In my next life, I decided that I wanted to come back reincarnated as an Indian princess…and if that isn’t possible, I think I would settle for having an Indian wedding in this lifetime. Being a bride or groom at an Indian wedding is probably the closest a person can ever get to feeling like a Maharaja and Maharani in current times, since Indian weddings are known for being a three day extravaganza of grandeur and opulence. The wedding I attended a month ago in Jaipur was no different. With three nights of parties going from evening to past midnight and different outfits for each one, I wondered why anyone would ever want to have a traditional non-Indian wedding. Elizabeth Hurley, who wedded Indian textile businessman, Arun Nayar last year (see picture left) clearly sees herself the benefits of having an Indian wedding. She held not just one, but two weddings, including a Western one and a traditional Indian one.
Day 1 – The Sangeet
Traditionally, the first night of Indian weddings is hosted by the bride’s side of the family. After a 40 minute car ride from the hotel where our driver got lost a few times (this is pretty normal in India…your drivers will routinely stop and ask other drivers for directions), we got out of the car and were stunned to see a wide red carpet flanked by red and yellow lighted columns. Following the red carpet and feeling a little like D-list celebrities, we found a football stadium sized lawn divided into two: one half contained rows of silk covered red and yellow chairs set up in front of a warmly decorated stage of flowers, and the other half devoted to about 12 different stations for dinner and seating.
While we wore the normal cocktail dresses that you would wear to a wedding, we were all amazed at the beautifully technicolor (except for black) beaded saris that the other women were wearing. With colors ranging from dusty pink, teal, hot pink, cardinal red, to lollipop red, each of the saris the women wore were decorated with ornate small and mirrored beads, with the type of detailed handiwork that can be seen at the finest couturiers.
The cutest thing about Indian weddings is the mandatory dance performances, which are a requirement for both close and extended family to both attend and perform in. We must have sat through 14 different dance numbers, ranging from ones featuring all women, all children, and co-ed, as well as with traditional Indian songs and newer Bollywood numbers. Dancing is a huge part of Indian weddings, and if not just through appearance, it’s apparent immediately which people at the wedding were foreigners: the ones without the moves.
Day 2 – The Mehendi
Mendhi, also known as henna, is applied in the afternoon on the second day of the wedding festivities and is a symbol of prosperity and happiness. All of the women gather at a central meeting place, where they sit under tents and sheet lined blankets while a few mendhi artists come and apply the designs. Mendhi is applied using a paste out of the powder made from the henna plant and some type of acidic liquid (usually lemon juice). The paste is a dark army green color, with a clay like smell and a cool consistency. The artists fill a triangle-shaped plastic bag with the henna paste, cuts a small whole at the bottom and then proceeds to “draw” detailed patterns of concentric circles, curlicues, flowers, and vines.
You can ask the artist to customize your design to cover as much or as little as you want, but traditional mendhi covers the entire palm and back of your hand, ranging from mid arm all the way to the tips of your fingers. After the artist finishes the drawing of the patterns, you wait for the paste to dry and sponge lemon juice onto the paste for it to set. You are then supposed to let the paste continue to dry overnight and wash it off the following day to ensure durability of the designs, but my friends and I didn’t realize this so we washed it off about 3-4 hours after the initial application. Upon washing it off, what remained of the paste was a reddish-orange detailed design that lasted for a good 2 weeks after. Upon returning to the States, it slowly faded to an orange/self-tanner type color. As most people with unfamiliar with henna, my friends and I received comments on our hands ranging from “EWW” (from my brother), “Did someone draw on you while you were drunk?” (courtesy of my friend’s brother), or “Did you burn yourself?” (from a concerned relative), while the remnants of our henna slowly faded. Sadly, a thorough google search revealed that there is no way to remove henna, it just has to fade naturally.
Later on at night, once we had finished the mehndi process, we all wore borrowed salwar kameez outfits from a friend. Salwar kameez outfits consist of a long tunic in either silk or cotton, with pants-style leggings that are wide on top with a drawstring and narrow to a taper. Various different types of beading are then imprinted in the tunics. These outfits are unisex, although the colors are much more vibrant for men than they are for women. The outfits are also insanely comfortable and flattering; they felt a little like silk pajamas so that I felt like I could wear mine all night.
This was also the night where my friends and I participated in learning dandidas, which my friends and I refer to as the Indian stick dance. While my friend’s relatives attempted to teach us rhythm-challenged Americans the dance and then watched as his various 6 and 7 year old cousins giggled at our attempts, the dance basically is 7 steps that you repeat over and over again. While sadly there are no recordings of our stumbling, or our 5 attempts to perform this dance together, you can watch what it is supposed to look like in this Youtube clip here.
Day 3 – The Actual Wedding Day
My Indian friends had told me before that “everyone looks good in a sari.” I found this to be true as saris have an effect of elongating a person and can make you look instantly 10 pounds lighter. Thanks to a friend’s girlfriend, we had picked out our saris in Delhi, at a store called Nalli, which is supposedly the “Saks” of saris.
Just like there are everyday clothes, there are also “everyday” saris, which are made of cotton and contain little to no beadwork. Then there are “evening” or wedding-type saris, which are made of silk and contain the intricate detail and beadwork that I had seen at previous weddings. My friends and I had decided earlier that we should all get different color saris, and we were all amazed as the salesmen at the store unwrapped multiple lengths of beautiful saris, from every color of the rainbow. As they draped each of our potential colors on us, we each selected the ones we liked the most. There are no “off limit” colors at an Indian wedding, which I learned after picking an ivory color. I had originally shied away from this color, because I thought the bride would be wearing it, but was reassured that I could wear it without having the bride throw me dirty glances all night.
Saris are also one uniform length, regardless of length and there is a very complex pinning and folding process to putting it on so most women actually go to the beauty parlor to have someone put on the sari for them. The only “custom” fit portion of the sari is the blouse, which is a short sleeve, midriff top that is designed to be skin tight and can be as revealing or conservative as desired. This is worn under the “toga” portion of the sari and can be easily made in one day if you are in India and can either be in a contrasting color, or the same identical color. Saris, in addition to being very flattering, are also supremely comfortable, which I found out after wearing mine for about 7 hours straight!
I categorize the 3rd day of the wedding as the “real” portion of the wedding because this was the day that the ceremony was actually performed. And the word ceremony is right, because the ceremony itself was all pomp and circumstance, beginning first with the groom entering into the wedding upon a all white horse decorated with strands of red and white carnations. Following the groom in was a live marching band playing foot stomping music, as well as uniformed attendants who were hoisting 8 bulb lanterns on their shoulders illuminating the groom as he made his way in. The bride herself, was wearing the most ornately decorated sari I had ever seen which I later found out weighed 100 pounds, had both arms covered with semiprecious bangles. While the rest of the guests mingled and ate from the enormous buffet assortment, the bride and groom are relegated to an Oscar-worthy stage, where they posed for endless pictures.
Although we were exhausted after 3 nights, 3 outfit changes later, and 3 midnight parties later, my friends and I were excited to attend our first Indian wedding! If any of you ever have the chance to attend one, I highly recommend that you go to experience it for yourselves! If you want to hear more about my trip to India, be sure to read about it here.