I’m camera ready, taking 13 frames by the second (thanks to Sony’s sport mode) as I manage to push my lens between the sea of arms and iPhones. It’s somewhere between 10 and 11pm on a Wednesday night in Kolkata, India, and we are completely in awe by every color and fragrance dancing about us as we soak in our reality.
We are celebrating a two-day Indian wedding between an old friend and his beautiful bride. This is our story.
Is there a quote about when your friends invite you to weddings across the world, buy a plane ticket and just go? No? Well, even so, that’s exactly what we did.
We arrive in Kolkata one full day before the wedding festivities begin. We left behind snowy France to find hot and sunny India and you won’t believe how many goosebumps we had walking in the streets in sandals and a t-shirt. Never having been to an Indian wedding before, it was a little hard to know what to wear. Western evening dress/suit for day 1 and one Indian-style outfit for day 2, or was it the other way around? No one really knew.
The Night Before: Shopping for Indian Wedding Outfits at the Local Market
The night before the wedding Paul and I, as a last resort, walk back through the local bazaar market in Gariahat (for like the 10th time). After visiting upscale wedding stores that blew our budget out of the water, we take to the tiny stalls hidden underneath the bazaar’s makeshift roofing.
Colorful saris, scarfs, and kurti’s line the sidewalk, with shiny jewels, beads, and rings cluttering the tables. Shopkeepers and passers-by go about their daily business as we squeeze through the crowd. “Hello, ma’am, sir,” “Hello, henna?,” and “Here good price for you” ring in our ears with each step. This is India, after all, where haggling and negotiating prices is a part of life.
Paul and I, both exhausted and sweaty, enter into a small shop to find him a dress/tunic. The elderly man, in broken English, points out colors and gives us a head nod every now and then. We are thrown a dozen of long, knee-length dress shirts ranging from every shade of color. We are hesitating between the burnt orange and the deep sea blue when a bald, white man dressed in a full-white tunic from head to toe enters the shop and plops down on a stool.
His entrance demands our immediate attention, which we give to him gladly. His character lights up the room as he clearly speaks with confidence and ease, to both us and to the shopkeepers. He knows exactly what he wants and what price to pay and how to ask for it kindly without leaving any room for interpretation or vagueness.
Meanwhile, Paul and I are over here with a lost look on our face, not sure how to proceed and silently wondering if the elderly merchant is being honest with the price he gave us or if he is trying to rip us off (because in India, it’s hard to ever really know since almost everyone tells you the same story, or at least a similar one!).
This mysterious white man clad in white, who we knew absolutely nothing about, turns our sour, sweaty moods around 180°. He teaches us to just embrace it (it being India in hindsight), without every uttering those words. Walking out of the shop, Paul and I both say “That guy, whoever he is, just made my night.”
We step back out into the chaotic streets of Kolkata. Horns blare from all directions. We wave a tuk-tuk down, negotiate the price, and hop in. We laugh the whole way, because we almost get rammed by cars, motorbikes and swerving tuk-tuks at every turn. Traffic in India, much like it was in Kathmandu, seems like organized chaos. We don’t know how it works, but it does.
Our driver suddenly parks on the side of the road says “Wait, wait here.” We watch him cross the busy street, squat down on two feet, piss, and rinse his hands with his water bottle. Incredible India, as they say.
Orange & Yellow: Day 1 of the Wedding Festivities
Morning: Tel Baan
Saurav and Priya, and their families, have already been celebrating for a couple days now. But this is the main two days of celebration where extended family (cousins once-removed of someone’s sister’s uncle) and friends join in on the fun. This is where we, along with a few of our other old friends from UNC Greensboro come in.
Paul and I take a yellow taxi to the Hyatt Regency Kolkata (yes, this wedding was in a 5* hotel). Probably underdressed and unprepared, we immediately are welcomed by an entourage of staff for check-in. We rush to grab a bite of breakfast when we start to realize “Holy cow, we’re here at this gorgeous hotel about to see our friends…at a wedding…in India!”
After breakfast, we walk into the first “event” of the morning. There’s Saurav, sitting on the floor. Around him are ladies dressed from head to toe in orange and yellow sari’s and jewelry.
Saurav is getting blessed by his family and friends, who dip two grass-like brushes into a mixture of herbs and spices before dabbing them on Saurav’s two feet, knees, shoulders, and head. Seven times over! This is a pre-wedding tradition known as “Tel Baan.” Saurav said it was basically like getting a bath, with ingredients that are believed to be good for the skin.
Tel Baan, as Saurav explains, is changing from its old tradition where the women of the families would gather and do Tel Baan for the bride and groom together before the wedding (nowadays, it is more common in “short form,” like here).
I am shimmied forward, ushered to take off my shoes and am given the brushes. I kneel and say, “Hi, Saurav!”
When we first met at UNCG six years ago, I never would have imagined meeting again (for the second time) at his wedding in Kolkata, India. Oh, life’s surprises.
