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Swayamvara the Ancient Hindu Marriage Custom

MG is an air warrior with a distinguished career and now a corporate advisor, writer, and intrepid traveler and novelist


Hindu marriage and Contests

Marriage is considered a sacred rite in Hinduism. From ancient times this form of marriage was accepted for the nobility. It is specified in the ancient Hindu texts like the Purana’s. Ancient texts of Hinduism specify many forms of marriages. One form of marriage was the Swayamvara. This form of marriage was very much prevalent until the advent of the Moslems. The Muslim-Hindu conflict started in the 9th century and by the 11th century, this form of marriage ceased to exist.

The marriage was a contest of skills among the prospective grooms who were invited to the bride’s house. The winner would have the chance of marrying the bride who would garland the winner as a token of her acceptance. The word swayamvara consists of two words Swayam and Vara which means self and choice or desire. Its origin is from Sanskrit, the ancient Hindu language.

In the Hindu epic Ramayana, King Janak proclaims that his daughter Sita will be given to the man who can lift and string the Shiva Dhanush (Shiva's bow). Sita marries Rama, the only one strong enough to lift and string the bow. It must be noted that this form of marriage existed only among the nobility and the kings and the common people never had such ceremony's.


Practice of Swayamvara

The entire ritual of Swayamvara would commence after the kings daughter had reached marriageable age.As a first step, the father of the girl would consult the astrologers for an auspicious time and venue. He would also consult other wise men including seers and Yogi’s. Once the time and venue were decided, the King would send his messengers to outside lands and other kings, informing them he would be conducting the swayamvara of his daughter. Commoners would spread the word among the local community. The contest was however only available for the high class and the nobility. The Mahabharata relates that when Karna the warrior went for the swayamvara of Draupadi, he was not allowed to contest and was insulted and sent away because he was the son of a Charioteer and not of royal blood.

On the day of the Swayamvara, all the suitors who desired to marry the princess assembled at the appointed place. The girl and her family would then organize games of skill like archery and swordsmanship. The man who bested all other suitors would be identified as the husband who could marry the princess. The marriage ceremony would then take place immediately and the prince would carry the princess to the nuptial chamber. There would also be much feasting and merriment with the losing suitors also taking part. In ancient India, this was the most popular form of marriage among the nobility, where the choice of the groom rested with the girl.

Examples of Swayamvara

There are many examples of swayamvara and the Ramayana records that God Ram himself won Sita in a swayamvara. Even as late as the 7th century King Ramchand of Kanauji held a swayamvara for his daughter Sanyogita. This girl, in reality, loved the enemy of her father Prithviraj Chauhan. During the swayamvara, the princess garlanded a statue of Prithviraj to the chagrin of all the contestants. Prithviraj who was hiding nearby now appeared and carried off the princess on his horse.

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One of the most famous battles during the swayamvara is related in the Mahabharata when the warrior Bhishma, now well past the age of 45 entered the swayamvara of three sisters and to the chagrin of the younger men defeated all of them and won the three princesses. Age was not a factor in the swayamvara.

Last Word

The practice of swayamvara continued for many centuries. However, with the advent of the Moslems, this marriage ritual died a natural death. But with the passage of time, we can look back at the practice of swayamvara and marvel at a custom where thre most skilful and powerful suitor won the hand of the princess. As the prospective grooms age was never a bar, the chance of an older man entering and beating the younger men was always there. Generally only unmarried men by convention went for these contests but there was no bar to an already married warrior or king seeking the hand of a younger princess and entering the contest.


MG Singh (author) from UAE on August 07, 2021:

Thank you, Jennifer. In that age, probably this didn't matter. Women in all societies had no say in anything. Why even the great Aristotle made a statement that women have lesser teeth than men though he could have counted as he had two wives. He went by the prevalent atmosphere that women were always less than men.

Jennifer on August 07, 2021:

Very interesting. I wonder what was the feeling of the girl princess in all this.

MG Singh (author) from UAE on May 14, 2014:

Thank you Au fait for a lovely comment

C E Clark from North Texas on May 13, 2014:

A very interesting explanation of swayamvara. I believe I read stories in elementary school based on this practice as the suitors would often compete in some way at a king's command for the hand of the princess.

Really enjoy reading your articles and learning from them. Voted this up and interesting.

cool dude on June 03, 2012:

This page is very interesting!

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