- Along with the romantic side of weddings depicted in the movies, an Indian marriage could also combine traditional customs and rituals with Western practices like a ring bearer, flower girl, bridesmaids, and groomsmen.
Weddings are still the defining feature of India and the Indian diaspora. Whether it’s an arranged marriage or a union arranged by the couple themselves, Indian weddings are known for extended cultural celebrations spanning days, huge gatherings, feasts, and festivity — a perfect melange of tradition, culture and oomph. Some of these weddings are “filmi,” and are heavily influenced by Bollywood cinema which exemplifies romance, ending with a grand-style wedding.
However, even though Bollywood profoundly influences Indian weddings in terms of costumes, jewelry, intricate mehendi, sangeet (music night before the wedding), baraat (the procession of the bridegroom’s party to meet the bride and her family), and bidaai (sending off the bride with the groom), the focus is on the marriage aesthetics and Indian culture.
On the other hand, even as diaspora weddings incorporate elements of Western practices like a ring bearer, flower girl, bridesmaids, and groomsmen, they remain faithful to the core of Indian tradition.
The very essence of a Hindu wedding ceremony is the physical, spiritual, and emotional union of two people and the coming together of two families and extended kin groups through ritual and celebration.
I came to Santa Cruz, California, in 1989, leaving my family in Cuttack. I feel fortunate to have created an extended family in the diaspora and attended children’s weddings among friends in different parts of the country. These weddings are reminders of celebrations back home and meeting friends from far and wide. Both our sons have had Hindu weddings and enjoy weddings among friends.
This May, I went with my family to a friend’s daughter’s wedding in Chicago. The pediatrician Hindu bride married her sweetheart, a Jewish doctor. According to the bride’s mother, she “insisted on an Indian wedding.”
The main wedding festivities began in the morning. The groom rode a white horse led by a boisterous baraat dancing to Bollywood songs. Inside the wedding venue, the procession met the bride’s family. The Hindu ceremony lasted for about an hour. The priest, who was conducting his 2,000th wedding, handed brochures detailing the various rituals of the wedding. This is a standard feature of modern Hindu weddings.
A few hours later, a Jewish ceremony was held at the same venue, at 6:30 pm, just before the cocktail hour. The white decor contrasted the colors from the morning, and beautiful Hebrew music filled the hall. The rabbi read from the Torah and explained steps, which ended with breaking the glass. The main intention was to bring both the families and wish the couple a long-lasting happy married life by blending both the cultures.
Just a couple of weeks after this wedding, on June 6, we flew to Mallorca, Spain, to be part of a lavish Hindu and Buddhist wedding. The priest was a family friend and emphasized the equality of the groom and bride in interpreting the Hindu rituals like kanyadaan (gifting away the bride) and saat phera (seven steps). On each side, the mothers presided over the ceremony.
Weddings appeal to the young generation as well. Many third-generation adults have told me that they love dressing up in Indian costumes and are interested in having an Indian wedding.
So how are the distinct features of Indian weddings in the diaspora? What are the various aspects of Indian culture highlighted in these weddings? What has changed, and what is continuing? What is the impact of Bollywood? Several wedding planners and priests weigh in.
Thirty-year-old Kristen Miller, the founder of Cultural Event Rentals, a one-stop-shop service for Indian weddings specializing in various collections of furniture, backdrops, and specialty decor for ceremonies. Despite being a non-Indian, “Funny — sometimes, I know a little more than the person I’m talking to,” she says. In planning an Indian wedding, she works with the mothers who want that traditional ceremony and then a more Westernized reception. “I haven’t had many conversations with the bride and groom, but I have had mom and dad on many site visits. I find it is a group effort.”
Miller is fascinated by the variety of intricate Hindu ceremonies. She fell in love with Indian culture through the weddings, especially with the family’s involvement. “By the end of the weekend, you feel like part of the family,” she says. I’ve learned a lot about the Hindu culture. In Western ceremonies, it’s mostly cut and paste.” It’s precious to have the family tie as an essential connection in Indian culture, she says.
Another wedding planner, Minoti Mehta, launched Vermilion Weddings and Events in 2015, inspired by her father. According to her, Indian weddings require quite a production involving many different vendors. “We have a lot of complexities in our food, catering, and decor.” Even within the same region in India, individual families have distinct traditions.
Mehta has done numerous Telugu, Tamil, Gujarati, Maharashtrian, and Odia weddings. Every time she thinks she has it down, she proves herself wrong. For example, even after numerous Gujarati Patel weddings, she realizes that individual families keep shifting customs based on their family choices even within the same culture. It thus becomes essential for a wedding planner to understand the multifacetedness of Indian cultures. Add to that the family dynamics and customs; it’s never easy to produce a wedding.