His immediate family circles around to pour a creamy, milky lotion over his head to end the ceremony. His dad surprises us all by purposely tipping the jug over a little too much, spilling it all over Saurav’s face. Everyone is laughing and all the cameras are clicking at rapid speed to capture the moment, including me.
It’s time for lunch! We run upstairs to our room to change but can’t help diving on the fluffy white sheets on the king-sized bed. It’s a real treat to be here, but one quick look out our 5-star hotel window tells another story; perhaps the real story of India.
Down below is a construction site, where workers are bare-foot in the dirt and are baring the blunt of the afternoon heat. A thick cloud of haze spreads across the horizon. Even the weather app on my phone’s home screen displays “Smoke” as the forecast for the day.
Down in the courtyard, next to the curvy, figure-8 pool, Carnival is going on. We scurry down to join in on the food and festivities. There’s buffet food in three different locations, with each featuring 2-3 different types of Indian food from various states and regions. We attack the Bengali section, since we are in the capital of the West Bengal state in India and want to try the local cuisine.
Music is blasting (in good ‘ole Indian wedding fashion), kids are playing cute Carnival games with staff dressed in Western cowboy hats, and Paul and I are circling around trying to take it all in. We are still finding it hard to believe we are here, at a luxury hotel in Kolkata, India, at our long-lost friend’s wedding. But little do we know that the best is yet to come.
Evening: Sangeet (Evening Party)
Saurav has the Diplomatic Suite for a few days (being groom comes with its perks). We walk into this apartment-size hotel room on the roof of the Hyatt and are in awe at, well, just about everything; the view, the bath, the little corner office. We finally get to catch up and fill in the gaps from the past six years.
Sangeet is the event of the night and consists of one gigantic party.
The grand ballroom downstairs is transformed into a gorgeous stage, with colorful lights, drapes, and flowers. We take a seat and get ready for a night of music and dancing, by first some performers, then the families of both Saurav and Priya, whom are sitting on a love seat over on the right on their own little stage.
The atmosphere is quite laid back, so if you’re hungry you can get up and walk just outdoors where food from every corner of the world is neatly presented.
The outdoor fairy/garden lights are breathtaking, and the food even more so. Paul and I taste the Lebanese, Italian, Indian, and soup section before going for another bite-sized gyro.
We head back into the ballroom for Saurav and Priya’s final dance before joining the stage in some after-party free-for-all.
Day 2: A White Horse Fit for a Prince
Today is the official D-Day for Saurav and Priya! The excitement in the air has tripled, in addition to the lavish outfits, music, and traditions.
Morning: Chak Bhaat
This Indian wedding ritual, as Saurav again explains (hehe, thanks Saurav), is where both the bride and groom’s mothers would formally invite their brothers to the wedding.
In the olden days, Chak Bhaat was practiced by going in person to all the brother’s houses to invite them. As with some other wedding traditions, this is now different and shortened.
We have a delicious breakfast in the morning before going upstairs to join in on the fun.
The room is full of people; friends and distant family from both Saurav and Priya’s families, an army of photographers and videographers, and not to mention a live band drumming away in the corner.
Paul and I have partially shy characters. If you know us, we don’t like to draw a crowd’s attention to ourselves, especially when it comes to dancing under the spotlight. But as you might have already guessed, that’s what happens next. And so we go with it.
We are pushed, or pulled, I’m not sure which, into the crowd of dancers. I am smiling while Paul is laughing in my ear right behind me. I can tell by the look on his face that we are both totally embarrassed, but are having a blast anyway.
After all, it’s not everyday we get to be apart of such a special celebration.
Afternoon & Evening: Nikasi & Phera
Tonight is the night! The bride and groom are finally going to “tie the knot” in a Hindu ceremony known as Phera/Satphere (in which they walk around a fire seven times, often shown in TV shows or movies). And… we missed it!
Hours earlier, Paul and I are in our room getting ready for the evening. This is the night we will dress up in our Indian outfits. My sari is the length of the entire room, so we are pretty lost on how to wrap a sari. You at least need someone else to help you do it, so I took to the halls and asked any lady I could find.
I end up on another floor, in a room full of stylists; hair, makeup, and a sari fitter. Perfect! The lady in the corner plops me down in the chair and starts doing my hair. Next, my sari. The lady wraps it, folds it, and throws the long bit up over my shoulder to pin it. I’m Indian wedding ready!
I meet Paul and the rest of the crowd downstairs. All the men are dressed with red and golden turbans and in fancy suits, while the ladies have put on their most extravagant saris, kurtis, jewelry, and makeup.
Saurav is in the same room where the other events took place, except this time is reciting with a priest on the floor, with his hands folded in a “Namaste” fashion. A creamy golden turban laden with shiny jewels sits atop is head.
I’m flabbergasted by the sheer extravagance of it all. After lots (and LOTS) of pictures taken with guests, we follow the crowd outside of the Hyatt.
We wait for Saurav on the loop that wraps around the Hyatt, specifically designed for Indian weddings by the way, and here’s why.
The groom, in traditional Hindu Indian wedding fashion, mounts a lavishly decorated white horse and rides to the formal entrance of the wedding to “sweep the bride away” in a Hindu wedding ceremony known as Nikasi.
