I have always been fascinated by the cultures of other countries, their traditions and believes. During my adventures through India I came across weddings many times but I never had the luck to take part in one and observe it from the inside. Last year, must have been October, I received an email from my good friend Sandeep whom I met in India and who took care of me when I feel ill with food poisoning. His message to me was that his sister was getting married in November and I was invited to the wedding! I didn’t think too much before saying “yes” and started to look for flights from London to New Delhi.
One month later, on the 23rd of November, I found myself at Heathrow Airport checking in for my flight with luxury Etihad (surprisingly, the cheapest option at that time).
“Why are you staying in India only 3 days?” the checking desk lady asked me surprised.
I was indeed going to India for three days only, flying almost 10 hours each way. I was so excited though to see a real Indian wedding that it didn’t really matter that I was flying so long to be there only for three days.
The flight went on without any problems and 10 hours later I was landing in (what I thought to be) foggy New Delhi. Back in autumn New Delhi has just been declared the most polluted city in the world, and what I thought to be fog was actually a very thick layer of smog covering the entire atmosphere. It was so bad that at landing, it was almost impossible to see the buildings underneath the approach.
I went through immigration very fast compared with other times and got out of the airport in less than an hour. Sandeep was waiting for me.
The wedding was taking place in Sandeep’s home town, Bhiwani, 2 hours North from Delhi, in Haryana state. However, we wondered around New Delhi for a bit, so that Sandeep can sort out the last shopping for the wedding and to pick up his own suit from a shop in Connaught Place, the centre of the city. We had time to enjoy a cup of chai by the side of the road and also have parathas for breakfast.
As soon as I arrived I found out that the wedding was actually starting that evening with the ladies’ Sangeet (Girl’s Night). Even if I had fallen asleep in the car, I needed a few hours of rest so after I’ve met Sandeep’s family who greeted me warmly with a delicious homemade lunch, he drove me to the hotel where I was staying for the next few days. It was a new hotel, very basic, that wasn’t actually opened yet but which was hired entirely for Sandeep’s family, for the wedding guests.
Ladies’ Sangeet is similar to a Bachelorette Party to which all the brides’ family is invited. It begins with the bride getting her bridal mehndi (the henna applied to her arms and feet). This takes a lot of time and the woman needs to stay still until it dries out. It is said that the darker the henna, the deeper the groom’s love is for the bride.
As the night came, the party moved into a tent outside the house, where all the girls came together to sing and dance traditional wedding songs. A DJ was also playing Bollywood songs while photographers were capturing the entire party on their cameras. Outside, the men of the family were gathered in a circle, smoking hookah and talking between themselves. Sometimes younger men would also join on the dance floor and also throw money in the air above their relatives who dance very well or who don’t dance that often.
I was wearing a dress borrowed from Sandeep’s sister in law, to blend in with the locals. It was fascinating to watch how good the girls were dancing, with typical Indian moves that I have only seen in movies.
We were only three non-Indian guests and everyone treated us like VIPs. All the girls wanted to teach us how to dance (I am hopeless when it comes to dancing) and they wouldn’t let us sit down at all. If we did, they would ask us if we are not enjoying the party. In a hidden dark corner, outside the tent, someone brought it some drinks, which helped a bit with the courage of stepping onto the dance floor. The party didn’t finish until 2am.
The next morning started with the arrival of the extended family to the bride’s house, with women from different villages wearing their traditional colourful clothes, some with their heads completely covered by scarfs, some carrying pots on their heads. The mother of the bride welcomed all her brothers first, starting with the older one, in a ritual which involved applying tilak (paint) on their foreheads together with rice, the symbol for prosperity. The ceremony is called Bhat, which comes from the Sanskrit word “Bhratr” (bother). The brothers are bringing gifts and money for their sister, as a gesture of their involvement in the wedding. In a traditional Indian household, the mother usually stays home and takes care of the family while the father is the one who supports it. By bringing money, the brothers are showing their support as a sign of respect. The amounts will be written on papers and kept for years in their homes.
After that, all the women gathered around the bride and blessed her, one by one, in the Pithi ceremony, a ritual for good luck. Pithi is a turmeric, chickpea, flour and rose water paste that the family applies on the bride’s skin and hair. This tradition comes from the past, when there were no hairdressers and the brides would use turmeric and yogurt in beauty rituals. Once they finished, the father of the bride together with the brothers of the mother and the priest conducted another blessing ceremony.
I would watch fascinated how the bride stood still and welcomed everyone with kindness and humility. Her hands were opened, to receive the blessings. She was wearing a yellow scarf covering her hair under which I could notice her radiant smile and the sparkle in her eyes.
