Those who are planning a Hindu wedding know that these marriage celebrations are vibrant, intricately planned, culture-rich festivities full of tradition. And 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 South Asian wedding expert Jignasa Patel. "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.
Here, we outline 14 traditions for couples to learn more about the origins of each element in a Hindu marriage celebration.
Performing 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 mehndi ceremony, a big party traditionally only attended by the bride's close female friends and family members, 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 learned 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's Red Dress
"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 Celebration
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 Role of Father of the Bride
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 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.
The Fire 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 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.
Exchanging 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 Mangala Sutra Necklace
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.
Tying Together the Bride and Groom's Garments
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 from the gods. The main significance of the saptapadi is establishing friendship, which is the basis of a Hindu marriage.
Showering 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.
The Red Powder in the Bride's Hair
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 Vidaai Sendoff 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.