Despite spending over five months in India in the past year, I haven’t checked off many of the standard traveler’s “To Do in India” items. I haven’t visited the Taj Mahal, the most iconic building in the country. I haven’t done a camel tour in the deserts of Rajastan. I’ve yet to explore the streets of Delhi, cruise the backwaters of Kerala on a houseboat, or watch the sunrise over the Ganges in Varanasi. I haven’t ridden an elephant, bought a silk scarf, or had a suit tailor-made. And up until now, I had not attended a fabulously extravagant Indian wedding.
The weddings of middle and upper class Indians have gained an international reputation for being big, loud, and expensive. Think hundreds of guests, multiple days of feasting, flowers adorning everything, bejeweled saris, dozens of elaborate religious rituals, gold bangles: the works. Because the bride’s side still pays for and organizes the event, wedding-savings-funds are often created as soon as a baby girl is born. For many families, weddings are an occasion to demonstrate their wealth and status to the public. Sometimes there may be a degree of competitiveness to outspend other families—even if the bottom line price of the extravaganza is way beyond the bride’s family’s financial means.
It would be easy for me to characterize these events—which would be especially wrong in a country as big and diverse as India. Obviously the generalizations I make above don’t apply to vast portions of the population. But for many foreigners (myself included), the stereotypical Indian wedding has a uniquely exotic appeal. The clothes! The food! The Bollywood music! It’s fascinating to see how different cultures celebrate major life events… especially if it involves a giant multi-day party. So while I wasn’t going to desperately crash the nearest wedding tent blasting Desi music, I quietly hoped that an opportunity to attend a wedding would come up once I returned to the country.
Through an unlikely coincidence, my friend Sanal from Mumbai was attending a wedding in Gangtok, Sikkim three days after I had booked a flight back to India from Cambodia. I was flying into the same North Eastern region, so Sanal invited me to come along for the four-day event. The timing could not have been better: not only would I get to hang out with my good friend in a beautiful part of the country, but I was going to be a guest at what promised to be a Big, Fat Indian Wedding. Sanal even offered to bring a small wardrobe of borrowed party clothes along for me. The stars had aligned.
The procession of sari-clad women and kurta-clad men moved slowly toward down the adorned pass way of the mountain resort. The bride and groom led the group, although all I could see at that point were the traditional red turbans worn by the men on the side of the groom’s family. Stepping carefully, I casually re-adjusted my own sari. Although three women had secured the pins on the dress for me, it must take practice to feel confident in a sari. Yeah, it’s beautiful get up—but if you’re not accustomed to it, it’s difficult to shed the fear that the whole thing is going to slide off. This fear is amplified when you’re the sole blonde foreigner and don’t have a chance of blending into the crowd.
While waiting for the people in front of me to shuffle forward, someone standing next me took the opportunity to introduce me to a relative. “This is Rose,” he said, as I shook their hand, “The bride’s brother’s friend’s friend.”
Everyone seemed to accept this desperately distant connection as a normal.
Off to the left of the procession, uniformed staff stood at attention preparing table after table of glorified street food. This was High Tea, which allowed guests to get by between the enormous spreads of gourmet buffet food that made up Lunch and Dinner. Breakfast was just as impressive. If you checked the event schedule (delivered to the door of guests’ resort rooms), there wasn’t actually any time between one meal and the next. Most of the food was heavy—the type of rich and oily food typically served at Indian restaurants in the US, plus other regional specialties I had never seen or tried before. Of course when you’re wearing an outfit that exposes your midriff, there’s not much incentive to binge on saag paneer, butter garlic naan, or gulab jamun three times a day.
It would be difficult to understate how extravagant this wedding really was. The main stage was constructed only a day before the event, complete with elaborate lighting and giant portraits of the bride and groom. Photographers took multiple videos of every event, with the cameras rigged on mechanical arms. A professional MC took over the entertainment one night. Her job was to introduce various groups of relatives and friends who had choreographed Bollywood dance sequences in honor of the newlyweds. Gangnam Style was (obviously) included in these numbers.
For the record, this tradition of more or less forcing relatives to participate in dance numbers was hands-down my favorite Indian wedding idea. Even older, less-fit relatives took to the stage to present carefully practiced, synchronized dance numbers. It was proof that the best gifts (like sacrificing your own pride) don’t cost money.
The parade of events, ceremonies, and meals had to be exhausting for the bride and groom. Add to that stress all the nerves that must accompany an arranged marriage and the knowledge that you’re about to commit the rest of your life to a person you’ve met a handful of times. Not to mention the fact that most of the bride’s glittering outfits looked like they weighed about fifty pounds each.
When I asked the other guests about this, everyone agreed that weddings are rarely enjoyable for the newlyweds. According to Sanal’s friend Pawan (the brother of the bride, and the main coordinator of the event) many of the traditions are followed for the sake the grandparents. And were it up to him, the wedding would not have been nearly as flashy. When it comes time for his own young daughter to marry… Pawan and his wife shrugged. The times could be a changing.