We’re 600 kilometres from home and our hearts are beating a little faster. As reactions go, it’s perfect. For a Mumbai couple looking to tie the knot quickly, with minimum fuss, here in Sawantwadi, nervousness is natural.
Across the table from us, the proprietor of a mangal karyalay or marriage bureau (a man with 35 years in the business) is telling us not to worry. He’ll marry us this evening under the Hindu Marriage Act, in an Arya Samaj-type ceremony, and give us our certificates the next day.
Knot anywhere else: Sawantwadi, just outside of Goa, is where quick marriage paperwork has found favour with couples from the state and beyond.
That’s exactly why we’re worried. We’re not a couple, but two journalists faking it. Nihit Bhave, posing as my husband-to-be, only joined the Brunch team last week. The man posing as our witness is HT photographer Kalpak Pathak.
We’re in Sawantwadi to find out what makes this picturesque town at the tip of Maharashtra’s coast such a haven for shaadis. We walked in only 20 minutes ago. Now, it seems, we can walk out as man and wife. Well, that escalated quickly.
Marriages are possibly the only thing that happen quickly in Sawantwadi; everything else merely ambles along. Breezes blow gently across the picturesque lake in the centre of town, ducks wade quietly in its waters, no one fidgets at the bus stop, no one even scurries from a freak afternoon shower. Goa, only an hour by road, feels like a distant dream.
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To couples from Goa, however, Sawantwadi is not quite so distant. It’s the first village across state borders if you’re looking to legally step around Goa’s Civil Code, which applies to all Goans (irrespective of religion) and covers birth, death, property and, yes, marriage. Interfaith unions are complicated under the Code, and (as they involve joint ownership of property, inheritance and assets) quick marriages almost impossible if you’re in a hurry to get a visa, an overseas job or a loan.
Over the decades, most couples have hopped over to Sawantwadi to avoid red tape, convert to Hinduism if need be, and just tie the knot in peace.
It’s given the town a thriving cottage industry in the most literal sense – nearly every one of the town’s 14-odd karyalays operate from a frontyard, backyard, ante room or porch. Plastic chairs, a makeshift platform for bridal seats, dull festoons permanently hanging – the karyalays are no one’s idea of a dream wedding.
A typical karyalay will always be ready for a shaadi.
But if you’re someone for whom a wedding was thus far an impossible dream, they seem like paradise. Proprietors solemnise the saptapati (the pheras) on the premises much like the Arya Samaj would, and get the unions registered from gram sevaks (who have powers of the registrar) in nearby villages. It’s what draws couples from Goa, and now from Karnataka, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and beyond.
It takes a village
We landed in Sawantwadi armed with a plausible back story (interfaith graphic design colleagues, looking to marry quickly because there is family opposition back home) and not much else. There was no other way, really. The karyalays have no websites. They do not advertise their services in directories. (How would you Google a quickie wedding anyway?) We needn’t have worried. No one asks questions in Sawantwadi, but practically the whole town opens up to lovers in need.
It starts right at the top. When we asked for help at the municipal office, they provided us a handwritten note bearing the name and number of a karyalay. Even without official aid, you’re not exactly lost. Most karyalays are scattered in little streets on one side of the lake, their signboards clearly visible. Sawantwadi is small enough to find them all on foot and people readily offer directions.
At one karyalay we went to, the owner didn’t bat an eyelid at our predicament. He said he wasn’t authorised to induct me into Hinduism (mandatory for anyone to wed under the Hindu Marriage Act). But he helpfully pointed out other enterprises that could help and assured us that we weren’t alone.
“At least one such wedding happens every day in Sawantwadi”. Inter-caste and inter-religious unions are common, he said, though mixed-race ones a growing trend; they recently did the reception for a Goan-German couple who got married there.
Across town the story stays the same. “Just the other day,” karyalay owners will tell you, “a Muslim and Hindu came here and got married.” Once the conversion to Hinduism is done, the ceremony can take place immediately. The express service, though, often comes at a price: `Rs 7,000. But it’s a one-window route to matrimony, with paperwork ready the next day.
The other side
Sawantwadi seems like the unlikeliest city to be likened to Las Vegas. There are no luxury hotels or cafés. No young couples on the streets (though Nihit spotted some getting cosy at, of all places, a temple). At dusk, the bazaar is buzzing. But by 10pm, ours are the only silhouettes against the lampposts dotting the lake.
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At Parvatidevi School and Junior College, which sits right in the middle of the lake, the staff claimed no knowledge of their town’s flourishing side business. “Is that what outsiders think we’re known for, then?” one teacher asked, incredulous.
