Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Guest post: The Indian wedding experience

So the posting is slow around these parts, as I gear up for a few months of some more travel - Miami next month (my New Year's resolution was to visit a US city I'd never seen), Arkansas in July (my family is there - and I am trying to fit in a bonus stop in St. Louis, making TWO new US cities for me!), and Cambodia in October (bucket list and epic noodle consumption and meditation... oh my!).

And I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that Boston has been in a bit of upheaval for the past week, delaying my plans to post this piece. If you're looking to help those injured by the bombings at the marathon (the only sporting event I even care about, way to go ruining that for everyone), I recommend the One Fund. Though of course there are many ways that you can help your own community to prepare in case of a disaster - donating blood regularly, having a good back-up plan if you get separated in a crowd (preferably that doesn't rely on cell phones), and donating to your local charities*. Now on to the post...

Dawn Kurry is an American writer with half-Indian heritage, and recently went to India for a cousin's wedding. I know a lot of travelers are fascinated by Indian weddings, with their lavishness and party atmosphere, so I'm psyched to offer up this piece from someone who understands the culture and can speak about it authentically. Enjoy! - and as always, I'd love to hear what you think in the comments below. Have you attended a wedding or other ceremony while abroad? What insight did you gain from the experience?
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I've been waiting two years to go back to India. The last time I went was after I graduated from college in 2010. I've been going to India all my life, as I am half Indian. This trip was for a wedding, one my grandmother said would be the experience of a lifetime. Not only was my cousin (an only son) getting married, but his father was wealthy, among the upper crust. I left for India in early December 2012, just three weeks after my mother, who left North Carolina ahead of me. I'm used to traveling alone. I was somewhat anxious in the days leading up to my departure, but the second I stepped into the airport I felt calm and excited. Not even being able to picture the wedding, I was looking forward to a great trip that had many things in store besides the main event.

 I landed in Bombay before the sun came up the next day. My mother and aunt picked me up and we went to have an early breakfast in a hotel. It was peaceful to watch the sun come up over Marine Drive, which runs beside the ocean, along the front of Bombay. The hotel was quiet, and we indulged on salmon, eggs benedict and fresh coffee. 

Getting to reunite with family is something I've had to learn to love. These days it's easier because my cousins are older now and we have grown close. In India, cousins are considered siblings, making me the eldest sister. Next in line my 'cousin-brother' is getting happy with the drinks, and never hesitates to pour me a glass of some Indian liquor called Pheni that is sure to give me nightmares. There are several birthdays in my family at the beginning of December - two cousins and an aunt - and so we feasted on things I can't name; colorful foods of which I sampled with lots of rice, safron, cilantro, onions, okra, sprouted beans, potatoes and fried dishes, vegetables and spices I'm not familiar with. 

Just a day or two later, my mother, aunt and I were on our way to Jaipur, the Pink City. We left at 5 a.m. for our flight, hurrying through the airport. We landed in Rajasthan, the state which once held all the most exotic kings, palaces and jewels of the world. You can still find all kinds of jewels there for sale. Camels pulled carts, peacocks and monkeys were everywhere in the streets and on buildings. I was most excited to take the elephant ride to the top of Amer Fort, a historic site on our tour agenda. A privately hired tour guide who drove us everywhere dropped us off at the elephant ride. 


We climbed to the top of a set of stairs, where we stood on a platform. The elephants came up beside the platform and you had to sit down sideways into the palate on her back. The palate held a soft padding, and only two people could sit on the back of one elephant. A small metal gate encircled you, forming a sort of basket. The motion of the elephant was one I could not get used to. She swayed slowly back and forth, and I had a hard time knowing where my feet were as they hung off the side. By the time we got to the top of the path to the fort, the sun had climbed high in the sky. The elephants retired for the day, and could be spotted all over the city later.

The fort itself was fascinating, but it didn’t hold my attention as much as the view did. A small lake filled the gap between the fort’s mountain and another mountain, and built into an out jut in the lake was the king's saffron garden, intricately set up in star shapes that mirrored the architecture all around us.


