Last year, I got married with great pomp and ceremony. It was a magnificent and traditional Indian affair, our magnum opus that lasted all of six days. As a bride, I remember feeling special, emotional, ecstatic, overwhelmed, anxious, in-control and clueless all at once. Soon after, many of my friends and cousins got married, and I ended up attending almost ten Indian weddings over a one-year timespan. One particular group of wedding-goers at each of these weddings caught my eye: the non-Indian wedding-goers, the foreigners. Often a 1% minority in an alien setting with people they don’t know, music they don’t understand or food they’re not sure they can digest.
So this is for you if you’re new to Indian weddings. You’ve been handed the cream-and-red envelope, with a direct invitation from the Elephant God. You’re excited and keen to attend, but also terrified; there are just so many questions! What’s it going to be like, will I get diarrhoea, what am I expected to wear, where do I book a room…don’t worry. Consider this an Indian Weddings for Dummies, or an attempt thereof. Of course, every Indian wedding is different, with personal and cultural nuances. But this is a broad model that generally applies.
Let’s begin with the basics; the what-why-when-where-how. The what of course, is the wedding itself, and the why is something you’d have to ask your friend who’s getting married. Don’t dig too deep though, because sometimes the answer is family pressure or them being the right age to get married, and things start to get murky. For now let’s focus on the latter three.
You’d receive an invitation around four-to-six months before the wedding, so you have enough time to book your flights and plan your leave. Most likely, the ceremonies would cover two nights and three days (Why? Because there are lots of people and lots of ceremonies, and we’ve come up with a cost-effective way to optimise this in a compact time-frame: 2 nights and 3 days). Since you’ve never been to that part of India before, you might be tempted to take another day off to explore India. But if you were to change your mind instead and check-in to Park Hyatt for a day, no one’s judging you. Just saying.
Accommodation for the entire event is covered by the hosts. Say what?! Yes, it’s absolutely normal for Indian families to make living arrangements for guests flying in. I think it comes from an ancient Indian belief that I’ve heard my mom remind me regularly: atithi devo bhava, i.e. a guest is like a God. It’s been a few thousand years since then, so don’t expect people to come pray to you etc.
What should you gift the couple? A decade ago, people used to gift appliances, decorative bowls and so on. But recent trends indicate a popularity towards holiday vouchers or gift cards from Amazon or Ikea. It’s hassle-free, it’s online and you can pool in with a group of friends to offer them something of significant value. If you’re out of time or ideas, cash works wonders too.
The Ceremonies, And What To Wear
Usually, there are five main ceremonies that you’re expected to attend (I mean, some of them are listed as optional and start at 8:00 am but hey. Why else are you here? Plus, you can sleep in when you’re back home) and it’s advisable to have separate outfits for each of them. Putting in effort into your attire is also considered a sign of respect towards the occasion.
The first function you’d attend is Mehndi, or the Henna ceremony. Wear something colourful and sleeveless, if you plan to get Henna tattoos. Don’t worry if you can’t find the bride, she’s probably surrounded by Henna designers tasked with painting up her hands, feet, arms and legs with intricate designs.
This goes on for hours, so get her a drink (with a straw) if you want to help, or try and make other friends in the meantime. Hanging out with the groom (if he’s around) is a great idea, because it’s likely that he’s feeling completely out of place. He’s got two dots of Henna on his hands per custom, interacted with all the guests, helped himself to the appetisers and has probably run out of ideas on what to do, by now.
Closely followed by Mehndi is Sangeet. Sangeet literally translates to music, but it’s so much more than that. Sangeet is a grand musical, marked with lots of drinking and dancing late into the night. It’s basically a censored Bachelor(ette) party.
The most confusing part of a Sangeet is the attire. The wedding invitation would ask you to wear something fusion, or Indo-Western, or to go wild. I believe these are cover-ups, in truth no one really knows. If you’re a guy, be safe wearing a suit or a fashionable kurta. Ladies, remember that the bride is probably going to wear a shiny dress that resembles a ball gown. So wear anything shiny to match her theme, just make sure it’s not as shiny as hers…
The highlight of any Sangeet are the choreographed dances performed by the couple, friends and family, on-stage (at least that’s the highlight for people who’re dancing on-stage). In a timed and structured sequence, they showcase what they’ve practised tirelessly for in the past weeks or sometimes, even months. This, is their Bollywood dream and no one can take that away from them.
Then there are the last-minute friends who were sent a video with all the dance steps two months ago, but they were too busy with life and Netflix to take a look at it until D-day. I often fall into this bracket. If you turn up on-stage unprepared, just stand behind someone who knows the steps, and make sure your arms and legs move in the right directions overall. That’s what matters in the videos.
All of this ends with an open DJ, and at this point you can’t wait to dance. And if you’re shy, you’re too drunk to care. Now. You might find most of the playlist to be Bollywood songs you’ve never heard of. There’d be the occasional It’s My Life or I Got A Feeling, but that’s it. And the fam isn’t feeling super inclusive at this point, it’s their wedding too and they’re going to play what they want. My only recommendation is to acquaint yourself with the latest tunes before you fly down, or take another shot.
