This is part of a blog series exploring wedding traditions from around the globe and how they might be incorporated into a modern U.S. wedding.
Vibrant Table has worked with couples from a range of cultural and religious persuasions, but weddings infused with East Indian flavors give us a special thrill. Nothing says ‘vibrant’ like a rich tapestry of bright jewel hues, luscious garden blooms, layered textures and a celebration full of family, dance, and great food – just our kind of event!
Indian weddings not only celebrate the union of two individuals, they celebrate the joining of two extended families. To those more familiar with weddings of the Judeo-Christian tradition, you may be surprised at the roles uncles, siblings, and aunts play in many of the traditional customs. Likewise, a modern India-infused wedding may last longer and be larger than you are used to, as weddings in India last for several days days and include massive guest lists, many of whom are strangers to the bride and groom.The wealthier the family, the longer the wedding.
Even in the U.S., a modern Indian ceremony will likely last hours. Although formal, Indian wedding ceremonies are a bit more relaxed than you might expect. Carmen Shah, owner of Ella Events and whose husband is of Indian heritage, says that “Westerners are often amazed at how Indian attendees will often talk to each other during the long ceremony.”
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Due to its size and population, India is a diverse country and wedding customs are hardly homogeneous. Traditions will vary region to region but here are some of the most popular elements that can be found at an Indian-infused wedding in the United States.
MEHNDI (HENNAED HANDS & FEET)
The hands and feet of the bride, her family, and friends are covered in intricate designs of henna. The groom’s name or initials are often hidden in the design, and a wedding-night game is for him to find them. The Mehndi celebration generally takes place 1-2 days before the wedding ceremony, but the decorated hands are strikingly beautiful and a signature element of many India-American fusion weddings.
MANDAP (WEDDING CANOPY)
The mandap is the location and focus of Hindu wedding ceremonies. Extravagantly decorated with flowers and tapestries, its four pillars represent the four holy Vedic scriptures and the parents whose love supports the newlyweds.
VIVAH-HOMA (SACRED FIRE)
No Hindu ceremony would be complete without the sacred fire, which dates from Vedic times. The sacred fire purifies and calls forth the holy witness. In vivah-homa, or the sacred fire ceremony, the couple circles the fire chanting mantras of their vows.
For me, this was the most endearing element of Indian weddings. They are full of playful games and teasing, particularly directed toward the groom. The bride’s sisters may hide the groom’s shoes, only returning them in exchange for money. The bride and groom may fish for the wedding ring in a bowl of milk, the winner destined to ‘wear the pants’ throughout the marriage. In the ‘pillow game’, the newlyweds are tested for their compatibility. They sit back to back with a pillow between them and answer questions with a nod, so that the guests can see their answers, but the new husband or wife cannot.
These playful games also occur in not just the reception, but even in the ceremony. When the bride and groom are instructed to sit, watch if the bride sits down quickly. She’s indicating that she is going to be the boss of the family.
As many weddings in India are arranged, these games are ice-breakers designed to help the bride feel more comfortable with her groom and his family.
BARAAT (GROOM’S ARRIVAL)
The groom and his family’s arrival to the wedding site is given a fan-fare not normally seen in the stereotypical American wedding. Traditionally, the groom arrives on a white mare, led by his relatives dancing and singing to joyful music. A white limousine is sometimes supplemented in a modern wedding.
OTHER INTERESTING TIDBITS
- The bride is often walked down the aisle by her uncle rather than father.
- Red and gold bangles are a traditional wedding accessory gfted to the bride by her maternal uncles.
- When they arrive, the bride’s family may present the groom’s with garlands of flowers and gifts, starting with the eldest male member of the family. Female family members may also be included.
- Mangalsutra, a necklace the groom presents to the bride, has a similar role to wedding rings. The bride wears it all her life and it’s considered an omen if she loses it. The style of mangalsutras have changed significantly in recent years as more women enter the workforce.
- Turmeric is a recurring element in Indian weddings. Admired for its beautifying and cleansing qualities, tumeric is used in cleansing rituals and is part of the mangalsutra, the bridal necklace.
- The traditional wedding color worn by Indian brides is red, which symbolizes purity, joy, prosperity, happiness, wealth, and good luck. As seen in these images, it’s not uncommon for a contemporary Indian bride to choose variations of red, such as magenta, or even diverge from this color entirely.
There are a myriad of ways to fuse the traditional Hindu-Indian and Christian-Western wedding traditions. The options are limitless, but here are a few ideas from some of our intercultural couples.
- Honor both heritages with their own wedding ceremonies. Some of our clients have chosen to hold them on separate days, or hold the Hindu ceremony first, inviting Indian guests and American family and close friends only (as an all-day wedding may be difficult for some American guests.)
- During your ceremony, your officiant could share the meaning and significance of any included rituals with guests. You might print these out on your wedding program instead.
Food being an integral part of any culture, choose a wide variety of dishes with both local and Indian flavors. The idea is to offer all guests flavors they are comfortable with but also allow them to try something new. Your caterer can help you select a menu that is creative yet cohesive. For couples that want to offer traditional meals from both heritages, you might consider separate buffets.
- Even if you choose to follow a traditional U.S. style ceremony, you can still honor the Indian heritage with themes, colors, and decor. Also, encourage Indian guests to wear saris and other traditional attire.
An especially huge thank you to Carmen Shah of Ella Events and her father-in-law, Prabodh Shah, for offering their insight, feedback, and corrections.
As always, we are indebted to the photographers who share their work with us. These photographers are featured in this post:
- Evrim Icoz Photography: header image, hennaed hands, fire ceremony, groom with shoes
- Kevin Meyers Photography: mandap ceremony, dual-wedding ceremonies
- Aisha Harley, Photographer: lotus place cards, Carmen Shah wedding (below)
Share your ideas
Are you planning or did you have an Indian fusion or multi-cultural wedding? How did you choose to honor both heritages? We’d love to hear from you!
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