Attending an Indian wedding is no small affair; in fact, there are days of ceremonies that can become quite complicated… Now add the reality of 800 people attending the wedding (which is a conservative number when many weddings can include entire towns to the tune of thousands of guests!!)
Our retreat group has been invited to the wedding–any and all of it, or as much as we can handle mentally and digest, literally, as the food at such an affair is a tremendous part of the celebration. We decide to attend three important events: the groom’s parade, the meeting of the bride and groom, and the feast!
So let me back up a bit. None of us knows the bride or groom (pictured above amidst the glittering fanfare), but apparently it is auspicious for foreigners to attend, so the word gets out that dignitaries will be among the guests. Dignitaries! Most of us have come to India with little more than yoga pants and t- shirts, so a transformation is essential. In the days before the wedding we have some of our own preparing to do which includes a garden henna party, organizing attire, and each of us having a sincere hair wash– not an easy feat considering that many of us have had five days straight of shirodara, the pouring of sesame oil over the head and brow for a solid hour… an immensely soothing and mind calming treatment, maybe even more blissful than savasana, if that’s possible…I digress just thinking about it.
First stop: henna. It is the Wednesday prior to the wedding, and the retreat hires a lovely lady to draw on our hands or arms; in the afternoon sunlight we enjoy one another’s company, take pictures and movies as each hand or arm becomes a unique work of art, skin transformed to canvas. For those of us who have never had tattoos, a seed is planted, and for those who do sport a fair bit of ink, the wheels are churning about next designs. By nightfall all of us wear our beautiful spontaneously-created mehndi and playfully shoot pictures of each other:
Next up, sarees and things to wear to the wedding. A number of the ladies have had a traditional salwar chemise created out of splendid fabrics they selected in the market the week we arrived (followed by numerous trips to the tailor to alter this or that), and the men have also shopped well, a couple having visited one of the many talented tailors who have turned linen and cotton into fine shirts and trousers. The morning of the wedding, they have it easy and show up to depart on time looking sharp.
Women, though… Well, we all know there’s more hoopla, and that’s all in the fun as we literally run around, trying on piles of bejeweled flip flops offered stored here at the retreat for such occasions, and Rheka, the lady of the house here at the retreat, kindly pulls a dozen sarees in various colors, weights, and fanciness out of a wooden armoir, and lets each of us who want to wear one have at it. The morning of the wedding we find ourselves all over campus, skittering between each other’s rooms, some of us assisted by the Indian cleaning ladies as we rush down with our garb, others dressing each other, and I head in to see Vandana, Rheka’s daughter, who donns a gorgeous royal blue and silver saree encrusted with stones at every seam.
She helps me tuck the 6 yards of fabric into the petticoat and alter the oversized top with safety pins until I emerge from her villa all dressed up in turquoise, excited as a little girl. I barely have time to put on mascara before John calls to tell me the taxi is leaving, and we cram our sarees and linen into two vans and speed off into the sunshine.
Now let me just say, nothing (and I mean NOTHING) in India goes the way you think it’s going to go. All the rushing lands us in an incredible traffic jam in the center of Coonoor, and we are already late, so the driver is working hard to weave us through impossible slivers of street between busses, rickshaws, mopeds, and pedestrians; everyone wants to get somewhere quickly, but no one intends to yield; so we sit amongst the horns and heat, and every minute or so move an inch or two. There are no photos that can adequately describe this chaos, so instead I’ll share this one of a cool Hindustan motor car:
When we finally arrive, we pour out of the vans into the midday heat among hundreds of waiting guests: waves of beautiful women in sarees as many colored as a fruit salad are lined up like slices of watermelon, kiwi, orange, papaya, and lemon; it is the most gorgeous array of smiles and bling I have seen in a very long time. Bindis abound!
There is a fleet of photographers. There are children who cling to the skirts of their mothers, and there are men with baskets full of bottled water to pass out to the gathering crowd. We find a patch of shade under the roofline of the reception hall and wait for our hosts to arrive. In a matter of minutes, though, our cluster is told that the groom’s parade is marching from about a half mile down the road, and we must go, so we are quickly tucked back into cars and taken to this spectacle. But the groom and his entourage are nowhere to be seen! The backside of the road they are suspected to have walked up is now being paved with hot tar and cannot be passed. Our two vans each perform at least a three-point turn on the skinny street in front of “Variety Hall” (where there is a fabulous jewelry store, not that any of us ladies went in there or anything), and head back down the hill toward Coonoor, winding through wild cows, families on mopeds, and Saturday shoppers, back up to the wedding site where we had been fifteen minutes before. Again a piling out of dresses and tunics, just in time to hear the drumbeats and masculine chanting of the groom’s parade coming along the top of the same road receiving the blacktop below.
