Last weekend I went to, believe it or not, my first English wedding (apart from one I barely remember at the age of 7)! This isn't quite as astounding as it might sound. First and foremost, Indian families are larger than "native" English families. That means, you have more close relatives to get married, increasing the probability of someone close to you getting married. Secondly, Indian families are more extended, meaning people of more distant relation are seen as closer to you (second cousins are practically brothers!) and therefore more likely to send you an invitation. Thirdly, Indian weddings are HUGE and very much status events: the larger and the more people you invite the better, so as many people will be invited as possible, with links more tenuous than you could imagine! Indian weddings, with all their accompanying ceremonies and rituals, last days with large numbers of friends and family being involved at every step. They are like an extended party with a wedding ceremony going on somewhere in the background, rather than the comparatively quick and intimate events we see in Hugh Grant films. The first Indian wedding I strongly remember is one I attended in the Punjab, Northern India, during my gap year.
I'd been travelling India for two months when I popped into Delhi to visit my family. I'd been invited to a wedding in Punjab, a couple of hours north of Delhi along the Grand Trunk Road (which had been trodden a few millenia previously by Alexander the Great). I'd been told that it would be fine to wear what I'd been travelling India in: trainers, jeans and my school jersey from a rugby tour. As soon as I arrived, I realised that this was a classic example of Indians reassuring the interlocutor without any basis in fact (just try asking for directions in India). Everyone there was dressed in their finest sherwanis, jewellery and elaborate henna, leaving me to feel rather uncouth. The venue was incredible: a marquee larger than a football field, dripping in lights; at least one half of it filled with a hot buffet of more types of curry than I had ever imagined; a dance floor with a distinctly "home-improved" looking light and sound machine; and a raised area in the corner with what looked like an unlit bonfire in the middle of it, two thrones and a priest (this is called the mandap and is where the ceremony is held.
There were hundreds of people in the tent (I later found out that several thousand people came to the wedding!) and it was late at night to ensure a particularly auspicious astrological alignment. The bride was my cousin's wife's sister (got that?!) which is close by Indian standards! After a few hours milling around the tent, there was a sudden burst of noise from outside, which sounded like a brass brand being slowly eviscerated. It was, in fact, the groom-al procession. In a reverse of the British tradition, it is the bride who awaits the groom at the Indian wedding venue, and the groom arrives with his party.
The groom arrives on a white horse, wearing what appears to be a lampshade on his head. He is accompanied by around 50 male relatives, all of whom are pretty inebriated and dancing in enthusiastic bangra style to a brass band dressed in Victorian bell-boy uniforms, all of whom are playing a different tune. As wedding entrances go, it's certainly dramatic.
The groom is then confronted by his greatest challenge: the sisters and best-friends of his wife to be. In a scene played out with all the histrionics and over-acting of an Indian soap opera, the groom has to bribe these very important guardians of his fiancee's honour to be allowed to enter the wedding! The negotiating also involves the groom's goon's, who by this point have reached new levels of gymnastic exuberance, brought on by the sight of the girls in saris. Whilst all this is going on, the groom is "tricked" into removing his shoes. These are taken by the bride's girls and held to ransom for later that evening, so the groom completes the rest of the ceremony barefoot. I've been assured that this bribery and shoe "theft" ritual happens at every wedding and a large part of the entertainment revolves around camp Bond-esque attempts at hiding and finding the shoes. When I ask how this ritual started or what it might signify, someone mumbled something about it being in one of the stories about the Gods, but no-one's really sure!
This was live theatre, far better than the rather staid English events I'd seen on television and this was only the entrance, so I was excited by the prospect of the actual wedding ceremony! The groom entered with his entourage, who seemed to quickly forget what they were doing and took over the dance floor, whilst the groom went with the bride to the ceremonial area. At this point everyone seemed to forget there was a wedding going on and proceeded to raid the food whilst the wedding continued in the background. Something of an anticlimax after the impressive entrance.
