A few weeks ago, we visited our alma mater (Penn State!) and met up with some friends. I had just finished my Italian wedding post a few days earlier and I asked our friend Chai (who is of Indian descent) what he knew about Indian wedding traditions, as I was already planning this post and valued his input. As far as I knew, Indian weddings are longer celebrations- sometimes a week or more- and the bride and groom wear beautiful outfits, decorating themselves with deep, rich colors, gemstones and henna tattoos. I feel like they’re always gorgeous and sometimes even include animals like horses, but that’s about all I knew.
The first thing Chai told me is that the traditions vary depending upon the region of India where the bride & groom’s families live (or where their families originated), as well as the practices of different castes of each religion. It’s not just a subtle difference either- it can be a world of difference. Most notably, he pointed out that the beautiful weddings we often see in movies and on TV (with the horses, elephants, veil or cloth over the bride’s head, etc.) are portraying North Indian celebrations. South Indian weddings are different, much more subtle, quite possibly much smaller affairs and include different rituals. So now that we know that not all Indian weddings are the same, let’s check out some traditions that you might see if you go to an Indian wedding. Notice that the Indian wedding celebration, which is full of rich meaning and has a long history, is divided into 3 parts and usually lasts at least 3-4 days. Once you’ve read about some of the traditions below, check out some pictures from another Penn State friend Roshni’s wedding, held in October 2012, which involved a combination of American and Indian customs. Thanks to Chai, Roshni & a number of online sources for all of the info in this post!
Deeply Rooted- Indian people are believers of religion and ancient practices, so marriages include a number of rituals and customs– age-old practices which have been passed on from generation to generation, owing to the deep faith. Since a wedding is the most important event in one’s lifetime, the 13th of 16 important ceremonies throughout one’s life, and the completion of one’s soul, it is solemnized with utmost sanctity and celebrated as such. Indian weddings are traditionally multi-day affairs involving many intricate ceremonies and celebrations. It is a dedication to the Vedas, the oldest sacred texts of Hinduism which date back several thousand years. Wedding celebrations are full of color, richness, tradition, meaning and oftentimes the aroma of incense. The bride and groom may not see each other until the day of the wedding (or even the moment that they sit together under the mandap!) and each have their own ceremonies in the meantime.
Save the Date– A knowledgeable family member, fortune teller, priest or astrologist considers factors like birthdays and phases of the moon to choose the couple’s wedding date for them. If the lucky date falls on a weekday, many couples (at least here in the U.S.) will hold two wedding ceremonies- one with close family on the actual day and larger celebration that weekend.
Planning Team- Picking the date isn’t the only task allocated to somebody else. In India, the bride and groom take care of their ensembles, and the rest of the work is handled by the family. All the pre-wedding through wedding rituals are arranged by the bride’s family and all of the post-wedding rituals are arranged by the groom’s family. While Roshni and her then-fiance, Austin, planned their main ceremony and reception (to be held on a Sunday), Roshni’s parents arranged the Indian portion of their wedding weekend (to be held from Friday-Saturday).
Red & Gold– The combination of these two bold colors represents luck and wealth, bring in a dramatic color palette, and are often brought into wedding invitations in many Asian cultures.
Mehndi Party- Often held a few days before an Indian wedding ceremony, this get-together of the bride, female friends and family members includes an artist using henna to draw on their skin, representing good luck. Henna’s presence at many of life’s celebrations in Hindu culture dates back over 5,000 years and although it is naturally green in color and appearance, when applied on the skin, it takes on an orange-reddish hue. The groom’s family may send the henna to the bride as a gift, wishing strength of love in the marriage. Mehndi is a traditional yet exciting pre-wedding ceremony. In India, a lot of emphasis is put on customs and rituals, and Indian people are ardent lovers of beauty and elegance.
The artist paints the bride’s hands and feet to protect them from evil, and it is believed that the deeper the color and the longer she leaves it on, the more good luck the couple will have. The designs last a couple of weeks. On the day of the wedding, the bride may also have a bindi (or a jeweled ornament) on her forehead. This was traditionally a symbol of married women, but is now more commonly just for decoration.
Tilak Puja (Making Offerings)– The first ceremony for the groom, this involves the bride’s father and other male relatives bringing coconut and clothes as gifts and offerings.
Ceremonial Rituals on Day Two- Each wedding is slightly different, but on the second day, you may see religious services throughout the day, including the Mandap Mahurat, a prayer to Lord Ganesh seeking his blessings to dispel evils and promote a successful, peaceful completion of the wedding ceremony. The Grah Shanti (Worship to the Planets) is a tribute to the celestial bodies that influence our destinies. The Gods are asked to instill courage, peace of mind and inner strength to the bride and groom to help them endure life’s sufferings. The Ghari Puja gives offerings of coconut, wheat grains, oil, betel nuts and turmeric.
