Forget the white Cinderella gown, the Prince Charming tuxedo, and the wedding procession led by a bevy of bridesmaids. And the music? Well, let’s just say it will not be the standard church organ fare played the day you and your betrothed walked down the aisle. Nor should it be. For this is a traditional Hindu wedding. As such it will be steeped in elaborate ritual and appear far more exotic than anything you may have seen or experienced in the typical American wedding.
While some Indian immigrants may still travel to India for marriages that have been arranged by their families (a time-honored practice that exists even today, though it is likely to meet with rebellion if the children are westernized), many others marry in the United States. How the weddings of the latter group transpire is affected by a number of variables, including the couple’s regional background if both bride and groom are Hindu and whether or not they choose to alter certain portions of the ceremony and reception if the marriage is interfaith.
Wedding consultant for “I Do” Weddings, Michelle Hodges, describes the interfaith wedding she planned for a second generation Hindu groom and his American bride. “His parents wanted a Hindu wedding,” says Michelle, who planned exactly that with one or two nods to American culture. “We had to rely on his parents for all the traditions and rituals,” she adds, “but it turned out really, really cool.”
And different, considering the groom, dressed in the traditional tunic and loose pants, arrived to the ceremony astride a white horse. It is a Hindu custom, called the Barat, that signifies a welcoming of the groom and which Michelle describes as very parade-like and festive. In India, the Barat can vary greatly with the groom being greeted to the ceremony by an officiating priest or by the bride, who will drape him with a garland of flowers designed for the occasion. In some instances, it will be the bride’s mother who will greet and bless him. In any case, the Barat is a lively moment, made all the more so by the band that leads it and the dancing friends and relatives who follow.
The Barat planned and witnessed by Texas-based wedding consultant, Sally Goldstein, was less flamboyant but still noteworthy in Sally’s view. She explains that both her bride and groom were Indian, but she was Hindu, and he was Christian. Thus, they celebrated a Hindu wedding the first week and a traditional Christian wedding the next.
“What struck me the most at the Barat were the intricate paintings on the groom’s hands,” says Sally. “He told me not to laugh when he arrived at the wedding ceremony, for he was an engineer and very westernized.” While it may appear strange, these henna designs that are painted on the hands and sometimes the feet are really very beautiful both in appearance and meaning. They signify the strength of love in a marriage and are accomplished in a ceremony called the Mehndi, which is one of a number of prenuptial rituals that can occur days before the actual wedding. Though it typically is the bride who is painted, the groom, too, can have his own ceremony.
Once the groom has arrived and been welcomed, a number of rituals can occur. Michelle’s groom, for instance, dismounted from his horse in a formal ceremony before he and his parents proceeded to the Mandap, the canopied area designated for the altar and the sacred fire. Small and well contained, the fire has been said to represent a witness to the union and is central to a number of rituals. One is the taking of the vows, called Pratigna-Karan, during which the bride and groom circle the fire proclaiming their loyalty, love, and respect for each other. The other is an offertory rite called Laja-Homah in which rice grains, representing wealth, good health, prosperity, and happiness, are offered to the fire.
But first, the bride must be escorted to the altar and then given away by either her father or male relatives. This ritual is called the Kanya Dan and in the case of Michelle’s American bride whose father was deceased, it was performed by the groom’s family. “I was so touched by this bride’s willingness to subordinate all American wedding ritual to this Hindu ceremony,” says Michelle. “But truthfully, when compared to American weddings, Hindu ceremonies seem far richer in meaning,” she adds.
Once the bride has been given away and the fire rituals completed, the bride and groom begin the ritual of the seven steps, called the Saptapadi. In this ceremony, explains Michelle, her bride and groom took seven steps toward each other, signifying their common journey through life, while the priest chanted.
Closing ceremonies for the wedding, which again often vary, can involve benedictions by the elders as well as another painting ceremony where the groom applies red vermilion on the center parting of the bride’s hair. It is called Sindoor Daan and shows that the groom’s betrothed is now a married woman.
The reception that follows the Hindu wedding is a celebration, not unlike receptions the world over. Says consultant Sally Goldstein about the Hindu reception she helped to plan, “What I remember best is that it was one heck of a party” - but again, different. According to Michelle Hodges, it was this portion of the wedding that her bride chose to Americanize, insisting on having both American and Indian cuisine to suit all the guests. “I remember the groom telling me that traditionally Hindu weddings are a bit chaotic, with Indian service tending to be very laid back,” says Michelle. Thus, both the bride and the groom demanded that their caterers provide sufficient numbers of servers and commit to a schedule. She explains that in the end it went off without a hitch, her bride, dressed in the traditional red and gold Hindu wedding sari, feeding her Hindu groom a piece of a very American wedding cake. “They really were perfect for each other,” says Michelle.
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