A (non) Monsoon Wedding

Trip Start Oct 13, 2004
1
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Trip End Nov 16, 2004


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Tuesday, November 16, 2004

:: Anju's Wedding ::

The culminating event of my month's stay in India happened on my last day in Hyderabad at the wedding of my friend, Anju, and her new husband, Amit. A native to southern India's Kerala region, Anju's matrimonial debut was set in traditional southern style with vibrant color under a beautiful floral altar with elaborate gold jewelry, beautiful linen sarees, silk kutras and tasty cuisine. It had all the visual beauty and dramatic flare reminiscent of the famed 2001 northern Indian movie, Monsoon Wedding, sans rain. It was both, touching and impressive in its simplicity.

:: Love marriages vs. arranged marriages ::

I met Anju a year ago when she came to San Francisco for six-months to work at my company. Her then fiancée, Amit, lived in New York City and had been there for 10 years. He'd come to visit Anju regularly and we'd enjoy the Bay Area scene together. I was thrilled when my trip to India coincided with their wedding as I've always longed to see the pomp and circumstance given to Indian bliss, or arranged bliss as it often may be. Anju and Amit have what Indians call a "love marriage", where fate tempted their hearts in college and they fell in love naturally destined to spend a lifetime together rather than conforming to a strategic parental plan. Chosen spouses are becoming more common as Indians segue into Western culture's style and customs. Hopefully, they won't follow suit in our divorce rate; Indian have a 3 in 10 chance of splitting after tying the knot vs. 6 in 10 in the USA. Being Indian, from what I witnessed, means honoring one's family despite the wishes of the individual. The stigma of divorce is too big a burden to place on your family. As a result, often unhappy, disconnected marriages prevail as each publicly acquiesces to outward happiness.

:: Indian wedding fashion ::

My Indian girlfriends helped me select a ghagra, a hip, traditional Indian dress that is a bit more stylish than a sari. A sari is typically worn by married women and is wrapped completely around the waist and shoulder and back down to the waist again. It's often intricate and very colorful. The ghagra I chose, based the consensus of my friends, had a short midriff top and a long tapered with vibrant blues and ornately beaded details that shimmered and sparkled so brightly that it surely could have served as a beacon for calling distant ships to shore. It probably weighs somewhere around 5-pounds with its elaborate handiwork.

The day was hot and my ghagra itched and I struggled to look put together while feeling most uncomfortable. I had to call the housekeeping lady at the hotel to come to my room and button up the top for me as it was virtually impossible to don this garment on by myself. I felt a little outrageous buying such an ostentatious formal outfit that I'd probably wear once or twice (Halloween?) in my life. I was assured that you could never be overdressed at an Indian wedding. I also didn't know if it was appropriate since wedding tradition varies from region to region. The wedding was also in the late morning and wearing formal wear felt off but I wanted to dress traditionally and trusted my pals with their local knowledge and went for it despite my fears of being the "Gaudy American". When in India...

I appeared in my lobby to meet my new best friend, Kartik, for the wedding. He was dressed like he was ready to go to a cricket match rather than a wedding, which instantly provoked me to want to run upstairs to change immediately. But, he loved me in my dress and praised me for my "guts", as he put it, to dress in traditional Indian style, as most Americans do not entertain such adventures in fashion. And, I can see why! I felt incredibly shy with all the attention; it's not like my white skin and blonde hair isn't rare enough now I added a neon, sparkling fashion lightshow to it. I momentarily worried that I would distract from the bride but would soon find out that was a ridiculous and unattainable notion. After offering his validation, I felt a bit more reassured and put aside all nervous energy and focused on the day's event, which was most exciting and important!

:: The wedding ceremony ::

Hindu weddings are supposed to take place outside, on the earth, under a canopy known as a mandap. However, Anju's mandap took place in a choultry, which is a simple hall not meant for Godly worship or it would have been brightly colored in honor of the Gods. Serving as a function hall, the chairs were plastic and the walls lacquered in plain white so not to distract from the main spectacle on center stage where the Hindu altar was placed. The bride and groom would sit barefoot on a gorgeous stage that was constructed of fresh flowers and woven bamboo. It took three days to build and was constructed by both families. In the middle of the altar hung a photo of the maternal grandparents.

Elder family members paraded around the stage seven times to prepare the setting for the new couple. This represented the seven lives we live and that in each we are destined to meet the same person time and time again. Later, the bride and groom would circle the altar as well to bring good luck.

The groom entered the hall entrenched in a family procession so deep and thick you'd think he was a dignitary wearing a bulletproof vest under his Indian attire. He was escorted to the stage to await his bride. Surrounded by smiles and acknowledgements from his friends in the audience, we waited patiently for the bride to arrive.

