When I questioned my niece’s decision to be married in India I was promptly informed “They really pamper brides there.”
She would know, as she’s attended several weddings in India. She’s the offspring of an American mother, my sister, and an Indian father, a couple who’ve successfully overcome the odds by staying happily married 45 years in spite of vast cultural and religious differences. Who was I to question her? Her fiancée, also American born, didn’t object, and his Indian-born immigrant parents were pleased. So was my brother-in-law.
Besides, it provided us an unforeseen trip to a country we’d never visited. We applied for visas, reluctantly underwent the required inoculations, and departed from KCI in early March.
We were prepared for some things that greeted us, like animals roaming the streets at will. We knew too, that India was a poor country, although it surprised me that poverty was so widespread. Some lived in makeshift tents or grass huts. Some slept in train stations, or rolled up in a blanket on carts they pushed during the day. The scenario reminded me of the homeless I’d seen in Washington, D.C., only on a larger scale.
Our son, who’d made the trip with his cousins at age 14, forewarned us about traffic, the largest vehicle has the right-of-way. When they honk their horns, you’d better get out of their way. NOW! There’s a constant symphony of horns. Many roads weren’t built to accommodate anything bigger than the rickshaws, bicycles and pedestrians that still prevail. I quickly became adept at mentally shutting it out, except for our venture into the Himalayan foothills via private bus. We visited Nana Devi, a Hindu Temple that sat on the very top of a peak. Getting there was the most harrowing experience of our entire trip, maybe my entire life. Our Sikh driver honked each time he rounded a hairpin curve as though he were still in the narrow streets of Patiala, Punjab. I hesitate to think what he would’ve done had we met another vehicle head-on. Looking out the window told us there were no barriers to break the fall if we went off the side of the road; no fences, no trees. Other than the scary experience up and down the mountain, it was an interesting day-trip.
India didn’t seem to have much of a middle class, unless they’d be the domestics who came daily to do our laundry, clean the house, and also the cook, who was hired for the duration of our stay. Spirited away from their country club, he kept the food comparatively mild for our benefit. He was only paid 250 Rupees daily to prepare meals for a family of five, with fifteen additional houseguests. At 45 to 1, that equaled a little over $5.50 per day, American. He certainly couldn’t be considered wealthy, even by Indian standards. The cook tried to convince my brother to sponsor him so he and his family could immigrate to America. Mike would have helped, but since the man wasn’t a trained professional, and with no job prospects, he knew visas were highly unlikely. We teased Mike, told him at those wages he should hire the man to cook for him.
Mike answered, “Sure. That’s work all right, until he learned he could earn more flipping burgers at the corner McDonald’s.”
Wedding preparations occupied my sister and nieces, so my nephew and his wife accompanied my brother, my husband and I on an 8-hour overnight train ride to the city of Agra to visit the amazing Taj Mahal. At the risk of sounding like a Travelocity gnome, I would highly recommend it to anyone. Built in the 1600s, the workmanship is unbelievable. But beware of predators, those aggressive street vendors who lie in wait for unsuspecting tourists and converge on us as we enter and leave any historic sites. Those guys make their counterparts in Tijuana seem mild by comparison. They’re impossible to avoid.
Unbeknownst to us, we arrived in Agra during the traditional holiday of “Holi,” loosely translated as Colors Festival, celebrating good over evil. Shops sell bags of brightly colored powder well in advance so everyone is geared up for the event. The object is to honor anyone you encounter by tossing “colors” on them. When mixed with water, it takes longer to wear off the skin and it permanently stains clothing. Since we weren’t prepared for the holiday with clothing we could discard, we watched the festivities from the window of our hotel until the celebration ended. The thought of luminous green or red faces in upcoming wedding photos acted as a good deterrent too. An American photojournalist we met came into the hotel lobby completely covered with the prettiest shade of hot pink. Hopefully he got some worthwhile shots for his assignment, but his camera bag had to be trashed.
Gina was right. Brides are pampered in India. Tailors came to the house for fittings. Others came to provide facials, massages, hair styling and makeup, including Mehendi, for all women in the bride’s family. Mehendi, applied by an artist, is a beautiful design drawn on the hands and feet. It’s black going on the skin, but becomes a reddish-yellow after it dries. It isn’t permanent like a tattoo, but takes weeks to wear off.
The wedding evening finally arrived. Red is the color of choice for Indian brides, as it’s considered good luck. It’s believed to bring the couple happiness. And instead of her father walking her down the aisle, the bride is escorted by her brothers.
The groom arrived in traditional style, on a brightly lit horse-drawn carriage, accompanied by a procession including his family, a marching band and uniformed guards, preceded by fireworks and female dancers. The time-honored objective of the dancers is to distract the groom so he forgets about getting married, all in good fun of course.
A ribbon was stretched across the entry to the wedding location, where the bride’s sisters awaited with hands outstretched. After the prospective groom bribed them with money, they cheerfully cut the ribbon, thus allowing him to enter. Once the groom gained admittance, the bridal couple sat on throne-like chairs on a raised dais while everyone gathered around them for a seemingly endless photo session. Everyone wants their picture taken with the bridal couple.
Turbaned waiters wandered among the crowd, serving trays of hors d’ oeuvres and non-alcoholic drinks. When the picture taking was over we ate a lavish, vegetarian meal, after which most of the guests left. Then it was time for the lengthy marriage ceremony. It went on, and on, and on. No wonder most people left before it began.
The next morning both extended families boarded a train for a 16-hour ride to yet another reception, hosted by the groom’s family.
Varanasi is the oldest city in India and is bordered on the east by the famous Ganges River. It was suggested we get up before daybreak to watch the sunrise from a boat in the Ganges. It turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip, well worth the inconvenience and lack of sleep.
Our hotel in Varanasi was different, to say the least. The rooms were clean, some with western style bathrooms like we’re used to, others with eastern, consisting of an opening in the floor where you squat. Neither came equipped with toilet paper, only a bucket of water and pitcher with which to rinse yourself. We were prepared for that eventuality and carried our own Charmin. We were not prepared for the single large towel they provided for two people. There was no convincing them we’d each like our own, so we made do.
The Varanasi reception was similar to the one in Punjab. The only thing missing was the lengthy wedding ceremony. Again, the bride wore red and the bridal couple sat on throne-like chairs on a platform where seemingly endless pictures were taken. Then the meal was served. A band and several dancers provided entertainment, all Indian music, until time to eat, when the band switched to songs by the Eagles, apparently to please the American guests. It worked. My husband was so excited he began to dance and was an instant hit.
We weren’t emotionally ready to leave the following day as we boarded the train for Delhi.
I still have difficulty understanding why my niece forwent the traditional American wedding most every girl dreams of, like her sister before her, but it was her choice to make. And who am I to criticize? I’m grateful. If she’d chosen differently I would’ve missed this opportunity of a lifetime.
Is their union legal here in the States? Who knows? They’re both lawyers. Let them figure it out.
Joann Williams lives in Princeton, Kansas.
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