A foreigner’s guide to traditional Hindu weddings
If you’ve just arrived from the US to attend a traditional Hindu wedding in India, you might be jet-lagged – but that’s not necessarily bad. While the other wedding guests groggily arrive at the wedding venue at 4 a.m., it will be late afternoon according to your body clock – the perfect time to enjoy the spectacular Hindu wedding shown in the movie “Hum Aapke Hai Kaun”, available in your hotel room upon request.
You have plenty of time to finish the movie and then head to the wedding, because a real-life, traditional Hindu wedding is much longer than Hum Aapke Hai Kaun, and – for the bride and groom at least – much more painful. The undocumented and real purpose of the traditional Hindu wedding ceremony, dear foreigner, is to imprint two critical words into the minds of the bride and groom: never again.
At first glance, the entire wedding ceremony might seem like a meaningless ritual – but, after the seventh or eighth glance, you will realize that the seemingly meaningless ritual is poignantly symbolic of the meaninglessness of life in general.
No, there might be a deeper meaning (to the ritual). For instance, the groom adds a thousand blades of grass – one at a time, the priest is watching! – into the holy fire (agni); this could symbolize the groom’s ability and willingness to do (karma) a boring cubicle-farm job and earn a good income (artha). The bride changes her saree once every nine minutes, while the groom waits patiently; this could symbolize a shopping marathon (retail therapy).
During the wedding, do not be alarmed if an elderly person tells you to, “See, see!” This doesn’t mean that they are offended to see you reading this guide instead of watching the wedding ceremony. In this context, “See, see!” translates to, “See beta [son], if you decide to get married you can also have such a wonderful marriage [wedding].” In response, you should say, “:)”.
You could look up the various individual rituals – kanyaa daan, saptapadi, etc. – that comprise a Hindu wedding on Wikipedia, but it wouldn’t be helpful, because the priest who is conducting the wedding ceremony is probably doing something totally different, because he hasn’t read the Wikipedia page.
The wedding ceremony – like most other important events in the life of an Indian youngster – is designed to please the family elders. Even then, things can, and do go wrong. It is not uncommon for an elder, usually from the groom’s party, to complain that the wedding ceremony did not meet their requirements, because the priest failed to conduct such-and-such ritual. Such criticism is usually answered by another equal-but-opposite elder, usually from the bride’s party, who retorts that such-and-such ritual is only performed by people belonging to so-and-so caste, which is a so-so caste.
And so it goes.
It is best to watch the ceremony from a safe distance. To verify that you are at a safe distance, look at the feet of the people around you – if you’re the only one wearing shoes, you are probably standing in the sacred mandap, which is the canopy-covered area in the room (look up).
Even though most weddings are now held indoors, the mandap is canopy-covered because Hindu weddings are traditionally supposed to be held outdoors. However, even if the wedding were being held outdoors, you still wouldn’t be allowed to wear your shoes in the mandap. Basically, what we’re trying to say is, taking off your shoes increases the number of places you can safely visit in a Hindu wedding – if you’re willing to take off your shirt, you could probably sit right next to the priest.
If rice is offered to you, examine it carefully – if it is cooked, you should eat it; if it is raw, use it to shower blessings on the couple when everyone else is doing so. You should also bless all those who prostrate themselves in front of you. Bless them profusely for 10-20 seconds; after that, if they are still prostrate, yell for a doctor.
Oh, and that isn’t a vuvuzela – it’s a shehnai, or perhaps a nadaswaram. The shehnai and the nadaswaram are completely different just like Hindi and Urdu are – which means that they are exactly the same, but you can offend people by confusing the two.
This guide is only an introduction; there are many other important pieces of etiquette you will need to be aware of – ask the nearest elder. Also, we haven’t addressed the elephant in the room, but that’s because the elephant is usually left outside the room.
After you attend a traditional Hindu wedding, you might still prefer the “Hum Aapke Hai Kaun”-style wedding. It is just a matter of taste – there is no such thing as a right or wrong taste, just good or bad taste.
If you liked the wedding you saw, there’s good news – you don’t need to be Hindu for you to be permitted a Hindu wedding. You could probably have a Hindu wedding just because you love the ceremony (and because you love your would-be spouse) – lots of Indian people will be more than happy to not just attend, but also to help organize your wedding. Just make sure you tell the single guests at your wedding what it means when an elder tells them to, “See, see!”