What happens at an Indian wedding?

Wedding Ceremony in India

A traditional Indian wedding lasts an average of three days. On the first night, a priest will often perform the ganesh pooja, a ceremony that usually happens at home with only the couple, the bridal party and close relatives in attendance.

The second day begins with a mehndi ceremony. For this, the bride and her female friends and family members will have intricate henna patterns drawn on their hands and feet. That evening, the sangeet takes place. Every wedding guest is usually invited, and it involves an introduction of the couple’s families, mingling, a meal and dances or other performances.

On the third day, the main ceremony, cocktail hour and reception take place. You may be invited to the last day of the events, or to any part of the three-day celebration. Your invitation should clearly state what you’re being asked to attend.

Universally, a wedding is about three C’s—ceremony, commitment, and celebration—but so much of the experience depends on who and where you are. Take a walk down someone else’s aisle for a change—with our Weddings Around the World series that explores marital traditions all across the map. This stop: India. “Oh, we’ve only talked once? Great! You’re invited to my wedding,” jokes Sonal Shah, a wedding planner for the South Asian community. “That’s just how it is. We invite everyone. That’s why these weddings turn out so huge!”

Those of you who come from non-South Asian backgrounds, and haven’t had the pleasure of a conversation with Shah, may be wondering what to expect at an Indian wedding as more of you are receiving invitations.

“The Indian diaspora is huge,” says Kiku Chaudhuri, a lovely bride who agreed to share her breathtaking photos with us. “As South Asian immigrants become part of different countries, we’ve, of course, become friends and family with a lot of non-Indian people,” she says. “They then become guests at our weddings.” And even if you’ve attended a ceremony in the past, consider that with upwards of 30 distinct cultures within the continent, no two Indian weddings will be exactly the same. “People think, ‘Indian weddings are Indian weddings,’ but that’s not true,” says Shah. “It’s important to know the type of Indian family—North Indian? South Indian? Punjabi?—and recognize it’s still a matter of how cultural nuances are addressed individually.”

For a Sikh wedding: The ceremony will take place in a Sikh temple where the bride and groom will be seated in front of the prayer hall before the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book). When everyone is seated, the priest will begin by reciting the official wedding ceremony hymns as laid out in the holy scripture, while the bride and groom walk four rounds around the area where the Sri Guru Granth Sahib is placed. Usually, the entire ceremony will be completed before noon. Once the ceremony is over, while it’s a happy occasion, note that clapping is not permitted in the prayer hall.

Additionally, these ceremonies do tend to be about three hours or longer. For my Sikh wedding, despite careful planning and taking delays into consideration, we still ran over by about an hour. All of which meant our guests had to stay longer. So as a guest, be sure to keep your day relatively free if you want to experience the full ceremony.

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What can I expect to see at an Indian wedding ceremony?

One of the first things that might surprise Western guests is the baraat or groom’s procession. For this, the groom arrives at the ceremony on a decorated white horse. Guests dance around him to the beat of a dhol, an Indian drum. After that, the bride and her family greet the groom, and the couple exchanges floral garlands to wear around their necks to symbolize their acceptance of each other.

For the ceremony, the priest, groom, bride and bride’s parents sit beneath a mandap, a canopy similar to a Jewish chuppah. The ceremony starts off with the kanya daan, in which the bride’s parents give her away. Then the couple joins hands and circles around a small, enclosed fire (the agni) in a ritual called the mangal phera.

Then the couple will take the saptapadi, or seven steps, as they vow to support each other and live happily together. Finally, the groom will apply a red powder to the centre of the bride’s forehead and tie a black beaded necklace around her neck, symbolizing she’s now a married woman.

What to wear in Indian Wedding

How long is an Indian wedding?

Indian weddings often last for at least three days. The first day usually involves a Ganesha Pooja, which is a Hindu festival that reveres god Ganesha. It typically takes place at home with close family and friends. The second day is reserved for the mehndi ceremony or sangeet, where the bride and her guests adorn their hands and feet with intricate henna patterns followed by dance performances and dinner. The third day consists of the wedding ceremony in the morning followed by the reception party in the evening. 

Typically, traditional Indian weddings that closely follow the various ceremonies involved could go up to three to four days. Increasingly, however, couples are shortening the affair and keeping it within two or three days. For instance, my husband and I went for a three-day occasion, which included a traditional mehendi ceremony, the religious wedding ceremony at a temple and a dinner reception at a hotel. We could have squeezed everything into two days, but we wanted time to breathe in between the ceremonies, so we opted to separate the temple wedding and dinner reception into two days, while the mehendi ceremony happened on an earlier day.

Ceremony Venue

Oftentimes, Indian weddings are held at hotel banquet halls or Hindu temples. There will be a decorated, four-pillared, gazebo-like structure called the mandap where the ceremony will take place. Chairs will be set up in front of the mandap for you to view the ceremony, with the first few rows usually reserved for family and the wedding party.

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The Holy Fire Ritual

The priest lights a holy fire called the agni. The couple typically steps around the fire seven times, symbolizing seven sacred vows given to each other. The ceremony can last anywhere from one to four hours, so make sure you’re hydrated and fueled up before finding your seat.

