At intersections in Mumbai, traffic police in khaki uniforms attempt to bring some semblance of order to the pile-up of humming three-wheeled rickshaws, driven by men also wearing khaki. Above the street level, gray housing blocks rise up and compete with the smog to obscure the sun as it rises over corrugated shantytowns roofs. When the tide goes out, a fishy breeze wafts across the peninsula, temporarily overpowering the acrid exhaust fumes.
But against the sepia backdrop are splashes of color. Candycane-striped curbs delimit the streets. Gleaming gold statues stand watch over medians, shaded by umbrellas and draped with garlands. Freight trucks pass by, their profiles outlined with strands of colorful lights, and their painted panels depicting drapery drawn back to reveal rows of red Hindu swastikas. Women in draping saris and billowing shawls contrast the dusty, broken sidewalks.
Occasionally, a temple emerges from the haze. The multi-colored faces of the gods gaze down at you from the tiered roofline. Invariably, the presence of the temple attracts a cluster of shops, each veiled by a curtain of yellow and red flowers threaded into intricate ceremonial garlands. Inside each shop, in a place of honor, sits a vibrant statue of a potbellied man with an elephant’s head – the god Ganesh – bestowing prosperity on the business.
In November, you’re likely to also come across another colorful scene. Mumbai has just shaken off the last of the monsoon rains, and the “wedding season” is ramping up. I recently had the privilege of making the trip to Mumbai with some friends to attend the wedding – or shaadi, in Hindi – of our friend Owaiz.
In contrast to American-style weddings, where one or two colors is chosen as a theme, Indian weddings put all colors on display. This is evident in the traditional clothing that the guests and participants wear. Pale Western guests like me aren’t necessarily required to wear traditional clothing, but it’s certainly welcomed. And since I flew all the way around the world for this event, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity!
I’ve been told my wardrobe is too monochrome, and it’s probably true. But in India, where weddings are multi-day affairs with a whole list of events on the invitation, monochrome simply isn’t an option. So, determining what to wear and when is an activity unto itself!
Generally, the goal is to dress increasingly formally to each subsequent event. Of course, in doing so you don’t want to outdo the bride and groom or match them too closely, but the range of appropriate attire is otherwise fairly broad.
For men, the basic options are kurtas and sherwanis. A kurta is a like a knee-length, long-sleeve tunic in a variety of materials and styles ranging from casual to semi-formal. It can be worn by itself or with a sleeveless vest called a sadri. A sherwani is a long, heavy jacket often festooned with gleaming beads and elaborate embroidery. This is the more formal option, and if you accompany it with accessories like a stole and a turban, you’re fit to be a maharaja (not advisable unless it’s your own wedding)!
All of these outfits require some form of pants. Most often, these are either the churidar pyjama or dhoti style. Churidar pyjamas aren’t the same as sleeping pajamas, though they share a common origin. Rather, they are lightweight one-size-fits-all pants that are baggy at the top and tight around the ankles, with the excess length bunching up at the bottom. Dhotis are even baggier pants that are tailored in a way that reminds me of a curtain drawn back from a window.
With all that in mind, we woke up on our first morning in Mumbai and squeezed into the back seat of a rickshaw to go on a shopping spree.
One of the traditional events preceding an Indian wedding is called haldi, which is the Hindi word for turmeric. The unmistakable yellow spice is a symbol of purity and fertility in India, which makes it a fitting theme for the opening celebration of the new couple.
When the couple arrives and takes their seats, guests are encouraged to greet them and perform the haldi ritual. To ensure that the bride and groom are sufficiently pure and fertile before their wedding day, each guest who approaches is invited to apply turmeric paste to the bride and groom’s faces. There were also candies to feed them and rose petals to sprinkle over them. If a face full of turmeric didn’t prepare them to be married, then hopefully a hundred handfuls of m&m’s did the trick!
The remainder of the haldi event was an opportunity for guests to mingle and enjoy the buffet. A team of mehendi artists was also on hand to create henna hand tattoos for the female guests, each design spontaneous and unique.
We were invited to attend the first event wearing anything turmeric-colored. So in the spirit of haldi, I wore a yellow silk kurta.
The haldi was followed in the evening by the sangeet, an event which takes its name from the Hindi word for music. This is the time when family and friends express their happiness for the new couple to the rhythm of the latest musical hits on the big screen. The sangeet can take different forms, but the modern trend is a choreographed show.
After making a dramatic entrance, the bride and groom were given prime seating before a stage. An emcee announced each dance number as the DJ cycled through mix tracks of Bollywood songs. First the parents did a routine, then the siblings, some friends, cousins, and at least a dozen other combinations of guests. The bride and groom themselves even made occasional cameo appearances. Perhaps the only group of guests not represented on the stage were the non-Indians, which is a good thing – even with the most eminently danceable Bollywood song, I couldn’t dance to save my life.
For the sangeet, I chose a red silk kurta with gold patterns. I will have to create a new section in my wardrobe for “clothes that aren’t blue” – but when in Rome!
The biggest variable in an Indian wedding is the marriage ceremony itself, when the bride and groom are officially wed. Most Indians are Hindu. Depending on the ritual format they select, a Hindu marriage ceremony can last up to several hours and start at any time of day or night based on the alignment of the stars and other auspicious signs. But India is a diverse country, and there are as many types of wedding ceremonies as there are communities.
My friend is Muslim, so his marriage occurred through a ceremony called a nikkah, the Arabic term for marriage. In this ceremony, the groom and male guests sat in a separate room from the bride and female guests. In some very traditional arranged marriages, the bride and groom may not even have met at this point!
Various rituals led up to the couple’s reuniting. Clerics read from the Quran and announced the requirements of marriage. The father of the bride entered the women’s room to obtain his daughter’s consent to the marriage. The marriage contract was shuttled back and forth for signatures. And finally, newly wed, the couple was ready for their “first meeting.” That’s more of a formality though. In modern times, even in so-called arranged marriages, the bride and groom almost certainly know each other well before they sign on the dotted line.
At the nikkah, the groom wore in an embroidered white sherwani, while the bride arrived in a green veil – a traditional Islamic color – which was later removed to reveal a pink sari. I came in a pastel green silk kurta.
Wedding Reception – Food and Photos
The wedding ceremony is followed by the reception. This is a formal event, and a time to mingle, take plenty of photos, and enjoy the food. Eating at the reception is really a matter of force-feeding yourself as best you can, because you have already filled up on two days’ worth of sumptuous buffets and the reception somehow managed to outdo all of them. A good half of the hotel rooftop where my friend held his reception was dedicated to food. There was something for every palate, from street food to cake, and curries to kulfis. If only I could go back on an empty stomach…
For the formal reception evening, many men wore shiny tuxedos, while others wore intricate sherwanis. I chose a plain blue “Indo-Western” style sherwani with an asymmetric hemline – I’m told this is the modern fashion!
Of course, people don’t generally wear silk kurtas or embroidered sherwanis on a daily basis – not in India and especially not in America. So, those will have to await the next desi wedding that I have the honor of attending. For the meantime, I picked out a few short-cut cotton kurtas to wear back at home. They look nearly like regular shirts but with Indian designs and textures to remind me of my second visit to the subcontinent.