Philanthropic expats pay for nine big weddings

A group of Keralan businessmen who found success in Abu Dhabi have made dreams come true for nine couples back home.

They call themselves "the friends of Changaramkulam." For nine new brides, they must seem more like dear uncles. "The friends", some 400 strong, have found success in Abu Dhabi after leaving their small hometown of Changaramkulam in the Indian state of Kerala.

They regularly send home money to family and perform other philanthropic deeds. But now "the friends" have outdone themselves, and changed the lives of nine women whose family poverty and inability to offer a dowry or pay for a wedding seemed to rule out any chance of marriage. The 400, businessmen and professionals here, spent more than Dh72,000 (almost US$20,000) on a mass wedding in Changaramkulam on Sunday, seeing it as a way to give back to their community and to take a stand against dowries and lavish wedding spending.

"We have made a success of our lives here," said Noushad Yousuf, the general secretary of Changaatham Changaramkulam, which translates from the Malayalam to "friends of Changaramkulam." "But we have been looking at the poor people in the community and this is our way of giving back and making a difference for those who have not had the same opportunities as us." Five Hindu and four Muslim couples were married, the happy culmination of plans that began more than six months ago, Mr Yousuf said.

A notice went out in Changaramkulam asking families who were facing financial hurdles but wanted to marry off their daughters to come forward. Notices were also distributed to government offices, and officers were asked to spread the word and verify the income levels of those who inquired. Only brides were allowed to apply. "We would provide them with whatever they needed to get married but the only thing the family of the bride had to do was to select a groom." Mr Yousef said. "We left that up to them."

Grooms who were selected by the nine families were later vetted by members of the organisation to make sure they did not ask for a dowry from the bride's family. The group set up a committee to ensure that those brides already chosen by a groom's family had agreed to the group wedding and that no dowry had been asked of their families, either. "It is a celebration but there are lots of expenses of feeding a lot of people," said Abdul Jabber, the president of Changaatham Changaramkulam.

"It is the bride's side that are the ones giving the dowry and having to bear all these expenses. We want to avoid that completely. That is our message." Although the giving and receiving of a dowry is a violation of Indian law, the custom prevails and families are often driven into crippling debt, sometimes taking out second mortgages on their homes or borrowing from unscrupulous lenders. Costs mount at the wedding feast, which often includes thousands of guests and an array of courses.

The cost of a wedding in India varies depending on the social standing of the family. Some wedding planners estimate that a modest wedding can cost 50,000 Indian rupees (Dh4,000). Changaatham Changaramkulam spent about Dh8,000 per couple, paying for clothing for the bride and groom, jewellery, transportation, the marriage licence and 1.5 grams of gold for the bride. The money also went towards snacks and tea for the guests that gathered on Sunday morning for the festivities.

Hindu weddings require auspicious timing, and temple pundits had settled on 10am as a propitious moment for the wedding of all five Hindu couples. The Muslim wedding followed the Hindu ceremony and, afterwards, refreshments were served. Some 4,000 people, including local politicians, attended the weddings. "It went very well," said Shareef Kalachal, one of the men who travelled from Abu Dhabi to Kerala to organise the mass wedding. "A lot of people attended. The brides are very happy."

He said the brides yesterday "organised a lunch for us, a token of appreciation for our work". @Email:sbhattacharya@thenational.ae