I went to my first Indian wedding last night. And what better place to do so than in India? Over and over I’ve heard that if you can make it to an Indian wedding, do so. And if you can make it to a Punjabi wedding in Delhi, it doesn’t get any better. Or so they say. I have to say that of all the weddings I’ve been to, this one would certainly have to be the most memorable. (But don’t they always say that about your first?)
I was one of 500 or so guests at the wedding which might actually be on the small side when it comes to such affairs. Still I felt honored to witness the event. However there were a lot of people in my shoes last night; I’m told that as it was an auspicious day vis-a-vis the stars and there were some 1,500 or 15,000 weddings in the Delhi area alone (depending on the source). As seems to be the case with India (you’ll notice this in some previous postings), people throw around crazy statistics here that are hard to believe (and hard to verify as India doesn’t exactly lend itself to neat surveys); but when you have a billion people I guess it’s easier to buy some of them.
Aside from the scope of the wedding the thing that I noticed first is that an Indian wedding (at least in the north), like the rest of India, is a lot to get your fingers around. So many people, so many things happening — and lots and lots of noise. When the evening began we in the groom’s party convened at a tent about a kilometer from the actual outdoor wedding venue. To accommodate the number of weddings in Delhi and the number of people in each wedding much of the outskirts of the city is fairgrounds-cum-wedding fields. Even though these places are inundated with weddings the infrastructure is still a bit ersatz so the tent where Round I of the festivities takes place is powered by a big diesel generator set just off stage left of the tent, perhaps 20 feet from where the priest is doing his groove thing. The tent is set just off the access road to the fairgrounds and a hundred meters from the main highway (which itself seems to exist solely to ferry bus loads of Patels, Shankars and Sharmas to their weddings). And just for good measure every wedding has its own marching band of maybe a dozen pieces and while I admit that the subtleties of Indian wedding march music are lost on me, from my perspective it seems the overriding directive to these bands is to simply play as loud as possible. And if that wasn’t enough, well wishers set off fireworks on a continuous basis. And bear in mind that as your wedding is happening there are a half dozen in the general vicinity, all competing for India’s crowded aural bandwidth. If evil spirits are scared off by loud noises, Indian unions certainly start on the right foot.
As the groom’s party, we parade down the street with the groom (covered in a garland of rupee notes) on horseback — perhaps the world’s most docile horse given the circumstances; that or it’s heavily tranquilized — and the band playing to, well, beat the band … or the other neighboring bands as the case may be. And then the dancing starts. So we’re perhaps a party of 100 dancing in the streets and, silly me, I think, what the heck, I’ll try my hand at Indian dancing. The cousins and nephews and aunts and uncles (most of whose names rhymed with something-“nish” so I sort of lost track of who was who) were only too happy to include me. Thus, the kilometer-long walk became a good-natured tutorial in the finer points of hip swishing and hand swirling, Indian style. I’m pretty sure I made a grand fool of myself; the copious videos of the event will bear that out. When you’re dancing it, a kilometer seems like a really, really long distance.
By the time we finally arrive at the main venue where the bride’s family (ok, to be fair, probably a whole village) is waiting. It’s not such a bad place to be waiting though as there is food galore. Usually you hear stories about the tough decisions one makes in choosing what extras one will have at a wedding; Do I get the dessert bar and three entrees in the buffet or should I get more hors d’oeuvres instead, etc.? While I’m sure the host families said “no” to some options, they said “yes” to an awful lot; imagine a combination of a lavish garden party and the food row at the state fair — albeit a state fair that serves pav bhaji and samosas rather than corn dogs and funnel cake — and you have some idea of what the scene looked like. A dozen snack stalls, a giant buffet, a dessert corner, a juice bar, etc. It’s not easy to feed 500 people.
And that seems to be the main raison d’etre for the gathering. That and taking photos. Lots and lots of photos. Lots, really. And almost every photo has the bride and groom so over the course of the evening they must sit for more than a thousand snaps; mercifully you get flashblind in the first half hour so the rest of the night is just a blur. “Just a blur” — get it?
But seriously, being the stars of the show among so may people is hard work. I remember when I was in junior high and we had try-outs for the soccer team, our coach would just run us for days, never even taking out a ball to see if we had any skills in that seemingly important department. Instead it was a sort of athletic triage; survival of the fittest and only from those who could survive days of running (certainly easier than dancing the distance now that I think about it with my newfound appreciation of the rigors of long-distance dancing) would the real try-outs begin.
Indian weddings seem to follow a similar pattern where the couple’s stamina (and patience one assumes) is put to the limit via a marathon of successive ceremonies over the course of a few days. (“Honey if we could survive our wedding, we can make it though anything!”) After a late afternoon start and lakhs of pictures (bonus points if you remember what a lakh is from earlier postings), the final vows were exchanged at about 3 am. By then only the heartiest and most dedicated friends and family (ok, basically immediate family and curious ol‘ me, a former colleague of the groom’s brother-in-law, which makes me like a brother, right?) remained and many were only barely there; young and old alike would drift in and out of wakefulness with the only remedy being a lifeline of strong coffee. The bride and groom then get a few short hours before the morning session begins. I slept through that one. Whoops. (Although I did catch the traditional house call by the resident good luck eunuchs but that’s another story.)
It’s hard to sum up an Indian wedding but there’s certainly more pageantry than I’m accustomed to. Say what you will about the utility of the perfect black dress and western formal attire, a collage of bright silk saris with embroidery and brocade and tons of ornate gold jewelry makes for a spectacular backdrop. And far from the simple exchange of rings, the joining of the bride and groom has so many steps — many accompanied by fire, flowers and foodstuffs — that I lost track.
But, yes indeed, quite an experience. So if you get a chance to attend one, I’d take it … just be careful that the videographer doesn’t catch you trying to dance like a Bollywood star in the middle of the street.
To get a better sense of the wedding process than I can relate, check out WeMarryThisWay.com, a thorough site created by my good friend Manoj who is not only the aforementioned brother-in-law but is also a very creative and gifted artist. And, yes, he’s included the eunuch dancing.