It was a carnival-like atmosphere at the YMCA ground in Karachi when the Pakistan Hindu Council (PHC) arranged the mass wedding of 60 couples, all hailing from underprivileged families.
Besides the hundreds of relatives of the couples, many more – including members of the majority Muslim community - came to witness the weddings that have become an important highlight of the Hindu community’s social calendar in the port city.
Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, founder and patron of the PHC, which arranged the mass wedding, said the ceremony began some years ago on the demand of council members who realised a number of Hindu couples were unable to marry simply because of rising costs.
“We are talking about people whose monthly income is around Rs10,000 and they are expected to save more than Rs 5 lakh to get their son or daughter married,” said Vankwani. “That is why we started this initiative.”
Over the years, more than 300 couples have been married in the mass weddings. Despite the chaos and confusion that prevails, most families are happy with the arrangements.
Some 20 stages are arranged for the couples and the marriages take place in shifts. “In each shift, 20 lucky couples take the pheras and tie the knot,” said Engineer Hotchand Karmani, vice president of the PHC.
The event is held at the YMCA ground, where tents are set up in a circle. Each tent has a stage with a sitting area for the bride and groom and six of their relatives. When the priest starts the prayers, the couple get up and circle the ceremonial fire at the centre of the stage.
Hotchand Karmani said the arrangements can sometimes be a logistical nightmare. “People throng the stages and overcrowd them. Others wander off and get lost. My only fear is that one day, the wrong people will end up tying the knot,” he said with a smile.
Adding to the carnival-like atmosphere is the loud music that blares from the centre stage. The music, stages and food are provided by the PHC. It is a costly affair but the council subsidises this with corporate sponsorship and donations from the Hindu community. The council charges Rs60,000 from each couple for the service.
Hindus come from as far as Tharparkar, located more than 400 km from Karachi, to get married at the ceremony. Gopal Ram, a resident of Mithi, was present to witness the wedding of his son. “The cost of holding such a wedding in Thar would be much higher,” he said.
Many Hindu families even take loans to cover the costs of arranging marriages.
Sitting next to Ram is Allah Bux, a Muslim friend, who said he was enjoying the ceremony and had come to give his friend moral support. “A shaadi is a shaadi and friends and family have to be there. That is our tradition,” he said
But there is more to a ‘shaadi’ for many Hindus in Pakistan. Community leader Mangla Sharma said the debts of poor Hindus, many of whom belong to scheduled castes, eventually lead to their ruin. “The debts keep piling up and they end up in dire straits,” she said.
That is why the PHC’s initiative is welcomed by many.
The 1991 census in Pakistan estimated the number of religious minorities at around 5%, of which just 1.5% were Hindu. The latest estimates put the number of Hindus in Pakistan at just under 3 million, and a large percentage reside in rural areas of Sindh province.
Of this number, 50% are in Tharparkar, Mirpurkhas and, to some extent, in Sanghar. About 25% are in Hyderabad and Badin. The remaining are in the rest of Sindh. Scheduled castes form about 85% and they are the ones hit hardest by costs associated with marriages.
The other issue related to Pakistan’s Hindu community is the lack of a Hindu marriage law. A bill was presented by the fourth National Commission on the Status of Women in 2011 and followed up by the chief justice, who instructed the government to amend rules for registering Hindu marriages.
The absence of a proper law means men can go around getting married more than once without the knowledge of their first wife. The women don’t have proper documents to produce if the matter goes to court.
But all this is forgotten when happy couples tie the knot at the mass weddings. For most, this is the best news they have had in a long time.