Flowers- Brides & Grooms exchange floral garlands and wear them throughout the ceremony, representing their acceptance of each other as husband and wife. Garlands are also presented to guests of honor instead of corsages and lots of flower or rose petals are thrown for good luck/to protect the couple from evil. The evening of the wedding, the marriage is traditionally consummated on a bed of flowers.
What to Wear- Indian wedding dress is often formal. Many people will be wearing Indian outfits like salwar kamees or saris, and may even change between the ceremony and reception. For ladies, a mid-length dress, long dress or skirt works well (as long as it doesn’t restrict movement for dancing) and brighter is better. Don’t be afraid to wear a bold color and eye-catching jewelry. A jewel-tone dress with a shawl can mimic the festive look nicely. For guys, slacks and shirts are acceptable.
The Raas-Garba Celebration- This is a festive night of dancing and celebration before the actual wedding day and is specific to the North Indian state of Gujarat. Raas and Garba are typical Gujarati folk dances that everyone can participate in. You don’t have to know how to do them, or even be Indian, to participate. It’s easy to learn and fun to watch. Garba is done solo and involves rhythmic steps in a circular motion. Each song is long (about 30 mins), but you don’t have to do it the whole time. You can jump out and back in wherever/whenever you’re comfortable. As the music gets faster, it gets to be more fun! Raas is done in pairs holding sticks called dandia. It is pretty simple and you can leave and come back if you’d like, as long as you take your partner with you. If you are invited for the raas-garba, you may be expected to dance barefoot, so you can skip the stockings and bring shoes you don’t mind leaving in a corner just in case. When the music gets faster, you don’t want to step on anybody, or have someone step on you, with shoes on! Roshni mentioned that she’s had that happen, and OUCH! In addition, the Garba is typically done around pictures of gods, goddesses and deities and it is considered disrespectful to wear shoes.
Getting to Know You- Many Indian couples take the night before the wedding as an opportunity to get together with their families. Sometimes each side of the family will meet separately before getting together and meeting each other in a fun atmosphere (this is where the Raas-Garba celebration may take place). A prayer is conducted with family members to wish the couple a happily married life.
Wedding Day (Day three or four)- Making an Entrance- In North Indian weddings, the groom often arrives at the wedding hall in grand fashion, in a fancy car, on a horse or even on an elephant! Baraat refers to the procession of the groom on horseback, accompanied by family members and friends. The groom sits on a decorated white mare (ghodi), resplendent in his wedding attire, and usually carries a sword. You can often see his relatives and friends dancing in the streets and beating drums as they proceed toward the ceremony. The mother of the bride puts a mark called a tikka on the groom’s forehead as a symbol of the rising sun. Once he is settled in the mandap at the wedding venue, the bride makes her stunning entrance. Her head may be covered with a veil of flowers (in northern tradition) and she may be led by multiple people or even carried by all of her brothers, uncles and cousins (this is their chance to ‘give her away’, as they had a hand in raising her just as her parents did) in a small carriage. In some American-Indian weddings today, the bride will walk herself down the aisle or her parents will walk her down to her groom.
The Ceremony- The mandap ceremony holds utmost importance on the day of the wedding because significant rituals are performed at this time. A priest will officiate and relatives may perform specific roles under his guidance. The bride’s parents give her away to the groom, and do not eat before the wedding to remain pure for the occasion. The bride’s sari may be tied to a scarf that the groom wears to represent the union of their souls, and a cord may be tied around the couple’s necks by their elders to protect them from evil.
The bride & groom will be seated in front of the priest for most of the ceremony and will listen intently as the priest recites verses in Sanskrit (and often nowadays, English explanations as well). The couple will be dressed in white and red, traditional wedding colors. The bride will be in a type of sari called a panetar, while the groom will likely be in a sherwani (long tunic embroidered with gold thread) with Kurta pajamas, or simpler dhoti and tunic, as well as a veil or garland of flowers and a turban.
Exchanging rings is not a traditional part of the Indian ceremony, but many brides and grooms getting married in western countries often decide to incorporate this custom into their ceremonies. The bride will receive a mangala sutra (a sacred necklace) from the groom as a symbol of their marriage. This is a cord with two gold pendants, and the groom ties it in 3 knots to symbolize the bonding of their souls for 100 years. It lets others know that the bride is married. You won’t usually see the couple kiss as part of the ceremony. Seven vows will be taken at this time, including: vows for nourishment, strength, prosperity, happiness, long life and harmony & understanding.
In Saptapadi, the groom helps the bride touch seven betel nuts with her right toe while reciting the seven vows. Then seven married women from the bride’s side pass by the couple and whisper blessings in the bride’s right ear. After the wedding in this area of India, the bride is carried out by her brothers. She leaves for the groom’s home where her mother-in-law has placed a vessel filled with rice at the entrance of the home. The bride is supposed to spill the rice by touching it with her right foot to signify wealth and that the bride accepts her new responsibilities.