It’s a romantic ideal that’s pure fun, colorful and grandiose in every way, shape and form. The feeling of “Holy cow, this is insane” is fully verbal now. I’m repeating it to Paul at least every 2 1/2 minutes!
Make that, every 30 seconds.
Once we reach the “entrance” to the lawn of the Hyatt, where the wedding is now in full blast, we are just mind blown. All I can remember thinking is that every sensation in my body and mind is being overflowed with colors, music, lights, smells of amazing food, and excitement in every direction.
Words, even my pictures, just don’t do the feeling justice.
We have just enough time to snap some pictures before the real fun begins. Priya, the bride, is escorted across the lawn, in a gorgeous Indian dress that literally weighed over 40 lbs (true story), with an elaborate hand-carried tent over her. Her red veil trails behind her as she leads with her sweet smile.
Saurav, who is already standing under the tree on the stage, is smiling from ear to ear when he sees her. I’m tearing up and everyone else either has a camera or a tissue on their hand, sometimes both. Priya is assisted on stage, where the two exchange flower necklaces.
All of a sudden golden foliage starts falling from the tree on stage, fireworks blast, and a smoky fog envelopes them.
People are cheering as they face the dozens of camera lights that are going off almost faster than the fireworks. By this point, my mouth is gaping wide open and even “Holy cow, this is insane” starts losing it’s meaning.
People are floating around the wedding, giving it a super laid-back come and go vibe.
Saurav and Priya are on the second stage now, looking like a king and queen, getting their pictures taken with all of the guests. It lasts at least two hours. Meanwhile, Paul and I get some food.
We arrive just in time to get the BEST dishes, which was like “appetizer” meals. (Yes, there was insane amounts of food before “dinner” ever started!)
I run to the “Mexico” station, where I load my plate with nachos and quesadillas (hint: Mexican is my favorite food!) Paul and I stop by the “France” section, “Italy” and “Mediterranean” sections. Everything was delicious, as you can imagine. We stuffed ourselves full and thirty minutes later, the dinner selection was ready. I could go on about everything we tasted, and the dessert section which was decorated lavishly in all shapes and forms.
Priya and Saurav are doing more rituals now with their families’ priests.
We eagerly look on, but of course understand nothing. It’s around midnight, and we decide to go up to the rooms to have a small drink with our friends from Greensboro (that we haven’t seen in six years).
We were gone but thirty minutes. In that time, the walking-around-the-fire-seven-times-ceremony occurred. Yes, we missed it. I was gutted. When we come back down to the lawn, Saurav casually walks up to us and says “I’m married now. You missed it.”
We all freak out of course. A few minutes later, Saurav’s nephew walks up and says,”Saurav wants you to know that he’s actually not married, there’s still some ceremonies before it’s official.”
WHEW! We all relax a bit, but we’re still unsure. I have a gut feeling that we all don’t really know what’s going on, and Saurav, who hasn’t slept in like 3+ days, is exhausted. But Saurav confirms that once they did the seven promises and the “I do” part, everyone threw flowers and clapped.
In the end, we missed the fire and seven promises ceremony, but we got to be there for Saurav & Priya for the two days, so I (kinda) came to terms with missing twenty minutes of it. 😉
Giving the Bride Away
There’s only the immediate family, a few cousins and uncles left. The 400+ guests have dwindled down to nearly 30 or 40. The saddest part of the wedding begins: Priya’s family is “officially” giving away their daughter. Everyone is in tears and it’s almost painful to watch her hug her family goodbye.
Traditionally, the bride would say goodbye to her family at the end of the wedding to officially move in with the groom and his family. This is a very heart-breaking moment for everyone. In older generations, not even that long ago, sometimes the bride and groom were meeting for the first time. Sometimes the bride wasn’t accepted in the groom’s family and was tortured or treated horribly. It still happens today. But India is changing, slowly but surely.
For Saurav & Priya, it was modern wedding ceremony and a marriage based out of love and respect from and for both families.
As for Priya, she would get to see her family after their honeymoon in the south of India. But still, she would move to England with Saurav and his family after the honeymoon. Before that, she had been living in Bangalore. The transition would be bittersweet as saying goodbye to family is never easy and new opportunities is always exciting.
See You Again, In India or Elsewhere
We return to our rooms. I unpin and unwrap my sari, thinking it’s probably the last time I will get to, at least under these circumstances.
We have a last breakfast in the morning and check-out. Saurav catches us before we go to give us a wedding favor, which we would later open and discover pounds of nuts like pistachios, cashews, and almonds, tucked away in a luxurious white box.
Those nuts would fuel our backpacking trip in Rajasthan, India, where we would spend 2 weeks hopping rickety Indian buses and sleeper trains, riding camels and getting sick in the desert, stinking of sweat and spices, shopping for colorful Pashmina scarves and elephant dresses, sitting next to a snake charmer, and checking off bucket list moments in front of the Taj Mahal.
But we didn’t know all that yet. We were just getting started.