Recently, I went on a recent trip to India for one of my best friend’s wedding. The union was unconventional from the Indian perspective; one was Catholic and the other Hindu, so they decided to have two weddings. This provided a fascinating mélange of cultures and a basis for comparison of the two wedding traditions.
First off was the Indian Catholic wedding, which to my surprise was no different than the one in the US. Believe it or not, 2.3% of the population in India is Christian, which is about 24 million people! Here is a beautiful interior shot of the oldest and largest church in New Delhi where the wedding took place:
In the true Western tradition, the ceremony has undertones of solemnity filled with many prayers that connect the audience with God, offering psalms and prayers for the bride and groom also centered around God. All in all there are about six stages: Introduction, Liturgy of Word, Rite of Marriage, Liturgy of Eucharist, Communion, and the Concluding Rite, with the rite of marriage being truly devoted to the bride and groom. My favorite part is the communion in the end; I love the symbolism of breaking bread.
The Indian marriage tradition is completely different from the Western ones, though you probably already guessed that. Weddings are a big deal in India, and people sometimes pour their entire life savings into them. Traditionally, the bride’s family pays for the wedding, but in modern times it’s common for the costs to be evenly split. The Indian wedding spans many days, and is different for each community.
Traditionally, the community is notified of the wedding celebration by large flower garlands that are hung outside of the home. You can see the large rope of flowers in the following photo
Days before the wedding are filled with puja or prayer both at the groom’s and the bride’s house. I was staying with the bride so I was mostly exposed to that side of the wedding. On the first night there was a meeting of the bride’s family that included prayer and song followed by dance. This sets the theme for the rest of the wedding: a lot of song and dance. All of the ceremonies are centered around seeing the bride off and bringing good luck for the success of the marriage. The follow photo shows the next ceremony on the bride’s side. The paper has an image of a Jain God, which is being adorned by sacraments: a mini-garland, an offering of a coin in the center, and the bride’s henna covered hand print.
The day before the wedding, the bride and family have an artist come in to do the Mehndi, which is the intricate henna tattoos so popular in the west. It’s a fun and exciting experience. Everyone gets a different design, the bride on her hands and legs. Let’s fast forward to the big day. The last day of the wedding is the biggest, and all the days before are just preparation for the last day. There is a lot of symbolism here and can be broken down into a couple of steps:
The groom and his family arrive to the altar in style; they are followed by a band of musicians into the hall. Sometimes the groom will also arrive on a horse (and very rarely an elephant). There are 30+ minutes of song and dance as the groom happily dances in, playfully interacting with the musicians.
Similarly, the bride’s family brings her to the altar covered by a doli or a palki as can be seen here:
The bride and groom exchange large flower garlands and the groom gets red kumkum (powder) applied to his forehead. This part of the wedding is incredibly exciting and fun. Both families join together to sing, dance, eat, and drink. It’s traditionally the time when the extended families get to meet, greet, and show their support for the union of the two families.
Religious Ceremony / Vivaha-homa
After all the fun stuff is done, the rest of the wedding is filled with deeply symbolic religious ceremonies. The most profound was when the bride was tied to the groom, which was to symbolize their inseparability. They then walked circles around a sacred fire seven times while a priest recited Sanskrit matras. The Agni or the god of fire is a witness to the bond; the ceremony cements the bonds of marriage. An offering of rice is made while the couple reads their vows/commitments to each other.
The wedding itself is not all festive. For the bride’s family it is an emotional time, since the bride will live with the husband and in the olden days that meant that would be one of the last times they would see their daughter. My favorite part of the whole wedding had to be the dancing, as dancing is an important part of the Indian culture. Before all the beautiful symbolic vows are made everyone is energized and excited as the couple begins the next major stage of their life.