Indian weddings have always been more conspicuously ceremonial and opulent than their western counterparts. One balmy night in Delhi in 2012, astrologers declared the planets were in a propitious alignment and a total of 30,000 weddings took place. By all accounts 80 per cent of these marriages were thoughtfully arranged by the couple’s parents. Many grooms met their bride for the first time when they took their vows, having only seen a photograph beforehand. Virtually all of these marriages will be for life, never sullied by the notion of a marital split. India has the lowest divorce rate in the world.
In this modern economic growth era of ‘India Shining’, the traditional wedding has evolved into an excessively elaborate affair, with annual countrywide expenditure topping US $25 billion. The average cost is around US $34000 with super rich members of the city Brahmin caste often exceeding US $1 million.
On a recent 16-day tour of Rajasthan I stayed in the Chunda Palace, an ideal venue for a wedding. Situated in the fascinating, lush green city of Udaipur, it was built by a successful marble merchant who carries the line of a noble family.
You feel like royalty in this palace, with its warm welcome, princely service and its magnificently decorated rooms. What makes Chunda Palace an ideal wedding venue is the extensive rooftop terrace and dining room with a capacity of 300. The hotel director, Veeramdev, tells me that wedding couples profess their solemn vows in a rooftop alcove before a Hindu priest. They walk around a small holy fire seven times whilst being showered by rose petals and sanctified by the chanting of mantras, as is the Indian custom.
Veeramdev explains that an Indian wedding is a huge, once-in-a-lifetime event and it’s common for parents to spend as much as they can afford to make it a memorable occasion. Family members, friends and relatives are invited, and most bring generous gifts of money. Nowadays people understand that expensive dowries are discouraged by the government, but the tradition is deeply entrenched.
Unlike many modern couples in the West who eschew the need for a marriage certificate, Indians take the institution of marriage very seriously indeed. The parents of young Hindus would be appalled at the notion of a de facto marriage. In India, only a small percentage of big city residents follow the romantic style of dating, falling in love and choosing their own lifetime partner. When parents set out to find a suitable match it’s a massive logistical challenge, with serious input from relatives, friends, neighbours, genealogists, priests and astrologers. While the young couple’s approval is usually sought on the basis of a photo and brief summary of attributes, the parents have the final say.
Invitation cards depicting Lord Ganesha, the god of good luck, are distributed. When the big day arrives the venerable age-old rituals begin with the groom riding to the wedding venue on a white mare decorated in colourful livery. Veeramdev says, ‘All India is different as to the style of wedding. We have unity in the rituals but diversity in the scale. My younger brother rode on an elephant, caparisoned in colourful regalia.’
The wedding procession with its accompanying brass band is received at the bride’s house or wedding venue with garlands of flowers. The groom is resplendent in a long gold frock coat with a Mandarin collar while the bride appears angelic in a red sari or lehnga traditional costume set off immaculately with fine gold jewellery. The wedding banquet is a sumptuous affair in a grand room set out with tables draped in white and decorated with red sashes and bows, red being the colour of holiness and good luck. The actual wedding ceremony, called the ‘pheras’, takes place around the holy fire with only immediate family present.
All that remains is the sad and sorrowful part where the bride must leave her family and move into a stranger’s house. This transition is traumatic for the young lady and generates a lot of weeping, sometimes accentuated by the use of professional ‘weepies’ to highlight the sense of loss. The newly-weds depart with the groom’s family in a floraldecorated car.
On my last day in Delhi I visited a giant mall called the Wedding Souk in the Pitampura precinct and found 100 shops dedicated to weddings. The impression I gained is that a wedding is not just the bride’s special day, but a grandiose event that cements a solid alliance between two families.
My thoughts turn to the lovely Bishnois families I met in the Rajasthan desert, just a few kilometres from my Chunda Palace suite. These gentle, devout people live a subsistence life on less than NZ $5 a day. Their strict religious rules forbid marriage outside their caste so they could not begin to grasp the concept of an opulent Indian wedding. Such are the intriguing contrasts of incredible, unbelievable India.
Paul Rush visited Rajasthan courtesy of Adventure World Tours and Cathay Pacific.