Weddings are a celebration of love and commitment, and can also be a celebration of the couple's religion and culture. One such ceremony that you might not be so familiar with? A Hindu wedding ceremony. "Hindu weddings culturally unite two souls spiritually, mentally, and physically. The marriage is not only a celebration of two people coming to be unified but rather the merging of two families," explains event planner Jignasa Patel. "In modern times this is more evident as a wedding lies somewhere between the couple’s expectations while blending their family traditions. With many rituals and mini ceremonies leading to the main ceremony day, it binds the couple and both families for eternity."
Hindu weddings are vibrant, intricately-planned, culture-rich festivities full of celebration and tradition. Whether you're invited as a guest, attending as a member of the wedding party, or are simply curious, there are a few Hindu wedding rituals and traditions you should expect to see. Just remember, you won't be alone. "An intimate Hindu wedding can consist of an average of about 150-200 guests," says Patel. "Based on some castes in Hindu families, you don't only invite friends and family but at times the entire community from your hometown. This number can lead into the thousands, even in the U.S."
Meet the Expert
Jignasa Patel is a South Asian wedding expert and event planner with over a decade of experience in the industry. She is the CEO and creative director of K.I. Weddings, an event planning and design firm recognized for their understanding of South Asian traditions and flawless fusions with American nuptial culture.
Wondering what else you need to know before attending a Hindu wedding? Here are some frequently asked questions:
- What should I wear to a Hindu wedding? It's common for guests to wear traditional Indian clothes like saris or lenghas for women and long-sleeved tunics and pants for men. "Consider wearing traditional Indian attire with beadwork and embroidery to as many events as possible," advises Patel. "Hindu weddings are very glamorous and lavish, and this means dressing the part will create an unforgettable experience. Build each event outfit as if you were outdoing yourself from the last event, saving your most glamorous outfit for the day of the wedding ceremony and reception." If you decide to go with a more western option, remember that women should have their shoulders, legs, and occasionally arms covered. Men should wear long sleeves and long pants. Both men and women need to bring something to cover their heads during the ceremony. Bold, vibrant colors are heavily encouraged but be sure to stay away from white (associated with funerals), black (considered unlucky), and red as this is the color the bride wears.
- How long is a Hindu wedding? The events of a Hindu wedding normally take place over the span of three days with different events taking place on each day. The main ceremony and reception on the third day, as well as the sangeet during the second day, are attended by most of the guests. The ganesh pooja ceremony that commences the wedding events on the first day is usually an intimate event with only close family in attendance. "Be prepared for early morning events," advises Patel. "Hindu wedding celebrations are based on auspicious times predetermined and provided by the priest."
- Will the newlyweds kiss? Traditionally there is no kiss at the end of a Hindu wedding ceremony as a result of the predominantly conservative culture. However, this varies greatly on the couples themselves, as well as their families, in which case a kiss exchange has been known to take place.
- Will there be alcohol? "It's important for attendees to know that there is no alcohol served or brought to the Hindu wedding ceremony," says Patel. "The ceremony is impactful in many religious traditions and customs starting at one-and-a-half hours leading into a three-hour-long ceremony."
- Should I bring a gift? Gifts are usually not brought to a ceremony, though this can vary. If you intend to gift something to the couple, have it shipped to their home. The only exception is if you intend to present them with a monetary gift, in which case this would be given in an envelope at the wedding reception.
Read on to discover 15 wedding rituals you will encounter at a Hindu wedding and understand the meanings behind them.
The Wedding Date Is Determined in the Stars
Before the wedding, an auspicious time (known as the muhurta) is fixed for the event. Using the couple's dates of birth, astrologists calculate the position of planets and stars to reflect the celestial union of the couple. During the ceremony, the gotra of both to-be-weds' (going back at least three generations) are announced. A gotra is the ancestral lineage or the ancestor's original clan (this is not related to caste or religion). In Hindu law, marriages should not take place within the same clan.
There's a Pre-Party Called the Sangeet a Few Days Before the Wedding
Prior to the actual wedding, there's a pre-party called the sangeet or garba (depending on the regional background) where family comes together to sing, dance, and revel in the joy of the upcoming union. Family members even give performances. The bride's family sings a traditional folk song to the groom's family to welcome them. The sangeet, which translates to "sung together," takes place on the same day as the mehndi ceremony that kicks off the wedding itself.
The Bride's Hands and Feet Are Adorned With Henna Paint During a Mehndi Ceremony
During the mehndi ceremony, which also takes place in Muslim weddings, henna is used to apply intricate designs of temporary decorative art to the bride's hands and feet. "In my experience, I have learnt that there are several Hindu beliefs that the henna is indicative of during a wedding," says Patel. "Each of these beliefs is based on the colour of the henna; the first one, which is what I learnt from my family, is that the darker the henna, the more a mother-in-law will be fond of her daughter-in-law. Others that I have come to learn through working with Hindus from different regions state that the darker the henna, the stronger the marriage or the more the husband will love the wife."
