good amount. For my daughter's wedding, I got around Rs 1.3 lakh, which was a huge relief for me," said Prakash, adding, "I can give back the amount as small sums at different times, whenever there is a marriage at their houses."

But despite the scene Ashish first saw at this friend’s wedding, the tradition has changed and evolved in some respects. What’s more, it’s a system that will continue through generations through the records meticulously kept at each event. Muhammed Lateef of Thalassery said, "We mostly don't sit in front of the house with a table. We will arrange that inside a room. Earlier people used to donate even Rs 50 in a cover. Now it has increased. If a person couldn't pay back the money, their younger generations would give it back. Now the practice has decreased, but still some follow it," he said.

Gifts for the couple

While one system of gifting exists to help the host with wedding expenses, another exists for the newlywed couple. Close relatives and friends often bring money, gold or home appliances for the couple, and these gifts are also recorded in a book for the next person’s wedding.

"Earlier our mother used to remember all the gifts we received at functions, and when they invited us, we would return it. After my mother passed, I started keeping a book in which I have all the gifts my daughter received written down. Mostly it's gold, so we write how much sovereign each person has given. We then return the same sovereign [for their event]. When it is gold, we don't have to look at the inflation as the gold rates are increasing. If it's money, we may return a higher amount due to inflation rates," said Sarada of Kottarakkara.

Some families also record smaller gifts given, including casseroles and wall clocks, so they can return the favour some day.

Sarada recalls a close friend who gifted a gold bangle to her daughter at her wedding five years ago. The bangle was 10 grams, so this year, when the friend’s son got married, they gifted a gold bracelet of the same weight, she said.

A deposit for the future

For many guests, the gifting system isn’t just a way to assist a family in need at the moment, but to ensure that they too will be supported at their time of need.

Thankam, a domestic worker in Kannur district, recalls that when she was invited to weddings, she would always offer small amounts of money in envelopes for the host family. “Later for my daughter’s wedding four years ago, I received almost Rs 25,000. It was a blessing. I am sure I did not give that much as gifts earlier,” she said.

And each family typically has a discussion on the amount to gift, keeping in mind events they may have in the future. “Everywhere I have heard people saying we should give, otherwise we might struggle for our wedding. So they consider it a deposit," said Reshma, an engineer from Thiruvananthapuram.

The Panapayattu of North Kerala

In Thalassery, Nadapuram region in North Kerala, it’s not uncommon to see a notice printed with a venue and time, and sent to friends and relatives. A Panapayattu, as the event is known, is a crowdfunding practice for people in need of money to complete construction on a house, due to loss of a job, an upcoming wedding etc. On his day, the invitees will come and have tea and snacks at the venue, while also donating money to the host for his immediate needs.

"He keeps a record of the attendees and writes down the donations received. So when they organise a Panapayattu, it is a must that he returns the money. There is no interest so it’s helpful to people," Rajan from Nadapuram said.

In another practice called Kuripayattu, when a person who has donated money at a wedding doesn’t have his own event to host but requires the money nonetheless, the person conducts a tea party. At the party, those who had received funds from him earlier can now return the money. 

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute