From the moment I got off the plane at Indira Gandhi Airport in New Delhi, I strongly felt that I was far, far away from home … I stepped onto a shiny yellow carpet, decorated with Oriental ornaments. Never before had I seen a carpet-covered airport! A particular smell hit my senses – strange, strong and spicy. Following everyone I ended up in a huge hall filled with people who were chaotically trying to move. The scene included many men wearing turbans of different colors and shapes, decorations with faux or real golden jewels of enormous sizes. While among them, there were some boringly dressed European tourists, patiently waiting for an entry visa. I felt ready to dive into this massive, noisy, wonderfully colorful and exotic crowd.
Soon I was going to meet my friend Varsha for whom I did this trip, due to an invitation to her wedding; an invitation that could not bear refusal – for what a better way to explore India?! Varsha picked me up from the airport with her future husband, Amet. And we immediately hit…
...the roads of New Delhi
The traffic was staggeringly quick, chaotic, supplemented by constant honking and bold overtaking. Obviously, the cultural shock was on my face, for Varsha said with a laugh, “Welcome to India!”. Later, when entering her home, I was met by at least seven aunts who greeted me with Hindu prayers, repetitively touching my forehead. Most of them went back to what they were doing which in this case was lying side by side on a huge bed. Everyone had come here for the wedding, and more aunts from all over India were supposed to arrive for the latter ceremonies.
Indians consider it a great honor for a guest to visit their home; therefore the whole family and friends join in welcoming him to feel as good as possible. When I woke up the first morning, I immediately felt the smell of fried Paratha, which was served with various sauces. As I got out of bed, one of Varsha’s aunties, who, as I later figured out, was the personal cook of the family, gave me water and delicious Masala tea (black tea with aromatic Indian spices and herbs). I had tried Indian cuisine in Europe, but the variety of flavors and tastes can only be felt here, in a proper Indian house. After I drank my tea, I went out of the room and saw a picture that drew my attention and which will be part of my everyday life for the next two weeks….
All of them dressed in saris sat around the beds, sofas or just on the floor and were singing wedding farewell songs for the daughter’s separation from the mother. That’s what they did from morning till night until the last wedding day. Here I have to note that the typical Indian wedding lasts for three days, and so was my friend’s wedding going to be.
As the day began Varsha and I departed to spread the wedding invitations. We spent a lot of time in the car, crossing New Delhi from one end to the other. Sometimes we were in terrible congestion, and sometimes we would fly at high speeds along the wide boulevards. “It’s our everyday life”, Varsha said. The good thing was that we had enough time to talk, and I was able to ask her all the questions about the famous Indian weddings. I wanted to know her opinion about arranged marriage as that was the one she had agreed to have. In general, Varsha looked very happy and excited about her special day, it was written on her face. She explained to me that the arranged marriages, which are a tradition in India, have already been modernized. Her parents told her she could find a man to marry, but she shall not be hindering with her choice. More precisely, by the age of 26 she was expected to have found a man, and if she hadn’t, they will do that for her.
Despite the choice they gave her, she still thinks they are the ones who will choose the man for her. “You have to trust your parents, they won’t offer you anybody inappropriate”. She told me that her family introduced her to many bachelors, and therefore had the complete freedom to make her choice and say no to those she did not like. “I met about 40 to 50 men, some of them I rejected, others rejected me; but it was Amet who won me and he was my final choice.” Then she added: “It’s all a matter of first impression, you only need 5 minutes . We met, we liked each other and that was it…
...the marriage was arranged
I was very intrigued by this tradition and asked almost everyone I met about their opinion and experience. Somya, Varsha’s best friend, told me she does not trust herself when it comes to boys: “I trust my parents completely. They will make the best choice for me. And if he is no good, I’ll blame them and they’ll have to deal with the problem! So I’m just playing safe!” Another girl, Aarushi, expressed a different opinion: “You have to meet the man, make friends with him, and then see if you want to be with each other. How could someone else make such a choice for you?” Anmol, a law student in Delhi, also shared his view: “The negative view that the West has for this tradition is because it has been practiced differently a century or two ago. Nowadays it has been modernized and both the man and the woman have the freedom to say no to someone if they don’t like them. ” And he went on: “Of course, this applies to the majority of society, but in some provincial areas of India, the arranged marriage is done in the old way. In the cities, however, things have changed – the tradition has definitely undergone modernization”. That’s how I got the idea of how marriages are being arranged in India and especially in Varsha’s family because every household has different rules and customs that differ quite a lot from each other. And the next thing I met were…
...the wedding rituals
As I have mentioned, Indian weddings last for three days and are strictly a subject to religious traditions and customs. The first day, a Hindu priest comes and performs the Ganesh Puja ritual. This is a ceremony that usually happens in the bride’s home and only the closest relatives are present. In Varsha’s home, this ritual was accompanied by the farewell songs of the aunties as they laid special oil over the knees, arms and face of the bride. On the second day, the “mehndi” was performed – henna drawing on the girls’ arms and legs. In India, this is done on various festive occasions and is filled with important symbolism. This hand-painting is a symbol of beauty, flatter and caress. But at wedding ceremonies, the henna drawings deliver a special wedding message. The ceremony was followed by a party where the whole family gave themselves to the wild dances. Then on the third day the official marriage ceremony took place. I was stunned by the solemnity of the ceremonial hall, the exquisite decoration and the wedding food. The space was overflowing with the shades of shining decors, golden couches, garlands of real flowers, the beauty of the traditional costumes of the guests, and their gorgeous gold jewels. I also had the chance to be dressed in a very beautiful, but super heavy silk sari!
