Hindu weddings are vibrant, intricately planned, culture-rich festivities full of celebration and tradition. While the very essence of a Hindu wedding ceremony is the physical, spiritual, and emotional union of two people; it's also about the coming together of two families through prayer and celebration. "A Hindu wedding lies somewhere between the couple’s expectations while blending their family traditions," explains Jignasa Patel, South-Asian wedding expert and founder of K.I. Weddings. "With many rituals and mini ceremonies leading to the main ceremony day, it binds the couple and both families for eternity."
Meet the Expert
Jignasa Patel is an 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 its understanding of South Asian traditions and flawless fusions with American nuptial culture.
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 to 200 guests," says Patel. "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."
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, such as like saris or lenghas for women and long-sleeved tunics and pants for men. "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," says Patel. 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 (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 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." While traditionally the wedding reception is also alcohol-free, many modern-day couples and families are breaking away from this.
- 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 14 wedding rituals you will encounter at a Hindu wedding and understand the meanings behind them.
Everyone Performs at the Sangeet
Prior to the actual wedding, there's a gathering 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. Fittingly, sangeet directly translates to "sung together." Each side of the family sings a traditional folk song to welcome the other, and family members may even give full-blown performances in celebration and cheeky competition.
The Bride's Hands and Feet Are Adorned With Henna
The mehndi ceremony, a big party traditionally only attended by the bride's close female friends and family member, kicks off the wedding itself. The event usually takes place one day before the nuptials (on the same day as the sangeet), as the process can take hours. During the festivities, henna paste is used to apply intricate designs of temporary decorative art to the bride's hands and feet. While the designs usually reflect floral motifs, it's also common to hide her partner's name within the artwork and watch as they try to find it later—a process believed to reflect the amount of patience that will be present in their marriage.
In fact, many Hindu beliefs focus on the meaning revealed by the color of the wedding 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," says Patel. "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."
The Bride Wears a Red Dress
Don't expect a bride in white at a Hindu wedding! "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." However, many modern brides also choose to don a variety of rich, saturated hues from pastel floral prints to bright yellows and bold blues emblazoned with sumptuous embroideries.
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 depending on the region, is celebrated with great joy. As guests arrive, they are divided into the bride and groom's side. The bride's side will be directed to a meeting place while the groom's guests join him on his processional entry.
"This means that upon arrival, the groom’s guests will be redirected to join the ‘mini parade’ instead of going straight to the hall," explains Patel. They are greeted by the other set of 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 groom can claim a bride until she is offered. During the ceremony, the father of the bride places his daughter's hands into her soon-to-be spouse'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 partner. 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.
Hindu Wedding Rituals Begin With a Prayer to Ganesha
The ceremony begins with a prayer to Ganesha, the god of beginnings and good fortune and the remover of obstacles. Salutations are offered so that Ganesha may pave the way for the couple's married life. The gotra of both to-be-weds (going back at least three generations) is 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.
The Couple Exchanges Floral Garlands During the Jai Mala
The jai mala is a garland comprised of strung flowers that is exchanged between the newlyweds. The ritual ends with each half of the couple wearing one. "To us Hindus, the jai mala symbolizes the partners welcoming each other into their families," explains Patel. "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 Bride Is Adorned With a Necklace Called the Mangala Sutra
The bride is draped in a necklace of black and gold beads by her new spouse. Traditionally, Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, fortune, and prosperity, is invoked in the mangala sutra, or auspicious thread, and the bride is said to receive blessings throughout her marriage. Regional variations may also include beads of red, white, or other colors.
The Bride and Groom's Garments Are Tied Together
The saptapadi is an important ritual in North Indian Hindu weddings. During the saptapadi, the newlyweds 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 Newlyweds Shower Each Other With Rice
In a South Indian custom called the talambralu, or ritual of happiness, the couple showers one another with a mixture of rice, turmeric, saffron, and even pearls. This tradition symbolizes fertility, prosperity, and happiness for the couple's future life together. It also provides a moment of levity and merriment during what can otherwise be a more serious ceremony. In some cases, members from either side of the family will join in on the ritual by cheering the newlyweds on or physically assisting them.
Red Powder Is Applied to the Bride's Hair, Signifying She Is Married
Sindoor, a red-orange powder, is applied to the part of a woman's hair, symbolizing her new status as a married woman once the ceremony is complete. Traditionally, this is applied by her husband on the wedding day. All married women, in addition to the bride, may wear the powder as a sign of their marital status. While some opt to shade in the entire part of the hairline, others will only wear it as a dot on the forehead depending on personal tastes or regional customs.
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 spouse, 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 it's characterized by the bride's parents giving a final farewell to their daughter.