There’s one sure way to make your trip to India a dilly of an experience – by making it to an Indian wedding. If you are looking to witness the practice of and commitment to thousands of years of age-old Indian traditions and customs, soak up in an ocean of emotions that range from love, joy, happiness, and togetherness to separation and sadness, be humbled by heart-warming hospitality, and savor the authentic flavors of traditional Indian cuisine, an Indian wedding can offer you a firsthand experience of all of these and more.
You may be planning your trip from thousands of miles away, still overwhelmed by the long list of do’s and don’ts, and vaccinating yourself to no end, but the good news is that you can add an Indian wedding to your itinerary without much difficulty. Because where you are headed, ’anything is possible’.
At some point during or before your trip, get yourself connected to an Indian. It could be anyone you strike a conversation with on the plane, someone you meet through a common friend, an agent helping plan your travel, or a new found friend in India. Just let this new friend know that you would love to go to an Indian wedding. That’s it. Rest assured, you just got yourself invited to one. Sounds unbelievable, but it’s certainly possible. You don’t need to know the bride’s or the groom’s family. Anyone who has been invited or knows of the wedding can just take you along, no questions asked. There is no designated or limited seating, RSVPs, bridal showers, or rehearsals at an Indian wedding. There’s just one rule - the more the merrier. Once at the wedding, you are entitled to not only watch the ceremony, but to also feast on the all you can eat breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the in-between snacks with unlimited new-fills of coffee.
The excitement of the wedding starts days or even weeks earlier depending on the region, the language, the caste, and the religion. Depending on where you are, you may attend a North Indian wedding - Punjabi, Marwari, Sindhi, Gujarati and so on or a South Indian wedding – Tamilian, Kannadiga, Telugu, Malayali and so on or one from any of the eastern, western, or central states. The intensity of glitz and glamour varies, but the customs, beliefs, and a lot of the rituals are quite similar. Bollywood has certainly brought the North Indian weddings popular for their song and dance into international fame, but South Indian weddings, though slightly subtle in comparison offer an equally authentic experience and all the elements of the vibrant Indian culture.
Here is a short preview of what a South Indian Tamil Hindu wedding scene looks like on marriage day.
Once you are in the vicinity of the ‘Kalyana Mantapam’ (wedding hall), it is pretty easy to locate because you will hear it before you see it. One of the hallmarks of a Tamil Hindu wedding, the instrumental music that accompanies the entire wedding proceedings, can be heard from quite a distance. The Naadaswaram, a wind instrument that is considered very auspicious in Tamil culture (also known to be among the world’s loudest non-brass acoustic instrument) and Thavil, a barrel shaped percussion instrument are played from the wee hours of the morning. The volume of the music from these instruments is so intense and loud even without sound amplifiers. As you make your way to the entrance, the welcoming party from the families of the bride and groom greet you with hearty smiles. They then spray fresh rose water on your head, and offer sandalwood paste and Kumkum (vermilion colored powder made from turmeric) as an auspicious welcome gesture. Inside, the overbearing festive atmosphere will hit your every sense. The entire hall is decorated with fresh fragrant flowers and garlands of red and pink roses, white jasmine, and yellow and orange chrysanthemum. Men, women, and children are in their best of spirits and clothes. Men are clad in zari-bordered Veshti (beige or white long rectangular piece of cloth worn like a wrap-around) and shirts. Women are glittering in bright colored shiny Kancheevaram saris (saris made from special silk from Kanchipuram), gold and diamond jewellery, and colorful flowers adorning their dark long braids.
The hosts introduce you to a whole bunch of people who eagerly offer you seats next to them and take turns to explain every small detail in raised voices so they can be heard amidst all the commotion. The Nadaswarams are in full bang , the priest on the stage is loudly chanting Vedic mantras in Sanskrit while directing the bride, the groom and their families, guests are busy chattering and catching up on gossip, and children are playing around, screaming, and totally lost in the new found big space. Several others are busy helping set things up for various rituals or instructing around in anxious high pitched tones. It appears as if everyone has something urgent and important to do. The scene looks quite unorganized and chaotic even. But what you see is not necessarily a lack of preparation; this is a way for everyone to play a part and feel included in the mishpocha. The highlight of the whole proceeding is that it is not orchestrated, but spontaneous. While family and friends manage the show, the bride and groom, irrespective of their personal beliefs and attitudes, devote themselves to performing all the rituals. Sitting around the Agni, the sacred fire and primary witness of Hindu marriage, they follow the priest’s instructions with utmost sincerity. This is their way of showing their love and respect for their family, culture, and elders.
As the Muhurtham, the auspicious time assigned by the priest based on the Hindu calendar, approaches, the Thali, a gold pendant (specific to the caste and customs of the bride and groom) tied to turmeric coated thread, is placed on a tray and taken to each and every guest so they can bless it by touching it. Each guest also receives Akshadai (rice grains coated with turmeric and kumkum). The main ritual that solemnizes the marriage called ‘Mangalya Dharanam’, the tying of the Thali by the groom around the bride’s neck, is to be performed before the end of the Muhurtham. So this point, the hall is nearly full and the atmosphere euphoric. You don’t hear anything except the priest’s chant. The musicians pause. As the final moments build up, everyone’s eyes are set on the center stage. At the precise moment of tying the sacred knot, the priest raises his hand signaling ‘Getti Melam’. Taking cue, the musicians play a high pitched fast tune that is meant for the occasion. Everyone stands up and showers the akshadai on the bride and groom symbolizing showers of blessings from the Gods above. Tears roll down the cheeks of the bride and her close ones.
The newly married then prostrate in front of all the elders one-by-one and seek their blessings. While the post-marriage rituals keep them busy, everyone else is queuing up to the dining hall. Food is served on a banana leaf placed on the table. The servers move from one person to the next in a rhythm and in quick succession serving every item without giving you a chance to refuse. A variety of sweets, savories, vegetables, rice fill up both sides of the banana leaf. In keeping with the tenet of ‘Athithi Devo Bhava’ meaning ‘Guest is like God’, the hosts personally attend to each guest. Being a foreigner, you get double the normal hospitality and so can’t get away from overeating. Your only choice is to just indulge guilt-free, follow it up with a short nap because the show is not over yet. The grand evening reception and an even grander dinner await you.