There is quite literally NOTHING like a good, old fashioned, big fat Indian wedding… unless you’re the bride’s best friend at said wedding! Having just returned to London after a multi-day sojourn to Jaipur (guide to the Pink City here) filled with chaos and dancing that has left my legs sore, it seemed apropos to give you the low-down on a true Indian wedding – the what happens when, and what to expect (I’ll have a survival guide hitting soon too, watch this space!).
Indian weddings can be anywhere from a few days to a week-long (my parents managed to celebrate for a month, go figure!) but the essential events usually stay the same. It’s important to remember that with the incredibly diverse set of religions and sub-sects within religions in India, each wedding has its own traditional quirks that determine how your key events end up flowing. And importantly, I have to caveat by saying this – when the world refers to an ‘Indian’ wedding they’re usually referring to a Hindu wedding, so we’ll flow with that definition for now.
Day 1 – Pre-Wedding
Yes, this is a set of events in itself – particularly at destination weddings! As guests make their grand entrance in the hotel driveway, a band of drummers and tabla players overwhelm you with the classic Indian drum beats as the couple-to-be and their parents welcome you with a lot of dancing – a perfect performance for anyone driving by the hotel! As bridesmaids, we arrived a day before the official festivities started, so of course first things first – henna!
Some #protips for making your henna last and remain as dark as possible :
1 – Squeeze some lime juice and sugar over your semi-dry henna post application
2 – Place your hands under a dryer once the liquid has dried to an extent (more heat = darker colours!)
3 – Dab some Indian butter (or ghee) over your henna when it’s completely dried and slowly peel it off with a knife (be smart and use the blunt edge of course!)
4 – Try NOT to wash your hands for a solid 10-12 hours post application and removal (difficult, I know but hey, desperate times!)
Bridal henna is a particularly big deal, and while most people dismiss henna as a mere tradition, they often miss the superstitions aligned with it – for the bride in particular, the darker her henna, the more she’s guaranteed her husband will love her (no pressure for the groom… of course)!
Day 2 – The Official Festivities Begin!
Today’s the day the rest of the extended family (hello, large Indian families galore!) arrives, and the wedding festivities officially begin.
First and most important is the Mehendi or ‘Henna’ ceremony! While a number of the guests make up for their lost henna application (as the couple’s crew, you’ve already done this the day before!), this is an afternoon of song, dance, essentially carefree shenanigans and a more relaxed start to the celebrations.
The bride engages in traditional pre-marriage rituals as the groom’s family welcomes her into the clan. The Mehendi ceremony is really the time to be creative – and this one was no less, set in a traditional Rajasthani market-esque décor (think Christmas market, and swap the blue hues for reds, oranges, and pinks), with traditional chai tea served on bicycle stands, classic Indian street food stalls, with the whole celebration taking place under a tented outdoor setting.
You’ve got a few hours to recover post Mehendi and then… it’s time for the Sangeet!
The literal translation of the word itself is song and singing, so yes, the Sangeet is easily the celebration everyone who thinks of an Indian wedding refers to – the night of song and dance. And, if you’re within the intimate circle on the bride or groom’s side, you NEED to be prepared to bring your A-Game.
The occasion starts with a ring ceremony, and the bride and groom officially exchange their wedding bands (but no, they aren’t married yet!) and once they’re seated on their thrones for the night (no I’m not kidding), the dancing begins – a dance-off almost, if you will, between the bride’s side and the groom’s side – I might be biased but hey I think the bride won this round.
The dancing continues into the early hours, sometimes running into breakfast, but the bride needs to call it a night early because she officially becomes a Mrs the next day!
Day 3 – The Wedding
This is it. D-Day. The moment of truth. The day for waterproof mascara.
The wedding morning commences with a prayer called the Ghari Puja, which is essentially focused on the bride, groom and their parents – almost a blessing from the parents for each to leave their home and be united. Tradition has it that the couple cannot see each other at all through the morning and can only meet again at the wedding gazebo – and no sneaking glances either!
Give about four to five hours after the Puja (the bride needs to get ready!) and you have finally arrived at the much-awaited Pheras (or rounds around the fire). This is the official wedding. The groom and his wedding party kick off the celebrations with the Baarat as the groom rides a mare (or in Rajasthan, is accompanied by an elephant!) and everyone dances around him, celebrating his last moments as a bachelor. While the bride stays away from these festivities, the Baarat makes it way to the gazebo (also called the mandap) and the bride’s family welcomes him and his family – in a short ceremony known as the Swaagat (or welcome). Gifts are exchanged, fathers hug, mothers hug, brothers and siblings slap each other on the shoulder and the families unite.
And then… the bride makes her grand entrance – and of course this differs from wedding to wedding. In this case, my best friend arrived in a chariot of sorts, with firecrackers exploding out of the sides, making it one of the grandest entries I’ve seen yet.
They meet at the gazebo and the priest begins the prayers as they sit surrounded by only the parents and siblings. The bride’s brothers give her away, if you will, and the bride and groom start their walks around the prayer fire (aka the pheras), tied together by a common piece of clothing between them – four pheras and they are officially married (seven pheras in some weddings, and four in some others – again a testament to India’s diversity)!
For all my future bridesmaids out there, thing to note during the pheras –
1 – ALWAYS steal the groom’s shoes as he enters the mandap (aka grab them off his feet before he has a chance to take them off) and be prepared to haggle with him post-wedding for the best price to give them back! Oh, and HIDE the shoes – or his equally savvy groomsmen might find them and return them to him at a loss to your wallet.
2 – Waterproof mascara is a must – there will be crying and lots of it, and you will still be expected to pose for pictures afterwards!
3 – If you’re trying to avoid the idea of marriage yourself, DON’T sit on the stairs as the bride leaves the stage or you will be victim to on of her dangling bracelets falling on your head (the Indian version of the bouquet toss)!
The bride and groom retire to their room as newlyweds, and within a few hours, the party starts. Be fully prepared to stay up all night (brig a change of clothes as you’ll only really wear your reception gown for an hour) dancing like nobody’s watching because hey, you have no other ceremonies to wake up for in the morning!
So here’s my final tip-list for all you future bridesmaids –
1 – Know what you’re in for (aka read the above!)
2 – Give yourself at LEAST 3 hours to get ready (you have no idea how many distractions will inevitably get in your way because girl, you’re a bridesmaid)
3 – Plan your outfits carefully – you will be running around, and dancing. A lot. Comfort and practicality with a stylish touch is your mantra.
4 – And practice practice practice your dances… the bride’s party must always win!