Last weekend I attended a genuine Indian wedding. And when I say "last weekend," I mean LAST WEEKEND. Like, ALL of the weekend. Welcome to a three-day wedding extravaganza, full of food, tradition, and one ceremony after another!
Out of approximately 300 people at the wedding, I was the only non-Indian. After much reflection, I would compare this experience to being a cross between a toddler and a trained lapdog. Which is to say I spent about half my time asking the world's most basic questions ("How do I put these clothes on? How do I walk in this? Where are we going now? Are we there yet? How do I eat this?"), and the other half responding to simple commands ("Come! Sit! Turn!")
I'm going to do my best to describe the experience and what it all meant, but my apologies for anything I might get wrong, as I wasn't always entirely sure what was going on. It's all well-intentioned, I promise!
After a full day in Mumbai, Friday night was the start of the festivities, also known as mehndi night, basically a pre-wedding celebration where everybody dances and all the women have henna applied to their hands, arms, and sometimes feet. My travel buddy Ritesh, who is the groom's cousin (and my "Hey, come to India as my plus one!" friend), had told me this evening didn't require traditional clothing, and that I should just bring a pretty dress: "what you would normally wear to a wedding."
...I should not have trusted a boy to give fashion advice. Because while my dress was quite modest by Western standards (and something I could certainly wear to a wedding), I definitely was the only person who committed the extreme faux pas of not wearing a full-length evening gown. So there I was, Day One, and at this point you already would have had three ways of finding me in the crowded room:
1) Look for the only non-Indian
2) Look for the only person who didn't know all the dance steps
3) Look for the short-skirted hussy
A few people gave me and my scandalous bare calves some strange looks, but fortunately nobody said anything (just wait until Saturday, though - spoiler alert: guess who got kicked out for lacking bling!)
"Would you like to get some henna?" Ritesh asked, which was basically like asking me whether I'd like a free full-body massage, a slice of the world's most delicious cake, and also, a pony. I LOVE henna! It's so beautiful and different and exotic. So I joined the other women on the dais, where a lovely young girl drew beautiful swirls of dark paste over my palms and the backs of my hands as I watched the dancing and fervently hoped I wouldn't be asked to join in.
It's worth noting at this point that this was not just an Indian wedding, but a Gujarati wedding (which is the state in India where the families were from), and also a Jain wedding (a religion that prescribes non-violence towards all living beings). So not only was all the food totally vegetarian (no meat, fish, or eggs), but there was also no alcohol. And I'll be honest: I'd have been more comfortable with the dancing with a drink or two in me.
So Friday night I sat it out and watched, enthusiastically perking up whenever I recognized a classic Bollywood move, à la, "They're doing the lightbulb screwing!"
After that, time to drag me and my short skirts back to bed for some rest and henna admiration!
Saturday morning was a religious ceremony that I skipped, due to my not having fully understood that I was supposed to actually be there. "Where were you this morning?" was a question I was repeatedly asked throughout the afternoon and evening, and somehow, "Oh, I was sleeping!" didn't seem to be an appropriate response, so instead I just kept apologizing.
Anyway, I turned up Saturday afternoon and was immediately directed towards the HM&ST suite, also known as Hair, Makeup & Saree Tying, which dozens of women were occupying. This was really exciting: I've never worn a saree before, and was honestly kind of surprised at how complicated they are! Indian women always make it look so effortless that I'd assumed one just kind of....stepped into it. Not so! You better have expert folding skills, a handful of safety pins, and a helper at hand, because that kind of thing just does not happen on its own!
Ritesh's mom Tara was incredibly generous in letting me borrow her clothes throughout the weekend, and once I was actually bundled up in the dark pink saree #1, I have to admit I felt pretty awesome. I wasn't sure how to walk, but at least I looked good. Then I was primped and prodded and had additional hair clipped onto my head, and I looked even MORE authentic as I eased my way into the banquet hall for the evening ceremonies (note that my getting ready took 2.5 hours, for those of us who were counting).
The banquet hall was soon to throw me out, however, because I'd committed my second significant fashion faux pas by showing up bare-wristed. Not buck naked, you understand, just without bracelets. And I was literally asked to leave. Like, the groom's grandmother said something to someone, and the next thing I knew, I was being dragged out of the room, upstairs, into a hotel room, told to put my wristwatch on one wrist and handed a bangle for the other. "It's real diamonds," I was told, "so be careful." (Uh, ok. No pressure, then!)
Anyway, bypassing that embarrassing start to the evening, I have to say that I LOVE how blinged out everyone gets for these weddings. It's really as though they took a look at the female body and just decided to adorn absolutely everything they could: ankle bracelets on both feet, rings on every finger, bangles on both wrists, multiple necklates, nose rings, huge earrings, bindhis on the forehead, and multiple hair accessories. Not to mention the henna. "You simply can't have too much bling," Ritesh had warned me, and he wasn't kidding.
The rest of Saturday night was absolutely awesome. A group of musicians sat on a mattress in the middle of the room, and everyone danced around them all night. There were multiple Gujarati dances where everyone knew all the steps again, and try as I might to stand near the back and watch, this time I was ordered to join in. Right when they brought out the sticks for what I called "The Stick Dance" and what everyone else called dandiya, a dance where you hold one stick in each hand, and tap them against your partner's sticks as you move in a giant circle, changing partners every 12 counts.
Please, please don't let me blind someone, I silently murmured as I joined the dance, and honestly, everyone I partnered was super patient and kind with me, even counting the steps out loud. (So even blind people could have found me in the crowd that night, just by following the sounds of "One! Two! Three!")