The next morning, get ready for Haldi (literal translation: Turmeric). Haldi is a custom where a paste of turmeric, rose water, sandalwood and milk is applied on the bride and groom’s bodies. I suppose it was meant as a pre-wedding facial back in the day, because of the anti-inflammatory properties of Turmeric. Now, it’s one way to camouflage a hangover (do you even remember what you did at Sangeet last night?). So don’t shy away from trying some of that paste yourself. Dress code? Anything yellow.
IV. The main wedding and reception
Now for the final ceremony, the reason you’re going in the first place: the main wedding, and reception. Put your best foot forward and into your most expensive outfit you’ve got. Buy a sherwani, lehenga or saree if you don’t have one. The order of the two depends on the family’s cultural or religious preferences. Regardless, they happen consecutively over six to eight hours, sometimes longer.
In some parts of India, the ceremony kicks off with the groom sitting on a horse and being led to the wedding venue by his family, accompanied with a band of musicians. If you’re on the groom’s side, you’re expected to join this lot. You’ll then participate in a dance-as-you-walk routine, starting right from when he mounts the horse. The musicians can multi-task, they’re experts at collecting cash from the family as they proceed forward. In fact, they only allow the horse to move ahead if you show them the money. How do I know? I heard it from the horse’s mouth. Jk Jk…
Anyway, the groom now takes place on stage where he now waits for his bride. Meanwhile, the bride looks like the most beautiful woman on Earth (and she knows it). Her family accompanies her under a Phoolon ki chaadar (blanket of flowers) in a beautiful, slow walk that’s dramatised more with a heart-touching track. Some cry at this point, and I suggest dabbing your eyes even otherwise, to show empathy. Or then hiding behind the chaat counter.
Finally, the bride and groom are then made to meet on stage, where they kiss. Are you kidding me? This is an Indian wedding, they exchange garlands and go sit on a couch.
I’ll be honest with you, this is where the fun part ends for most people. The next few hours make up the reception, where we see the bride and groom open up their hearts and smiling jaws to guests, as they make their way on stage to get pictures clicked with the couple.
If you’re close to the couple, stick around and bring them snacks and water from time to time, but more importantly be around to save them from what comes next:
Usually, the whole thing begins with a pretty harmless uncle walking up to the couple to congratulate them. They know him from somewhere, but can’t quite place him. He recognises this, and goes for it, “Congratulations! So, do you remember me?” This is a trick question. If you say Yes, he’s going to follow it up with “Great! So tell me who I am? Hehehe..”. Devious. If you say No, you might offend him. Which is exactly when, you being the true friend you are, jump in to change the subject: Hey. Your mom’s calling you or better, address the problem: Hello Uncle! I don’t believe we’ve met?
By now our couple is tired, but it’s far from over. They walk over to a pavilion where they sit around in a circle with close family, while the priest reads and explains verses in Hindi or Sanskrit.
You could be the sort of person who’s interested in knowing what the chants and verses actually mean, in which case you might tap the nearest Indian you know, and ask. Don’t expect much, it’s possible they don’t know either. I get questions like ooh why’s she carrying stones in her saree? or why does the groom’s sister pour the oil into the fire…I do not know. And if you find people snapping at each other or that half of them have changed into their night clothes, don’t be surprised. Because by now, it’s probably 2:00 am.
I can’t write about Indian weddings without covering the food. The first thing that would stand out is the sheer abundance of it, not only at each event but also in between them.
The moment you check-in to your rooms on Day 1, you’d find a hamper with dry snacks, cookies etc. Not only is this followed by elaborate breakfasts, lunches and dinners serving over fifty kinds of dishes (I once attended a wedding where they had 150 varieties, and I only got to see 80 let alone taste them), but you’d have High Teas and appetisers floating around as fillers.
Now once again, what’s served depends on the family’s cultural preferences. But a few are commonplace: a salad counter (if you’re unsure, choose the ones with cooked and not raw veggies), a chaat counter, a series of Indian main courses, an Italian counter, a Roti or Naan counter, and a wide array of sweets.
Use your good sense – if something looks red, oily and unfamiliar, try a small portion. Take larger portions of carbs (rice, Naans), they’re safe. If you’re planning to rely on dessert, remember that Indian sweets are like sugar injections. We haven’t been named the world’s capital of diabetes for nothing. So eat with caution. And if you’re on a low-carb diet, hah! You’re in the wrong country.
Conclusion and General Tips
With that, we come to an end. Remember that this was meant as a basic guide, so don’t sweat the small stuff or worse – hold me accountable for it. I’m confident that you’re fully armed and equipped to attend and enjoy your next Desi wedding.
Before we bid adieu, a few general tips:
- If the invite says an event starts at 8:00 pm, turn up at 8:30 pm or after. Remember that this is Indian Standard Time (IST) and you have to add an extra half hour to what’s said or written.
- Get ready to dance, anytime and anywhere. Start moving those feet as soon as the music begins, it’s the most effective way to Win Friends and Influence People at Indian weddings.
- Don’t be alarmed if the photographers click you at odd times and unexpected angles. If you’re the foreign minority, you’re going to be an important part of their diversity portfolio.
- When in doubt, eat less. Be responsible with the food. You know it’s different from what you get at home, so wolfing down Gobi Manchurians isn’t going to end well.
- Finally, be prepared for some serious withdrawal effects. Three days of laughter, music, food and dance with the same people in a close space are going to leave you on an emotional high, so give yourself some time to recover
And most importantly, remember to have fun!