Earlier this year, I wrote about my experience staying at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay in the months following the November 2008 terrorist attacks. The purpose of my journey to India was to attend the wedding of a close friend from graduate school who lives in Bombay. While I initially wavered on the decision to travel 7,000 miles to India, I ultimately decided that I wanted to join a great friend for such an auspicious occasion.
In any case, I had been itching to get back to India and to explore the country in greater depth. My one previous graduate school trip in 2003, while enjoyable, was characterized by group tours, peering out the windows of a bus, and mixing with my classmates. Under my “Golden Rule of Travel,” or “GRT,” you haven’t seen a city or country until you’ve walked the streets, talked to the people, and gotten the local dirt under your fingernails. I figured that I could use this trip to see India under the terms of the GRT.
Upon arriving in India, I realized that the wedding would be a one of a kind event. The groom, my friend Shashank, is a terrific guy and an impeccable host. In fact, the last time I had visited India, it was Shashank who took me all over Delhi to buy clothing and supplies after Indian Airways lost my luggage for a week.
Shashank’s father is governor of the state of Rajasthan and the event was to be held in Rajasthan’s pink-painted capital of Jaipur, or the “Pink City.” The wedding was the talk of the town, with each day’s events covered breathlessly in the local newspaper. Since a prominent and very popular Indian politician, Rahul Gandhi, was attending the wedding, the newspapers had spies who made sure to describe his every move. For example, when describing the food Mr. Gandhi had enjoyed at one of the events, the Times of India wrote: “the Caesar salad and cheese fondue with side servings of kirsch, raw garlic, pickled gherkins, onions and olives were simply out of the world.” Since I didn’t even get to try the pickled gherkins (I don’t think I know that they look like), I kicked myself upon reading that passage.
The tricky thing about an Indian wedding is that it is an exhausting multi-day affair that requires lots of costume changes by the bride, the groom, and the guests. The first night was a festive dinner at a palace. The second day consisted of a garden party at noon followed in the evening by a dance performance and a celebration called a Sangeet that ended at around 4 am. Day three consisted of another lunch and then the evening wedding ceremony and reception.
Given all of the costume changes, I decided to adhere to another element of the GRT by opting for local attire for at least one of the events. With the help of a friend who lives in Bombay, I purchased a wedding outfit called a sherwani, which is basically a long coat-like garment that is worn over pants that are loose above the knee and tight on the calves.
I was glad that I made the purchase because I needed something to complement the turban I would be asked to wear during the ceremony. When we arrived to the Governor’s Palace at about 6 pm, the friends of the groom were asked to join his family in a large salon where the men were fitted with multi-colored turbans. After an hour or so, the groom’s entourage, now numbering around 100 people, was greeted by a large brass band and a series of horses. The groom and his brother each mounted white horses and then rode about 20 meters to a waiting elephant. They then mounted the elephant and proceeded to join the entourage on a parade around the estate grounds. As friends of the groom, we were expected to dance in front of the elephant along the entire route.
The celebration and the parade began to pick up in terms of intensity. Imagine 100 revelers, a band of 30 musicians, a few horses, an honor guard, and an elephant, all marching around a pink palace. Then add periodic fireworks that served to frighten the large flocks of bats that live in the trees on the palace grounds. After about an hour of parading, including a brief delay when the elephant was too tall to pass through a gate, we arrived to the garden to deliver the groom to his wife for the Hindu ceremony.
While weddings are joyous occasions wherever they are celebrated, the Indians have their own take on the experience. Clearly, my friend Shashank’s wedding was a unique event that would be rather atypical compared to the weddings of many of his countrymen. I did learn, however, that even in the smallest Indian villages, weddings can go on for days. There may not be a pink palace and an elephant, but the intensity of the celebration remains constant, whether you are in Rajasthan, Delhi, Bombay, or a rural village. Now that I’ve got a sherwani and little experience, I’m hooked. Don’t be too surprised if you hear about a guy from Maine replicating The Wedding Crashers all over India.