I like to think I am generally a confident person. It takes a lot to make me uncomfortable or second guess myself. However, nothing could have prepared me the amount of self-conscious anxiety I would encounter at an Indian wedding. Even after being in India for a few weeks, I’m used to the double-takes and lingering stares as you walk through any given city. I hardly even bat an eye when someone Indian yells out “KOREA! JAPAN!” at me when I walk by now (I used to be quite offended by this). But try to walk confidently in a sari you wrapped yourself to a wedding venue and avoid the thousands of eyes gawking at you because A) you’re the only foreigner, B) you’re attempting to wear something cultural, and C) you are at an important family function in a very small town of India.
I think any wedding photographer dreams of photographing weddings in different cultures. Any cool photographer that is. Anywho – I recently had the GREAT honor of witnessing my first Indian wedding. How this came about is rather random and strange but not surprising. Tina’s friend was invited to a wedding in India, but unfortunately, she was unable to attend so she sent Tina in her place. Lucky for me, I was travelling with Tina so by default I was her hot date for the night. I was ok with that. Even though it seemed strange to attend the wedding of a friend of a friend who wouldn’t even be there to bridge the gap, I was so eager to see and Indian wedding I just didn’t care. By western standards, I think that’s probably pretty strange. Never having met or even talked to the groom, Tina and I had the slight feeling that maybe we weren’t welcome. But as any wedding planner knows, the days leading up to the wedding can be chaotic. Luckily, some other friends of the groom answered all of our questions and sent us details for the wedding.
After what should have been a two hour bus ride (turned into a four hour ride), we barely had enough time to get ready when we arrived in Alwar. Alwar is the hometown of the groom, and by Indian standards a small town (300,000 people). We met the groom Narendra, when he and his brother came to pick us up at the hotel and bring us back to his family’s place so we could be a part of the traditional rituals. He turned out to be one of the nicest people I have ever met. He was constantly smiling through the entire day. I have no idea how he did it considering there had been many days previous to this of other traditional rituals! Their hospitality was incredibly gracious, so needless to say Tina and I were overwhelmed!
Indian weddings are very long and generally involve several days of rituals before the actual wedding ceremony (don’t forget there’s still a reception to be had after). They all vary based on religion, family traditions, and even by region of India. Narendra is from the north of India so the wedding ceremony was conducted by North Indian standards, while his wife Nanhindi is from southern India. They will have a reception down south with her family another day (wish I could go!). The only ritual I was familiar with was the Mehndi (henna) ceremony, where the bride and the groom have separate gatherings involving the creation of henna designs on their hands. I’ve longed to photograph this ceremony but since we arrived the day of the wedding, I knew had already missed it (usually occurs the day or two days before the wedding). Luckily though, we were still able to watch a ceremony involving tumeric powder mixed with different herbs and such. It is used to help the skin glow and is part of the beautification process if you will. The women come and bless the groom and rub him with the mixture. I wish I could have recorded some video with my camera because it was so enchanting to have all these women in colorful saris singing and rubbing tumeric on him all crammed into a hallway of the house.
There was a short break before the next ritual so I snapped some photos of some of the family members.
The next ritual, I’m not really quite sure what was happening. I never got a translation, but it involved some more blessing, a fabric, and a circular passing of what I think was food.
Some cute onlookers:
Finally, Narendra was ready to get dressed.
Then of course there was still yet another ritual. This one involved more blessing an giving the groom lots and lots of money.
I just think the photo above is funny. He looks like a big boss mobster or something. And very regal. So after Narendra was finally ready, a parade had been forming outside. Poor horse was probably feel awful with all the drums and band and everything. His eyes were frightened. I felt so sad for him.
The parade was interesting. It was really fun, but interesting. The men had obviously been drinking before hand were dancing up a storm, while the women stayed nice and proper most of the time. Tina and I of course danced along as well. But after a while you could tell the men were just wanted us to dance with them so they could gawk at us. Normally when the women dance the men don’t join in, they’re supposed to leave them alone. So when they started getting a little aggressive when Tina and I didn’t want to dance anymore, a flock of women just incircled us and yelled at the men in Hindi. They were like mother birds keeping Tina and I far from the men and in the center of the parade. It was a bit strange and sad at such a joyous occasion, but still a good reality check to keep our wits about.
We stopped during the parade for another short ritual that involved the mother asking someone to give their blessing for the marriage. I missed most of it as I was talking to our new friend Deepika (an Indian woman who lives in Delhi and kept Tina and I out of harms way).
Indian drumming is hard to dance to. At least this one was. the rhythms were always changing but it was still good fun. The women here were really good at it though! I’m sure Tina and I just looked like spastic foreigners. I’m going to laugh at what the videographer will use for his final cut.
When we finally arrived at the venue Tina and I were quickly lost in the sea of a thousand guests in one large open area. We decided to get some food but I couldn’t help but feel all of the thousands of eyeballs staring at us. Seriously. We could hardly get a plate of food and eat it without people constantly coming up to us and trying to talk with us and take photos with us. Now i know how Tina feels. I don’t know how she stands it, I had never felt more self conscious in my life. I wasn’t sure if I liked what the men were thinking when they gawked and I was terrified I had wrapped my sari incorrectly when the women stared at me as well. But luckily some other Indian people helped get rid of the swarms of people so we could eat in peace.
Oh my lord the food was amazing. They had three tandori ovens making fresh naan! It was so amazing the guys were so fast and the naan was SO GOOD.
Soon the bride finally made her entrance to meet Narendra and they walked up onto this viewing platform sort of thing for the garland exchange. It’s basically their version of our wedding ring exchange. Although that isn’t quite the wedding ceremony part. It was so interesting because in the background there is crazy Indian trance music playing and everyone watches the garland exchange while the couple is showered with flower petals and then they make their way to a big stage (but of course not without their dance party leading the way). Then guests come give gifts, take pictures, say well wishes, and dance.
So while we waited for the photo session to be over (most of the guests leave after and only the close family and friends stay for the ceremony part. Total opposite of an american wedding. The vendors were already breaking down the food stands as we waited for the portait sessions to be over. What was really funny was Narendra’s dad and uncle wanted photos with us and the couple as well and separately Other folks as us as well. Next to the bride and groom, Tina was the most popular person at the wedding.
When the portraits were finally over the couple was free to eat. Narendra father invited us to sit with them, a small private table for the immediate members but we felt so awkward and intrusive, thanked him and went into the hall where others were waiting for the actual ceremony to start.
The ceremony was long…I think we were there for a couple hours. It went till about 1:30 or 2 a.m. But it was so interesting, I wish I knew what was going on. I’ve been reading this wikipedia entry and comparing it to my photos and some of the descriptions seem to match up really well. Despite the deep seriousness and formality of the ceremony, there were frequents bursts of laughter and smiles from misunderstandings. It took place around a small sacred fire and involved the parents of the bride, lots of rice, lots of chanting, and then with a small walk around the fire, they were officially married.
After everything was all said and done, the bride gets escorted back for yet another ritual at the groom’s house and the parents welcome her.
We were escorted back to our hotel. It was a long but amazing day I am so thankful I was able to participate in! I hope the couple lives a long, wonderful, and prosperous life together! I wish I had the opportunity to get to know them better they both were such sweet people, but hopefully on my next trip to India we can connect when they are not so busy!