After lunch I went in the centre of the village to buy a dress for the evening, the main ceremony of the wedding. I have to mention that the wedding was an arranged one, the bride and groom only seeing each other about 3 times before the wedding. Both families are organising different ceremonies for the wedding, different from each other so I can only tell you about what happened on the bride’s side of the family.
It was quite funny going to get the dress, in an Indian non-touristy village. I could swear that the entire bazaar stopped and started to stare. It was quite overwhelming, especially when even a man passing by in a rickshaw stopped his driver and started to stare.
The time passed faster than I could have imagined (thanks to the jet lag as well) and the evening arrived soon. The wedding ceremony took place in a very large garden that could probably easily accommodate 1000 people. The entire open hall was decorated with pink and white, with an impressive entrance and waiters welcoming us with coffee and snacks. On both sides of the building there were cooks, each of them serving a different type of Indian food.
The wedding was a vegetarian one but there were at least 30 different delicious choice to try out. The selection of dishes included the delicious palak paneer (my favourite – a sweet spinach based curry with cheese), pani poori (a crisp round deep fried indian bread filled with flavoured water), alloo gobi (a dry cauliflower and potato curry) but also a lot of sweets, like gulab jamun (spongy balls drenched in cardamom syrup) or rasmalai (cottage cheese balls soaked in syrup and milk and flavoured with saffron and pistachios). There was no alcohol at the wedding but plenty of soft drinks, coffee and lassi (a delicious milk based typical Indian drink). If you love Indian food, this was heaven! There were so many different types of food that I didn’t really manage to try them all in one night!
The wedding ceremony started when the groom arrived together with his family and friends, in a ritual known as baraat. He was sitting on a high chair decorated with hundreds of garlands of flowers, while everyone else was dancing and singing around him, leaded by dhol (large bass drum) players. He met the family of the bride who welcomed him with tilak and rice.
Soon after, it was time for the bride to walk down the “isle”. The groom was responsible for the wedding dress and he delivered it earlier the same day. She was so different from the first time I’ve met her, on the terrace of the house, getting her hands and feet covered in henna. I could notice a lot of emotions on her face, happiness but also shyness and maybe a little bit of fear of the unknown of the new life she was just about to step into. She looked beautiful in her red dress covered with jewellery from head to toes. She walked slowly on the red carpet accompanied by all her family and friends, with her brothers leading her towards the arms of her soon husband to be.
The groom took the brides hand into his and they climbed together the seven sacred steps towards a platform which lifted them into the air. Just before that, they’ve put red flower garlands around each other’s necks. The seven sacred steps talk about the vows the two are taking for each other, each step representing a life value: respect, spirituality, prosperity, happiness, children, devotion and lifelong partners.
All the guests gathered around the platform to support and be there for the new couple. As soon as they descended, they moved towards their assigned seats, on a stage, from where they greeted and received the gifts from all the guests. This part of the wedding lasted for a couple of hours as each guest posed for a photo.
The bride and groom moved underneath a mandap (a temporary porch set up for weddings, decorated with flowers) where the priest was waiting to perform the union ceremony. This part of the wedding can last for hours but in Sandeep sister’s case it only lasted for about 20 minutes. The priests starts a fire and the new family walks around it four times keeping in mind the four aspirations in life: Dharma (devotion one to each other, family and God), Artha (prosperity), Karma (passion) and Moksha (salvation). The bride will lead three times while the groom only once. The bride’s brother puts rice in her hands after each round, to show that he will always be there to protect her. Meanwhile, the girls are throwing with rose petals. When they return to their seat, they exchange places, the bride sitting now on the left side of the groom, close to his heart. The groom then applies a red powder on her forehead, changing her status from a single to a married woman. There are three things that represent the union in marriage of the two: the red color, the necklace and the rounds around the fire. It is believed that if the marriage promises are broken, the fire will burn you.
This is the end of the ceremony. The reception continued for a couple more hours, until the bride and groom left together in a new car, a gift from the wedding. If I remember well, I think the wedding ended at around 5 am. By this point I was so tired that when I arrived back to the hotel I fell asleep immediately and did not wake up early, as planned. But that was ok, as neither anyone else.
My return flight from Delhi to London was very early, meaning that I had to be at the airport before 6am. I was so tired after three days of activities that I slept almost for the entire flight. I remember waking up for breakfast, taking a bite from the sausage and thinking that it’s not that good, and then falling back asleep. When I woke up again my entire tray was cleaned and put back up. And I was sitting by the window. The passengers next to me noticed how tired I was and they cleaned it for me when the flight attendant passed by with the rubbish bag.
The entire experience of the wedding was fantastic, three colorful days filled with excitement and joy. A traditional Indian wedding in a tiny Indian village it’s a one in a lifetime experience!