New Cultural Experience – Indian/Sikh Wedding
Ernie and I flew to Oakland California last Friday. On Saturday we attended an Indian/Sikh wedding. When we received the elegant invitation in the mail a few months ago I told him, “Hon, I’ve never been to anything like this before.”
Ernie, who grew up in India and came to America at the age of 18 many years ago replied, “I’ve never been to anything like this either.”
Our connection to the couple is Ernie’s good friend, Ravi. They were co-workers together many years ago during his days working in the aerospace industry. The couple, both born and raised in the US chose this traditional Indian/Sikh way of getting married. The bride is an attorney. The groom is a pharmeceutical sales rep.
There were Sanskrit words on the ornate red and gold invitation, so I went about looking them up on Google so I’d understand what they were about. Quickly I discovered Indian weddings are a big deal. This one was a two-day affair filled with cultural depth and rituals passed down for centuries.
I have to say this straight up – when I met Ernie, I’d never even experienced Indian food let alone Indian culture or Indian people. All I “knew” was that Indian women were supposedly considered second class citizens and had to walk two steps behind their husbands. Back when we started dating I was terrified that within a few months he’d have me chained to a stove stirring curry. It never happened. We’ve been together 15 years now and he’s the most supportive, kind, thoughful, funny, caring man I’ve ever known.
The evening before the wedding there was a party put on by the bride’s family. Actually the siblings of the bride host the party – but the parents probably paid for it. It’s an Indian traditon. It was held at a Marriott hotel with a open bar featuring Margaritas, a Fajita buffet and a DJ playing Punjabi hip hop faves. Okay, some American hits by Usher and Katy Perry slipped in but it felt Indian.
One of the unique Indian fashion traditions is the bride usually has intricate henna (an herbal dye) tatoos traced on her hands and arms called “Mehndi.” They’re considered a beautiful adornment for the bride. At the party Friday evening a Mehndi tatoo artist was doing designs on any of the women who wanted them done on their hands and arms.
I have a detailed design on my left hand that looks like a heart with leaves trailing up my arm. It has a red/brown cast to it, and, I’m told it will last about 10-14 days. I’m surprised a few people have noticed it since the wedding and pointed it out saying, “Oh, you have a Mehndi.”
Of course the bride had her Mehndi designs done the day before the party and the photographer got pictures of the beautiful designs on her hands and arms a part of the memories of her wedding.
Towards the end of the party there was a ritual where different family members put bangles and charms on the brides arms as a symbol of happiness, prosperity and long life. The tradition is that the bride is supposed to wear the bangles for the first 40 days after her marriage.
On her wedding day, I asked the bride if she wore her bangles and charms to sleep the night before. She told me she kept the bangles on her arms but removed the charms so they wouldn’t wake her so she could get some sleep the night before her wedding.
The bangles were red, white and gold similar to the ones you see in this picture - which are the customary bridal colors of India.
The day of the wedding Ernie and I arrived at the Sikh temple called a “gurdwara” at about 8:00 am in the morning. After a lot of standing around wondering what to do the groom rode in on an ornately decorated horse surrounded by family members who are all dancing, whooping and hollering with joy for the soon-to-be husband and wife.
The bride chose pink as her color and the groom chose purple so there were lots of brilliantly hued pink and purple saris and other Indian apparel. Because both men and women have to cover their heads in a Sikh temple there were also a lot of men wearing pink or purple handerkerchiefs tied on their head to honor the bride and groom.
A light breakfast was served with Samosas, Pakoras and Indian sweets. Indian chai tea was offered along with orange juice. All the food was vegetarian. Volunteers at the temple traditionally cook and serve the food at this meal.
Then people started filing into the actual hall in the temple you see in the picture. Men sit on the left side of the gleaming marble aisle, and, women sit on the right side. It’s a very meditative space and you remove your shoes and sit on the heavily padded and carpeted floor.
In researching a little something about Sikhs, I discovered they broke off from the Hindu faith about 500 years ago. They are not Muslim. They are very peaceful people and most of the 700,000 Sikhs in America are in business, medicine and academia.