"As this is mostly decorative art intended to beautify the bride, we often chose floral designs," adds Patel. "However, another common tradition is to hide the groom’s name somewhere in the henna design and have the groom find it. We all love this tradition as it is really fun to watch the groom study the intricate design on his bride and it is believed to show how much patience the couple will have." The mehndi ceremony usually takes place one day before the marriage will be held, as the application can take hours. This event is traditionally only attended by the bride's close female friends and family members.
The Bride Wears a Red Dress
The bride's garments will be red (also the case for Muslim brides). "Traditionally a South Asian bride will wear a red sari or a modern lengha to be wrapped in on her wedding day," says Patel. "The beautiful patterns and richness of the color with gold embroidery in her outfit symbolize commitment and fertility."
The Groom's Arrival Is a Celebration in Itself
The arrival of the groom and his party to the ceremony site, called the vara yatra or baraat, is celebrated with great joy. "While the bride’s guests arrive at the destination and are directed straight to the hall, the groom’s guests need to be prepared to join the baraat procession which will enter with the groom," explains Patel. "This means that upon arrival, the groom’s guests will be redirected to join the ‘mini parade’ instead of going straight to the hall. The baraat is personally one of my favorite parts of Hindu weddings as it is such a fun experience with music and dance, and the groom’s side has such a great time!"
They are greeted by the bride's parents, family, and friends amidst live music and dancing. The party is welcomed with a special rice toss, known as akshat, and the groom is presented with a plate carrying a lit lamp (or arati), and a garland. Sometimes a tilak, or dot on the forehead, is also administered.
The Father of the Bride Gives Her Away
The bride will be led to the ceremony by either her brothers or uncles. The moment the father gives the bride away is known as the kanyadaan. In the Hindu tradition, no man can claim a woman until she is offered. During the ceremony, the father of the bride places his daughter's hands into the groom's hands as a gesture of giving her away.
The mother of the bride may also pour water into the bride's hand, which will flow through her fingers and into the hand of her groom. Alternately the mother of the bride would pour water into her husband's hand, which would then flow into the hands of the newlyweds.
The Couple Weds Under a Mandap
The wedding mandap, or wedding altar, is a temporary structure constructed for the purpose of the marriage ceremony. It may appear on an elevated platform and is decorated with anything from flowers and greenery to fabric and crystals. The couple is traditionally joined beneath the mandap by their parents and the ceremony officiant.
A Fire Burns in the Center of the Mandap
In the center of the mandap, a fire is kindled. A Hindu marriage is a sacrament, not a contract. To signify the viability of the ceremony, fire is kept as a witness and offerings are made. The bride's brother gives three fistfuls of puffed rice to the bride as a wish for his sister's happy marriage. Each time, the bride offers the rice to the fire. This offering is known as a homam.
The Couple Exchanges Floral Garlands During the Jai Mala
"A jai mala is a flower garland that is exchanged between the bride and groom," explains Patel. "To us Hindus, the jai mala symbolizes the partners welcoming each other into their families and takes place after the Ganesha. Without it, we do not consider a marriage to be complete." In the U.S. or other fusion weddings, the ring ceremony usually follows.
The Groom Adorns the Bride With a Necklace Called the Mangala Sutra
The groom places a necklace of black and gold beads on the bride. Traditionally, Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, fortune, and prosperity, is invoked in the mangala sutra and the bride is said to receive blessings throughout her marriage.
The Bride and Groom's Garments Are Tied Together as They Circle a Fire
The saptapadi is an important ritual in North Indian Hindu weddings. During the saptapadi, the bride and groom have their garments tied together—typically the bride's veil and the groom's sash. In South India, the couple walks seven steps together to signify their friendship. In North Indian tradition, they make seven circles around a ceremonial fire, each round signifying a specific blessing they request of the gods. The main significance of the saptapadi is establishing friendship, which is the basis of a Hindu marriage.
The Couple's Sendoff Is an Emotional Vidaai Ceremony
"Not all brides' farewells end with sparklers and smiles," says Patel. "As a Hindu bride officially leaves her home to start a new life with her husband, the goodbyes are heartwarming and tearful during the Vidaai ceremony. She walks away spreading happiness and prosperity by taking handfuls of rice and coins to be directly thrown over her head to show her appreciation for the time and love given to her in the home of her parents." The Vidaai ceremony is the symbolic end of the wedding festivities and characterized by the bride's parents giving a final farewell to their daughter.