Even though I was born in India and celebrate my Indian culture even in America, it wasn’t until the summer before my freshman year at college that I attended my cousin’s wedding in India (that I remember). And I was awed. I was out of my element, painfully shy, and very intimidated, but my cousins whom I had never met before were so incredibly welcoming and made the experience unforgettable.
With Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas getting married, I couldn’t help but think about the Indian wedding I had been to. And when I helped my Uncle with his Indian wedding this year, I realized there were so many traditions I didn’t know or didn’t think about the meaning behind them. This is a breakdown of an Indian wedding, the traditions that go into it, and the reasons they’ve become engrained in our culture.
The most important thing to keep in mind is the way Indian weddings are perceived. An Indian wedding is not only a union between the bride and the groom – it is a union of two families, traditions, and cultures. Every family does things differently and each family has their own nuances – this is what happened in my family.
The Sangeet is a big party a few days before the actual wedding – it’s kind of like a big kick-off to the wedding festivities. During the Sangeet, traditional folk songs are played, the friends and family put on performances, and the bride’s family welcomes the groom family. Traditionally, the Sangeet is an open invitation to everyone who wants to come. Families would throw one because relationships are very important in Indian culture and it would be a way to include everyone from the town, neighborhood, or village even if they couldn’t make it to the actual wedding.
The Mehendi Ceremony
Mehendi, or more commonly known as henna, is crucial for the bride at an Indian wedding. She has mehendi done in intricate traditional designs on the front and back of her hands all the way up to her elbow as well as on her feet. This normally happens after the Sangeet and one day before the wedding because it takes a few hours to put on and then a few more hours to dry but they also want to make sure the bride has dark and vibrant mehendi on her wedding day. Sometimes, the bride will call her friends and family to be a part of this and everyone else will have mehendi done as well. Some Indian brides almost treat it like a bachelorette party and have one big slumber party with her closes family and friends.
Even the groom has a mehendi party. Although the groom and his male friends and family don’t apply it as detailed or extensively as the bride, it is considered good luck and a traditional aspect of getting married.
This is during the actual wedding ceremony. Traditionally, the groom is supposed to mount a horse and to go to the Bride’s house with his entire family and pick her up for the wedding and then they go to the wedding location together. In India, you will see more than a hundred people surrounding the groom on his horse dancing along with him. They have a special instrument or band that plays folk music. In India, it is literally on the side of a road as the groom’s party walks to the bride’s house (or to a predetermined location) and all traffic stops. The great thing is that it’s so common in India, there are roadblocks and safety measures in place for when this happens.
The Vara Swagatam
When the groom arrives at the location, he is greeted by the bride’s mother and she performs a small “pooja” or prayer service for him. Sometimes different families will have the bride’s father and siblings perform something as well but the mother’s role generally remains consistent.
The Jaimala is a heavy flower garland that the bride and groom put on one another. It symbolizes their respect and commitment to one another. According to Utsavpedia, sometimes the groom’s friends will tease the bride by pretending to stop the bride from adorning the groom with the garland – as if they are trying to keep their friend a bachelor. Traditionally there is no ring exchange in India, but in modern times, the ring exchange usually follows the Jaimala ceremony. After the Jaimala and the ring exchange, there is a big reception. In Indian weddings, the reception is woven into the ceremony which follows the reception. Unlike American weddings, only very very close family and friends stay for the actual ceremony – most people leave after the food is served during the reception.
The Indian wedding ceremony is supposed to be a very intimate and sacred event that is meant to only be for the bride, groom, and very close family. It isn’t unusual for even siblings to leave after the reception and not stay for the ceremony.
The Saath Pheras
This is the most important part of the ceremony – almost like when the bride and groom say their vows at an American wedding. In the middle of the room, there is a beautiful arrangement called “the mandap.” It’s traditionally a pit where the “Pandit” or Priest lights a fire which is surrounded by iridescent fabric set up to make a makeshift canopy. During the pheras, the bride and groom circle the fire seven times. The bride leads the groom for four rounds and the groom leads for three rounds. Each round means something different, and in each one, the bride and groom promise something sacred to the other.
