A guide to Indian weddings for the clueless guest
Indian weddings, or Vivaah, are bright, colouful, carnival-like events that fulfil the social, religious and legal aspects of marriage. The exact itinerary, attire and cuisine depend on the province and ethnicity (ranging from Tamil, Punjabi, Malayalee, Telugu, Brahmin to many more) of the betrothed and no two weddings are alike.
There are many nuances and stages to an Indian wedding, which certainly gets confusing. Lucky for you, we're going to catch you up on the essentials.
The pre-wedding ceremonies and the wedding proper is usually reserved for family and close friends of the bride and groom, so if you don't fall under those categories, you'll probably just be attending the reception (phew!).
Times are a-changing and every family celebrates in their own way, so some (or all) of the following steps may be missed out. It's all dependent on the couples and their families, but regardless they are a staple in Indian cultural heritage.
This is a holy ceremony, conducted a few months before the wedding to announce the marriage of the bride and groom publicly. It is a 45-minute ritual where the groom's father officially asks the bride's father for his daughter's hand in marriage. When this is done, the bride and groom exchange their wedding bands.
During the engagement, the marriage date is decided according to Indian Scripture; for example, it cannot be held on a Saturday, and the time it occurs is extremely important. To pick the Muhurtum, or auspicious day, an Indian Priest consults the Indian star signs of the bride and groom.
Usually performed a day before the wedding ceremony, the Graha Shanti represents the beginning of the marriage ceremony that rids negative energy and purifies the surroundings. It's actually a ceremony that can be performed by anyone at any point in their lives, such as after moving house or a renovation.
In the context of marriage, the ceremony calls for Puja (prayers) to be made; Ganesha Puja to invoke the god Ganesh so he may remove all obstacles for the couple, Kalash Puja which is the symbol of the universe, Mandap Devata Puja or Navagraha Puja which ensures all rituals at the wedding occur successfully and finally, for the bride only, the Gouri Har Puja for a good marriage.
Following the prayers, the Nallunge ceremony is conducted. This is the traditional cleansing ceremony carried out on the bride and groom by their families. In the ritual, Haldi (turmeric), sandalwood paste and oil are applied on the bride and groom before they take a purifying bath. Following this, the groom's family then presents the bride with colourful jewellery and bangles.
After the rituals are complete, the bride and groom are not allowed to see one another or leave the house unmonitored. This is rooted in the belief that leading up to the wedding, the couple is emotionally vulnerable and susceptible to negative forces or evil. This belief is strongly implemented on the wedding day, where the bride is unable to leave the house at all.
This ritual is also performed the night before the wedding. Like in Malay weddings, the bride and her female friends get henna tattoos before the wedding, with elaborate designs drawn over their hands and feet.
The big day is split into two parts: The wedding ceremony and the reception.
When the bride and groom proceed to the wedding venue, they are put through a final cleansing ritual in the presence of family and close friends. Following this, the bride and groom exchange garlands (which represent love) a minimum of three times, but up to 20 to 30 times. It starts with the bride and groom exchanging garlands, then the parents of the bride and groom doing so, then close relatives following suit. It's clear why big families mean that the garland exchange seems to go on forever!
Following the garland exchange, the Vivaha Homa is performed, where a sacred fire is lit. the groom ties a thali (which has blessed by the attending guests) on his bride to symbolise acceptance of one another. The couple then perform the Sapta Padi where they take seven steps circling around this sacred fire, with each step representing a different vow. Once the whole ritual is complete, the marriage is sealed.
The ceremony is (In true Indian fashion) followed by a big feast. Traditionally, the feast begins with the serving of a pinch of salt (to symbolise a healthy marriage), followed by a banana leaf feast and ending with sweet desserts like Payasam or Laddoo (for a sweet beginning). Although this is custom, more and more modern weddings have forgone the banana leaf feast, opting instead for a big buffet-style meal.
Customs of the wedding ceremony:
- You will be sprinkled with rose water upon entry. Don't panic—it's a good thing
- Bring snacks—feasts begin only after the wedding ceremony is completed (and it's not exactly a short ordeal). So if you're prone to low blood pressure or hangry bouts, a snack will keep you at bay (though once the feast commences prepare for gluttony!)
This either occurs on the wedding day itself, or the following days or week ahead, depending on the couple. While the ceremony is held in a temple, the reception is usually held in a hotel ballroom, community hall or something of the like. This ceremony is filled with yet another generous feast, an opportunity to socialise and, of course, a dance floor. Basically—have the time of your life! It's a grand celebration of the newlyweds and a great way to show your congratulations.
Customs of the wedding reception
- Do not bring unexpected guests, especially if there is a seating plan
- Like at Malay and Chinese weddings, there are typically no gifts at an Indian wedding—instead, gift money to the newlyweds in an embroidered packet (or regular envelope).
- The monetary gift is set at a minimum of RM51. This may seem like a curiously specific number, but according to custom the value of your monetary gift may not be an even number nor can it have a zero in it (it's considered bad luck).
- Before leaving, be sure to say goodbye to all the elders, but especially the parents of the bride and groom
- Remember to compliment the bride's parents on the food and the decorations! They'll be looking forward to hearing it.
How to dress for the wedding
- If you're looking for some traditional outfits but don't know where to start, there are many to choose from! For ladies, you could opt for a Saree, Lehanga Cholis or Salwar Kameez. For men, your options include a Jippa, Kurta, Pyajama or Sherwani.
- Although you are encouraged to go crazy with colours, remember to dress modestly. This is a holy ceremony, so if you do not have traditional clothes at your disposal make sure you cover up! No bare shoulders, no overly-tight clothing, no micro miniskirts and no plunging necklines.
- Refrain from wearing white or black to the wedding ceremony and the wedding proper as these are colours that signify death and mourning
- Avoid heavily embellished and embroidered outfits as these are typically reserved for the bride, and it's in bad taste to outshine her on her wedding day