Drum roll please! The final act of our epic journey is about to begin. Our good friend's getting married in a flurry of colorful ceremonies, surrounded by a posse of relatives, friends and acquaintances. We're here to keep him company, cheer loudly for his newly forged family, and thoroughly enjoy ourselves.
The wedding is a three-day event. We're told that that's the modern-times’ “short” version of what used to be a week of celebrations in the old days, just because people are so busy nowadays. Why this long? It's related to how many people typically attend. Thousands. The wealthier the family the longer the guest list, and in our friend's case the final number oscillated around five thousand. That's some fifty times more than you'll have at a typical wedding in Poland.
Three days, times five thousand people means a lot of opportunities for networking, which is a major component of the wedding. Relationships matter a lot in India and such events are a way to maintain them, bonding circles of geographically dispersed families, friends and acquaintances.
I was heavily surprised by just how little the event centered around the bride & groom and the procedures they were going through. Mind you, at any given time their closest relatives were with them, and a couple hundred people watched intently. But this focused audience was just a portion of everyone present in the venue. The rest were coming in or out, eating, sipping coffee, chatting.
The wedding starts on Saturday morning with the bride receiving blessings from her own family, performed by the women. Relatively few guests attend this portion of the weekend, mostly family and close friends. The venue is still only being setup, stage built, speakers and screens installed (if any), chairs arranged. The groom is free to wander the space and welcome guests. Around mid-day everyone goes off to prepare for the evening.
Late afternoon, on the same Saturday, the biggest part of the wedding starts. Not the main one—that's on Sunday morning—but with the most people attending. It's the groom's time, starting with his visit to the nearest temple to pray for a successful marriage. Then there'll be a small clash between the groom's ensemble, led by himself, and the bride's. The groom arrives and asks for the bride to come out to meet him, which is not what should happen. It's the groom that should go in and find his bride. So there's negotiating, a bit of pushing around, some shouting, some laughing. Finally, the groom gives in and walks into the venue to meet his future wife.
Then there are photos taken. Lots and lots of photos. The future newlyweds (they're not married yet at this point) will spend a good few hours on stage with the five thousand people coming up, telling wishes, leaving gifts and posing for pictures. I haven't asked our friend yet, but this looked like the most physically straining part of the whole event.
Saturday evening is the closest it gets to what we call a “wedding reception” in the western world. There's music—a pair of local singers performing live—but no dancing (we were disappointed on this one, hoping for a bit of Bollywood-style choreographies, but apparently that's a north-Indian thing), and there's plenty of food. Buffets of breads, chutneys, curries, rice (obviously) and all the other spice-filled Indian delicacies. We couldn't understand a thing from the menu, printed all in Tamil, but thankfully the buffet setup allowed us to pick by sight & smell.
Saturday's the moment when we realized we should've practiced eating with our hands. All food was presented to us on coconut palm tree leaves, with no utensils. So we did a quick recap of what we knew:
- touch food with your right hand only,
- squeeze a small chunk of food together,
- put it in your mouth, positioning your hand horizontally and lightly pushing the food with your thumb.
It worked all right, we managed. At some point we were offered spoons, which we declined politely. Wouldn't want to have our bragging rights taken away for this achievement.
Finally, the Sunday. The wedding ceremony starts around 7:30AM, but the day started a lot earlier for us. Had to get out of bed at 5AM, make ourselves beautiful and ready for the girls’ sarees to arrive just before 6AM, followed by stylists to help put them on. It's not easy. Many of today's young Indian women don't know how to do that, relying on their mothers, aunts and other elders.
By 6:20AM the ladies still didn't arrive, so we went for plan B: YouTube. There's a number of videos online showing step by step how to put on a saree. Simple enough, “in 10 minutes”. Not quite. Turns out a skirt is required to tuck some of the cloth into, plus several safety pins to bind everything together. Even folding is a bit of an art. We did some trial and error for 20 minutes, then gave up. Whatever we tried looked awful. Plan C it was then: pack up and go to the venue, hoping someone there could help us. Just as we were leaving at 6:45AM, we met the two ladies downstairs, in the hotel's reception. Took them 20 minutes to get our girls wrapped and ready.
The two of us guys had a much, much easier time. Any decent shirt will do for the top part—and I happened to have bought a very nice, light shirt back in Mysuru—then for the bottom there's the simple, white dhoti. It used to be tricky to fasten it so that it wouldn't slide down, but nowadays these come with velcro around the waist, so putting it on takes 10 seconds. There's even a pocket (heavily advertised as a feature), big enough for wallet and phone. Lest you think that's unimportant—sarees and traditional dhotis have no pockets, so all of the women and many of the men at the event walked around with wallets, car keys and phones in their hands.
We arrived, somewhat late, but not really. There never seems to be a fixed time to anything starting in India. It's more of an event time, where things start when enough people are ready.
This was the wedding proper—bride and groom tying knots together (literally! at one point), priests chanting, lots of flower petals and rice being thrown around to ensure the newlyweds’ success. The ceremony took around an hour. We weren't quite sure at which point the couple actually became married. The leading priest spent a lot of time explaining (in Tamil, but we've been told) how the couple should build a solid marriage. Useful stuff, definitively, though I suspect it's a leftover from the days when the bride and groom may have met for the first time ever only at their wedding, and definitively could've used some advice. Nowadays our friend's been talking to his fiancé via various online means for months, ever since they were introduced to one another.
Then photos (again), more food (delicious, as always) and by mid-day the official part of the wedding was over. Lest you think the couple could now enjoy some time together—no way. There's still stuff to do.
Sunday afternoon the couple moves to the bride's “native place”—her traditional family home, where she was born and raised. They spend a night there. Then they pack up and on Monday morning drive to the groom's “native place”, together with the whole ensemble of the bride's family. This is where we were again to meet them, some 60km east of Coimbatore.
We were welcomed by our friend's parents, feeling treated like guests of honor. We even got the red and yellow dots painted on our foreheads, together with blessings.
Monday is the least formal part of the event with only the very closest people present. There's a bit of ceremony where the newlyweds visit the local temple, but then it's just meeting, talking, eating and sipping delicious mango & watermelon juice. We even managed to catch them for 15 minutes to give our personal wishes and a few specialty gifts we prepared back in Poland.
Sadly we couldn't stay long, facing a six-hour drive to Bengaluru, where we needed to arrive before 10PM that evening. The newlyweds will now spend another month (perhaps a few) visiting all of their relatives. It's networking and relationship-building all over again.
It was a long and intense weekend. Adding to our enjoyment was the fact that we were the only white people present. We stood out by skin color, coupled with our efforts to dive into the local culture. People were very excited seeing us wear traditional clothing—the sarees and the dhotis. Many came up to personally welcome us, inquired about our origins, complimented on the clothing (and our ability to eat with hands), invited to visit them in various parts of the country (we'd love to!). Even the groom joked at one point that we might've been a bigger deal than the newlyweds themselves!
Indian wedding: check! it is then. It was busy, it was noisy, it was exciting and absolutely lovely to be there. We're mighty happy for our friends getting married and that we could've been a part of it. The only regret we have is that the wedding culminated our trip and the drive to Bengaluru was the beginning of our long way back to Poland.