With over 500 languages and 6,000 dialects, the diverse cultures and religions of India shape today’s wedding ceremonies, and so Indian weddings vary based on their region of origin. Many different rituals that are part of an Indian wedding ceremony also can take place over several days.
The engagement is the first agreement between the families, and that's when they set the wedding date. “The wedding rituals themselves begin 15 days before the wedding, with Barni Bandhwana,” says Ferinoosh Khosravi, senior catering and special events manager at The Roosevelt Hotel. “That’s where a piece of thread, called Mauli, is tied to the hands of both the groom and his parents, to humbly request a safe wedding day from the gods.”
The next step is Mayara. “It’s also called the ‘Maternal Uncle’s Ceremony,’ ” continues Ferinoosh. “He brings gifts for the mothers of both the bride and the groom, including the dresses they will wear at the wedding.”
During the Tilak Ceremony, a red turmeric powder called Kumkum is put on the groom’s forehead. “This is normally done by the male members of the bride’s family,” continues Ferinoosh, “and is often followed by giving gifts to the groom.”
Before the wedding day, an Indian bride takes part in a Mehendi ceremony, where the bride and her female family members and friends gather to apply henna.
It’s said that the deeper the color, the stronger the bond between husband and wife, and the better you will get along with your mother-in-law, so brides often let the henna dry for up to eight hours. The names of both the bride and the groom are “hidden” in the artwork, and the groom is meant to find the names.
Punjabi, or Northern Indian couples, are treated to a Sangeet the night before the wedding. Guests come together in a less formal setting for a talent show of sorts. Their friends and families perform choreographed dances, skits, and songs for the couple.
“This is a party hosted by the bride’s family,” adds Ferinoosh, who notes that it is a time for introducing all member of the families.
In the state of Gujarat, couples are joined the day before the wedding by family and friends, to celebrate a Garba Raas. Guests gather the night before to eat and dance with the couple. Women traditionally dance in a circle during the first portion of the night, or Garba. Later, both men and women take part.
The Bou Bhat takes place on the afternoon following the wedding day. The groom’s family and friends are invited for lunch, and the close relatives of the bride are also invited. At this event, the bride is formally invited into the family, the groom pledges responsibility for her food and clothing, and as a sign of fulfilling that pledge, he gives her a new sari and serves her food.
Hindu weddings are supposed to take place outside, on the earth, under a canopy known as a Mandap. Each of the four pillars of the bridal canopy represents one of the four parents. If an outdoor wedding is not possible, a Mandap is built inside. Seating under it can be on the ground or on chairs.
"A typical Indian ceremony includes a priest, a fire, and a Mandap,” says Candice Benson of The Finishing Touch, Wedding & Event Planning. Front and center under the Mandap is the sacred fire. “The fire can be small, and can be confined to a brazier or dish for safety. Agni, the god of fire, is said to be the sustainer of life, and thus gives life to the marriage.”
Though Indian couples in America have eliminated various traditions, one key ritual still performed is the Mangalphera, the walk around the fire. That's when the couple walks around the fire four times. Each turn represents a major goal in life: Dharma, morality; Artha, prosperity; Kama, personal gratification; and Moksha, spirituality.
“The marriage officially takes place when the bride and groom walk around the fire four times, as the Pandit, who chants verses during the ceremony, ties them together,” says Ferinoosh. “Once they finish their walk around the fire,” she continues, “the couple has to rush to their seat. Whoever sits down first is said to be the dominant one in the marriage!”
“In another ritual,” says Candice, “the priest takes the scarves the bride and groom are wearing and ties them together before walking them around the fire.”
The couple also takes seven steps together, with each step representing a marital vow. This is the Saptapardi, the seven steps. “Each step represents a promise the couple must make,” adds Candice. “They promise to be committed to each other and to take care of each other.”
The priest offers blessings for an abundance of food, that the couple complement one another, be blessed with prosperity, be eternally happy, be blessed with children, live in perfect harmony, and finally, that the bride and groom always be the best of friends.
Occasionally, to break the solemnity and to shock the traditional Hindus, the bride and groom steal a kiss after their walk around the fire.
Indian couples also exchange various items during their ceremony, including rings. The ring exchange was not part of the original Vedic Hindu ceremony, but is becoming the most widely added new tradition.
The couple also exchange garlands during the ceremony. The garland is a traditional gesture of acceptance of one another. Towards the end of the ceremony, the bride is also presented with a Mangalsutra, a necklace worn only by married women.
“The Mangalsutra is the groom’s gift to the bride,” adds Ferinoosh. “It’s a necklace made of gold and black beads with diamonds, and is a sign of a married Indian woman.
