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 as a bride. 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, founder of Sonal J. Shah Event Consultants, LLC, based in NYC and Miami, and author of The Complete Guide to Planning the Perfect South Asian Wedding. "That's just how it is. We invite everyone. That's why these weddings turn out so huge!"
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, the lovely bride who agreed to share her breathtaking photos with us. Chaudhuri and her husband Satyam met in Texas, but both of their families are from the Northeast region of India, West Bengal and Orissa, respectively. "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."
We invite everyone. That's why these weddings turn out so huge!
In the past five years especially, Shah says the exposure and influence of her society's weddings have exploded dramatically. "Indian weddings are a huge business all over the world now," says Shah. "I get calls all the time from Dubai or England like, 'How do we tap into your brides?' because they realize it could be a massive market for them."
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."
Still, 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 upon your next invitation to an Indian wedding, be ready to bhangra with the best of them.
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.
A normal wedding timeline stretches about three days. And while you're going to have too much fun for any grumblings about "convenience," you should know that locking down dates was likely way more demanding for the couple than you realized. It's 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."
A Possible Indian Wedding Timeline
Day 1: Haldi or Pithi Ceremony & Mehndi
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 turn applying the paste to the face/neck, arms, hands, knees, and feet, and 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 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!
Day 2: Sangeet
Sangeet literally translates to "sung together," and while it was originally exclusively women, modern times welcome men into the mix so this is sometimes 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.
Day 3: Traditional Hindu Wedding Ceremony
Most people prefer to incorporate natural light and will opt for an outdoors 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. (Most of Shah's contracts require her to be running around for 16 hours on the third day; understandably, she's getting a foot massage during our phone call.)
The groom gets his own processional and talk about an entrance. He usually rides up with a fancy car, a horse, or an ELEPHANT.
Milni & 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 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) & 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 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 it's time for the bride and groom to establish their independence.
Jai Mala & 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."
Mangal Phera & Saptapadi (The Seven Steps)
During the mangal phera, the couple clasp hands again and take 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 earthy pleasures (Kama)
To pursue spiritual salvation (Moksha)
Then, 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.
Now, the pair is ready to recess back down an 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 & 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 bride and groom with Bollywood-style dances. Sometimes the bride and groom will show off a performative dance themselves, before everyone joins them on the dance floor. The bhangra, usually set to Panjabi-type music, is the most popular type of dance. (Beware the YouTube black hole that inevitably follows a search for "bhangra dance videos.")
"There are toasts and speeches and grand entrances—all exactly the same as Western weddings," says Shah. Expect the maid of honor, best man, and bride and groom's parents to take the mic.
"No box gifts" instructions are commonly found at the bottom of Indian wedding invitations. "Typically there’s reverse-gifting at Indian weddings," says Shah. "You get a gift as a guest like a party favor."
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."
This is a pre-wedding go at the Ganesh Puja that the pandit performs fifteen days prior, asking for a smooth wedding experience.
The tilak ceremony is sometimes considered the first step in the relationship of bride and groom's family. Generally attended by male members of both the families, the bride's relatives visit the house of the groom and apply tilak (colored powder) on the forehead of the groom.
A night of playful folk dances that sometimes take place before weddings.
Shoe-Stealing & 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."
Many Indian couples leave for their honeymoons around 5:00 pm 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.
Get your cameras ready. "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 (elaborate draping garments that are usually cotton or silk) or lengha (the skirt version) feels as radiantly splendid as the last with bright colors and gorgeous embellishments. Not surprisingly, red is the most popular color, with gold accents. "Saris, flowers, decorations, invitations—everything will be red," sahs Shah. "Sometimes we even put a little bit of red dye in the bride’s hair two or three days before the wedding."
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. "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.
And what about guests who are not of South Asian descent asking, "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, referencing a company founded just this year that further demonstrates the growing reach of Indian wedding culture. "Typically, the only color that Indian culture doesn’t wear is white or black, so just have them focus on being very colorful."
And you don't have to worry about outfit changes, says Shah, just prepare to be blown away by the bride's.
"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! Why make decisions if you don’t need to? Some of my brides are like, 'Oh, but people are going to judge,” and I’m like, 'Who cares?''
After all, South Asian brides take their fashion shows very seriously, as of late, says Shah, who's been in the business for over a decade. "In the last five years, what’s happening in our culture is that we're branding our weddings with all of these little high-end details—oh, I had Ceci Johnson do my invitations, and I had Sonal as my wedding planner, and Ron Ben-Israel is doing my cake—and bringing in designers from India because they're now equally credible," Shah says, mentioning Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Manish Malhotra (who dresses Priyana Chopra). "They've become identifiable on the level of Vera Wang or Givenchy. 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.'"And these designers know it; Malhotra, who used to only dress celebrities, is now highly-focused on the bridal world. "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, end-all, be-all designer authorities, and it's pretty cool that Indian designers have joined that slew of it vendors that everybody needs to have."