Universally, a wedding is about three C's—ceremony, commitment, and celebration—but so much of the experience depends on who and where you are. Take a walk down someone else's aisle for a change—with our Weddings Around the World series that explores marital traditions all across the map. This stop: India. "Oh, we've only talked once? Great! You're invited to my wedding," jokes Sonal Shah, a wedding planner for the South Asian community. "That's just how it is. We invite everyone. That's why these weddings turn out so huge!"
Meet the Expert
Sonal Shah is an event planner with over 15 years of experience, and the founder of Sonal J. Shah Event Consultants, based in NYC and Miami. She is also the author of "The Complete Guide to Planning the Perfect South Asian Wedding."
Those of you who come from non-South Asian backgrounds, and haven't had the pleasure of a conversation with Shah, may be wondering what to expect at an Indian wedding as more of you are receiving invitations. "The Indian diaspora is huge," says Kiku Chaudhuri, a lovely bride who agreed to share her breathtaking photos with us. "As South Asian immigrants become part of different countries, we've, of course, become friends and family with a lot of non-Indian people," she says. "They then become guests at our weddings." And even if you've attended a ceremony in the past, consider that with upwards 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 Shah. "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."
But before we delve into just how an Indian wedding plays out, here are the answers to a few common questions:
- What should I wear to an Indian wedding? "I'd tell readers to rent some fun Indian wedding attire if they don't necessarily want to buy these really heavy Indian outfits they may not wear again," says Shah. "Typically, the only color that Indian culture doesn’t wear is white or black, so just have them focus on being very colorful." Men should wear long sleeves and long pants. Both men and women need to bring something to cover their heads during the ceremony.
- How long is an Indian wedding? A typical Indian wedding timeline stretches about three days. The Hindu wedding ceremony, which takes place on the third day, usually lasts between one and a half to two hours and is then followed by the reception.
- Will the newlyweds kiss? Traditionally there is no kiss at the end of a Hindu wedding ceremony as it is considered too personal for such a public setting. However, this can vary based on the mentalities of the couples themselves, as well as their families.
- Should I bring a gift? "No box gifts" instructions are commonly found at the bottom of Indian wedding invitations, explains Shah. Though it may seem out of line with other concerns of propriety in an Indian wedding, the gift of choice, if a couple does want one, is usually money. But always make sure the amount ends in a one, advises Shah. "In our culture, the best of things end in one," she expands. "So you'd never gift $100. You'd do $101."
We asked for some widespread specifics of a traditional Hindu ceremony in South Asia, and Shah and Chaudhuri kindly obliged in turn with insightful explanations and illustrative photography. Familiarize yourself with the below, and be ready to bhangra with the best of them.
The Dates Are Found in the Stars
The wedding dates are all up to the stars. 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 tasking 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."
Lots of Red
Red is considered to be an auspicious color 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."
Everyone Is Invited
Many Indian weddings are blowout events. As established above, guest lists can scroll over 700 names. Shah says 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.
Haldi or Pithi Ceremony
This ceremony takes place on the first day (of three) of wedding events. Turmeric paste, referred to as haldi in Hindi, is believed to possess healing, purifying, and beautification properties, so the haldi or pithi ceremony is essentially a cleansing for the bride- and groom-to-be. Family members take turns applying the paste to the face/neck, arms, hands, knees, and feet while offering blessings and songs. They typically wear yellow because things can get messy, but the good news is that the paste supposedly brings good luck, and makes your skin glow.
The cosmetic adventure of the first day continues with the mehndi. Imagine the ultimate female bonding session. But instead of painting nails, the bride and all her lady friends and family enlist a professional henna artist to paint their hands and feet with a dark paste (l)inked to good luck. The darker the henna dries, the more auspicious.
The sangeet, which takes place on the second day, literally translates to "sung together." While it was originally exclusively women, modern times welcome men into the mix; so this can be the first time both sides of the wedding party are meeting. With dancing, songs, good food, and jokes about in-laws as common happenings, it's almost like a mini-reception before the official reception on the following night. Similarly, a raas garba is a night of playful folk dances that sometimes takes place before weddings and can be combined with a sangeet.
