April 10, 2023
In 2016, a Chennai man sued his spouse for committing “the highest form of mental cruelty.” He alleged that his now-estranged wife’s actions were grounds for divorce. The cardinal sin in question, you wonder? The woman, who lived separately from her husband in the months leading up to the courtroom melodrama, had removed the pendant of her mangalsutra, a necklace that allegedly embodied her marital virtue.
The woman’s counsel rebutted that as per the Hindu Marriage Act, wearing a thaali, or pendant, isn’t necessary, and therefore its removal shouldn’t impact the marriage. Ultimately, the court ruled that it is “common knowledge” that wearing mangalsutras is sacrosanct in Indian marriages. The bench granted the couple their divorce, and stated, “[The thali’s] removal by the wife…reflected mental cruelty of the highest order as it could have hurt the sentiments of the respondent. The act…compels us to come to a definite conclusion that the parties have no intention to reconcile and continue the marital knot.”
Many married Hindu women, though not all, wear a mangalsutra, a necklace that translates to “auspicious thread” in Sanskrit. In almost all cultures, there is at least some form of indication that one is married: a wedding ring, a shanka in Bengal, or toe rings in parts of north India. The necklace as we know it emerged only about a century ago, but its meaning — a symbol of bliss? a trendy accessory? a patriarchal contraption? — is already rapidly changing.