“During the ceremony under the Mandap, the groom is supposed to take his shoes off,” she adds. “Then the bride’s friends attempt to take them, while the groom’s family strives to prevent them from doing so!” If the bride’s friends succeed, they ask for money from the groom in return for his shoes.
“Friends and families also throw flowers after the couple is married, for happiness and prosperity.”
An Indian menu is typically served buffet style, since many items involve a gravy sauce or “Makhani” and would be difficult to serve pre-plated. A standard menu would feature seven to 10 appetizers followed by four to five main entrees plus rice, yogurt, salad, and naan, a type of bread.
At the end of the meal, a wide variety of Indian cookies and sweets are served, such as silver-wrapped cashews, kaju, which is a fig-filled cookie, Halva, and others made from heavy cream, cheese, and nuts.
“Special toasts by parents and friends are made, like at any other wedding,” says Candice, “but there is no traditional requirement to make them.”
Indian weddings have floral decorations, bands, DJ’s, photography, videography, and all the other aspects of a Western wedding. “The element not typically involved are bouquets,” says Candice.
There is another special ritual during the reception. “At some point when the couple is dancing,” Candice continues, “family and friends throw money at the bridal couple to wish them prosperity. Also, at some Indian weddings, the bride is brought into the reception on a Doli, which is held by the male members of her family.”
There is a sequence of events in the reception, with the bride’s and groom’s parents announced first, then the siblings of the bride and groom with their spouses, and finally, the couple. “There also is a head table,” says Ferinoosh, “with king and queen chairs, pillars, and a backdrop as a decoration."
In addition to the first dance and cutting the cake, some other traditional weddings have special dancers perform a traditional dance in front of the bride and groom.
The Wedding Procession
In most Indian wedding celebrations, the day begins in the morning with the groom’s procession, where the groom’s entire party lead him to the wedding Mandap.
“A typical ceremony starts with Barat, when the groom arrives on a white horse,” says Ferinoosh. “The groom is dressed in a long jacket called a Sherwani and fitted trousers called Churidars. He wears a Safa, a turban, on his head, with a big fancy brooch called Kalgi pinned onto it.”
During this ritual, as the groom rides in on his white horse, his friends and family dance and sing around him. Upon arriving at the ceremony site, he is greeted by the bride’s parents and other family elders.
The bride’s parents and family, including uncles and aunts, will perform the Milni, welcoming the groom and his family and offering gifts. Then they will escort the groom and his family to their place of honor at the altar. This is called Var Puja.
Before the ceremony, both sets of parents and all siblings are seated beneath the Mandap with the groom. They take part in various blessing ceremonies prior to the arrival of the bride.
“Both sets of parents and any siblings stand up at the Mandap during the ceremony,” says Candice. “Since the father is already at the altar, often it’s the bride’s maternal uncle who escorts her down the aisle.”
The bride’s brother also plays a role in the ceremony, placing rice in the hands of the bride and groom, and they in turn throw it into the ceremonial fire pit.
Many elements of the traditional Western wedding have been added to Indian ceremonies, including the bridal party, with the bridesmaids typically wearing Indian saris of the same color or pattern.
On their wedding day, many Indian brides wears a traditional red sari. The style and color of the sari reflects the bride’s region of origin. Red represents happiness and good luck to the married couple. White is avoided since it’s a color reserved for mourning. Then the bride will change into a different sari for the reception.
The traditional red sari is a six-foot fabric draped in a specific traditional fashion. It is adorned with crystals and real 24-karat gold thread. The bride also wears very heavy 24-karat gold jewelry, often including necklaces, bangles, rings, and hairpieces.
“Indian brides typically mix red or pink with gold,” says Candice. “Their wedding garment is called a Lehenga, which is a long skirt with a matching top and scarf. After the ceremony, they also change into a different Lehenga.”
In addition to their henna art, traditional Indian brides also adorn themselves extravagantly, with as much jewelry as possible.
“Indian events are very colorful,” agrees Ferinoosh. “Ladies wear their best saris and 24-carat jewelry, and they change in between the ceremony and dinner reception.”
Blessings: The Aashirwad
Sometime after the wedding, the families hold the Aashirwad ceremony, where they exchange gifts. The bride’s parents, close relatives, and family friends go to the groom’s house and give him their blessings, maybe along with a token gift. In like manner, the groom’s family goes to the bride’s house and offer their blessings. Usually, the bride is given gold or diamonds on this occasion by his parents.
But Aashirwad is really about the blessings. Aunts and uncles from both sides come to give you their blessings.
Whatever wedding traditions you celebrate, may your family and friends present you with their heartfelt Aashirwad as you marry.
The Finishing Touch Wedding & Event Planning, 973.525.5884, www.thefinishingtouchevents.com
The Roosevelt Hotel, 212.661.9600, Direct: 212.885.6052, www.theroosevelthotel.com