Traditional Hindu Wedding Ceremony
The actual nuptial ceremony and reception, similar to what a Western wedding encompasses, take place on the third day. 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. "If your auspicious date comes up in January, you may need to have it inside," says Shah. The main ceremony usually lasts between an hour and a half and two hours, but the whole day clocks around sixteen.
The bride and bridesmaids wear saris; 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. "One of my brides wore a $17,000 gown to the cocktail reception portion that legitimately lasted 30 minutes," says Shah. "They were photographed in it, and then they were done. It's insane, but also kinda dope. It’s your one time, your one weekend, to go crazy and if you can afford more outfits, that's more fun."
Wedding Party Attire
"Honestly, for Indians, weddings are like a huge fashion show," says Shah. "You have a different outfit for every single event." Each attendee's sari or lengha (the skirt version) feels as radiantly splendid as the last with bright colors and gorgeous embellishments. "The bridal party members don’t get as many outfit changes as the bride and groom on the day, but again, for all of the different events, most people will go out and buy for those." While the parents don't wear identifying corsages or boutonnieres like in many Western weddings, Shah says custom-made floral jewelry is very in right now.
Milni and Ganesh Puja (or Pooja)
The groom makes his way to the mandap, a dome-like covering that resembles a Jewish chuppa, to greet his family and the bride's family for the milni. The mother of the bride may feed him sweets as a welcome to marry her daughter. The men sometimes exchange gifts including cash, clothes, or flower garlands. Next, the parents and the groom remove their shoes and enter the sacred space where a fire (called agni) is burning. (Fire symbolizes 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.
Kanya Aagaman (The Arrival of the Bride) and Kanya Daan (The Giving Away of the Bride)
The bridesmaids, flower girl, and ring bearer (if the couple has decided to exchange rings) all journey down the aisle before the bride prepares for her grand reveal, often escorted by an uncle or oldest male relative and sometimes literally carried. The kanya daan translates to "giving away the bride," and after it's time for the bride and groom to establish their independence.
Jai Mala and Hasta Melap
The particulars vary per culture, but the jai mala is the bride and groom's exchanging of flower garlands. "Roses are probably the most prevalent," says Shah. "Red is a very auspicious color for us." 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 a groom's scarf and the bride's sari by a female relative of the groom, usually his sister. 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 (The 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."
Finally, the newlyweds recess back down the aisle, conventionally sprinkled with red rose petals (again with the red). But no first kiss as a married couple? "No," says Shah. "They don’t typically kiss because it’s a very personal thing. Most Indian people don’t show a lot of affection during the wedding weekend out of respect for elders who might get offended. There’s almost never a, 'You may now kiss the bride' kinda thing."
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.
Food and Drink
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. Lots of Indian people love Mexican food, so we’ll do Mexican food along with Indian-food spices." 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 even 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. (Beware the YouTube black hole that inevitably follows a search for "bhangra dance videos.")
Shoe-Stealing and Door-Barring
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 with a laugh. "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."
"In the last years, what’s happening in our culture is that we're branding our weddings with all of these little high-end details and bringing in designers from India because they're now equally credible," Shah says. "People ask, 'Why don’t your brides just want all Indian vendors?' and I’m like, 'Because that’s not what they’re about: They want whatever is latest, trendy, hip—whatever is the it name in the industry, and they’re willing to pay for it. Ten years ago, most South Asian brides didn't care who they wore," says Shah, "now the whole rage in the Indian culture is to have sought-after designer authorities, and it's pretty cool that Indian designers have joined that slew of it vendors that everybody needs to have."
Many Indian couples leave for their honeymoons around 5:00 p.m. the day after their main ceremony. When they return home, in some Muslim cultures, the bou bhat constitutes the first awkward family dinner. Kidding—but this post-wedding party, hosted by the groom's family and held after the couple returns from their honeymoon, is sometimes the bride's first meal in the home of her in-laws.