The most devout of Sikh men never cut their hair and wear it bound in tight, meticulously wrapped turbans. They are not Muslims – the only similarity with that faith is the turban. Another thing I learned about Sikhs is they believe in complete equality between men and women, husbands and wives. All the unfair treatment of women in the Middle East is not a part of the Sikh faith.
Finally the ceremony was about to start at 10:00 am and the groom came in. He was wearing the most incredible beaded and embroidered jacket that came down almost to his knees. He wore dark red pants beneath the jacket, bare feet, a red ascot and a red turban. The groom in this wedding is usually clean shaven guy with a conservative Western haircut. It’s common for Sikh grooms in America who cut their hair in a standard American way to grow a beard for about a month before his wedding day out of respect for the Sikh tradition among men.
At last the bride appeared from the back of the temple. She was slowly walked up the aisle by two friends – sort of handmaidens. They brought her up the aisle in her gorgeous red wedding dress resplendent with heavy gold embroidery and beading. Her mother and soon-to-be mother-in-law were also a part of the procession walking up the aisle with her to her waiting groom.
Both Hindi and Sikh weddings, very similar, are wordless affairs. No vows are spoken. There is much well wishing by family members as the wedding takes place but no “I do’s” are said.
The groom walks around the altar in the temple and the bride follows him around. They are connected by a sash or a ribbon of red fabric. Each time around the altar represents something – though I never found out exactly what. It’s all done very prayerfully and mindfully. If she follows him around all four laps they are finally husband and wife. Ernie told me that in a Hindu wedding there are seven laps around the altar so the wedding ceremony takes even longer
Once this ritual is completed there is handshaking all around and the ceremony is almost complete. Then, all the wedding guests get in line to give their good wishes to the new bride and groom. They also make a contribution to the gurdwara – I would imagine the money helps to pay for the food. Most people seemed to give about ten dollars each, so that’s what Ernie and I contributed to the kitty.
I’d say there were about 125-150 people at the temple so the line was a slow one. When we got to the front of the line there was a photo op to get your picture taken with them.
Now I said the wedding ceremony is a wordless one – but it’s not a silent one. These three bearded dudes played drums and sang traditional Punjabi wedding music – much like chanting throughout the entire wedding ceremony.
After the ceremony was over we left the main hall of the gurdwara. I removed the scarf from my head and put my stilettos back on. Felt like me again. Once again, volunteers prepared Indian food in a buffet for lunch. This time the food was served by some of the family members. The lunch was a little more hearty compared to breakfast. As much as I told myself “don’t eat any more” – it was just all so good. And there was more to come at the reception.
For a few hours Ernie and I went back to our hotel room before the reception which took place at a lovely venue for weddings and other big events owned by a winery. As we arrived appetizers were served and there was an open bar and lots of milling around. Lots of dancing, too. The music was booming. Ernie and I cut a rug and had a lot of fun, even if we didn’t understand the words to the music.
When the bride and groom made their entrance into the wedding reception room they looked very different. She was wearing a white dress, though Indian in style with a lot of gold embellishment. He was clean shaven and wearing a very modern suit. They both were beaming.
Dinner is served later in India. Same as in Europe. Ever been to Paris and the restaurants don’t even open up for dinner until 8:00 pm? At about 9:15 pm, six huge doors into a buffet area were opened and dinner was served. If this was a food blog I’d go into detail about the food. Suffice it to say everything was the most delicious Indian food I’ve ever had the opportunity to enjoy.
Unlike at the temple – it wasn’t vegetarian. Fish and two kinds of shrimp were served during the cocktail and appetizer hour. During dinner chicken and lamb curries were served. No beef or pork, of course.
Everyone we talked with and hung out with was lovely, gracious and full of fun. Old guys with salt and pepper beards were on the dance floor celebrating. Young women in saris and Indian dresses with the latest platform heels were getting their groove on to the music. It was a once in a lifetime experience I’ll remember with fondness the rest of my life.