But it’s impossible to keep this big an industry a secret in a town this small.
En route to Sawantwadi’s railway station we got chatting with our rickshaw driver and fed him our story. “Here to get married? Why didn’t you say so earlier?” he responded happily. Not only did he provide the number of a karyalay, he also volunteered advice.
Over the 20-minute journey, he offered “the best way” to break down parental resistance (“Get a third party to sit down with them and convince them separately”) and how to invoke divine intervention (“There’s a local temple where your wishes will be granted”).
The great escape
Back at the karyalay though, it’s getting sticky – the owner is all business, aiming to marry us immediately; after all, isn’t that what we came here for? It will cost Rs 15,000, he says, but readily whittles it down to Rs 10,000.
He’ll arrange for additional witnesses, get us married, provide 15 photographs of the ceremony (“negatives too, in case anyone tears them”) and give us our registration papers that evening to at most, the following morning. “Just bring the necessary documents, a sari – even a Rs 250 one from the bazaar will do – a mangalsutra and green bangles for the saptapadi,” we are told.
We smile, relieved, not because happily ever after is that easy, but because two journalists have just found a way out of unintended wedlock! Our only documents are a voter card and a driver’s licence – we don’t have the sari and bangles and our wallets certainly don’t have that much cash. We have to go out and arrange for it all.
We thank him and leave, with promises that we’ll be back, “in two hours, tops”. Our hearts are still beating faster than normal as we escape, but really, it’s hardly the fastest thing in Sawantwadi.
“Let’s get married now” “...Or have lunch first”
One couple’s tale of love, longing and legal union in Sawantwadi
"Sawantwadi is great if you want to marry but have little support from family. I met my husband 10 years ago in college. We were both 17; me, a broadminded non-vegetarian Punjabi and he, a conservative vegetarian Jain. But it was love at first sight. My parents were fine with him, but his folks… they were not thrilled.
We waited a decade for them to come around – I gave up meat for seven years. They kept putting him off repeatedly. Last year we decided we’d waited long enough and eloped. To Goa.
We thought it would be wonderful to be married in church. Only no priest would marry two non-Christians! But at a temple in Calangute, a pujari said he’d perform the ceremony if we got our marriage registered in Sawantwadi. Apparently a lot of Goan couples did that.
Neither of us had been there before. You’d think a small place like this would be judgemental, conservative. But they were so supportive! The first karyalay turned us away for not enough documentation – I’d only carried my driver’s licence! At the second, the priest was out at another wedding. But then we found a karyalay that was willing to help us.
For `5,500, the person there said he’d get us married. Immediately. Except, we’d driven that morning from Goa and were a bit hungry, so we told them we’d be back after lunch. A round of misal pao later, we were back, and an hour later, we were married – right in his front verandah. The man who owned the house stood in as the second witness with the friend travelling with us. Our certificates were ready right there.
It’s not the wedding I would have wanted. Him, with a 30-day beard; me in no make-up but a suit from Amritsar I’d saved for my gurudwara wedding; photos shot on cameraphone; no parents. But we had no cold feet then and no regrets now. We married the people we wanted to. "
-Name withheld, 27, Mumbai.
With inputs by Nihit Bhave
Photos by Kalpak Pathak
Behind the scenes
Our undercover writers (for this cover story), Rachel Lopez and Nihit Bhave, face the press in a fake interview
Q: Nihit, three days into a new job and your first assignment is to ‘marry’ a colleague. Aapko kaisa lag raha hai?
It was like being stuck between a rock (which I didn’t buy) and a hard place (Sawantwadi). Little did I know the person who interviewed me would soon be my “fiancée”!
Q: Apparently the HT Mumbai office had a few choice remarks...
RL: Brunch editor Poonam Saxena gave us her blessing. HT Mumbai resident editor Soumya Bhattacharya told us we’d better not come back married – or one of us would be fired under the HR policy...
NB: That would be me. Ms Lopez said she’d happily throw me under the bus...
RL: (Laughs) ...I asked Manoj Nair, our associate editor, if I should fake a conversion certificate to Hinduism, he missed the ‘fake’ bit: “Why don’t you just convert and see how it goes?” Chetan Meher, who booked our hotel, cheekily asked if we wanted the honeymoon suite!
Q: What was your exit strategy if you came too close to getting hitched?
RL: Tears, and a dramatic storm-out!
NB: Yeah, it has to be over when the girl who ran away with you, runs away from you, right?
Q: Were there follow-ups from the mandaps you guys left behind?
NB: Yeah, a couple of them kept calling when we were in Sawantwadi. I had to keep saying that Rachel had still not made up her mind!
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From HT Brunch, December 7
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