Varsha expected Amet in the special “bridal room”. She looked stunningly beautiful, with a red dot on her forehead symbolizing her commitment to her future husband. Her wedding sari was in red and gold, the traditional color for Indian brides. Half of her hands were covered with bracelets called choora, from which strange pendants were hanging. The belief is that the unmarried women have to pull the pendants to see who the next bride is going to be, what equals to the ritual of throwing the bouquet at Christian weddings. The choora bracelet is worn 40 days after the wedding. It is deliberately made of fragile material as it is believed that the bride shall refrain from any hard work during that time. In the past the choora would be worn for a whole year.
While Varsha, accompanied by the aunties’ farewell songs, was waiting for the groom, Amet himself was slowly approaching, seated in…
...a golden carriage pulled by white horses
To me he looked like a fairy tale maharaja! All his relatives and friends followed him to the hall dancing around the carriage. The music was strong, the dances warm, the family happy. Somya explained the difference in the emotions of the two families during the celebration: “In India, the society is patriarchal and after the wedding the woman goes to the man’s family to live there forever. The groom’s side is excited by the fact that they are adding a new member to the family, while the bride’s side is a bit sad because it is being taken one”. She added: “But do not misunderstand me, they are also very happy! The biggest dream of every Indian mother is to see her married daughter, just from now on they won’t be living in the same house… “
When Amet arrived in the hall, he took Varsha’s arms and went up with her onto a special stage while all the guests queued to greet them. Then the most important ritual – the marriage by the priest – was fulfilled. Many different rituals followed – burning fire, throwing rice in it, circling the centre three times, praying, etc. When the whole thing ended, the young family left the ceremony and headed for the groom’s home. Varsha had told me that she had never visited Amet’s house before the wedding; this would be the first time, and it would be forever! The two went in the wedding car, which was slowly pushed forward by the brothers and relatives of the bride. The guests stayed behind, and the aunties’ were sadly singing their farewell songs. The newlyweds headed for a new and fully settled future.
The Holi Festival
Over the next few days, I had the opportunity to see a piece of fascinating India with my friend. From our tour I could not fail to mention the spectacular Chandni Chowk – one of the oldest and most attractive markets of Old Delhi. There, we tried incredible food from “Paratha World” – fried paratha with bananas, extremely spicy sauces and pickles! Then we enjoyed the refreshing Kulfi (Indian milk ice cream).
We also visited several temples in Delhi. The atmosphere in them was relaxed and pleasant, while the interior – extremely beautiful. In one of the temples, three men with long white beards and purple turbans were singing spiritual songs. On leaving, we took a handful of delicious halva. We left feeling completely renewed and spirited.
The famous Holi Festival is a spring celebration of colors and sharing of love. On the celebration day the whole city is covered with colors. All people, regardless of age or class, from new-born babies to hundreds of years old, as well as all cats, dogs, trees and cars, were dust-covered in all rainbow shades… Foreign tourists also massively joined the euphoria and the fun surrounding the city’s inhabitants.
From Delhi we headed for the pink city Jaipur – the capital of Rajasthan and of…
Roaming around the Bapu Bazaar, we bought amazingly beautiful Indian bracelets, anklets and necklaces! Then we followed our Tuk Tuk driver, into one of the poorest areas of Jaipur. We went to his home where he and his friends performed a brilliant puppet show. We also visited the Temple of Monkeys in the Mountain and as its name implies, it is full of monkeys! After these incredible experiences in Jaipur, it was time to go to the most important cultural heritage of India, the magnificent Taj Mahal. Varsha and Amet joined us on this journey, considering it to be their unofficial honeymoon.
We travelled for nearly four hours to Agra during which I had the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful and peaceful Indian landscapes. The highway connecting Jaipur and Agra seemed endless and deserted. However, from time to time you could see small open restaurants where weddings were held. We saw over ten of them! I also witnessed how the guests can walk by foot, for many kilometers, just to reach the wedding ceremony! Along with this, in the middle of nowhere, you can also see little alcohol stores hidden away from the highway, but full of customers that are of course just men!
To see the Taj Mahal
We arrived at Agra. At a glance, the city appeared very common compared to the beautiful and picturesque Jaipur. But after seeing the Taj Mahal, this impression quickly changed. This Muslim mausoleum was built by Shah Jahan for his third and most beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal (the “Pearl of the Palace”), who died after the birth of their 14th child. While Mumtaz was at her deathbed, Shah Jahan promised that he will never marry again and that he will build the most magnificent mausoleum over her grave. And so he did. The construction took 22 years and the labor of 22,000 workers. According to the legend, Shah Jahan cut off the hands of the Taj Mahal builders after its completion, so that nobody could rebuild this wonderful palace again. Our local guide told us that the “cut hands” stand as a metaphor for the emperor paying so much money to his workers that they and their next three or four generations would not need to work. And to this day, the people who preserve and restore the monument are the real descendants of those who built the Taj Mahal in 1649.
It was time to leave India. And I caught myself feeling some sweet melancholy that arose from the upcoming separation with this fascinating country. Even before I stepped into the plane, I knew that one day I will be back. Because after two weeks of experience, observation, research, degustation and entertainment, I realized that I hadn’t even scratched the the surface of this vast universe called India. Different, shocking, wise, spirited and fabulously beautiful…
Written by Elma Neykova
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