About a hundred male friends and family walk en masse, stopping every twenty feet or so to dance, slowly at first then faster and faster, with much thrusting of hips and hooting. A bit of a hold up happens when a trio of cross dressers shows up (sometimes referred to as eunuchs) demanding money or else a curse on the wedding!! This too is tradition, as I am told these men dressed as women come to just about every big gathering and create a distasteful stir until they are barricaded from attending whatever the event is (baby shower, funeral, etc.) and sufficiently paid off. There are rupee bills coming out of pockets everywhere to protect the groom from a curse, and after much haggling between the groomsmen and eunuchs, the procession is on the move again. It is all quite entertaining for us to witness, especially when after watching the troupe perform another few rounds of their dancing sequence, the band of men invites all of us ladies to join them… We do a quick “is this appropriate” check in with our retreat hosts, who say “absolutely!” So we oblige and enjoy, aware that our participation is being recorded by dozens of people, including the official photographers. We find ourselves in the proverbial thick of it beside the groom for the final ascent to the wedding, sincerely joyful and amazed at how these people have folded us into their celebration as foreigners who can barely speak the words “na’an dri,”or thank you!
Even as we arrive (again!), a priest is already reading scripture, and the men of each family stand up and exchange handshakes and bows; all the while savory samosas, salty cashews, and milk chocolates are passed around to the melting crowd. It takes another half hour for the bride and groom to even approach each other, and when it happens there is a specific way it is done: all the ladies of both families are allowed to make a tiny red bindi dot on the groom’s face (which an attendant wipes off after each dozen or so), and some of the girls manage to catch a hold of his nose and pull; which doesn’t go over well, even though it seems this is a regular practice. And mind you, our groom is still up high on his white horse! The mother of the bride places a small white wrapped box on the ground, and everyone has to stand back a bit, but it is still an ultimate mob scene with people taking movies, offering candies, and really just rushing the groom and the impending meeting of the couple at the very spot where the tiny box sits among the skirts.
At the same time, the bride floats in a sea of attendees all of whom obstruct the gaze of the groom ( we can’t see her face in this photo), and he waits eagerly, surrounded by his mates who now help him off the horse but hoist him up onto a human chair to prepare for the next moment: the bride arrives, her face finally revealed from behind bridesmaids, all walking together under a red carpet of silk, and someone–I’m not quite sure who–steps on the tiny box which makes a loud pop, immediately after which the beautiful girl in red and gold attempts to garland the groom, and all while his friends try to throw him up and out of her reach! Handfuls of glitter explode into the air, and the whole place cheers!
There is so much more to this wedding than we will ever see–several more steps to make the marriage official, but we are coached to head downstairs before the crowd, through the labyrinth of this building with its central wedding hall surrounded by subsidiary waiting rooms where people sit eating and chatting, and a roundabout descent to the basement where hundreds more people are already feasting! Thirty men in chef hats serve the buffet. Sorry I do not have photos of the ridiculous amounts of food. How do you feed hundreds upon hundreds of guests? With golden sambar and white mountains of rice, of course! There are chapatis, dosas, steamed vegetables, paneer masala, and yummy fried things that are completely off limits in this Ayurvedic cleanse, but we all break the rules and sample the smorgasbord! With both hands on deck, I only get one food shot of an appetizer made from a leaf:
More snaps of the celebration, sacred cow included!
Alas, it is time to go, so we begin to extract ourselves. Some of us are tempted by the slabs of almond and mango ice cream, while others stop on the way out to watch yet another ceremony in which the bride and groom sit opposite each other on the floor under a tent in the sun with who seem to be their parents.
The party is said to go on for hours, but our senses are full, and we stuff ourselves into the steaming van one more time. Of course we are greeted with gridlock at the gates of the church, and our departure is delayed by ten minutes as the drivers refuse to yield to horns and waving of arms and even an onlooker who tries to squeeze us through an opening that would have shaved the doors off the vehicle; but this is India, and while we perspire like colored cream puffs melting in the sun, the goats come and go, a cow grazes on dusty grass, and a moped slips through the crack between cars. We learn the art of patience and of humility, and at least I, with Dr Mouli’s six year old ice cream eating daughter on my lap, am content to laugh at the fullness of this ridiculously wonderful scene.