So Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas are engaged. Which means Indian weddings are going to be trendy. But even if you’ve attended an Indian wedding, you may not have noticed some of the quirky little elements of an Indian wedding. If you haven’t, here’s a quick primer.
How to Henna
Go ahead and Google Indian wedding henna designs. Brides get these intricate drawings all the way up their arms and legs. Indeed, the bride-to-be sits for an inordinately long period of time getting drawn on, then for a crazy long time waiting for it to dry. It’s said that the darker the henna, the more loved you are. Sure, that could just be an old wives tale, and more likely reflects the quality of the henna, but so what? It’s all in good fun. The girl’s family generally holds a mehndi party one or two days before the wedding, hiring a few artists, and everyone who wants a turn gets a turn getting their palms drawn on. Though less typical, guys are welcome to join the fun too, getting adorned with their own temporary tattoos.
To help the color really soak in, let the paste dry completely, then drizzle it with lemon or lime juice, or dissolve some sugar in lime juice, soak a paper towel in it, then carefully dab the design with the mixture. It’s annoyingly sticky and uncomfortable, but in the end, your efforts are worth it as you show off the lovely designs during the wedding.
Messages in the Mehndi
There’s also this tradition in Indian weddings that, in the midst of all the crazy intricate henna artwork spanning the arms and legs of the bride, somewhere in there is hidden the groom’s name or initials. I see it as a sweet, intimate secret between the couple as he searches for his name. I’ve kept up the tradition over the years whenever I get henna done before weddings, but since my artwork is smaller, with a simple quick sketch on my palms, the name tends to be less hidden and more glaringly obvious. So most recently, I switched to hiding symbols instead representing my family’s names. And last summer, I got the Wonder Woman logo drawn on my wrist. But that’s just me; most people opt for the pretty paisleys and other traditional henna designs. I’m eager to see what Priyanka ends up with.
Celebrating the Sangeet
The night before the wedding, in lieu of a rehearsal dinner, Indian weddings celebrate together in a Sangeet, or music, program. “Sangeet” literally translates to “song,” and in days of yore, this would be an evening of folks getting together to sing traditional songs. But over time, this has shifted to a relaxed celebration—much like the reception, with a catered dinner and everyone all decked out—with loved ones putting on a show. Nieces and nephews (or cousins or friends) perform dances, songs, or skits for the happy couple. Folks from the state of Gujarat instead hold a Raas-Garba, where everyone dances with sticks after dinner. It’s less staged (although sometimes there are still a few performances involved) and more interactive. Regardless of which option the couple chooses, the event is bound to be entertaining. After all, the performances by their collective entertainer friends in Bollywood, Hollywood, and the music industry are sure to put on a memorable show.
The Dancing of the Baraat
Traditionally, weddings were held at the bride’s home. The groom (on a horse, camel, elephant, horse-led carriage, or in a fancy convertible adorned with garlands of flowers), led by his family and friends, would arrive in a large procession at her house with great fanfare. To the loud, booming sound of festively popular wedding songs from Bollywood films, everyone would dance in the street as the procession made its way to where the bride’s side waits. Here’s an excellent example of a modern-day Indian wedding, created by Killer Creations. (The Baraat scene starts at the 1:53 mark, but the entire video is festive and fun, and the fact that we got to watch it during the reception still totally blows me away):
This, I’m sure, shouldn’t be a problem for a Jonas brother, and I imagine the baraat is going to be something to behold.
Bowing for the Garland
After the bride’s family welcomes the groom, the party heads inside. The groom heads to the mandap, the “stage” where the wedding ceremony occurs, and some prayers begin. And then the bride and groom exchange garlands. When I got married, eons ago, I was decked out in outfit two for the day (first one was a simple sari for prayers before the groom arrived, then changed into fancy outfit one for the garland exchange). After watching the baraat through the window (I had to stay hidden, after all), I headed over to the garland exchange in the front yard. After that, I headed inside for the next wardrobe change, while the groom was led to the mandap. These days, however, there’s usually just one fancy wedding outfit, and everything happens on the mandap after the bride appears. But regardless of the logistics of the where and when, the garland exchange has its own little game. Everyone watches to see who will bow down to let the other place the garland around their neck because bowing for this exchange suggests that you’ll bow to your partner during your marriage.
Just as the bride lifts the garland, the groom’s friends swoop in and hoist him on their shoulders, pulling him out of her reach. They want to ensure, after all, that even if he’s tempted to bow down, it won’t do any good. The bride’s brothers then rush in and lift her up, hoping they can make up the difference. The symbolism, of course, is that even though she’s leaving the family, they’ll always be there to help support her.
