There’s truly nothing quite like it – an Indian wedding. Over the last few weeks, Mark and I enjoyed the great privilege of attending a beautiful one – a series of events really, spanning 2 continents and 3 cities. And not just anyone’s wedding – the wedding of my closest girlfriend, the lovely Divya Dileep, to her awesome now-husband, Gautham Ratnakar.
[To try to do this incredible wedding adventure justice, I am dedicating 2 posts to it (part 1 for the traditional Indian celebrations, and part 2 for the south Asia-meets-west all-out party in the US).]
I suppose the best quick summary of the festivities in India would be ‘a moveable feast’ – in every possible way. It was a feast for the senses, and a high-energy one at that, starting on December 6 in Chennai at the luxurious Leela Palace, and ending with a massive event in Kozhikode, Kerala, on December 8. I’m exhausted just remembering it, and all I really did was show up! (Well, and take a ton of photos, of course. The guests I met at the wedding may best remember me as the slightly crazed Chinese woman running around with a camera generally attached to my face!)
Divya offered me the gift of observing her wedding preparations, as well. There is something quite touching, quite emotional, about watching a good friend get ready for such an important event. It’s intimate, beautiful, funny, a bit raw – in such a good way. And despite a little behind-the-scenes drama with an off-the-mark make-up artist (one is wise to NOT mess with Div’s makeup, ever), both Div and her beautiful mother, Lalita, looked gorgeous as always. Close friends Rajani and Candace helped ensure sanity was maintained the whole morning.
As an outsider, my overall impression is that Indian weddings are, at their core, highly social events – the ultimate reason for family and friends to gather and celebrate not just the bride and groom, but each other. And in fact, the ceremony marks the initial bond of 2 families, not just 2 individuals – along with their cultures, traditions, and rituals.
While there is a structured sequence of steps that comprise the official Hindu ceremony lasting 3+ hours, the feeling, the gestalt of it all, is something akin to chaotic happiness. There is a formality to the proceedings – indeed each step of the ceremony has symbolic, philosophical, and spiritual meaning. Yet guests mingle with each other the entire time, alternately standing and occasionally sitting (although I don’t think I sat down except to eat!).
Indian weddings are not just incredibly festive, they are also a huge cultural learning opportunity. Highly ritualistic, they revolve around a panoply of symbols. The main theme for Divya and Gautham’s wedding was the ‘annapakshi’ – a mythical bird shaped like a swan, with a peacock’s plume, representing divinity, purity, prosperity, and beauty.
The rituals are numerous and seem to escalate in intensity. I thought it would be challenging to top Divya’s grand entrance, introduced by some very talented young dancers, and flanked by some of the most important (other) men in her life, including her charming brother, Adit, and her long-time, close friend, James.
But then there was the ‘kashi yatra’, whereby Gautham was symbolically redirected away from a mock pilgrimage and an ascetic life, and instead toward the companionship of matrimony.
There was also the ‘malai matal’, a fun ritual during which Div and G thrice tossed fresh-flower garlands around each other’s necks while being bobbed up and down on the shoulders of their maternal uncles. This exchange symbolized the unification of bride and groom, and their acceptance of each other.
The next ritual? Well, the ‘oonjal’ swing ceremony, of course! This communicated the need for strength in the couple, to help each other through life’s highs and lows. Blessings by especially the female ‘elders’ were offered, along with bananas and colored rice balls. Water and lamps circled the couple, to ward off evil spirits.
After the couple and all guests were led into an adjoining room, the rest of the rituals were performed on a ‘stage’ of sorts.
Another no-less-important lesson I learned is that even if you are put on ‘bride tissue duty’ to help her cope during those especially poignant moments, you do NOT run up on the wedding ‘stage’ with your high heels on. There is nothing quite so humbling as a grandmother (gently) scolding afterwards that one needs to first remove one’s shoes, lest one trample over sacred wedding ground. Oops. A big oops. Caught on film and live-streamed around the world (this is one high-tech couple) for all to see! Well, you live, you learn!
Back to the rituals – Divya’s dear father, Dileep Srinivasan, symbolically ‘gave her away’, and Divya then departed to change her sari to one offered as a gift by Gautham’s parents, A. P. Ratnakaran and Sandhya Ratnakaran.
This change sounds simple, but you have no idea the complexity and intricacy of this process! Divya’s gorgeous gold belt was accidentally left upstairs in the frenzy, but of course, Rajani saved the day!
There was then the tying of holy thread around Divya’s neck in a step called the ‘mangalya dhaaranam’, representing the bonds between both bride and groom and the family members who strengthen the marriage.
The ‘saptapadi’, or ‘seven steps’ around the holy fire, is the most significant ritual of a Hindu wedding and is the legal step (pun intended), as well. This is most similar to wedding vows or promises to each other. And in Indian tradition, the bride takes her husband’s first name as her last. So Divya Dileep officially became Divya Gautham.
And Divya and Gautham both accepted ‘aashirwaad’ or blessings from their families and their priest.
Imagine all of this magic, set to traditional Indian music and tinged with the unmistakably gorgeous scents of jasmine and rose. It was all an adrenaline-fueled, heady, and sometimes bewildering process. Fortunately, their kind families were more than happy to guide Mark and me through everything, most likely prompted by the entertained but quizzical looks on our faces that inevitably surfaced about every 10 minutes!
More images of the ceremony, interspersed with captures of some very important spectators (family and friends, of course) follow:
The beautiful proceedings were followed by more casual, and often emotional, greetings by family and friends.
Then of course, some of us couldn’t quite resist a little playing around. Man-legs, anyone?
A feast of another kind ended the festivities for the day in Chennai – a seemingly endless array of delectable, locally inspired bites. The highlight for me? Jalebi wala – thin, crispy donuts in sweet syrup (a craving is born!).
At wedding part 2 in Kozhikode, Kerala, 13 hours away by train from Chennai (and apparently closer to 16+ hours by private bus – allowing for a little ‘getting lost time’ with an exhausted driver!), about 1500 people (yes, you read correctly!) gathered to congratulate the bride and groom and feast on a bounty of tasty Keralan food (side note: I seriously do not understand how Keralan food has not gone mainstream around the world – everyone else is missing out!).
Around the corner, greetings and well-wishes took place in a theater of sorts. I felt like I had entered a Bollywood set, with the elaborately and beautifully dressed Divya and Gautham standing on an ornately decorated stage. It took the lovely couple more than 4 hours to greet all their guests – can you say ‘perma-smile’? Of course, they handled these formalities with grace and style, as always.
Ah, the Indian wedding – exhilarating, exciting, culturally fascinating, a bit confusing (to an outsider), endlessly visually stimulating, boisterous, just plain fun! If you are ever offered the opportunity, indeed the privilege, to attend an Indian wedding, do not hesitate. You will not be disappointed! Especially if the bride or groom is a close friend. You are virtually guaranteed the experience of a lifetime.
This amazing experience was heightened by the fact that the bride just happens to be someone I love and am proud to call my friend. And the husband is just the outstanding kind of man you hope your closest girlfriend will meet and fall in love with – because you just know he will always do right by her. Divya deserves the best – and the best, she now has in Gautham.
Div and G – I am so incredibly happy for both of you and can only hope that this post (and part 2, to come) do you both, and your new marriage, justice. Congratulations!!
[Special thanks to Divya, Gautham, their families, and their friends – for being more-than-willing participants in my photographic exploration of these amazing events.]
For more details on Divya and Gautham, and their wedding events, please see their lovely wedding website.