More Than a Ring

Instead of just the typical ring to signify the newly betrothed couple, the bride usually gets a line of red powder applied on the part of her hair, along with a black and gold necklace called the mangal sutra. These two items symbolize a couple’s devotion to one another.

Colourful Indian Garb

You’ll notice that fashions at an Indian wedding are anything but subdued, so the brighter, the better. Most female guests attend weddings wearing colorful saris, lehengas and Indian suits accessorized with glittering jewelry. If you don’t own Indian clothing, feel free to wear a vibrant dress or shawl. Avoid wearing black or white, since these colours often have negative connotations in Indian culture, and red, since that’s the colour the bride typically wears. 

Eats Galore

Prepare to loosen your drawstring when attending an Indian wedding. With a plethora of cocktail hours, appetizer stations, dinner buffets and dessert set-ups over the multiple-day event, you may want to pace yourself. We recommend you sample a bit of everything.

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Tons of People

There will be hundreds and hundreds of people at an Indian wedding, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The groom will possibly be riding an elephant or horse when making his entrance at the ceremony. Just sit back, relax and have tons of fun surrounded by oodles of energetic guests.

Gifts

Oftentimes, couples will request no boxed gifts. Cash or gift certificates are therefore appreciated. Add a $1 to the amount since odd numbers ending in one are auspicious in Indian culture. 

The Party

After the ceremony, the couple’s families will throw a lavish reception party to finally let loose. Part of the celebration involves a reception program, which includes speeches and loved ones singing, dancing and performing skits for the couple. Following the program, a huge buffet dinner and a dance party will take place. Bring your most fashionable, though comfortable, dancing shoes—you’ll need them!

What should I wear to an Indian wedding?

“I’d tell readers to rent some fun Indian wedding attire if they don’t necessarily want to buy these really heavy Indian outfits they may not wear again,” says Shah. “Typically, the only colour that Indian culture doesn’t wear is white or black, so just have them focus on being very colourful.” Men should wear long sleeves and long pants. Both men and women need to bring something to cover their heads during the ceremony.

Brighter is better. Don’t be afraid to wear a bold colour—that will help you fit in with the Indian guests who’ll be dressed in vibrant colours and eye-catching jewellery. If you don’t have a traditional sari or lengha, don’t worry—a jewel-tone dress with a shawl is appropriate too.

As a general rule of thumb, the brighter, the better. If you can, shop around for some traditional outfits and show them off at various ceremonies. For the ladies, go with a sharara, lehenga or a sari, and you would fit right in. For the men, simply opt for a kurta pyjama. For women who prefer to go with a sari, bear in mind that it might be difficult to wrap it and handle it throughout the day, especially if it’s your first time wearing one!

While shopping for outfits though, be sure to avoid the colour white―this colour is often reserved for funerals. However, if you know the families well and they’re not as traditional, then go ahead and don beautiful cream, beige or off-white outfits.

Finally, when it comes to attending religious ceremonies, it is important to ensure that your legs and shoulders are covered, and you have a scarf to wear over your head, especially for Sikh weddings. From experience, most non-Indian guests do not know this and would unknowingly turn up in short dresses, shorts or camisole tops, which would not be permitted in the temple halls.

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What will the reception be like?

It’s a fun party! If you don’t know bhangra, a Punjab folk dance, expect to pick up the moves fairly easily. But don’t worry if you’re not comfortable learning new dances—you’ll most likely hear contemporary Western music at the reception too.

What type of food will be served?

Depending on whether you’re going for a North Indian or South Indian wedding, the food served would be quite different. However, you can rest assured that food will not be as spicy as you imagine Indian food to be. Simply expect to feast on a huge variety of dishes ranging from vegetarian to non-vegetarian, arranged in a splendid buffet style.

Also, when someone offers you food, never say no or turn it down. This is often considered rude. Instead, accept it graciously and have a taste of the glorious selection.

Do not be surprised if you don’t find any alcohol at the wedding―especially at the religious wedding ceremony. You’re likely to find alcohol served only during the reception dinner event or the sangeet party. However, some families may opt to keep the entire wedding alcohol-free.

Should I bring a gift?

Couples usually request that there be no boxed gifts at the wedding, so guests usually have gifts shipped to the couple’s home or bring an envelope with money.

“No box gifts” instructions are commonly found at the bottom of Indian wedding invitations, explains Shah. Though it may seem out of line with other concerns of propriety in an Indian wedding, the gift of choice, if a couple does want one, is usually money. But always make sure the amount ends in a one, advises Shah. “In our culture, the best of things end in one,” she expands. “So you’d never gift $100. You’d do $101.”

Unless otherwise specified by the couple, boxed gifts are not a custom at an Indian wedding. If you do prefer getting a gift, it’s better to send it across beforehand to the groom’s or bride’s home as there wouldn’t be any designated spot to place it while at the wedding. Alternatively, a red packet or monetary gift would suffice. While there isn’t really a “market rate” on what’s a good amount to give, you can gauge based on how much you would spend on a gift if you had bought one. Lastly, it’s considered auspicious to have the denomination end in 1, such as $21, $51, $101 etc.

At the end of the day, know that Indian weddings are a wonderfully colourful affair, filled with pomp, lots of dancing and an irresistible array of food at every event. So put on your most colourful outfits, your dancing shoes and come with an empty stomach and get ready to spend your week enjoying the celebrations!

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