Indian Wedding Part 3: The Wedding and Reception

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This is Part 3 of a 4-Part series. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

If you’ve never been to an Indian wedding, prepare yourself for a bit of a culture shock!

The guest table with a Ganesha centerpiece.

The guest table with a Ganesha centerpiece.

In most American weddings, the wedding takes place sometime during the early to late afternoon, followed shortly thereafter by a reception. The size, formality, and extravagance of both the ceremony and the ensuing celebration can vary quite a bit, from an intimate gathering of family followed by dinner at a local restaurant, to a luxurious destination wedding on a tropical island.

In my experience, the Indian weddings I’ve attended have been a fairly consistent two-part affair: a traditional religious ceremony on one day (usually Friday) followed by a simple vegetarian meal at the same location; and then a roaring reception the following evening with either a buffet or sit-down dinner, family speeches, and dancing. This two-part celebration provides a separation between the more solemn, religious aspect of joining two people in marriage from the party. And the Indians I know love to party…

DSC06445The wedding ceremony usually takes place at a temple, though sometimes a religious ceremony will occur in a reception hall or other location. Most of the weddings I’ve attended have been Hindu, so those are the traditions I am referring to. The important part is to have a pundit present, specific artifacts used during the ceremony, and a mandap.

The pundit is a religious scholar who performs the ceremony, involving the bride, groom, and their families in a series of tasks meant to bind them together in the eyes of their family and God. Family members from both sides are also part of the ceremony with specific roles to play. The pundit typically speaks in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India. A couple of the weddings I’ve attended have included some English translation so that attendees (and the bride and groom!) will be able to understand what is happening.

Some of the artifacts used in Hindu weddings include incense, fire, various grains and fruits, garlands made of flowers, string, and ornate plates, bowls, and containers to hold all of these items. As a spectator (and an outsider), I have only seen these from afar, though I’m sure that my father-in-law could explain all that is involved since he has witnessed and participated in so many weddings over the years.

The mandap is a covered structure under which the bride and groom are married. It is set up on one side of the room, preferably on an elevated stage or platform so that the attendees can see the ceremony. A mandap can be very simple, but it can also be very elaborate and astonishingly beautiful. Its purpose is unclear to me, but it is an ancient custom that even modern Indians observe.

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The pundit, center with a microphone, under the mandap. The artifacts are on the floor behind the pundit (and the cameraman!).

There are many parts of a Hindu wedding, and these may vary depending on region, level of religious devotion, and family traditions. I was very grateful at one wedding for the simple, lovely explanations of each part in the program.

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The most important, and legally binding, part of a Hindu wedding is the Seven Steps. The bride’s sari is tied to the groom’s wedding garment and they circle the holy fire and make a series of vows:

  1. Together we shall cherish each other in sickness and in health, in happiness and in sorrow.
  2. Together we shall be life-long friends.
  3. Together we shall share each other’s ideals.
  4. Together we shall nourish each other’s strengths, powers and fortunes.
  5. Together we shall make each other happy.
  6. Together we shall provide and care for our children.
  7. Together we will look forward to the mysteries of the future with awe and spiritual unity.

At this point, the bride and groom are considered married.

DSC06464Once the ceremony is over, the pundit will offer a final blessing. At one wedding I attended, family and friends offered attendees a “final blessing”–rock sugar and a crispy legume–that we then consumed as a way to unite us with the newly married couple.

The meal following the wedding ceremony is always vegetarian; a wedding is a religious function and Indians do not consume meat on days that they perform religious rites. Don’t be fooled, though! Indian vegetarian food can be amazing–I never miss the meat! More about the food in my next post…

The reception, though, is another story! Of course, you must wear different clothes (usually better, brighter, and more beautiful), and you must be prepared for a long night of dancing and fun.

Regardless of when the reception starts (typically around 7pm), you will not eat dinner until after 9pm. Ever. I’m not kidding about this! Luckily, there are usually hors d’oeuvres and drinks, but I usually eat a snack before I go to make sure I’m not starving by the time dinner is served, and I always bring snacks for the kids. Dinner may be Indian food (with meat this time), or it could be a more traditional chicken, seafood, or vegetarian meal.

Once the reception officially “starts,” a master of ceremonies will welcome everyone and introduce the wedding party and mention any out-of-town guests. He/she will then introduce a series of family members and friends who will give speeches honoring the bride and groom. The cake will be cut early on, and then dinner will be served. Sometimes the the bride and/or groom’s family and friends will perform a Bollywood-style dance, and sometimes they hire professional dancers to entertain the guests.

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Later in the evening, the dancing will begin. It is loud, vibrant, and so fun–and not just for the young folks! Guests of all ages get down on the dance floor and have a great time until late in the night (think 1am).

Of course there are personal touches throughout, but for me, one of the most wonderful parts of Indian weddings (and really any wedding) is the time-honored customs that infuse the ceremony and celebration. I remember feeling out of place the first time I went to an Indian wedding, mostly because I had no idea what was going on and I didn’t understand the language. Now I just sit back and enjoy the beauty of two people joining their lives surrounded by thousands of years of tradition and culture. And I smile.

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