The Incredible Spectacle of an Indian Wedding – Celebrating the Marriage of Divya Dileep to Gautham Ratnakar (Part 1)!

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Adventures with Friends, Festivals, Global Culture

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.

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[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.

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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.

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Gautham’s lovely sister, Gayathri Anirudh, primping before the ceremony begins

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Divya’s brother, Adit, proudly observing the festivities

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Mark rocking out a dhoti, a traditional Indian men’s garment resembling a long skirt. Let’s just say he fares better in pants…

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And Mark perpetuating his quest to teach children the world over the all-important fist-bump

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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!).

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Divya, braving the eager paparazzi, with father Dileep Srinivasan at her side

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Family, friends, and cameras swarmed around the happy couple during the ‘oonjal’

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Divya’s lovely mother, Lalita, blessed Div and G

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After the couple and all guests were led into an adjoining room, the rest of the rituals were performed on a ‘stage’ of sorts.

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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.

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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!

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Divya with her parents, Dileep and Lalita, and her brother, Adit

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.

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And Divya and Gautham both accepted ‘aashirwaad’ or blessings from their families and their priest.

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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:

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Mark, James, Jango, and Omar, looking dapper

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Brian and Rajani, sharing a smile

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The beautiful proceedings were followed by more casual, and often emotional, greetings by family and friends.

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Brian received a teary embrace from Divya

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Mark, sharing a special moment with the newly married couple

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Divya gave her close friend, Rajani, a huge hug

Then of course, some of us couldn’t quite resist a little playing around. Man-legs, anyone?

The dhoti man-skirts must have inspired some leg-baring attempts

The dhoti man-skirts must have inspired this leg-baring attempt

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Rajani joined Brian and Jango in the fun

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Best photo-bomb ever! She sure knew how to steal the show!

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!).

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Jalebi wala! My new sweet obsession

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!).

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Some friends – Mark, Tim, James, Brian, Omar, Candace, Jango – and Div’s super-cool brother, Adit – chill out after filling their bellies with delicious Keralan food

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My sentiments exactly…

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And I had to squeeze in for 1 photo…

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.

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Div and G went Bollywood! (sort of)

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The queue to congratulate Div and G continued hours into the evening

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Divya’s elegant grandmother, Meena Subramanian, surrounded by family

Div and G share the stage with Mark (for just a second)

Divya and her beautiful, proud mother, Lalita

Divya and her beautiful, proud mother, Lalita

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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.

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Globetrotter based in Hong Kong, travel and street photographer, Getty Images contributor, award-winning blogger of WanderFong.com - seeking true beauty in travel and life!

20 thoughts on “The Incredible Spectacle of an Indian Wedding – Celebrating the Marriage of Divya Dileep to Gautham Ratnakar (Part 1)!”

  1. That’s an epic party. Great writeup and photos, you can be a wedding photographer! I’m looking forward to Part 2.

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  2. What a vibrant and gorgeous celebration! Looks like a match made in heaven, the way both bride and groom were looking all giddy and ecstatic 😀

    Great writeup and awesome photos as always!

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    • Indeed, very energetic and a beautiful series of events. I’m so lucky to have been part of it all. They’re so cute together!

      And thanks for the kind words, Tricia – much appreciated 🙂

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  3. What a hectic celebration. I can feel the intensity from looking at the photo. It is no wonder you’re exhausted after the second day. There must be just so much to take in constantly. Lovely culture and lovely photo. Thanks for sharing!

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    • Indeed, very intense! Lots of activity, sensory overload, but in such a fun way. Thank you for reading and viewing, and I appreciate your compliments!

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  4. Lalita Dileep says:

    Deb – wonderfully written – it is obvious you didn’t miss a thing even though so much was going on at the same time and the pictures are absolutely awesome – great moments captured beautifully – it was amazing and wonderful that you and Mark were able to be part of Divya and Gautham’s special moments across two continents – a true friend indeed! Lalita Dileep

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    • Thank you so much, Mrs. Dileep! I’m thrilled that especially you, the mother of the bride, enjoy the post! We loved it all and were honored to be part of such important events. And we are big supporters of Divya and Gautham.. they are great friends and so perfect together. It makes me so happy to know they found each other and are now together!

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  5. Mark Soued says:

    Really beautiful, Debu. You captured far more than I had a chance to witness. It looks beautiful and the story is very touching and heart-felt. Div and G look amazing…

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  6. I just love Indian weddings, they are so colorful and full of life. Thanks for sharing the highlights of this beautiful wedding and posting those gorgeous pictures. Also congratulations to Divya and Gautham.

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    • I agree – they are indeed amazing, colorful, festive events. Thank you for stopping by and for your kind words. And I wish you well with your wedding business in CA! Sounds like a significant unmet need out there, that I’m sure you will help fill.

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  7. Gorgeous photos! And beautiful couple… Congratulations to your friends. I love the colours of Indian weddings… No subtleties for us… Everything has to be OTT! Jalebis are my absolute favourite Indian sweet… Glad you liked them. The wedding rituals vary a lot depending on the place and community the bride and bridegroom belong to… So if you get the chance to attend more indian weddings, you’ll witness a lot of variety 🙂

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    • Thank you so much! Yes, they are indeed beautiful. It was a joy to photograph them! I will have to keep an eye out for future opportunities to attend another Indian wedding then..I told my friends, I’m ruined forever for any non-Indian weddings, which seem so boring now 🙂

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  8. Pingback: The Incredible Spectacle of an Indian Wedding (in America) – Celebrating the Marriage of Divya Dileep to Gautham Ratnakar (Part 2)! | hong kong fong

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