A wedding day is like no other day: it’s joyful, romantic, exciting, intense and enervating. In short, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Unless, as in our case, it’s a twice-in-a-lifetime experience. Not in the Elizabeth Taylor - Richard Burton sense, but in the cross culture wedding sense.
You see, I’m a Dutch girl, married to an Indian boy.
Since we live in the Netherlands, it was understood that we should have a Dutch wedding, and logically it was a festive affair in the Western tradition: (off-)white gown and dark suit, a civil ceremony, a photo shoot, then the reception and dinner. It was beautiful.
But because it was important to us to honour my husband’s background as much as mine – that, and transporting the family and close friends from India to attend the wedding here in Holland would have required a Boeing 747 with every seat filled – we also wanted an Indian wedding in the Hindu tradition.
And so our Indian wedding date was set exactly three months after our Dutch wedding date. It just happened to turn out that way, because here’s the first unusual fact about Indian weddings: the right date and time are often, if not always, determined by an astrologer, who determines the auspicious moment of marriage by the position of the stars.
But Indian weddings are different in so many more ways. Here’s the story of ours.
Let me start by mentioning that Hindu weddings can take up to a full week if all the rituals are observed and all the ceremonies performed. We effectively cut ours down to approximately three days.
But there is more than just the wedding itself; there are a lot of elements to an Indian wedding, and for that reason my husband and I had taken a full two months off work in order to spend one and a half of them helping my then future parents-in-law prepare for the big days.
One of these elements is the lunches with the various family members and the visits to close family friends; these serve to introduce the bride and the bride’s side of the family to the groom’s side of the family. During each and every one of these we were fed delicious food. A lot of delicious food. Seriously, a lot. This is where I ran into an interesting catch 22: you see, the food was absolutely scrumptious, and leaving food on your plate is quite rude, as is refusing food. So I found myself in this bizarre loop: I would finish the food on my plate, compliment the food and subsequently be served a generous second helping (not daring to refuse), and on many an occasion a third helping, since finishing the food on your plate after the initial verbal compliment is considered an implied compliment which is promptly rewarded with… more food. It won’t come as much of a surprise that after the first week of lunches I was absolutely stuffed, and I still had some five weeks’ worth of visits to go, not to mention my own wedding! Needless to say I was starting to look quite “healthy” (“healthy” being a typically Indian euphemism for heavy, weighty… well, you get the idea). And on top of all that, I hadn’t had a proper cup of coffee since I’d left Holland. Coffee in India is mostly a heavily sweetened beverage, and it’s hard to find a good, strong cup of the straight-up stuff. There was a coffee chain called Barista Lavazza that serves a decent cup, but we were so busy we hardly had an opportunity to go and get our fix.
To keep things manageable for everyone involved, several rituals and ceremonies were switched around and rolled into one afternoon: Halad Chadavane (haldi ceremony; more about that in a moment) was immediately followed by Sakhar Pudha (which should technically precede the haldi ceremony) and Simant Puja, and everything was done for (I should really say “to”) both of us at the same time at the groom’s family’s home (as was every ritual and ceremony to be performed in either party’s home, since the bride’s family’s home was some odd 4,330 miles away.)
Halad Chadavane, then, is also known as the haldi ceremony. To be clear: haldi is turmeric powder, that yellow stuff that adds such flavour to a great many Indian dishes and works wonders as an antibiotic when applied to the skin. And that never, ever washes out of your clothes. This last fact is important, because this ceremony entails family and friends basically painting every exposed bit of skin with a mixture of turmeric and rose water, and when you’re a complete Van Gogh in his yellow period, the mums and grandmas and aunties get to pour buckets of water over you to wash off the excess paste. After that, your skin will still retain a yellow hue for a day or two. Weird though the initial splash of turmeric paste may feel on the skin, the whole ritual is an enormous amount of fun. Still no coffee, though.
Afterwards, Sakhar Pudha and Simant Puja were performed, a ceremony during which gifts are given to the bride and groom by the families. The wedding day itself would require me to wear not one, not two, but three different sarees, and it was during this ceremony that I was given these garments. My mother-in-law had had them made for me and they were exquisite. I’ll come back to them a little later.
Next on the menu was the mehendi ceremony, which is basically a big pre-wedding party during which the invited guests eat, drink, dance and mingle, and the bride has mehendi done on her hands and feet, arms and legs: getting intricate patterns drawn on the skin with henna. My father-in-law – bless him! – knows I have next to no patience nor any real capacity to sit still, and so he hired three henna artists – one for each arm and one for the feet – in order to reduce the amount of time I needed to sit still for to an absolute minimum. I was done in one and a half hours rather than the three to six hours it usually requires. Of course, once the patterns have been painted on, the process isn’t quite finished. That’s when the groom has the opportunity to inject a bit of romance in the proceedings: he feeds the bride-to-be small bites of food, since she is unable to touch anything while the henna is drying.
The mehendi is like a slowly fading tattoo of sorts: it takes a good long while to fade and the presence of mehendi is one of the ways in which a new bride may be recognised.
Before we arrive on the big day, a word or two about make-up. Traditionally, a lot of make-up is applied to the bride’s face on the various occasions preceding the wedding, as well as the wedding itself. This is – and I quote “my” beautician – because “Madam, you will be in many pictures. You must look perfect and you must look radiant!”
This translated itself in a mask of foundation and bright, bright eyeshadow for the mehendi ceremony, to the point where I hardly even recognised my own face. Not wanting to wonder who that girl was marrying my husband in the photos the next day, I asked one of my husband’s cousins (twice removed) to please help me and convince the make-up artists to allow me and everyone else to see my own face on my wedding day. She accomplished the task, and with flair and conviction: she was my Winston Wolf. But without the coffee.
Made up and all, I was driven to the wedding venue, where all the excitement was about to begin. My three sarees were waiting for me and so, thankfully, were several aunties who professionally wrapped and unwrapped me as required, only to re-wrap me in the next saree when the time came.
Traditionally, the first saree, the one worn during the prayers and the seven steps taken for the seven vows made, should be yellow. My mother-in-law had agreed with me that she would look for an alternative, because yellow is not my colour (think diseased canary). The result was a beautiful green saree with a great deal of gold thread woven into the fabric. After the vows had been taken, I was rushed to the dressing rooms to be changed into the second saree – a shimmering blue one with Swarovski stones in the pallu (the end of the saree which is draped over the shoulder) for the actual tying of the knot. Once we had been pronounced man and wife, it was off to the dressing rooms once more for the third and final saree of the evening: a heavy cotton-satin number in a deep, rich red, again with Swarovski stones sown into the fabric. The aunties draped this one around me Gujurati style, allowing me to really show off the pallu as it is draped to hang over the front of the body rather than the back.
By the end of the evening, we were ecstatically happy and completely knackered. As we were driving home from the venue, the car with my parents-in-law was driving ahead of ours. It suddenly stopped and, of course, so did we. My father-in-law – I have the best in-laws! – came to my window and pointed to the building next to the car. “Do you see where we are?” he asked. I looked up and saw the sign: Barista Lavazza. He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye: “Fancy a cup of coffee?” I don’t think I’ve ever had a wider smile on my face. The four of us got out of the car and entered the coffee shop in full wedding garb. We were tired, we were happy, and we were about to be caffeinated. It was the perfect end to a perfect day.
A copy-writer and editor with a law degree and a wandering mind, Claudette Kulkarni is happiest when telling stories and spilling words onto paper on pretty much any topic that interests her – and those are many. She is the co-author of Legal English for Bachelors, and a former lecturer of Legal English at the University of Leiden.