Tonight’s wedding was one of the most vivid, vivacious, and enchanting events that I have ever attended. In eight hours, I took 310 photographs hoping that just one would capture a small hint of the dreamlike atmosphere and spirit. Rising out of millennia of traditions and religious rituals, this wedding had not a single dull moment.
First, let me give a little background to the story. The groom is a handsome 27 year-old software engineer who lives with his family (as is customary) in the house next to ours. He and his family have been incredibly warm and generous since the day I arrived. Although he was given permission to pursue a love marriage if he desired, the groom chose to have his marriage arranged by his parents. This is standard in India as 80-90% of Indian marriages are arranged. He has known the bride only vaguely as his parents are acquaintances with the bride’s parents. However, he has only seen the bride a few times and only rarely since becoming engaged eight months ago. They have eaten at restaurants together but have otherwise not spent time alone, although they do talk on the phone from time to time. Before tonight, they had not seen each other in more than three weeks.
The bride is a beautiful 24 year-old who also happens to be a software engineer. Keep in mind, however, that we had not seen her until tonight, contributing to a feeling of suspense that dominated the evening. Like the groom, she is a Brahmin, which is considered the priestly class and is the highest caste. Marriage among different castes is still very rare and often looked unfavorably upon. Thus, it is typical to have a marriage like this between two individuals from the same caste.
The wedding itself takes place in multiple stages. Different events and celebrations have been occurring for more than two weeks, with spirit and expenses peaking over the last two days. Today, we planned to depart from the neighborhood in a convoy of vehicles at 4 pm. The female volunteers had their sarees and makeup perfected at a house nearby while I remained at home to prepare my jootis, kurta, stole, and turban. Since this was my first and potentially only true Indian wedding, I wasn’t about to hold anything back.
–Kurta and stole design–
My host-family, three friends, and I jumped in a large taxi hired by the groom’s father. We followed the groom’s car to the local temple for a short blessing, then to the staging area 45 minutes away in Gurgaon (where I stayed during my first week in India). We pulled up right behind the groom and were welcomed by a full band and continuous array of ground and airborne fireworks from which flaming debris rained all around us. Mind you, this was not the actual wedding location. This was just a place for the families to stage while the guests arrived at the main venue.
Garlands of fresh flowers were placed over our heads by the bride’s uncle. Throughout the ceremonies yesterday and today, the bride’s eldest uncle and the groom’s father practically ran the show. They determined what happened when and directed processions and gift giving with the wave of their hands. A short (30 minute) religious ceremony occurred here in which the groom’s family gave gifts of jewelry and garments to the bride’s family. This is also where I met all of the groom’s childhood friends, who took me under their wings and gave me the front row seats to the remainder of the events.
–Short ceremony of gift-giving in the staging location–
–My host-family and friends–
After two hours of snacks, visiting, and ceremonies here, we departed to more fireworks and music. A short drive led us to yet another staging area, where a horse-drawn carriage, a second full band, two rolling generators, multiple strands of chandeliers, and a massive music machine awaited us on the side of the road. As soon as we pulled up, the diesel generators were fired up, spewing clouds of black smoke into the air. As the smoke dissipated, the ‘portable’ lights began to illuminate the entire street while the band and music machine blared festive songs as if to an audience in Bangladesh.
After a few minutes, the groom exited his car and boarded the carriage.
Then, the dancing began! With the music machine leading the way, the procession of perhaps 75 people danced our way down the street with generators and chandeliers in tow for the next hour.
With my ear drums and feet ready for a break, we made the turn into the breathtaking wedding venue. We danced in front for another 15 minutes. To bless the crowd and the groom, guests waved stacks of 10 rupee bills in the air before throwing them all into the air. Nearby members of the band would then scurry around to hunt for money on the ground.
The groom’s friends all joined the groom on the carriage and began to dance above the crowd. They escorted the groom, who was also now dancing, down the steps and into the entrance.
Halfway through the long entrance tunnel, the bride’s female relatives blocked the grooms entranced and performed yet another ritual.
As is customary and also highly ironic and comical, the groom had to haggle his way into the venue. The groom’s brother-in-law led the negotiations. I think they settled on an entrance fee of about Rs 11,000 ($220).
–Negotiating the groom’s entrance–
We then entered the massive venue, a lawn where more than 1,000 people were eating, dancing, welcoming us, or watching us live on one of multiple jumbotrons placed around the venue. I knew it was going to be a big wedding, but I had not anticipated such grandeur. To top it all off, I was given some of the best seats in the house. In fact, for much of the wedding, I stood or sat right next to the groom. I got to learn what he was thinking and a small taste of the emotions that must have been overwhelming him. Wow, what a special gift!
After about 30 minutes of snacks and mingling, the moment everyone had been waiting for arrived. The stage was cleared except for the groom, who waited alone in anticipation. Eyes and cameras fixated on the door of a single story building in a corner of the lawn near the stage. The bride’s family assembled and then, finally, she emerged.
The bride’s dress alone contained more than 15 kgs (30 pounds) of silver and jewelry! After uniting on the stage, the couple exchanged garlands before spending an hour taking photos with relatives and friends.
–The couple with the bride’s parents (who were fighting tears) and brother–
–The couple with the groom’s parents, sister, brother-in-law, and niece–
During the photo shoot, most people returned to dancing and eating. I estimate that there were at least 25 food and beverage stations each preparing unique specialties. Without the wedding celebration or dancing, the event could have easily been mistaken for a gourmet food festival. As the families are devout Hindus, all of the food was strictly vegetarian and there was no alcohol served.
–The groom’s childhood friends (and a Swede who is in school with one of them)–
At about 11:30 pm, rain began to drizzle and then pour. Everyone moved under the awnings and enjoyed more desserts. By midnight, the scheduled celebrations for guests started to come to an end. After a round of goodbyes and thank you’s, we departed for home.
I’ll go on more about the wedding tomorrow because, actually, the official wedding does not happen until 2 am! This post is a marathon for the eyes. Thanks for hanging in! Just imagine how tired the bride, groom, and families are. They will not have a chance to sleep until 6 pm tomorrow! If any of you are reading, thank you so much for such an incredible and memorable experience!