Besides the plurality of religious practices, families from the specific areas practice different cultures even within the Hindu community. In the diaspora, people from diverse regions combine their traditions coming together through fusion weddings. Shrishti Viyulie, a New Jersey-based wedding planner, did a Telugu and Gujarati wedding and split the customs in half. “We took some ceremonies from the Gujarati culture and some from the Telugu culture and integrated it because both families were quite religious and strict with that.”
Viyulie and her partner Bhawana Rathore started the company Events by Srishti in 2017. For them, Indian culture is everything they have seen their parents do. “[We] try to incorporate all of that we have learned and stay in touch with our Indian roots,” they say, adding that they try to understand the reasons behind particular customs and rituals. “That way, even though we’re born and raised here, we have that connection to our roots.”
Impact of Bollywood
The couple’s vision of their wedding in the diaspora is inspired by Bollywood movies that showcase extravagant weddings. With social media sources, Bollywood is in every planner’s mind. The script for planning these weddings comes from Bollywood. Planners like Viyulie say Bollywood sets the trends for costume, jewelry, and decor. Viyulie and Rathore try to keep the Indian wedding more traditional in terms of values, and sangeets are a trend to incorporate dance and party.
Weddings held in India have more influence on Bollywood, they say, emphasizing that Bollywood doesn’t define Indian culture here in the diaspora. “The brides and grooms in the diaspora stay more connected to our culture.” According to Rathore and Viyulie, brides walk traditionally with their uncles, brothers, or sisters on a slow, mellow song, and brides still do not join the baraat. “You are trying to create a moment rather than make it different.” However, these days, the brides are fulfilling their wish to join the dancing baarat. In Chicago, an Odia bride joined the baarat, but inside the wedding venue.
Mehta says 1990s Bollywood plays a significant role in Indian weddings; particularly the sequence of sangeet, baraat, and bidaai. While baarat is not a prominent South Indian tradition, all of Mehta’s South Indian grooms want it as part of their marriage.
Perfect Blend of Two Cultures
Miller sees a lot of fusion weddings. In December 2021, she planned such a wedding indoors with an Indian groom and a Vietnamese bride. She had to be there at 4 am. They did the Hindu ceremony in this fusion, kept the mandap decor, and added a few things that immediately followed the Christian wedding.
The wedding we attended in Mallorca was a perfect blend of two cultures. The groom’s parents migrated from Odisha, and incorporated their customs. Both the bride and the groom wore a special mukut (crown). They were specially brought from Odisha. Similarly, the Odia custom of sala bidha (bride’s brother playfully hitting the groom) was also incorporated. The ritual was performed by the Vietnamese bride’s sister.
Rathore says the Hindu ceremony usually takes a little longer than other religious ceremonies, which may be quick. As soon as the Hindu ceremony finishes, the couple takes microphones, exchanges the vows, and puts the rings on. “If it’s just something as small as exchanging vows, they’ll do it at any given point because it becomes more cultural than religious.” If both the parties are religious, the Christian ceremony takes place at a church the day before the Hindu ceremony and the reception in the evening. For Rathore, this year, it’s a little crazy with the Hindu ceremony in the morning, followed by a Christian or a Jewish ceremony or a Buddhist ceremony, and then the reception — all in one day.
Per Viyulie and Rathore, in 2021, 70 percent of the weddings were Hindu, with many fusion weddings combining Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim ceremonies. They recall a marriage they planned for a Sri Lankan bride and a Guyanese groom. According to Viyulie, Hindu weddings have adopted American culture in myriad ways — weddings take place during weekends instead of a more extended celebration. Bridesmaids as a common tradition is an excellent way to subtly tie American heritage with Indian culture. Both Rathore and Viyulie emphasize that wedding rituals are more a family tradition and culture than a specific religious event. Indian weddings are identity markers of Indianness.
Equality as the Hallmark of Weddings
Equality has become the focus of marriages in the diaspora. It is expressed through the equal sharing of the cost, adjusting the script’s language in the ritual, and deciding the number of guests invited by the parties concerned.
For Viyulie and Rathore, modern weddings emphasize equality between partners. In a Muslim nikah, the bride and groom are usually sitting side-by-side. A niqab, the partition cloth between the bride and groom, has become a decor or an aesthetic piece. In a Hindu kanyadaan, brides and grooms say the seven vows as “we” instead of the groom saying “I.” The priests are also adjusting their scripts to accommodate the changes which have taken place in the diaspora.
In modern Indian weddings, male superiority or dominance may not be the concern. The planners realize that the bride is treated, in fact, more lovingly than the groom. Viyulie always jokes with her grooms. “From the moment you get married, you are always coming in second,” she says. “And even throughout the planning process, the grooms never give input or anything because they just agree with what the bride says.”
Earlier studies of the weddings in the Indian diaspora in Fiji, Trinidad, Guyanas, and other places showed the adjustment to the demands of caste and religion. Similarly, the modern weddings in the North American diaspora are also adjusting in the face of new realities presented by inter-ethnic, inter-religious, and inter-regional unions.
Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, the U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received a Fulbright scholarship for fieldwork in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.