The day is concluded with prayers to God requesting happiness and love for the newlyweds.
Vidal Ceremony– Represents and celebrates the lucky blessing that is love.
Games Indian Brides & Grooms Play- A few fun traditions surround Indian weddings. One is for the bride’s sisters or cousins to steal the groom’s shoes as he takes them off before entering the mandap. The groom must pay the sisters to get them back because he’s supposed to leave the mandap with the same shoes he came in. Another game, called mangal pheras, involves the bride & groom racing back to their seats after circling a fire together four times. The four circles represent dharma, artha, kama and moksha (four facets of human life and spiritual practice). It is said that the first to sit down will have the upper hand in the household! Another game they may play, called Aeki Beki, involves a tray of water mixed with milk and vermillion and filled with coins and a ring. Whoever finds the ring four out of seven times will rule the household.
Swastikas in Indian Culture- Don’t be surprised if you receive an Indian wedding invitation with a swastika on it. The swastika has a great deal of historical meaning, and continues to be an auspicious symbol in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. In the west, it has connotations to the Nazi Party, but in India, it is found everywhere as a symbol of wealth, prosperity and good luck, especially during weddings and festivals.
The Reception- Indian weddings have a special charm. While the families of the bride and groom often take care of most of the wedding planning, she may help with the planning of the reception. Food, entertainment, music and dancing take place at the reception, as it is truly a celebration of the joining of souls (as it is said, for 7 lifetimes). These weddings are crazy parties and are full of joy. If you don’t know the bhangra, a frenzied Punjab folk dance, expect to pick up the moves fairly easily. If you live in the U.S. and aren’t comfortable learning new dances, fret not- you’ll most likely hear contemporary Western music, too.
Food- Oftentimes, Indian weddings feature Indian vegetarian food at all events. Sometimes, they will follow Jain rules, meaning no root vegetables (i.e. carrots, potatoes, onions, etc.), no eggs, meat or alcohol, following the belief that we should treat all living things with respect. Oftentimes, guests worry that food will all be spicy and vegetarian, but it’s not always the case. In fact, when served in the U.S., the food tends to be North Indian, including a spread of Naan (a flatbread) with different curries, samosas (savory pastries with spiced meats or veggies), pakoras (fritters), and a dessert display, which typically includes cake, kulfi (Indian ice cream) and decorated sweets made from nuts. Sometimes, you may see stations of chefs preparing food for guests.
Gifts- Indian couples usually request that there be no boxed gifts at the wedding, so guests usually have gifts shipped to the couple’s home or bring an envelope with money.
Indian Rituals Meet American Customs- These days in the U.S., you may see Indian couples and individuals bringing aspects of their background into their weddings, while also incorporating popular American rituals. Sometimes, brides will even have a special sari for an Indian portion of the wedding, and then a white dress for another ceremony and reception. Our friend Roshni and her husband Austin got married in October of 2012, and her mother coordinated the Indian portion of their wedding. It was a two-day celebration, and Roshni recalls that she “kind of just showed up”! On Friday night, they had the Garba portion where anyone that wanted to come was invited and they danced the night away. Her did took the initiative to create the menu for this day and for the Indian ceremony, but she doesn’t think she had time to eat, so she couldn’t possibly recall what they had!
Their Indian ceremony was on Saturday morning, which isn’t typical, but worked for them, as they had their rehearsal dinner Saturday evening and then their actual wedding on Sunday. What a weekend! On Saturday, she arrived early to the venue, got ready, met with the photographer and she and Austin took pictures beforehand (not typical, but it worked for them, which makes it perfect for their wedding)!
When guests began to arrive, the bride and groom were separated and he got ready for his ritual outside of the venue. He danced his way into the venue with his entourage, her mom did a prayer and placed a tikka on his forehead and the priest performed some prayers after everyone got to their seats. Roshni was carried down the aisle by her uncles and her aunt joined to walk her down the aisle with her uncle. There was a sheet up between Roshni and Austin until she sat in her seat and the priest had his say. Then it was removed, the ceremony began and it all went smoothly. Roshni also mentioned that due to the length of the ceremony, it’s totally acceptable for guests to get up and walk to get refreshments, use the bathroom, etc. There was a brunch during this time, so there was some activity, but as the priest was explaining the 7 steps and they were saying the vows, she remembers feeling impressed at how beautiful the ceremony was. After the ceremony was over, guests were welcome to go up to the mandap to visit the new bride & groom and some gave the newlyweds cards and money at this time. In hindsight, she wishes she had known more about it to appreciate it, but we so appreciate her sharing her experience with us and congratulation Roshni & Austin once again!