Anju's family members held candles at the entrance of the hall to welcome her into the ceremony along with a spectacular sound of "crackers" known to Americans as firecrackers. Void of its traditional aeronautical spectrum of color, the crackers were just as loud as ever and very repetitious lasting at least ten minutes. Crackers are freely used by anyone, anywhere, and anytime in India. I was walking down the street last weekend and a little kid shot a cracker in the air in the middle of the day. Given last weekend's festival, Diwali, it was expected to happen without notice but still it gave me a scare with an embarrassing "hoot" that burst from my mouth. When I shared the laws around crackers in the States I received a roar of laughter from my Indian friends who replied, "Americans seem so intimidated of living freely without a set of rules for everything. Indians just enjoy life. They do what they want and nothing bad or disorderly comes of it." One doesn't need to be here for more than a week to be in complete agreement.

Back to the ceremony...

Anju, the bride, was dressed in a crème linen sari with a beautiful detailed gold fringe and was adorned by a massive amount of gold on her neck, arms, ankles and toe rings. Toe rings are supposed to be worn only by married women. It is like an unmarried Christian woman wearing a wedding ring. It just doesn't happen. Traditional Indian families won't allow this fopah of trendy young girls. It's a point of contention as Western style dictates this fashionable look. So basically, all appendages were covered at least 6-inched deep with this precious metal. Silver is seldom worn in India since gold is a status symbol even though white gold is much more expensive. It goes back to the Kings and Gods who wore gold, which is equated to power and wealth. However, a silver ring on the toe helps to make a healthy placenta so this is encouraged. Anju's hands and arms were colored with a bridal henna artwork, which is like a tattoo and lasts for 15 days. She had a red bindi on her forehead, which would soon be followed by a red line on her middle part (called a kumkum) to signify a new bride. This adornment is a tradition that women follow as a conformation to the spirit of womanhood. More than a beauty spot, the bindi indicates good omen and purity. Her hair had flowers in it with gold jewelry handing from her widows peak. Amit, the groom, was dressed in a kafni (a long shirt extending to his knees) with pijamo (leggings) and looked most handsome. He had an orange and white on his forehead to represent Hindu blessings.

The Hindu priest lit a fire and draped fresh marigold and white garlands around the necks of the couple. In the center of the altar, sat a scared fire where the exchanging of rings took place. Many symbols represent marriage for an Indian bride and groom. Typically, wedding rings are worn on the ring finger of the left hand by both men and women but a toe ring on the second toe on the left foot, gold bangles on the wrists and a gold necklace indicate whether a woman is married or not. Anju chose wear gold in all four locations and then began the ceremony of donning on the gold by the groom. She however, did not adorn him with anything, as it is the man's prerogative on whether he chooses to wear a symbol of marriage or not. Apparently, women do not care as long as their rings and necklaces are abundant and very pretty.

:: The wedding reception ::

After the wedding ceremony, the bride and groom changed into different outfits. The groom wore a navy blue kutra with a delicate woven gold trim. The bride wore a red silk sari with a thick, textured gold trim and, again, lots of gold jewelry. They sat on massive red velvet chairs befitting a king and queen. Quests were then received complete with hugs and kisses and many photographs. It lasted for hours. Afterwards, the guests assembled in the bottom of the assembly hall for lunch.

The food was served on banana leaves, which is a southern style to serving food. Although the south is known for spicy cuisine the food was varied and I enjoyed many delightfully mild dishes with my fingers. Food is typically eaten with your hands albeit messy it's very easy to eat various textures as long as rice or naan is used to form a ball of food into your mouth.

After dining and washing our hands, it became apparent that the event was over. It ended without the cutting of a wedding cake (a rice tapioca was served in a small cup), dancing to silly chicken and makerena songs, or the dreaded tossing of the bouquet into the crowd of single girls. It was so understated that I was confused as to whether the wedding was over or not. The bride and groom were still receiving guests but I had come to learn that that would be the last time I would see or speak to them at the wedding, as the line was just as deep as it was long.

As the quests vanished into the hot afternoon air eager to celebrate the last remaining hours of the Diwali weekend festival, I said my goodbyes and took another peek at my friend and her husband. Soon they will leave for the States to start a new life in New York City. Looking at them so gorgeously adorned by flowers, friends, and incense in a hall filled with barefoot people with sticky fingers and colorful attire, I was thinking that this beautiful day couldn't have offered a greater contrast to what lie before them in the States. I, too, will soon return to a shockingly different San Francisco that will be seen through eyes that reflect greater appreciation, thankfulness and perspective than what I experienced over a month ago. I already long to return to magical, mystical India and trust the flame she sparked inside of me won't burn out in the Bay Area fog.

[andrea]
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