If you’re ever lucky enough to be invited to a wedding in India, the first thing you have to know before going is that it’s a big deal. A very big deal indeed.
Lest you expect an Indian wedding to be simply two youngsters falling in love and exchanging vows with a few family and friends present and then slipping away for a bit of private time…well, that’s not how it works.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite – an Indian wedding is the very public bringing together of two youngsters AND their families. Indeed, you do not marry an individual in India, but rather a family, a clan, an entire interconnected, intertwined inter-dependent network. And as such, everyone is involved in the wedding at every stage, and celebrates with a vengeance over a period of several days.
In a country like India, which is a gargantuan melting pot of languages, cultures, religions, castes, customs and clans, there are, of course, many different types of weddings. For instance, a Christian wedding will follow a much more recognizably western format – church, long white dress, bridesmaids, followed by a reception.
But the minute you talk about a Hindu wedding, all bets are off. The ceremonies and festivities surrounding a wedding can last for a week, easily, and if you are invited, you need stamina, colorful clothes and the ability to eat and party non-stop.
And that right there is the essence of an Indian wedding – throwing a party that’s as raucous and happy and colorful and noisy and inclusive as possible; there is no room for quiet restraint or candle-lit romance.
Of course, there are moments of solemnity when the vows are exchanged, but even at the most intimate moment of a Hindu wedding, when the couple walks seven times around the sacred fire making very public vows, there is chatter and laughter, and coming and going, and the throwing of rose petals, and people taking photos, and - yet again - it is impossible to avoid using the word ‘fun’.
Last year, at the Delhi wedding of two youngsters who have both lived their lives overseas, the pundit was talking in Hindi, explaining the vows and the significance of them. He suddenly stopped, and switching into English asked the groom: “Have you any idea what I am talking about? Have you understood one single word of this?” Quick as a flash, the groom replied, “No, sorry, not a word” and the whole, huge crowd of guests burst out laughing. And the pundit switched to English.
That was a true Indian wedding scene – laughter at even the most solemn of moments.
To set the scene properly, it helps to understand the key elements of a Hindu wedding.
A few days before the event there will be a sangeet, or musical evening, the gravity of which depends on the degree of formality of the musical soirée. I have been to sangeets where renowned classical musicians entertain the guests, as well as sangeets that bordered on a disco. Traditionally there are humorous, jokey songs, often poking innocent fun at the groom-to-be. Increasingly, these songs have become more of a family and friends production, with all the sisters and female cousins and friends singing and dancing, and then the brothers and male cousins and friends responding. Usually set to Bollywood music and often telling the tale of how the couple met, these song and dance sequences are hugely popular with everyone laughing and cheering as aunties and uncles get into the act. Indians are seemingly born to dance, and what better occasion than a pre-wedding dance party?
Closer to the wedding day will be the mehendi ceremony, when the bride-to-be and her female family and friends have henna decorations applied. It’s of the most relaxed wedding rituals, usually taking place over lunch as the women sit chatting, hand and arms outstretched, whilst a small army of mehendi-walis (professional mehendi artists) paint intricate designs on their skin. There is always a bangle-wali at these events as well, and the women have huge fun selecting dozens of colored bangles to match their outfits.
On the big day, everyone is busy setting up, getting dressed and preparing for the upcoming rituals. If you are from the groom’s side, you will form part of the baraat, a ceremony which replicates the traditional act of the groom travelling to the bride’s house, where they would marry and return to his house to live. Nowadays, a baraat is a boisterous, noisy parade through the streets leading to the venue. Some baraats really do travel a bit of a distance, whilst others line up symbolically outside the wedding venue, where the groom’s side - family and friends – enter together. Often the groom participates in his baraat on a horse, accompanied by a fabulously loud brass band, with lights, fire crackers, dancing and yelling - the arrival of a baraat is one of the most amazing moments in an Indian wedding.
While all of this is going on, the bride’s family waits for the arriving baraat, greeting them with garlands and flower petals on the ground. Once everyone is together and the bride and groom are in the same place, the ceremony starts. Garlands are exchanged, vows are made, and as the couple walks round the scared fire, they are married.
If you are lucky enough to be invited to an Indian wedding, you are in for a visual and sensory treat. Colors, clothes, and jewelry like you’ve never seen before, accompanied by a boisterous overload of music, dancing, and food – oh, how one eats at an Indian wedding.
One major rule to keep in mind – you can never, ever be under-dressed, so wear your most wonderful clothes, knowing that no matter how magnificent your outfit, you will still be outdone!