People in India really know how to celebrate. We attended two weddings while we were there, each of which were two days long, but our friend and travel partner Nirmal said that some weddings can be as long as five or six days (HOW???). For both of the weddings that we attended, it was the groom that was Nirmal’s family (his cousin) and so we got more of an idea of the groom’s side of things at both events.
Preparation for the first wedding started two days before the event, even for me. Nirmal’s family took me in at these weddings as if I were their own child. I got henna on my hands and arms – the black ink was sticky and hardened into a crust that I had to leave on overnight in order for the ink to set. We also went to a sari shop and Nirmal’s mother Tara had a sari specially made for me.
The weddings were both in the Western state of Gujarat, which is a dry (no alcohol) and vegetarian state. Despite the lack of alcohol and meat, the weddings were incredibly huge displays of enthusiastic partying, extravagant decorations, beautiful saris, sparkling jewelry, fragrant food, and excessively loud blasting music.
The first wedding took place in Baroda, a large city about 400km north of Mumbai. This was the bigger, more extravagant wedding. The second wedding took place in Khakhria, a very small “town” (two streets wide and two streets long) right outside of Baroda. Both weddings had two venues – the first venue held all of the religious rituals, and the second venue was for the actual marriage ceremony and party.
Two days of wedding festivities require two things to keep guests placated and awake. The first thing is a constant serving of food and beverages. Snacks (mysterious fried balls of some vegetable product) are put out starting at 8 in the morning and are then distributed while you are sitting and watching the ceremony. The second thing is the ability to come and go as you please. In other words, there is really no pressure to even pay attention to what’s going on. People eat, drink tea and talk loudly during all parts of the wedding. Loud music constantly plays, so that it is actually quite difficult to even hear what is being said on stage.
The first day of the first wedding was all ceremonies. Parents, cousins, and siblings of the bride and groom participate in the marriage ceremonies in a significant way. The wedding is much less focused on the bride and groom, like it is in America. Instead the focus seems to be more about the family as a whole. In fact, on the first day of the wedding, the bride wasn’t even there – she was at a different location, doing similar traditions and ceremonies with her side of the family. This first day was the longer day and focused primarily on religious rituals and traditions.
One over the top aspect of these weddings was the outfits. Every woman had two outfits for the first day. Before you can really grasp what this means, you should know that putting on a sari is a freakin production. For most of the women, getting dressed was a two-person job. For me and Molly, Nirmal’s sister in law and the only other white girl at this entire 800 person wedding, getting dressed involved at least 3 Indian women poking us with safety pins, rearranging our skirts and tying the waistband of our petticoats so tightly that at one point I could hardly breathe.
Let’s just say that the two small changing rooms at the wedding venue were completely psychotic. Saris are quite large, and when you are bringing one for yourself and your two daughters or whomever you’ve packed for, it doesn’t go in a little paper shopping bag. People arrived at this wedding with full on suitcases. It’s not just the sari that you change, but your entire outfit – jewelry, shoes, makeup, hair. So for like 2 hours in the middle of the wedding, about 100 women changed their entire outfits in these two little rooms. Honestly, that was the most exhausting part of the whole wedding.
The cool thing about these outfits was the awesome visual you got when everyone was in one big group. Alone, each sari was pretty, but together, the colors were incredibly joyful and festive. There are a few big group dances that are done at the weddings in a large circle, and watching the saris swirl around as all the women danced made the effort of getting dressed worth it.
The second day was the actual marriage between the bride and groom, and was more of a party. I could hardly believe the energy and stamina of the guests at these weddings (especially considering the lack of alcohol), who danced endlessly for hours and hours, in the 85 degree dusty afternoon heat and on into the cold night, when the party was lit only by fluorescent lamp light as we made our way in a 3 hour procession towards the ‘party plot’ (booming Indian business in which plots of land are rented out for weddings) that would host the final ceremony of the two day event.
The groom rode in a silver jeweled carriage pulled by horses at the back of the procession, while we all danced in front of him, led by the loudest playing music and marching band I’ve ever heard. The guys playing the maracas really got into it. The procession eventually became absurd. It was the longest half mile I’ve ever walked. We were on a road that, even without the procession, should have been a one-lane, one-way road. But cars, huge trucks and motorcycles continued to pass us in both directions despite the fact that we were 5 people deep, led by a marching band and followed by a 4-horse drawn carriage. At one point, we were passed by a funeral procession that was led by four men carrying the dead body on a stretcher. The band stopped playing for about 45 seconds as the funeral passed us, and then started back up again. No big deal.
The end of the dance procession was marked by a series of huge fireworks, fired by some seven year olds, and a big entrance made by the groom. We were all quite relieved to have arrived at H.P. Patel’s Party Plot. The bride and groom were united on a big stage under an ornate tent (at this point this is one of the first times the bride and groom have even spent together in all 36 out of 48 hours of wedding festivities) and the marriage ceremony began. Again, it was hard to hear anything that was going on over the blasting music and chatter of the crowd. Plus, everything that was being said was in Gujarati. It was kind of hilarious at times how little attention people paid to the actual wedding itself.
The party plot at each wedding had two main areas – the ceremony area with a huge tented platform on which the bridal party sat and performed various rituals involving fire, flowered wreaths and various gifts. The tent was surrounded by a large seating area for guests and an entourage of photographers and videographers documented the event like paparazzi. While we were sitting and watching the ceremony, waiters carrying weird drinks and snacks circulated the crowd, passing out beverages with the urgency of a doctor in the ER – literally, some of these guys were running trays of drinks to people as if someone might expire without a glass of “mashed melon” juice (I still don’t know what that is). I was just trying not to drink too much water so I wouldn’t have to use the non-Western style bathrooms (more about that later).
The second main area of the party plot held the food and was where a lot of people spent most of the wedding. There were various food stands on all sides. The trees were adorned with colored Christmas lights and there were fire pits with chairs around them where people could eat and keep warm. It really felt more like a music festival than a wedding – it was just so, so huge. The weddings were fun, exhausting, and a little too long. By the end we were all tired, freezing and in desperate need of a beer. But still – Indian people really know how to celebrate.
© 2011 Jonathan Meter and Jessica Hertle