Stealing the Shoes
Whether the garland exchange occurs on the mandap or elsewhere, at some point, the groom steps onto the mandap. Seeing as the wedding is a religious ceremony, anyone stepping onto the mandap must remove their shoes first. So the groom dutifully removes his shoes (often fancy Aladdin shoes with pointy toes that match his outfit) and steps up to begin his journey into marital bliss. The bride has not yet appeared, and won’t appear for a little while, as the priest begins some rituals with the groom and his parents. But the bride’s sisters (or cousins, nieces, and friends) are watching out for the bride’s long-term well-being. And so, with great stealth and sense of purpose, they sneak over to the mandap and take his shoes. Of course, the groom’s side is usually prepared for the sneak attack, and do their best to undermine their efforts. Perhaps a decoy pair of shoes is set out. Or if the bride’s posse does manage to steal the shoes, then the groom’s folks have until the wedding ends (and the groom is ready to step off the mandap a married man) to retrieve the shoes. And so the games begin, as both sides vie to steal the shoes back and forth.
In the end, the rules of the game do favor the bride’s side, so that the next stage of the game can occur. You see, the groom wants to put on his shoes and carry on with his married life. But the bride’s girls need to put him on alert, let him know that they’re watching out for the bride and insist on reassurance that he’ll take care of her. Usually, this translates to the groom doling out cash to pay off her posse to retrieve his shoes. It could also be the promise of dinner out, or something else between the groom and his future sisters-in-law.
It’s all sneakily done (if done well), so you really have to be paying attention to catch it. After all, Indian weddings aren’t somber affairs. On the contrary, they’re long, social events with snack service and people milling about and chatting freely. Sure, the priest may occasionally be forced to ask everyone to quiet down, but usually only if it’s so loud that they can’t hear what’s coming out of the speakers. Even then the silence only lasts for a few seconds.
Tying the Knot
The couple seriously, literally ties the knot. Somewhere during the ceremony (after the fire is lit and before the couple rises to begin walking around the holy fire), his scarf and her sari are tied together (by his sister) into a knot. This represents the unbreakable bond they will share. But yes, it’s a literal knot.
Racing to Sit First
The couple rises and walks around the fire, first offering rice (representing duty to the community), ghee, and other stuff into the flame, then walking around the pyre. They do this four times—three times with the girl in front, once with the boy in front—and then sit down again. After this, they will take seven steps in unison, with each step representing a promise and a vow. But once these steps are over, and the couple is about to sit down again, there’s time for one more game. You see, it’s said that the first one to sit down after circling the fire will be in control during the marriage. So once the priest gives them leave to return to their seats, they hustle to their seats to claim their authority (I wonder if Priyanka plans to fill Nick in about this little tradition, or she’s hoping to win by default).
At the beginning of the wedding, the groom sits with his bride to his right. Then, after the seven steps, she moves to his left.
Indian weddings are colorful affairs, with guests wearing bright, festive outfits. If you’re unsure what to wear, just avoid black, white, and red, and you’ll be fine. Black is associated with death, as is white (it’s worn by widows), and red is the color the bride typically wears. It’s not a hard and fast rule that brides must wear red, as brides are free to choose whatever they want to wear, but to avoid any confusion, not wearing red is probably wise (save it for the reception, if you’ve already bought it and have no Bollywood-themed event coming up).
Indian Wedding Symbols
In addition to the wedding ring, Hindu weddings also incorporate a couple other symbols to signify marital status. A black and gold necklace called the mangal sutra is worn only by married women. A special red (or orange) powder called sindoor lines the part of a married woman. In old Bollywood films from the 80’s, a woman would learn of her husband’s death when his brother or best friend would show up and, choked up to the point of speechlessness, would reach out and wipe off the powder dramatically, reducing her to a mess of tears. It’s that precious and meaningful.
Bindis, on the other hand—the decorative stickers on the forehead that often match the outfit—are purely for fashion purposes.
And while we’re being complete, if there’s a smear of powder (or a couple smears—of yogurt, powder, and rice) on the forehead, this signifies that the wearer of said smear has just partaken in a holy ritual of some sort and has been blessed. Kinda like the ashes on Ash Wednesday.
The other symbol that bears mentioning is the Hindu swastika. It points left and is not at an angle, like the version that Hitler stole and bastardized for his own evil purposes. It’s a deeply meaningful symbol for Hindus, meaning ‘conducive to well-being or auspicious,’ It’s drawn with dots in the intersection, so it’s not identical to the Nazi symbol. But for those wishing the happy couple well, it’s hard to give up an ancient Hindu symbol and admit defeat to hatred. I mention this just so you’re not surprised to see the image (usually accompanying a copper pot with leaves and a coconut atop it), and don’t misinterpret it. It’s a symbol that’s been around a long time, and for those who wish to keep using it and not letting the symbology get usurped by white supremacists, I’d suggest that a mission of education would be in order.
So there you have it. Can’t wait to see what Priyanka and Nick’s wedding looks like. I’m sure it’ll be fabulous, though I’m curious how many of the games will appear. And whether the wedding video will be released like a Bollywood movie, with its own awesome soundtrack. Should be quite a show.