- The groom says “You will offer me food and be helpful in every way. I will cherish you and provide welfare and happiness for you and our children” and the bride responds, “I am responsible for the home and all household, food, and finance responsibilities”
- The groom says “Together we will protect our house and children.” The bride responds, “I will be by your side as your courage and strength. I will rejoice in your happiness. In return, you will love me solely”
- The groom says, “May we grow wealthy and prosperous and strive for the education of our children and may our children live long.” The bride responds, “I will love you solely for the rest of my life, as you are my husband. Every other man in my life will be secondary. I vow to remain chaste”
- The groom says, “You have brought sacredness into my life, and have completed me. May we be blessed with noble and obedient children” and the bride responds, “I will shower you with joy, from head to toe. I will strive to please you in every way I can”
- The groom says, “You are my best friend and staunchest well-wisher. You have come into my life, enriching it. God bless you” and the bride responds, “I promise to love and cherish you for as long as I live. Your happiness is my happiness, and your sorrow is my sorrow. I will trust and honor you, and will strive to fulfill all your wishes”
- The groom says, “‘Now that you have taken six steps with me, you have filled my heart with immense happiness. Will you do the kindness of filling my heart with happiness like this for all times?” The bride says, “I will always be by your side.”
- The groom says, “We are now husband and wife, and are one. You are mine and I am yours for eternity” and the bride responds, “As God is a witness, I am now your wife. We will love, honor and cherish each other forever.”
Of course, in modern times, these vows can be changed to reflect the bride and groom’s personal beliefs. This is where one of the most fun games is played – the bride’s sisters (nowadays it can be her friends or any family member) hide the groom’s shoes when he has to take them off for the prayer service. The groom’s family tries to make sure the bride’s family can’t hide them. At the end of the pheras and when the groom starts searching for his shoes, the bride and groom’s family negotiate their price to return the shoes to the groom.
The groom applies a red powder called kumkum into the bride’s hair which signifies their role as husband and wife. The red powder is only something married women wear, so it is a symbol that she is now officially married.
The Mangala Sutra
The groom puts a black and gold necklace on his wife and the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi blesses the bride for a prosperous life with her new family. Traditionally, this was almost like a replacement for the ring ceremony at American weddings. Although wives would wear a ring, people usually looked at her Mangala Sutra to see if she was married.
After the wedding is over, the bride and groom go back to the groom’s house with their closest family and friends. The groom’s sister blocks the doorway and doesn’t allow the bride and groom to enter the house unless the groom gives her a gift. This was a fun way to thank the groom’s sister for all her hard work in planning the wedding because traditionally there were no wedding planners and the families would take the brunt of the work.
When the bride and groom finally enter, they play a series of games. Traditionally, the bride and groom wouldn’t have known each other for very long because they were most likely to have an arranged marriage – these games were a fun and easy way to break the ice.
The most memorable game is when the newlyweds family mix together water, milk, turmeric, kumkum, grass, and some flowers and drop the newlywed’s rings in the mixture. The bride and groom compete to be the first ones to find the ring. There are more traditional games that each family has.
Mooh Dikhai Ceremony
This tradition began as a way to give the newlyweds presents as well as take a look at the blushing bride. Normally, the wedding guests might not get a good look at the bride because a veil might be covering her face or they were too far away. The bride sits down while every one of the family members walks up to her, remove the veil covering her face, tell her how beautiful she is (nowadays its theatrically and almost a joke because most of the family will already know her), and give her a present.
After that, the groom’s sisters “beautify” the bride by applying lipstick, combing her hair, putting on and adorning her with necklaces, bracelets, and anklets. Nowadays, it’s done just for show and tradition.
I haven’t even scratched the surface of the many, many, many traditions that go into an Indian wedding. For the next year, there are ceremonies, events, and prayer services for their marriage. If I tried to write them all down, I’d be writing forever. The ceremonies I’ve outlined are the ones I’ver personally been a part of, seen, and are consistent through most Indian families. Indian ceremonies are beautiful and jaw-dropping – they are colorful, bright, and so much fun. Which describes Indian culture perfectly.
Also published on Medium.