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Anatomy of an Indian Wedding

We had the honor and privilege of attending two family weddings in India recently. My nephew hitched a ride with his long-time sweetheart and my niece with her love. It was a time to celebrate, eat, and revel in the monsoon rains. We were reminded that Indian weddings are not earthly events; they operate at cosmic scale in terms of the number of events and their significance. We went from one wedding "season" to the next without skipping a beat. Here's are a summary of season one with pictures from both seasons.

Episode 1: First came the “aiburobhat” – wedding shower of sorts for the groom and bride. Each family hosted this event in their own home for their special person. It happened a few days before the wedding and offered a time to gather around each of them, fix their favorite dishes, razz them a bit, and give them a warm send-off into the new phase of their lives. These events happened before we arrived.

Episode 2: Next up was “ashirbad”, meaning blessings. The bride hosted the groom’s family and then the other way around. Gifts were given to the couple and the elders (like my mother below) blessed them with happiness and health.

Episode 3: The day before the wedding began with the same ritual in both homes – it is called “Nanhi Mookh”. My brother prayed to our ancestors to seek their blessings for the couple. The bride's counterpart did the same.

Episode 4: On the eve of the wedding, the bride’s family hosted the mehendi and sangeet night. Mehendi is a Vedic tradition popularized by Bollywood movies and it is the star attraction of Indian weddings. Mehendi is a form of body art that symbolizes the awakening of the inner self. Sangeet – meaning music – followed the mehendi and swung us into serious entertainment mode! We danced and danced - some of us in impromptu ways and others in choreographed sequences - until we dropped. Literally.

Episode 5: The wedding day began with Gaye Holud, aka, Haldi. The women in the groom’s family applied turmeric paste on his forehead, face, arms and feet. Turmeric is the emperor of spices – it kills microbes, reduces inflammation, and makes the skin glow. After the groom was properly lathered, the paste was delivered to the bride and the same routine was repeated with her. During haldi, each side delivered “totto” – beautifully decorated trays of gifts – to the other family. The delicate decorations adorned gifts from the ordinary (soaps and lotions) to the elegant (saris and handbags, ties, and shirts) to the delicious (sweets). Included in the totto was a very special item that only Bengalis can engineer – a fish decorated as a bride!

Blessed by the ancestors, groomed with glowing skin, adorned in amazing outfits from the in-laws, accompanied by a fish with a nose ring, and panting from the sangeet party….we barreled into the main event...

Episode 6: Like in every other culture, getting ready for the big do is an elaborate affair for the bride. Bengali brides get a special kind of face painting called “chondon” – delicate paisley motif painted on the forehead using sandalwood paste. Dressed to the hilt, in jewelry handed down from generation to generation, our brides were sights to behold . This photo of my niece to showcases the chondon on her forehead. Our Bengali groom wore a dhoti which is the sari’s sibling for men. It’s a long piece of cloth that is slipped between the legs and tucked at the waist in a magical way. The joke is that if the groom feels a breeze along one leg, all is well but a breeze on both legs signals an unraveling dhoti.

Episode 7: As the “lagan” arrived, it presented the moment when the stars were aligned in happy harmony, marking an auspicious time for the wedding rituals to commence. First the groom arrived at the mandap which is the wedding venue in a barat - a procession of his family members and friends, to the sound of drums, hollering, and hooting. Then the bride arrived with a contingent of male and female cousins to loud cheering. The very tall male cousins held a decorative cloth over her head to symbolically shield her from bad weather and bad luck. The wedding rituals began with the "first look", which is when the bride and groom see each other for the first time. When the couple has known each other for as long as our couples have, this offered a time for hilarity and mischief. The couple’s friends held up each of them so that it would make it difficult for them to exchange their garlands as they saw each other for the first time. The jovial start broke the ice between the two sides. Next came an elaborate set of rituals that tied the couple in holy matrimony in front of an eternal witness: fire. They circled the fire seven times promising to look after each other, their families, and remain faithful to God. The two sets of parents assisted the priest with the rituals. At the end of the ceremony the groom applied sindoor – vermillion – to the bride’s forehead and the groom's sister tied a scarf around the couple. These symbols of unity including the delicate headgear made from the pith of the shola tree reminded me of my own wedding from decades ago.

At the end of the evening, the couple departed the venue. This can be a traumatic time in some families but my nephew and his bride were so thrilled to be married that they went off hopping and skipping, while she threw puffed rice to the ladies behind her.

Episode 8: Now the groom’s family was in the spotlight. Our nephew and his bride arrived at my brother's home where they were received with great fanfare. A series of welcome gestures by the mother-in-law was followed by the bride serving the guest at lunch. In the old days this signified that the new bride would take over the reigns in the kitchen. In modern times, we still rely in this tradition as an easy way to introduce her to the extended family as they come for food and it has little to do with household chores.

Episode 9: Only a few family and friends from the groom's side went to the wedding so in this episode they hosted a reception for the groom's friends and family. No dancing, just mingling and eating. This was a chance for the bride's family to sit back and enjoy the festivities.

Episode 10: This happened a week and a half later (after we left). The couple returned to her house for TLC and uninterrupted time with her parents. In the old days, the bride did not return home for months or even years after this because transportation and communication between rural locations were difficult at best and traveling was very expensive.

See, I told you. 10 episodes of a totally binge-worthy season. We went into the next season in less than a week. Having survived both, I can safely say that we have emerged satiated, exhausted, full of memories to last a lifetime, and two wonderful additions to the family!

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