The wedding procession in the Indian city of Chandigarh entered the hall amid great fanfare as well as the pomp and circumstance that make an Indian wedding. Trumpets and other instruments blared the arrival of the family and friends that make up the wedding party, as the bride Neha Garg and groom Ketan Walia made their way to the ceremonies to finalize their wedding, starting with the Kanyadaan.
The ritual, which marks the beginning of ceremonies giving away the bride, saw Neha’s father Narendra request Ketan not to fail his daughter in his pursuit of darma (moral and lawful life), artha (wealth) and kama (love).
The rites then went on to the Panigrahana or holding hands ritual, in which the groom announced the acceptance of his responsibilities to the gods by lighting a sacred fire, which he kept alive with timber as well as ghee (clarified butter).
The ceremony is marked by the Saptapadi , or seven steps, in which the couple conduct seven circuits round the fire. The circuits are symbolic of the vows made before the fire god Agni, who is considered a witness to Neha and Ketan’s vows to each other. A pandit or priest then recites their marriage vows.
“The groom has to make seven vows to the bride, among them to be with her in sickness and in health, make decisions collectively and love her, among others,” Neha’s cousin Aakriti Cheema explained. “In return, the bride only has to make fewer vows, namely be truthful, be with her husband through thick and thin, and be loving. The groom has to have more vows because he leads, whereas the bride has responsibility to two households, namely her new household and that of her family’s.”
The end of the ceremony is then marked by the tossing of yellow flowers, followed by feasting. After the wedding is complete, Neha then leaves to start her new life in Ketan’s home in the Grihapravesa , where his family welcomes her into their home.
The ceremonies leading up to the big day is no less diverting, as they highlight the festive and joyous elements of the occasion, as well as its more solemn character. Starting when the Baraat or groom’s procession party arrives at the bride’s house to kick off the festivities with the Swagatam or welcoming ceremony, followed by the Milne or meeting ceremony.
“The ritual includes the exchange of rings and gifts. The Milne includes the exchanging of gifts among the counterparts of both families,” said Neha’s brother Nishant, a consultant based in San Francisco. “In India, a marriage isn’t just a union of two people, its a union of two families.”
The ritual and principle behind it is similar to the Lamaran or Indonesian wedding proposal, in which the members of the bride’s and groom’s families meet and are introduced to one another.
Nishant also pointed out that the families also have to determine an auspicious day to get married, another element that is similarly found in Indonesia.
Beautifying rituals and merrymaking
As with Indonesian weddings, beautifying the self is also a highlight in Indian weddings. But while Indonesian weddings are marked by the Siraman or ritual bathing ceremony, their Indian counterpart is highlighted by the Mehndi ceremony, in which the bride and her women friends apply henna on their hands, which traditionally symbolizes the awakening of the inner self.
The designs are a work of art in their own right. One beautician conjured up a peacock on Neha’s hands, its tail extending to her forearms. Not to be outdone, other henna specialists drew ornate decorative patterns on the palms and other parts of the hands. The paste, which is also fragrant from the oils applied to the arms and hands beforehand, is then left to dry and chip away.
“The henna can last anywhere from three or four days to up to 20 days. It depends how frequently the wearer washes her hands,” Nishant said. “The henna, as well as the brightly colored bangles that the bride’s friends wear, highlights their beauty and the festive mood of the wedding. The same goes for the colors of clothing, as we try to avoid somber shades. We wear various colors except for white, as that is the color worn to funerals in India, as well as black, which are worn for funerals in the West.”
Neha agreed that the use of the henna went a long way in enhancing the women’s beauty. But she’s aware that there’s more to the ritual than meets the eye.
“In some traditional beliefs, the darker the henna, the more the bride will be loved by her husband and in laws. The longevity of the henna is also believed to mark the success of the marriage,” said Neha, an event organizer.
The Mehndi ceremony is then followed by the Sangeet or music night, a get together similar to the Indonesian Midodareni , as both are held on the eve of the wedding. But while the latter is a small, intimate gathering of the youthful families and friends of the bride and groom at their respective houses, the Sangeet is more of a come one come all gathering held at a hotel.
“Aside from a night of music and dancing, the [Sangeet] also features Western customs that weren’t featured in traditional Indian weddings. These include a cake cutting ceremony and cocktail party, followed by some partying and drinking capped off by a late night banquet,” Nishant said. “Sometimes this occasion is held after the wedding. But the timing, as well as the use of Western customs, shows the adaptability of Indian culture to adopt influences of other cultures and move with the times.”
The ceremonies then took a more solemn turn hours before the wedding, as the bride and groom held the Haldi ceremony. Held in their respective homes, the ritual entails having a pandit bless both the bride and groom and toss rice over them to wish the newlyweds prosperity.
Regardless of the similarities and differences between Indonesian and Indian wedding ceremonies, the sense of anticipation from this rite of passage and the notion of starting a new phase in life is just as palpable.
“Getting married is about gelling well and getting to know one another. I know it’s an arranged marriage, but you still give it the benefit of the doubt,” said Neha, who married Ketan after a whirlwind courtship of six months. “Marriage is a lifetime commitment, so we’ll be sure to give it a total, 100 percent effort.”
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on February 26, 2014