It was actually quite fun, and the other small moments were exciting to watch. One thing I loved was how several of the family elders were walking around the circle of dancers, holding wads of money that they would wave in a circular fashion above the dancers' heads, before dropping the bills onto the musicians' mattress, which is apparently intended to incentivize them to drum even more loudly (which...they were already pretty loud. This wasn't, like, the quiet Pachalbel's Cannon I've heard at most weddings).
The buffet was delicious, and I was wolfing down mango puree like it was going out of style. Anyone ever tried an Indian mango? It's worth the trip in and of itself. It's worth going in summer, when it's 45 degrees celsius, just because it's also mango season. Trust me - go to India. Bring your own blender. Buy some mangoes and make a puree. You won't regret it.
Mumbai has a noise restriction where you can't play loud music after 10pm, so the party wound down on the earlier side, and I rickshaw-ed back to my hotel to get just a tiny bit of rest before...
So, Sunday was the day of the actual marriage itself. The official time at which the bride and groom become married is apparently set as whichever time is most auspicious based on the zodiac.
And that explains why Sunday I woke up at 4am.
An hour later, I was back in for another round of HM&ST with saree #2 and even longer hair extensions. One thing I loved about this round of outfits was that all the married women were wearing the same reddish-colored saree, which is meant to designate them as married women and also ensure they all have the same status (so, no one can just go out and buy the fanciest, most expensive outfit to show off).
"You're not going to wear those earrings, are you?" someone asked me, looking at the by-far-the-most-blingiest pieces of jewelry I own. "Um....no?" I responded. "More bling!" someone called. (Ok they didn't actually use those terms, but that was the gist.)
So once I was dressed, and once all the men had had their bright orange turbans tied, the entire groom's party (of which I was part) headed to the groom's hotel suite, where multiple drummers were going CRAZY banging away, because apparently in Mumbai you can't play music past 10pm in a banquet hall, but bringing drummers into your hotel room at 7am on a Sunday is A-ok.
It was also in that hotel room that another of Ritesh's cousins provided both the first and second-funniest lines of the entire weekend, as he explained what the day ahead would hold.
First: "So now, everyone is going up to the groom and waving money around his head. First, the married couples go. Then the unmarried men. Then the spinsters, like you."
So....that marks the first time in my life where I've been called that. Apparently, it's all over. I may as well get some cats, take up bridge, and put my uterus out to pasture. To be fair, I don't think he knew the term "spinster" carried the connotation of age, rather than just being "an unmarried woman," but nevertheless: ouch.
The second-funniest line was as he continued to explain what would happen next: "So then, we dance our way out of the hotel, and we all get in cars to drive to the reception hall. Then we get out of the cars, and the groom gets on a white horse, and we dance our way up the street, which should take about 45 minutes to move 50 meters. [side note: he wasn't wrong about that.] Then, the bride's family comes up to meet the groom's. Then it's time for the ceremony where the bride's mother tries to catch the groom's nose. Then the bride tries to put a garland around the groom's head. Then they actually enter the reception hall and go to the altar."
Me: "'Scuse me? What was that about catching someone by the nose?"
Yes, apparently there is a tradition whereby if the bride's mother can catch the groom by the nose, that means the bride will have the upper hand in the marriage. So the groom's family retaliates by lifting the groom up on their shoulders to try and prevent her from reaching.
Ok, that's hilarious. I absolutely love this tradition and want to incorporate it in my own wedding someday. (Get ready, Mom!)
Once we were finally in the reception hall, I waited for everyone to take their seats for the speeches to start.
...Except there are no speeches. Instead, there is a sacred fire, which is SO MUCH COOLER than speeches! Instead of "I now pronounce you husband and wife," there are the four circles the couple walks around the sacred fire, each time represented by different members of the families. The first three circles are for different members of the bride's family, and the fourth is for the groom's family, officially welcoming the bride into their family and home.
Also, remember the reddish saree that all the married women are wearing? The groom's mother carries a basket down the aisle on her head, which contains a similar saree to present to the bride. So after the ceremony concludes, the bride goes and changes into that saree, which demonstrates that she too is a married woman now.
As the now-married couple walks out of the reception hall, we all moved our chairs to sit and face the aisle, and suddenly someone started walking down after them, slapping red powder onto our cheeks, similar to the holi festival. I wasn't looking when it happened, and almost jumped out of my skin when someone attacked my face with the stuff. "What's this tradition for?" I asked the girl sitting next to me. She shrugged, "It's just more color." (See? They just can't resist an opportunity for further decoration!)
The entire marriage ceremony took HOURS. When I say they walked around the sacred fire four times, you have to imagine that every one of those four walks first involved 100 people dancing down the aisle (including the musicians, who were again being incentivized to play louder and louder).
After it finally finished, we had a break for a little bit, when we headed back to the hotel to relax and change into saree #3 for the reception. Since the reception is a bit more casual, no hair and makeup was required, and I loved the bright yellow saree I had on.
And Sunday night was so fun. The point of the reception seemed to be to have one more buffet, and to get pictures of the married couple with EVERYONE. I also wanted to make sure I got a picture with Ritesh's wonderful grandmother, who didn't speak a word of English, but who kept hugging me fondly. She was so cute.
So all together, Sunday's wedding had me running around from 4am to 11pm, which was exhausting and hot and confusing and crazy and, ultimately, really amazing and special.
Phew! This was a long blog post recounting an even longer wedding, but there was just so much to share!
My thanks to anyone who actually read this entire post, but more importantly, my thanks to Ritesh and his entire lovely family for welcoming me so generously into their family celebration and giving me memories I'll never, ever forget.
For anyone who ever gets invited to an Indian wedding: just go. Open your mind, be willing to stand out and even look a bit ridiculous at times, smile a lot, pose for selfies with everyone who asks ("foreigner in a saree!"), and just go with it. It's too wonderful not to.