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Published: April 6th 2016
We recently got the chance to attend a couple of Indian weddings. These, if you ask the internet and the travel guides, are not simply weddings that take place in India. No, these are transcendent cultural treasures all of their own, metaphysically distinct from any other wedding you’ve ever experienced just as India is ineffably more spiritual than any other place in the world.
In both cases we were guests of the groom, meaning we were among their de facto attendants. Bridesmaids and groomsmen don’t exist in Indian weddings but each side definitely has some accompaniment. This mainly meant that when we attended the ceremony, which is hosted by the bride, we had to show up with the groom to avoid crashing the wedding. For one we showed up on time-which is to say, early-and it would have been rude if we weren’t white and therefore immediately welcomed with open arms.
Part of the kitsch of IndianWeddings for Americans (and be honest, you’re not an anthropologist; it’s kitsch) is how long they are. Let’s put that to bed right now. They were weeks-long affairs for the elite in the 16th
century. But that was true
in Europe too. That ain’t the case now. I’m not trying to downplay the weddings-they were very special events--but not because they were especially long. For the wedding of our American friend John to his Indian bride Avantika we attended something called the mehendi/sangeet one day, the ceremony the next, and finally the reception the third day. For our coworker Rajesh’s wedding we attended the latter two events. Most guests just go to the reception. (While I’d like to chalk our attendance to all of these events as our charm and friendliness, the true motives were clear: John and Avantika were just gracious enough to give us the cultural experience and Rajesh wanted to show off his white friends. Fair enough.) In either case, the total amount of time at events was on the same order as the time of my own wedding and rehearsal.
The day before the ceremony is the mehendi and sangeet. Mehendi is just a party when the girls get together and get henna painted on their hands. Nowadays the guys come too, but don’t usually get henna. The sangeet is a good example of how IndianWeddings are much more about the union
of two families than of two people. Ostensibly to honor the couple, but more realistically to create bonding by shared trauma, all of the family members have to participate in what’s essentially a talent show. Parents and aunts and lots and lots of cousins all get up in groups of 1-4 and dance, with varying degrees of skill. Of course it all wraps up with a buffet dinner.
The next day is the ceremony, which is nothing like a western-style ceremony. The couple does actually undergo the wedding rites, yes, but mostly it’s about the food. The some guests might stick their head into the room where the ceremony’s going down to have a look, but mostly they come for the buffet and to socialize and network with the huge number of other guests. Some guests may not even know the couple or even see them during the ceremony. Rajesh’s wedding ceremony took place in a small upstairs room with a couple of aunties looking on and while being simulcast on a muted closed-circuit TV down in the banquet hall that most people actually ignored. This is very weird to me not only for its contrast to western weddings,
but also just in how it seems like folks are missing out. The attire is really cool. The groom rolls up to venue with his posse in a decked-out car with some incredible headgear and costuming and people banging drums and blowing conch shells (really!) and dancing. Then he retires to a private room for the ceremony and most people never see him again. Come on! How can you leave a party like that?
The food is pretty incredible: A huge spread of all kinds of Bengali food and desserts that people seem intent on shoving down our throats. Mustard fish wrapped in banana leaves, all manner of breads and curries, decadent sweets and ice creams. Rajesh and Ratna's ceremony even had a guy who was like a bartender but for paan
which is a kind of after-dinner snack made of stuffed betel leaf. The man sat in a turban before an incredible array of spices and adducts you could use to flavor your paan just so.
Astrology is very important in Hinduism, so couples tend to not only get married on a particular date but at a particular time: precisely when the moon and planets are in
the most auspicious alignments. Consequently, sometimes the actual wedding occurs in the wee hours of the morning, so many guests leave before the ceremony is actually completed. That was the case for us at Rajesh’s wedding. Before we left we had to thank our guests, so (much to my surprise) we stuck our heads into the room where the marriage was literally taking place at that moment: the bride and groom had their hands tied together and the Brahmin was chanting in Sanskrit. We waved goodbye—Rajesh waved back and asked us if we got enough to eat. All of this while he is literally in the act of getting married! Later on in the ceremony there is some walking around of a fire and placing feet on stones and so forth, but clearly it’s mostly about the food.
There’s a final tradition before the night ends that the bride’s friends steal the groom’s shoes-thus preventing him from leaving with his new wife-until a ransom is paid. The groom’s contingent of course tries to strengthen their bargaining position by finding the shoes hidden somewhere in the building. At his wedding John did a brilliant job of taking the
tradition to new, 20th
century levels by actually hiding a homing device inside his shoes. Unfortunately it was too loud at the reception to hear the pings coming from the shoes, which meant John had to come from a weak place in his negotiations. He talked a great game though and managed to bargain down to paying a ransom of Rs. 1000 plus a kiss to each of Avantika’s friends.
The reception is the final gathering. These tend to look a lot like the preceding events except with less pretending that it’s about anything but the food. There is some regaling the couple with gifts, but mostly it’s just about the food. There’s no dancing or anything, which is definitely one place that American weddings have got India beat, but did I mention there is a lot of good food?
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