Around another bend in the massive, winding fort I heard the sound of ancient India, and something inside me stirred. My mother saw my intrigued face and said, "Snake charmer." Sure enough, sitting cross-legged on a spread out blanket sat two men. One had on an interesting turban, played a weird flute with deep tones and had a strange wobbling dance to his shoulders. The man beside him, considerably younger, sat bend over to one side and played a small drum. The look in his eyes was of a deep trance, and the corners of his eyes seemed to spread further and further apart the deeper I looked into them. Before them, in a basket, sat a black cobra with his hood flared out. The cobra was transfixed on them and swayed with the flute player.


"You can pet the cobra," he said, and my heart practically jumped out of my open mouth. I thought, if I do this, I can die happy. He snapped his fingers to keep the cobra's attention as I touched the back of his cold, scaly hood. His eyes held a blind, milky stare and I wasn't afraid.

 

The old village of Amer sat nestled into the mountain behind the fort, and a wall ran around the mountains for miles. It looked like the Great Wall of China, but it wasn’t nearly as long. The old village was mostly overgrown ruins, but I could see a woman doing some chores on a rooftop veranda. I could have sat on the wall and watched her work quietly for hours, but hawkers were closing in on us, trying to sell us the pictures they had taken of us riding the elephants. A woman with no arms was in the mix and I knew our tour was over.


Later we went to an artisan village at night, to see how Rajasthanis lived, and how some still do. They made hot, fresh camel's milk which they served in small terra cotta cups. They climbed up tight ropes with bare feet and balanced and women in bright colors dances and twirled to an ever-speeding drum and the beat rose out of the village into the chilly desert night.


Finally we entered into the heart of Delhi, passed government buildings and embassies and arrived at the ITC Maurya, a five-star luxury hotel where an entire tower had been reserved for our family’s wedding party. Security guards checked the baggage and women in matching make-up and saris greeted us, gave us our room key and draped maroon and saffron colored garlands around our necks to welcome us.


Our hotel room was amazing, gift baskets lined the area in front of the mirror, a space shared by a massive flat screen TV. A tea and coffee set included a variety of teas from all over India and a French press.  We arrived just before 5 p.m., and had to be dressed and ready to leave in the lobby by 6 p.m. The elegant room I shared with my mother suddenly got really cramped with bags, clothes, shoes, jewelry boxes — and mirror space was shrinking.


Indian weddings last several days, and each day there is a different ceremony. Most Indian weddings are a big deal, but big is underwhelming in this instance, when the family allegedly spent somewhere around $3 million on this ordeal. The first night was an introduction to glamour. Thousands of tea lights and red drapery guided guests into an area with seating, a dance floor, and an open bar. Waiters floated between mingling groups with snacks and drinks, and professional photographers and videographers captured the moments when guests greeted the groom’s parents. Before long I was wrapped in a historic moment; three generations of my family members in a circle on the dance floor, dancing Gangnam Style. I’ll never forget it..


The third day was by far my favorite, although the bride and groom were actually married on the fourth day. This event took place on the lawn of the bride’s home. A massive pink and purple tent stretched over the football-field-sized lawn, under which elegant seating was arranged in the center. All around the outside of the seating were different booths; a foot massage booth, tarot reading, cupcakes, chocolate milk, tea leaf reading, two open bars, and one of the biggest buffets I’ve ever seen including a personal pizza chef.


The important mehndi ceremony was held there, at which women have their hands decorated in intricate designs pasted on with henna and dyed into the skin. Mine lasted about a month until it all faded away. Dancers put on a show, and the bride and groom’s friends did, too. At the end of the night, my cousins and I danced on stage with an Indian Idol star, and as I looked around at the swirling colors and smiling beautiful faces I knew this was a once in a lifetime big, fat Indian wedding.

 

Returning home from India always has a cleansing feeling to it, akin to drying off with a warm towel after being out in a storm. You feel as though you've come out of a tremendous whirl wind and landed on your feet in one piece, glad to be home and filled with all sorts of memories that you're still processing months later. When I think about the trip, I think of the food, the jewels, the elephant looking into the car at me. I can still see the white and pink lilies draped across the hood of the classic Rolls Royce the groom arrived in, and I'll never forget the awe I felt the first time I saw the bride. Despite having a headcold, and being slightly hung over as well as a little cold and underdressed, it was easily one of the best trips of my life.

Please note: all photos are the property of Dawn Kurry
 
*I don't donate to the Salvation Army for political reasons, but it's an example of how a well-funded charity can respond fantastically in a crisis.

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