I tried to get an idea as to what was actually going on in the wedding ceremony, which appeared to involve origami, a barbecue, a make-up session and an orienteering expedition. At some point, the bride's sister, informed me it was time to dance. I nodded in faux-enthusiasm, but she insistently informed me that is was time for me to dance. She proceeded to explain that, as the guest who had come the farthest for the wedding, it was my duty to open the dancing. Ignoring my jaw hitting the flaw and the cold sweats that had broken out across my forehead, she dragged me to the dance floor. The guests, who until this point had only been interested in the constant supply of food, were treated to my attempts to perform a blend of old-school garage and Michael Jackson to the sounds of badly distorted Indian filmi music. I'm still none the wiser as the whether this is in fact a tradition or just a good joke at my expense!
At some point, without any fanfare, the wedding finished. I learned that I was a part of the "close" wedding party so we all headed back to the bride's house. Everyone sat around talking convivially whilst the newly-weds, still encumbered with half the world's gold reserves, sat like deer in the headlights of a truck. Rather oddly, everyone slept in the front room together before waking up two hours later for the next part of the ceremony. In the early dawn light of a beautifully hazy morning, we slowly made our way to the local Gurdwara for the Sikh wedding (the groom being Sikh and the bride Hindu). This was a smaller, quicker and more intimate affair. After readings from the Sikh holy book, we all helped prepare food for the local poor in the kitchen of the Gurdwara.
We returned to the bride's house, where I was sat next to the bride's youngest sister, Pooja, and interrogated as to my opinions on education, employment and marriage. And, although she was lovely and her mother rather enthusiastic, I did manage to return bride-less to Britain! The parents of both families sat opposite each other exchanging gifts. Rather than forcing a smile and putting away another bread-maker that would never be used, each gift (which was mostly clothes and jewellery) was carefully studied and discussed for worth and value and only then was it accepted. From what I understand, this is a product of the dowry system and in the modern day wedding gifts can include cars, shares in a business, or even green cards.
As we enjoyed our 20th cup of tea, I noticed the lack of the groom. My cousin Rajiv, who was over from England, told me that the next stage was for the bride to leave her family home. Indian girls rarely live independently and usually won't have lived with their future husband before the wedding. And when a girl is married, she ceases to be a part of her own family and instead becomes a "daughter" of the groom's family. As Rajiv explained this to me, I heard the strains of the discombobulated brass band as the groom and his party came to take the bride away to her new life.
The family became very distressed at this point and all the women-folk set about wailing and beating their chests. Pooja was particularly distraught, entirely unable to release her older sister (who was being led away rather insistently by the groom, alarmed that this turn of events might scupper everything!) and she had to be dragged away by her father and brother. After all the jollity and light of the rest of the wedding, it left me feeling uncomfortable that the entire event ended in a rather distressing way. Remarkably, the happy couple returned a few hours later for supper with no further histrionics!
Since then, I've been to several more weddings of my Indian cousins here in England. The bride moves in with her husband as soon as the wedding is finished, who often moves back home to his parents' house reinforcing the idea of her changing families. But in England at least, the bride doesn't literally cut herself off from her family: Indian families are very close and my cousins who live near their wives' family will spend a couple of days a week, at least, with their in-laws.
The Indian wedding was a real eye-opener, and the first time I gained an insight into the genuine cultural differences between my Indian and British heritages and how it might directly affect my life. I want to learn more about Indian weddings in Britain: are they effectively the same as British weddings, just done in an Indian "theme"? Are they marriages of love, with the ties between families born out of that? Are they fully arranged, with the couple meeting under the guidance of their parents? Or is it a uniquely British Indian experience, born of the practicalities of ensuring a culture thrives outside the land of its birth?
The stages and events at the Indian wedding, such as the groom's arrival, the "theft" of the shoes, the sleeping in the same room, the bride leaving for her new family, are all representative of certain thresholds that a married couple are crossing. Thresholds in Indian life are highly ritualised, with intricate ceremonies and relevant stories of the Gods, guiding and managing difficult changes in life. Marriage and its rituals are a fascinating insight into any culture and they play a particularly important role in Indian life. I anticipate this part of my journey being the most colourful and insightful of all.