Indian weddings make their Western counterparts seem small, stuffy, and somewhat dull. They’re enormous affairs, with several days of festivities and thousands of guests. Unlike weddings in the West, anyone can just show up. There are no RSVPs or place settings, and the invitations serve more as announcements than as formal requirements for entry.
After a series of preparatory functions, the main event is held on the final night in an outdoor venue. The area is decorated with streamers and gleaming lights, and when the weather cooperates, the evening air is warm and pleasant. Sometimes, turbaned musicians sit cross-legged in a row and play traditional Indian music. The male guests wear Western suits, Indian robes, or some fusion of the two, and the women wear elegant, colorful saris with airy fabric and a gold trim. It’s a wonderful atmosphere, encapsulating all of India’s splendor and grandiosity.
In India, there’s no distinction between the ceremony and the reception. Both events occur simultaneously. As friends and relatives gather to celebrate the occasion, along with anyone else who feels like being there, the couple is joined in matrimony in several steps over the course of the night.
The first step is the arrival of the groom. The wedding always happens at the native place of the bride, and the groom comes with a party of relatives to retrieve her, symbolic of his assumption of responsibility for his soon-to-be-wife. It’s a somewhat chauvinistic tradition but not so different from a father walking his daughter down the aisle to hand her off to her new protector. At least the Indian groom gets to arrive in dramatic fashion, usually on horseback amidst a grand procession.
When he dismounts, he joins the bride on a stage, and they remain there for several hours, posing for pictures and accepting gifts. During this time, food is served, and the guests eat and socialize. This part comprises most of the wedding, but the bride and groom still aren’t technically married. The actual union happens during a later ritual, in which the bride and groom walk seven circles around a fire while reciting sacred vows. No one knows exactly when this essential ritual will take place. It could be early in the evening, or it could be close to daybreak. The timing depends on what a religious authority determines to be most auspicious. Often, when it happens, most of the guests have already left.
Indian weddings have a very high turnover rate. Rather than sticking it out until almost the bitter end, as guests would do at a Western wedding, many people leave once they’ve finished their meal. That’s why so many people manage to attend. They don’t devote their whole night to the celebration.
Of course, not all Indian weddings are the same. I recently attended two very different weddings in two very different communities—one was Rajput, the Hindu warrior caste, and the other was Jain, a religion of strict non-violence.
The Rajput wedding was one the most magnificent spectacles I’ve seen in India. The couple that runs my homestay brought me along. The bride was the daughter of their close friend. When the groom arrived, I knew the wedding would be something special. Fireworks announced his approach, and dense crowds gathered along the walkway to the ancient palace where the ceremony would be held. A finely decorated horse led the procession, but the groom wasn’t riding it. This was just the beginning of the parade. A pair of camels followed, pulling carts with two drummers beating tremendous wooden drums. Then came an entire brass band. Throughout the display, people threw rose petals from the rooftops, such that they coated the path in a layer of deep, fragrant red. Amidst this floral shower, the groom appeared. He wore bright orange robes and was at twice the height I had expected, atop an enormous, trunked creature that was definitely not a horse. The elephant’s face had intricate designs of blue and pink chalk, and beneath the silver howdah that carried the groom, elegant red fabric covered either side of the animal’s waddled grey girth.
Even for a Rajput wedding, this was pretty opulent. Rumor had it that the Maharaja himself would be there. The celebration was certainly fit for a king. Huge platters of food lined the walls, and drinks flowed freely, including several bottles of whiskey at my table. But at Rajput weddings, the genders are separated, and the men’s side felt like a bit of an old boy’s club. It was full of turbaned men with thick mustaches, all discussing various business endeavors and the general state of India. The ceremony itself happened on the women’s side, so the gathering seemed somewhat removed from the central purpose of the occasion.
At the Jain wedding, everyone was together, creating an open, communal feel. Also, I had a direct connection to the bride—she used to work at my office—so I didn’t feel like I was intruding, and I actually knew some of the other guests. The trappings weren’t as lavish as the other wedding, but it was still a gorgeous celebration, full of light, color, and brilliant attire. However, it was slightly more subdued. In accordance with the Jain faith, the food was totally vegetarian, and more importantly, the entire affair went without the notorious staple of western weddings—alcohol. For livening up an occasion, “mocktails” made from various juices don’t quite cut it.
I highly enjoyed both weddings, despite their differences. In terms of beauty and grandeur, Western weddings just don’t compare. But Western weddings have one particular advantage that I didn’t initially realize, a critical difference in tone that underlies whole function. Indian weddings are almost always the product of an arranged marriage, a union involving limited input from the people actually uniting. Most Indian singles have the right to refuse potential suitors, but their parents decide their options and the time they start choosing. While Indians are technically free to opt out of this system, they’re under heavy social pressure to accept, and they have few alternative options, especially in a traditional city like Jodhpur.
A Western wedding—despite the place settings, the RSVPs, and the stuffy formalities—is a touching celebration of two people’s love for one another and their commitment to spend the rest of their lives together. That’s not how it always plays out, as demonstrated by the West’s increasingly high divorce rates, but at least the couple has total freedom to begin or end the marriage. They’ve chosen, completely of their own accord, to devote themselves to one another. It’s sappy, but it’s true. An Indian wedding lacks this driving sentimental force. The difference shows in the nervous faces of the bride and groom and in the absence of comments about the couple belonging together. There’s no tradition of giving a toast, because what can you really say in that situation? How do you give your blessing to a husband and wife who’ve barely met? The marriage often works out, but at the time of the wedding, beneath all of the thrill and glamour, it must be terrifying.