Those of you who come from non–South Asian backgrounds may be wondering what to expect at an Indian wedding. Even if you've attended a ceremony in the past, consider that with upward of 30 distinct cultures within the continent, no two Indian weddings will be exactly the same. "People think, 'Indian weddings are Indian weddings,' but that's not true," says Sonal J. Shah, a wedding planner for the South Asian community in the U.S. "It's important to know the type of Indian family—North Indian? South Indian? Punjabi?—and recognize it's still a matter of how cultural nuances are addressed individually."
Meet the Expert
Sonal J. Shah is an event planner with over 15 years of experience, and the founder of Sonal J. Shah Event Consultants. She is also the author of The Complete Guide to Planning the Perfect South Asian Wedding.
Here are some of the most popular Indian wedding traditions.
An Astrology-Approved Date and Time
A pandit (also spelled pundit), is a Hindu priest who will preside over the ceremony and consult astrology to determine the most auspicious date and time for that ceremony to take place. This becomes especially taxing if a South Asian couple chooses to marry stateside. "In America, you only try for weekend weddings, but it's not like you just pick a Saturday and make sure the Plaza is available," says Shah. "Now the Plaza has to be available and the date has to be auspicious and then the time. It’s so hard to get dates from your priests that are just for Saturdays. That's why so many Indian people are getting married on the same exact date."
Multiple Days of Events
The actual nuptial ceremony and reception, similar to what a Western wedding encompasses, take place on the third day after two days of more intimate events (such as the tilak ceremony, the haldi (or pithi) ceremony, the mehndi party, and the sangeet) that are only attended by close friends and family members. Most people prefer to incorporate natural light and will opt for an outdoor ceremony, but ballrooms that support open flame (more on that later) are also an option.
Lots of Red
Red is considered auspicious and, not surprisingly, it is the most prominent color at Indian weddings—usually with gold accents. "Saris, flowers, decorations, invitations—everything will be red," says Shah. "Sometimes we even put a little bit of red dye in the bride’s hair two or three days before the wedding."
All the People
"Oh, we've only talked once? Great! You're invited to my wedding," jokes Shah. "That's just how it is. We invite everyone. That's why these weddings turn out so huge!" Shah explains there's additional pressure in the South Asian community to avoid offending anyone by not offering them an invitation, and on the flip side, most of those invited feel obligated to attend out of respect.
"Honestly, for Indians, weddings are like a huge fashion show," says Shah. "You have a different outfit for every single event." The bride and bridesmaids wear saris or lengha; the groom and groomsmen wear a sherwani, which is a long top and pants, and the groom usually dons a turban. "The groom gets to do as many outfit changes as the bride, which is pretty cool," says Shah, but members of the bridal party are allotted fewer looks. Each attendee's sari or lengha (the skirt version) feels as radiantly splendid as the last with bright colors and gorgeous embellishments.
A Grand Entrance for the Groom
The groom gets his own processional, or baraat, and talk about an entrance. He usually rides up with a fancy car, a horse, or an elephant. He then makes his way to the mandap, a dome-like covering that resembles a Jewish chuppa, to greet the families. The parents and the groom remove their shoes and enter the sacred space where a fire (agni) is burning to symbolize the highest degree of a witness. The prayer to Ganesh under the mandap asks for the Hindu deity to bestow good luck and remove obstacles for the couple and their families.
The Bride's Big Reveal
The bridesmaids, flower girl, and ring bearer (if the couple has decided to exchange rings) all journey down the aisle while the bride prepares for her grand reveal, or kanya aagaman. During the processional, she will often be escorted by her uncle(s) or oldest male relative and sometimes is literally carried before being given away, during the kanya daan.
The particulars vary per culture, but the jai mala is the bride and groom's exchanging of flower garlands. Many times the groom also gifts the bride a mangal sutra necklace, translated as "an auspicious thread." For the hasta melap, a knot is tied between the groom's scarf and the bride's sari by a female relative of the groom. The couple joins hands, and their physical binding represents "a love that binds two souls for a lifetime." During the mangal phera, the couple clasps hands again and takes four steps around the fire, each step representing a stage of life: To pursue life’s religious and moral duty (dharma); to pursue prosperity (artha); to pursue earthly pleasures (kama); to pursue spiritual salvation (moksha).
Saptapadi (Seven Steps)
The couple will take seven more steps for the saptapadi. "These represent the first seven steps you take together as husband and wife," explains Shah. Someone from the wedding party, typically the groom's brother, will spread out seven stones in a straight line, and the couple will move from stone to stone, touching each with their toes, as the pandit reads the seven verses. They roughly translate to: "Together we will live with respect for one another. Together we will develop mental, physical, and spiritual balance. Together we will prosper, acquire wealth, and share our accomplishments. Together we will acquire happiness, harmony, and knowledge through mutual love. Together we will raise strong, virtuous children. Together we will be faithful to one another and exercise self-restraint and longevity. Together we will remain lifelong partners and achieve salvation."
No Kiss (Probably)
Finally, the newlyweds recess back down the aisle, conventionally sprinkled with red rose petals. But no first kiss as a married couple? "Most Indian people don’t show a lot of affection during the wedding weekend out of respect for elders who might get offended," says Shah. "There’s almost never a, 'You may now kiss the bride' kinda thing."
A Big Party
Everyone invited to the wedding is usually invited to the reception, and if you've ever seen a Bollywood movie that ends with nuptials, you know Indian receptions have a reputation as par-tays. Receptions normally start close to seven and go until around midnight. Sometimes there's a farewell for the bride and groom, who venture off in a fancy car or something comparable.
So Much Food
Yes, it’s often Indian, but that doesn't always mean vegetarian or spicy. Plus, many South Asian couples prefer to offer regional and non-regional options. "Indian people are all over, so we kinda build on not having it be one type of thing," says Shah. "A lot of our clients have turned to Western food." And the alcohol situation? "Most of the time, yes," says Shah. "Most of the weddings I do, anyway."
Oftentimes there's an elevated theatrical aspect to an Indian reception. Wedding party members or guests may serenade the newlyweds with Bollywood-style dances. Sometimes the couple will show off a performative dance themselves, before everyone joins them on the dance floor. The bhangra, usually set to Punjabi-type music, is the most popular type of dance.
Pranks Played on the Groom
Keep your eyes on the bridesmaids and the bride’s side of the family during the reception, and you might see some grade-A mischief. "They do steal the groom’s shoes!" says Shah. "Then they’ll demand money, and he’ll have to give them money to get them back. Everything is about money. They'll also try to stop the bride and groom from leaving the ceremony sometimes like, 'Ok, you pay us, you get to take the bride with you' kinda thing."